When I think about what makes a great book cover, I often like to think of the package as a whole: how it feels in your hand, the quality of the paper, how convenient it is to carry around(*1), the smell, all the kind of things that make me wonder why I still haven't won Most Eligible Bachelor award five years in a row.
Therefore manga therefore has always caused a bit of a knee jerk prejudice to surface in me. The manga section of bookstores like Waterstones are often packed full of multiple volumes of a pulpy throwaway quality with huge Japanese text on the front and characters that resemble something off Drag
onball Z or Streetfighter that tend to make my bad taste monitor go off the chart.
It is always a relief then to see this kind of material handled well. My feeling about formats means I have always had a preference for the hard or paperback graphic novel over the comic book. There are exceptions to the rule of course, if something good is done with the design, and the paper is of good quality. But generally I like comics
to be treated as books, as something worthwhile, not to be thrown away, an object of value and quality.
Certain publishers have taken this approach both to graphic novels and to manga. Drawn and quarterly did this with Yoshihiro Tatsumi's autobiogra
phical tome A Drifting life and some of the reprints of Tezuka's more adult/alternative looking work is pretty nice. In fact most 'gekiga'(*2) reprints are treated with respect to match their content.
Penguin aren't a publisher that are first and forthright known for publishing graphic novels but the ones that they have published (amongst them Ma
us, a collection of comics from Raw magazine, some great work from Indian comic artist Sarnath Namerjee) are of high quality. I suppose it helps that as a company Penguin have a history of fantastic design behind them and they known how to best to treat a book.
The 14th Dalai Lama, a manga biography by Tetsu Saiwai is certainly no exception. The design is simple yet effective, from the slightly raised and elegant text to the limited palette of colours and the sparing details on the back and the spine. This book, despite the very typical manga visual style contained within(*3), demands to be taken seriously. The way in which the acknowledgements, author bio, and bibliography are laid out within the book give the story a scholarly and authentic grounding. It also reminds me in its thinness and design of another line of books that Penguin recently designed of slightly obscure eastern European modern fiction and essays such as War of the newts by Karel Capek and The Elephant by Slawomir Mrozek, although the designers were slightly more inventive and witty with these covers.
And sadly I note, it's one of those books that feels great to hold (yes I do need to get out more)
(*1)Although this isn't a given, some of the nicest looking graphic novels (i.e Craig Thompson's Habibi) could be used to kill a man
(*2) Meaning 'dramatic pictures' a termed used to distinguish itself from regular manga)
(*3) It makes effective use of the unusual juxtaposition of slightly slapstick and hyperbole emotions and Manga iconography with a serious underlying plot such as in the classic true story of Hiroshima, Barefoot Gen by