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Friday, June 7, 2013

The Story So Far: Axis Powers Hetalia

Axis Powers Hetalia volumes 1-3
Art/story by Hidekazu Himaruya
Published in English by Tokyopop & Right Stuf

Think of it like WWII, except every country is a pretty boy instead. A hilariously stereotypical pretty boy. America loves burgers, Russia is into the vodka, and China has pandas and a wok. It is centered mostly around Italy, who has both a North and South character. The Hetaria portion of the name is probably mocking Italy, as Hetare means 'Useless'.

(Source: MangaUpdates)

Axis Powers Hetalia is a divisive series and it's pretty much everywhere nowadays. Readers either love it to death or hate it with a burning passion. This series has dominated anime conventions, flooded Tumblr, invaded the cosplay and fanfiction communities, and made Funimation and Tokyopop mucho dinero. There's something about all these young men representing foreign countries that make the fangirls go absolutely crazy.
 It certainly helps that for the most part, all the characters in Hetalia are bishonen (I don't know about Turkey, though, having never seen him without his mask; he seems to be the Kakashi of Hetalia) or bishoujo. And history becomes 100% more interesting when pretty faces are involved.

After watching the first two seasons of the Hetalia manga, reading the manga seems like a step back. For me, it was a lot of retreading of past material, which made me realize how annoyingly slavish to the source material the anime was - and to be perfectly honest, the anime does it better. It's one thing to read Germany telling off Italy for surrendering again, it's another to hear him say it and hear their various accents. 
A multicultural series like Hetalia benefits from an audio component, although the in-text notes on various historical events make reading it easier in that regard (the same notes are in the anime but are never on screen long enough for adequate reading, making them useless). It also benefits from being in motion, to accurately capture the frantic energies of Italy and company. Which is not to say the manga fails at this, but fans certainly benefit from experiencing the same series across both mediums.
I've also noticed that the quality of the art varies between chapters, even in the same volume. Some of the 4-komas look sketchier than others or like it had been scanned in with a cheap scanner. I don't know on whose end the fault lays, the manga-ka or the publisher or Tokyopop, but it's a little distracting when one page looks of a distinctly lower quality than the page right next to it. 
I also could see points where the Tokyopop letterer had whited out the original Japanese text/SFX to set the English text, which is something I don't think should be so obvious to the average reader. There has to be a way to make these changes look much more seamless! I don't know where the quality control's head was but it certainly wasn't in these books. I'd like to think that being a labor of love by the Tokyopop staff, they wouldn't rush through such things.
What I liked in volume three - the first volume to be released with Right Stuf's assistance - was a lessened involvement of the 'main' cast - the Axis and main Allies. There are more European countries that aren't France or Germany, which is nice. I've always been a Baltic State trio fan, so seeing more of them was great. It was also interesting to see a young Russia, who looks so cute it's hard to imagine how he'll turn out later. Nekotalia did nothing for me until they started interacting with the Hetalia characters.
Also, it was interesting to see the South Korea character in the manga, given that the very threat of him being in the anime was enough to piss off actual South Korea and send the anime to the status of cell phone series. I'm more surprised that China isn't pissed off over the fact that Taiwan has their own character in the manga (and she is adorable, gosh).
Right now, I'm half enjoying Hetalia and its silly antics and adorable folks and half cringing at the heavy emphasis on tired tropes and country-based stereotypes. But I'm entertained by it, which is good, and as long as I stay within the sections of Hetalia fandom that aren't muy loco, the fan base is moderately agreeable.

This series is currently being published through a relationship between Tokyopop and Right Stuf. The manga is still ongoing in Japan.