Fred asked me for a list of recommended manga the other week, and things have only just now slowed down enough for me to look around and try to put something together. Here's the first five, in no particular order:
1) Natsuki Takaya's Fruits Basket, from TokyoPop. I was just reading someone's comment on a liverjournal decrying how angry she was that this title was commonly denounced by people who had read it as "commercial crap". If you ask me, this attitude is preposterous, because Fruits Basket is glorious, brilliant crap of the highest calibre of commerciality. It is perfectly constructed to offer truly mass-market appeal - it's sold ten million copies in Asia, and another two million in North America - while also managing to be clever, aesthetically charming, and subtly disturbing all at the same time. The plot, described baldly, is ludicrous - a saintly orphaned girl's interactions with a rich family cursed to turn into the various animals of the Chinese zodiac - but the story hung on that silly notion manages to be in turn sprightly and tragic, without either element undercutting the other.
2) CLAMP's XXXholic, from Del Rey. My copy of the eighth volume just shipped from Amazon, and I'm looking forward to it as the only CLAMP title I'm currently reading. Now, CLAMP in the aggregate isn't the best story-telling or character-creating four-headed artistic team in creation. They're not really brilliant at plotting, and their style is so consistent and prototypically shoujo (even the ones that are technically shounen, like Angelic Layer) that I've heard half the shoujo titles in print mis-identified as "CLAMP" by the ill-informed.
All that aside, XXXholic is pretty damned nifty. The art style is severe black-and-white - I've yet to spot a ziptone or shade in the seven volumes released in North America. And it's a story that belongs in black-and-white, all harsh supernaturally-themed lessons in right and wrong, and the karmic price of weakness and the inevitable cost of human fraility.
Watanuki is a gifted medium and spirit-magnet who gets tricked into a state of indentured servitude to the proprietor of an improbable shop somewhere deep in the depths of Tokyo. The protagonist exists to be amusingly cantankerous and to act as foil to his employer, the decadent and striking Yuko, as she tells her various customers how doomed they are, what they need to do, and then to smirk sadly as they fail to appreciate her advice and stumble off to their aforementioned dooms. About the only downside to the manga has been the ill-advised crossovers with another concurrent CLAMP manga, RESERVoir CHRoNiCLE Tsubasa, which if you ask me, sucks, and its suckiness drags down the rest of the chapters in which the characters of said sucky manga appear or are mentioned. Eh.
3) Saki Hiwatari's Please Save My Earth, from Viz. The biggest shoujo SF manga of the early Nineties, it's one or two volumes away from completion here in the States, and I've enjoyed every volume so far, which is better than what I can say of certain other long-running manga - Kare Kano, your ears ought to be burning right now. The art isn't always gorgeous like the two previously mentioned manga, but it hits the high points on a regular basis, and when Hiwatari's on, she's on. If only she could have resisted throwing in fannish piffle and marginalia about Saint Saiya in the early volumes...
Please Save My Earth is a reincarnation romance, following the last survivors of an extinct race through their deaths in a research facility on Earth's moon through their reincarnation as schoolchildren in Tokyo. (Why Tokyo? Hell, it's where the audience is located...) There's lots of soap opera, a reticent, passive-aggressive heroine, a mad, bitter, compromised hero reincarnated as a puckish eleven-year-old boy, cross-gendered reincarnated unrequited love for the shounen-ai crowd, and enough angles on the fatal final days of the doomed aliens to make Rashimon raise an ambiguous number of limbs in surrender.
However, fair warning: this is not the shoujo manga for those who demand assertive heroines and politically-correct, or even particularly moral love-interests. Alice is a pretty, sweet wet noodle, her prior incarnation was more outgoing but still a ditz, and Rin was a obnoxious little cuss even before he remembered that he was a bitter, contrary, mankilling bastard named Shion in a previous life. Still, it's one of the few titles I usually read twice, once to tear through the new volume, and the second to savor the story and the execution thereof.
4) Hitoshi Iwaaki's Parasyte currently from TokyoPop, soon to be properly re-printed by Del Rey. A horribly violent, ugly, semi-nihilistic cannonball of a manga, Parasyte suffered mainly by being one of the first comics out of the chute in the early Nineties, just before TokyoPop got its stuff together & started printing unedited, unflopped material. The new release from Del Rey ought to be everything Parasyte should have been the first time around, except for the proper name, Kiseiji. Or, heck, just plain old Parasite - the "y" was so very, very... ugh. My probably-spoilery thoughts on reading the last volume are here.
Parasyte is an alien-symboite story in the vein of Hal Clement's Needle or James Triptree, Jr.'s "The Only Neat Thing to Do", except that every other version of the buddy-symbiote's race are what they were supposed to have been - man-eating intelligent monsters, with our protagonist escaping having his brain eaten by his particular parasite by successfully trapping it in his hand until it was "set" and stuck in unnatural symbiosis insead of where it belonged, in the driver's seat behind the hero's face. The art is rough and harsh, but the story is set in a rough and harsh and unforgiving world, and the roughness perfectly compliments the highly kinetic, sudden bursts of appalling violence. I'm seriously thinking about buying the new editions when Del Rey starts rolling them out.
5) Takeshi Obata's & Tsugumi Ooba's Death Note, from Viz. This is another one of those series which sounds kind of nonsensical in brief: a high school student finds the notebook of a shingami, a Death God, with which you can script the deaths of others, adhering to a certain set of proscribed rules, which becomes increasingly elaborate as the protagonist becomes increasingly megalomaniacal, brilliant, and oddly appealing. The fun of Death Note is the amorality of the basic story - you can't help but find yourself rooting for the sociopathically brilliant Light Yagami, as he slaughters everyone he can't fool or outwit. The body-count is quite impressive, and the celerity with which characters are lethally shuffled off stage once Light discovers their vulnerability is breathtakingly swift.
Death Note at it's best is a puzzle-book, in which various antagonists are pitted against the anti-hero in games of wits. Authority figures and geniuses maneuver to figure out who Light is before he figures out that they're on to him - and kills them in a way which doesn't reveal his ownership of the "Death Note". There are some parallels with Obata's other North American-published work, Hikaru no Go, even though he's only the artist on both titles. Wonder if he's drawn to battle-of-wits sort of stories, or if that's just what he's been assigned to by the Shounen Jump editors? Either way, Death Note's sharp art, intricate logic-puzzles and Jacobean savagery make it an enjoyable bimonthly romp.