Skull-face Bookseller Honda-san, Volume 2
Story & Art by Honda-san
Translated by Amanda Haley
Lettered by Bianca Pistillo
Honda-san’s second volume continues the misadventures of the titular skeletal bookseller as they describe the unique hurdles they face working at a large bookstore’s comics section. Where the first volume explored Honda’s everyday hurdles, the second volume digs into some more uncommon events, like hosting a book signing and holding book fairs. It also delves into more of the business side of the publishing industry, showing how many people and steps it takes before a book ever lands in the customer’s hands.
For instance, this volume introduces us to the chief of the store’s distribution department, Chief Magician. While each sales floor is normally responsible for making their own orders, Chief Magician’s job requires him to keep an ear out for publishing trends and stay on top of current events that will drive book sales. When Shigeru Mizuki passed away, he ordered tons of copies of all of his manga, anticipating the posthumous interest in his works. He seems to do this instantly and effortlessly, but Honda-san points out that this ability to network, predict trends, and wrangle so many books takes an extraordinary amount of hard work and talent. One of Honda-san’s greatest strengths is literally illustrating how many different people with unique perspectives and skills it takes to manage just one department of a bookstore, and even then, they’re still understaffed!
Honda-san also highlights many of the behind-the-scenes challenges of running a bookstore that most shoppers take for granted. For example, this volume introduces us to wholesalers, who are the middle-men between bookstores and publishers. Honda-san describes how a good wholesaler can really help out in a pinch and how a bad one can create a ton of headaches for the retailer. Since wholesalers are whom bookstores actually get their product from, they’re dependant on their responsiveness to their stocking needs. While Honda-san’s wholesaler is attentive and quick to deliver information or help search for missing books, many wholesalers can short stores on the books they need or cause confusion thanks to miscommunication. For example, a bookseller at the drinking party Honda-san attends complains that they asked a wholesaler for a hundred copies, but they only delivered them three. Frustrations like that are just commonplace predicaments in the publishing world.
That’s on top of the other time and labor-intensive tasks bookstores have to do, like filling out new release order faxes for every book they need by a certain deadline or having to insert promotional materials and shrink-wrap each book by hand. I’ve walked into bookstores holding fairs or displaying promotional stuff before, and I’ve never reflected on the long discussions employees had about how to do them and the painstaking effort it takes to put it all up. Showing Honda lovingly put their fair display together with hand-written messages, or Armor Mask lamenting about a good BL having to be removed because it was deemed “a harmful publication,” really shows how passionate the booksellers are at their jobs. The erotica chapter is particularly reflective, depicting Honda wondering how to best satisfy gay customers looking for gay erotica manga because of the nuances between BL and LGBT content and the different extremes of sexual content in Japanese media. The ensuing conversations about whether it’s fair to stop selling a good book because of questionable content, and what level of sexual content is okay to depict, is handled from both a fan’s and retailer’s standpoint, which is a unique perspective not often explored in manga. Ultimately, Honda-san and their coworkers are passionate fans of both manga and bookstores, and take pride in selling good books to other people who’ll really appreciate them.
That said, while Honda-san continues to explore the world of comics retailing, it also touches upon some of the limitations of the author’s perspective and criticism they’ve received from peers. Honda works at a huge bookstore with a large comics section, located in a metropolitan area that gets a ton of tourist traffic, so their experiences are very particular to that kind of store. They note peers who work at smaller retailers couldn’t relate to their experiences because of the difference in scale, particularly when it came to their many encounters with foreigners. At the drinking party, a peer harshly criticizes how the manga portrays retail in a mostly fun and positive light, glossing over the harsher realities of the job. It’s worth keeping in mind that this manga’s account of how a bookstore operates is particular to Honda’s experience, and isn’t necessarily universal – nor is it intended to be.
Though Honda states they don’t depict anything negatively because they don’t feel they can do it humorously, they do note that there are restrictions on what stories they’re allowed to tell. Namely, because they got in trouble for depicting the customer service seminar in volume 1 without permission, they have to get their manuscripts approved by their higher-ups at work before their editor even sees it. Honda reveals there’s a particular story they wanted to draw but couldn’t, because it was thematically heavy and portrayed the bookstore in an unpleasant light. Part of what makes this volume of Honda-san interesting is how much of a reaction it is to the content that came before. Honda is considerate of how other people in the bookselling industry react to their work, and it influences what stories they tell and how they tell them. This volume sheds more light on the different perspectives of their coworkers, rather than focusing on Honda’s personal experiences and interactions with customers exclusively, and it’ll be interesting to see where the focus and content will shift in future volumes.
No matter what, Honda-san is truly a manga fan’s manga. It is densely packed with references to all sorts of manga, new and old, and touches upon cultural events like Shigeru Mizuki’s death and promotional stunts for the Assassination Classroom live-action movie that are sure to amuse people who remember them. Honda-san’s references can be so deep and subtle at times that there are visual gags and quotes that you’d really have to be entrenched in the culture to get at first glance. Without the wonderful translation notes included at the back of the volume, I would have never have gotten jokes like Honda depicting a character similar to one from Osamu Tezuka’s erotic manga in the erotic chapter or quoting the japanese Detective Conan meme of doing a short quip addressed to “Kudou” in an Osakan dialect, and I’m a big Tezuka and Conan fan myself! Honestly, a big kudos has to be given to translator Amanda Haley’s ability to research and replicate cultural jokes like this. I particularly love her amazing choice to adapt Yakuza lingo as italian mafia-style speech so the reference lands for western readers! Though all that has nothing on the in-jokes that perhaps only booksellers, particularly japanese booksellers, would get, like the “Continent of Fiction” map included at the back of the volume. I didn’t immediately process why Shogakukan and BL are really far apart from each other on the map, but I appreciate the deep cut! Honda-san’s love for manga and the world of publishing is broad and boundless, and will surely delight many fans entrenched in those worlds. Head on to your local bookstore sometime and kindly ask their bookseller, be they skull-faced or not, if you can pick up a copy today!