Skull-Face Bookseller Honda-san
Story & Art: Honda
Translation: Amanda Haley
Lettering: Bianca Pistillo
Publisher: Yen Press
Retail labor can be equal parts rewarding and hellish, allowing employees to feel good about helping grateful customers one moment to bemoaning the exhausting work of unpacking, stocking, and maintaining a store the next. Bookselling, often considered a thoughtful trade peopled by scholarly bibliophiles, has its own unique challenges and rewards — and comic book selling doubly so. Skull-face Bookseller Honda-san pulls back the curtain on working in book retail through a loosely fictionalized autobiographical account by someone in the industry.
The titular Honda-san (whose gender is vague in the manga, though the anime adaptation seems to be present him as a man) portrays himself as a skeleton in a crisp blue apron, one among a full staff of weirdly-masked bookstore employees all toiling away in the comic book department of a large chain store. Honda begins his narrative with tales of customer relations, one of the most obvious duties of any retailer. In short order, he has to contend with an attractive foreign father seeking pornographic doujinshi for his daughter, swarms of rabid boys’ love fans, a guy who’s into ecchi manga, and a French-speaking grandfather seeking French-language manga for his granddaughter.
Throughout each encounter, Honda is anxious about being able to help each customer: worrying about his lackluster English language skills, trying to navigate the vague prompts given to him by each client, and hoping that he doesn’t turn any of these shoppers off from the store’s selection. But after each sale, he expresses satisfaction in having been able to help someone attain their goal — or perhaps to walk out with something they wouldn’t have considered when they walked in.
Perhaps less obvious to most readers is the behind-the-scenes work of running a bookstore. This is where the manga really shines for anyone with an interest in the publishing industry, with details about publishers’ interactions with booksellers, how book shipments are processed, and what it means for a book to have a street date. These are the details that most shoppers don’t consider when they go to buy their books, but each step in the ordering, delivery, and display process greatly affects how books are purchased.
For some readers, Skull-face Bookseller Honda-san might seem like too much inside baseball. A good number of readers aren’t going to care about the stress of unloading merchandise, or stuffing promotional items into book jackets, or any of the other countless steps in the selling process. But for others, it is eye-opening — or incredibly relatable, as scores of booksellers and book lovers across North America have discovered. For even though Honda-san’s bookstore is distinctly Japanese, many of his experiences are similar to what a Stateside book-slinger experiences.
Honda’s artwork has a sketchy quality to it, which lends itself greatly to the many frenetic situations our titular hero finds himself in. There is an excellent range of face, body, and skin types, embodying the full assortment of comics readers and likely inspired by the author’s real-life interactions, albeit leaning on caricature for maximum comedic effect.
One of the great strengths of this manga is combining a relatable premise with a healthy heap of comedy and just the right amount of feel-good sentimentality. For all the everyday annoyances and setbacks that Honda-san experiences, it is clear that he takes great pride in his work and finds his efforts are fruitful when he has the opportunity to connect with a customer.
In an age where so much of our lives are played out online, Skull-face Bookseller Honda-san reminds us of the value of personal interactions at brick-and-mortar stores. The first volume of the series is available in English through Yen Press, with the second volume set to release in late October. If you’re interested in checking it out, maybe consider hitting up your own local bookstore or comic shop and give your local bookseller their own happy customer interaction story to share with their coworkers!