Yukio Sawada’s Super Mario-Kun manga is approximately thirty-years-old, which means it has been around longer than any definitive notion of Mario’s personality. Fortunately, the world of Mario itself exudes personality and has always been perfect fodder for a madcap gag manga. Yukio Sawada takes that absurdity, holds down the b-button, and runs with it. I am stealing that b-button joke from Viz Media’s upcoming Super Mario-Kun collection, Super Mario Manga Mania.
The comic began when Sawada imagined a Mario canon portrayed by the Japanese comedy show, Yoshimoto Shinkigeki. The humor in the manga feels classic as a result, drawing influence not just from the show but from a tradition of gag manga. Anecdotally, it can take a few moments for a cynical adult to warm up to the content, which, like most properties published in CoroCoro Comic, is marketed toward kids in elementary school. Once it clicks, though, it’s a delight. The passion for Mario and manga is visible everywhere you look in this book, and it’s refreshing to see such sincerity.
Is it mature? Absolutely not, and that’s part of the appeal. Throughout Super Mario-Kun, characters consistently reach for the proverbial low-hanging fruit, sometimes even literally. There are times where Mario will substitute the word “block” for expletives. In an early chapter, Mario momentarily believes that the water he drank is, well, not water but something far grosser. It’s an onslaught of unabashed silliness, but Sawada seems to know this as Super Mario-Kun seems to insist that such silliness is a-okay.
It’s not always easy to be silly, though. After the book’s main chapters there is a note to parents that serves as a content advisory for a “special stage” that deals with grief and the loss of a parent. This chapter was moved from the original sequence of the Japanese volume and while I don’t think parents are likely to see it if they are scanning for appropriateness, I do think this separation works well in terms of tone.
The stories features Luigi who is told Mario is missing. He grabs his Pultergust 5000 and goes to find his brother who is, as it turns out, at the hospital. Mario is despondent and resistant to jokes, and characters remark that he isn’t his usual self. On another page, an author’s note is laid over the top of a Mario story about a father character who is trying his best. The note talks about how Sawada’s father had fallen ill when he was writing an issue. Luigi, existing somewhere between the underlying comic and the author’s note, responds. In a very short space, the author introduces a complicated, nuanced message that is, while somber, full of ideas that will be, or eventually be, important to the reader. An image in an issue of CoroCoro Comic promoting the piece read, “Super Mario-Old – Tragedy-Filled Video Game Gag Comic.” It’s a tongue-in-cheek headline, sure, but it’s also an accurate descriptor of the chapter. And another example of sincerity in Sawada’s work.
That chapter aside, Super Mario Manga Mania is a light-hearted romp through a vast selection of Mario games, from mainstream to less-so. I have a bad tendency of reading manga quickly, deriving more from the words than the images. If you’re like that too, cut it out. Slowing down to appreciate the framing, distortion, and emotion in the illustrations enhances the jokes and helps the humor transcend age. I know I managed to appreciate it, anyway. And while I don’t exactly know what kids are into these days, I vaguely remember who I was in elementary school, and I am certain that Super Mario Manga Mania would have been a welcome addition to my library. I have to imagine that will be true for any hardcore Mario fan at an age where substituting silly words for swearing feels like getting away with something.