Just like it was for the anime, it's a little hard to write a synopsis for the manga. The series deals a lot with historical events that occur between World War I and World War II, but it's just as likely to go off on tangents about cultural stereotypes and any historical event Himaruya finds interesting. Since this series originally started as an online comic, it's not surprising that the "story" is a little all over the place.
The main thing to know about this series is that it is intended to be humorous, and it focuses on characters who are anthropomorphized countries. Countries that come up a lot are: Italy (cowardly, friendly, not very bright), Germany (strict and serious), Japan (a bit of a mystery, tends to say whatever he thinks will cause the least offense), America (a cheerfully arrogant idiot), England (a fan of the supernatural), France (an enormous flirt who likes neither America nor England)...I could go on. Lots of countries make appearances, even if it's only for a few panels.
This manga is hard for me to write about. I liked it, for many of the same reasons I liked the anime. It's funny, the characters are appealing, and it makes history and the relationships between countries more interesting and memorable, even for someone like me, who had to struggle to remember anything for history tests. However, I read a review that said this manga has "a strong whiff of pointlessness," and I think I'd have to agree with that. I didn't dislike this volume nearly as much as some of the people who commented on the review seemed to, but...it felt like the manga equivalent of potato chips - enjoyable enough while it lasted, but basically just empty calories.
I wouldn't mind reading more volumes of Hetalia, but only if I got them via the library. I do still want to buy the anime, but only if I can get it for a lot cheaper than its current price. Both the manga and anime are good for some laughs, but the anime, for reasons I can't quite explain, is just more enjoyable for me than the manga. This is quickie entertainment, with the draw being, in large part, what you make out of Himaruya's basic idea - I still find some of the results of Hetalia fandom to be incredibly awesome, more so than either the manga or the anime, but none of that awesome fandom output would exist if it weren't for the original work.
The first thing I noticed when I got this volume via ILL was its quick, sketchy artwork. My first thought was that, visually, I preferred the anime, and I still felt that way after I had finished the volume. I did get used to the manga's look and developed a preference for the comics with ink (or something that looks like ink) sketches over the comics with pencil sketches. There were even some panels I fell in love with (like the big panel with Austria on page 38), but, overall, I prefer the cleaner look of the anime artwork.
I do think certain things were easier to follow in the anime than the manga. This is really a personal preference, and probably due to some embarrassing gaps in my knowledge. Since I had so much trouble retaining historical information in high school and college, sometimes I wished that the (very helpful) footnotes throughout the manga were more extensive - the footnotes explained what inspired a particular comic (a historical event, or a cultural stereotype, or possibly an interesting factoid), but, if Himaruya decided to move on to something else, which happened often, I was left saying, "But what happens next to that country?!" That's what history books and guidebooks and for, I guess, and Hetalia has increased my desire to read both. It's too bad that the volume didn't include a list of recommended history books.
My other problem, at least in the beginning: my embarrassing lack of knowledge about country flags. The volume starts with several lovely full-color pages dealing with a meeting between all the countries (the same meeting the anime starts with). If I remember correctly, the anime identifies the countries by name. The manga identifies the countries by flag, with certain details in the dialogue also identifying the countries. Had I not already seen the manga, I probably would have been lost. Later on, throughout the volume, there are country profile sections that provide brief information about each of the countries (as characters in the series), so I probably would have read those and then gone back to reread the beginning.
I consider this the most quotable manga I've ever read - my notes, which I took as I was reading the manga, are filled with quotes that made me laugh. Some of my favorites:
- "Germany, I have terrible news! It's a disaster! Italy has become our ally!" (27)
- "I am Japan. My hobby is to read the atmosphere of a conversation and answer in the least offensive way possible." (32)
- "Your anger is Chopin." (38) - This makes more sense in context. Austria was angry at Germany for being allied with Italy, a cowardly idiot, so he decided to express his anger by playing the piano.
- "Eat lead, you potato-sucking bastard!" (40) - I think these are Romano's first words in the whole volume. Romano (South Italy) is speaking to Germany.
Another thing I enjoyed was the little factoids, although I was sometimes doubtful about how true they were. Himaruya's perspective on American ice cream was amusing, though ("These legendary super-sized portions are NOT urban legends" (53)), not to mention embarrassing for my country.
Speaking of embarrassments, I know there are some people who have been offended by how their country is presented in Hetalia. The characters are based on stereotypes, both good ones and bad. As someone with one parent who's American and one who's German, I felt an affinity to the characters representing both countries. Not every German is like Germany (the character), but the way Germany is presented is fairly inoffensive, I think. America is another matter. However, I never actually felt offended, so much as mildly embarrassed about how others view my country. I didn't feel as if any of the characters were presented in a mean-spirited way, and, in fact, I think a certain amount of affection for all the countries must have been necessary for Himaruya to create so many countries that are likable, even when they're not shown at their best.
Still, I can see how some people might be offended. This is probably not a good series for the thin-skinned, or for those who think they might take issue with a series that chooses to soften or sidestep the more horrible moments in history.
In and of itself, Hetalia isn't much, but it makes for an awesome jumping-off point to other things. I think I'm going to have to find some history books that might be to my taste.
I forgot to write down all the extras, so I have to do this from memory. As I've already mentioned, the volume begins with some full-color pages. The volume ends with a section explaining honorifics using examples from the manga, a section with translator's notes (which, as far as I was concerned, barely scratched the surface of all the things it could have covered), images of cosplayers dressed as Hetalia characters, and editor's notes.
My read-alikes/watch-alikes list is a giant cheat - I copied it almost word for word from my post for the Hetalia: Axis Powers anime. Hey, the suggestions still apply.
Read-alikes and Watch-alikes:
- Hark, a Vagrant (webcomic) by K. Beaton - Highly recommended for those who like their history with lots of humor. And the best part is, even if you're not sure if you'll like it, you've got nothing to lose - you can read her comics for free on her site. Just click on the title of the comic in this list. She's also got a book out called Never Learn Anything from History.
- Azumanga Daioh (manga) by Kiyohiko Azuma; Azumanga Daioh (anime) - This is another funny series that doesn't have much going on in it but has great characters. Some of them include an adorable grade-school age genius, a cool-looking girl who likes cute animals even though they hate her, and a few teachers who probably shouldn't even be allowed on school grounds, much less put in charge of a classroom.
- Sayonara Zetsubou Sensei (anime) - The anime is actually based on a manga by Koji Kumeta, but I have no idea if the manga is anything like the anime. Like Hetalia, this is another episodic series that relies on a large cast of characters who are all stereotypes. Its humor is darker than Hetalia's, but it still might be a good one to check out. The series is about a deeply depressed and incredibly negative teacher who, having failed to kill himself, finds himself having to teach a class that includes the girl who saved his life - the most positive girl in the world. From what I can tell, the anime is licensed, but nothing has been done with it yet. The manga, on the other hand, is available.
- Kyo Kara Maoh! (anime) - Ok, so this particular suggestion may seem a bit out there, but I think it works, particularly if you enjoyed, rather than were made uncomfortable by, Hetalia's habit of turning alliances between countries into crushes and marriage. Like Hetalia, this show is funny, has a mostly male cast, and has hints of romantic relationships between male characters. The main character of the show is a high school student who gets flushed down a toilet into another world, where he learns that he is the demon king and is now supposed to rule a country he knows nothing about when all he really wants to do is go home. Luckily for him, he's got several people who are willing to help him out, give him advice, and protect him. And did I mention he accidentally gets engaged to a guy?