“Hetalia” (meaning “Useless Italy,” being a portmanteau between the word for “useless” (“hetare”) and “Italy” (“Italia.”)) owes its English-language release almost entire to cosplayers. They love it. You can get a whole group together each doing a different country, or just be the Axis powers or just the Allies, or any combination you want. However, it is well known that what makes good fodder for cosplayers does not necessarily make good manga for readers, and that is the case here.
Is “Hetalia” a great comic? No. Is it a good comic? Yeah, it is a fun little read. But ultimately it doesn’t live up to the hype that comes along with it. Unless you are a cosplayer.
The gist of the series is this: Combine the loose history of the old Warner Bros cartoon “Histeria!” with the sugary-sweetness of the Korean comic One Fine Day, and you pretty much get the picture. Author Hidekazu Himaruya got the idea for the comic when he was studying abroad in New York, and stumbled on a web page full of ethnic jokes. He thought that might make a good basis for a comic, but instead of being spiteful with the ethnic stereotypes Hidekazu went “moe.” Each country gets their own little costume and country personification, with some adventures and little bits of random history thrown in.
Because “Hetalia” started off as a web comic, the book is mainly a series of four-panel gag-strips without much continuity. There are a few variations on themes, and some larger panels and pages, but the bulk of it is the four-panel gag strips. The strips are ostensibly set in the WWI / WWII era, but this is pretty loose. They mainly revolve around ethnic stereotypes and funny little bits of history.
For example, the series namesake Italy loves pasta, chases after the girls and is generally a useless. In the beginning, big strong Germany captures weak little Italy, who likes being a prisoner so much he doesn’t want to escape. They team up with Japan, whose contribution is to make miniature submarines in the bathtub. Meanwhile Italy just wants to eat pasta, and Germany has to keep cajoling them along. Yes, quaint little humor about the Tripartite Pact that formed the Axis Powers in WWII. And pasta.
Some of the gags are pretty funny. America is hard to understand because he keeps shoving hamburgers in his mouth, and when he does talk it is to declare himself the hero. Japan just agrees with whatever American says, while England still thinks of America as a bratty younger brother who has gotten to big for his britches. Austria just wants to brood and make music all the time, while Russia is trying to bully the three Baltic states. There is a funny bit about “What if Germany went shopping with a Spanish cashier while standing behind a Greek customer?’ Hijinks ensue.
If you are a history buff, then “Hetalia” might drive you a little crazy. The author has supplied little “notes” about the events being parodied, and sometimes these are just plain wrong. (Busby’s Stoop Chair is not hanging upside down in a museum, for example) Some of the country notes and stereotypes are just down right ridiculous, if not offensive. (American does not have Ice Cream Trucks patrolling the streets at all times, ready to stuff ice cream into waiting mouths.) This is a comic based off of a website of ethnic jokes, after all, so you have to take all of this with a grain of salt. No one should be using “Hetalia” to study for their upcoming history exam.
The art is “Hetalia” is rougher than I am used to seeing. It looks like un-inked pencil drawings in parts, which is actually interesting to see in a comic. I like some of the switching of art styles in the book. Some of the detail is lost in the non-inked pages which don’t reproduce as well, and that is a shame because it looks beautiful. All of the country costumes are darling, and thus the books popularity with cosplayers.
So again, not a bad comic, but not great. If I was looking for a four-panel gag comic that will provide some laughs, I would stick with Neko Ramen. Maybe the story or humor will pick up with Volume 2.