Super Mario is one of the most popular franchises in video game history. Mario is an icon. Charles Martinet, the voice of Mario, is popular even here in Brazil with events just dedicated to him so the crowd can hear him say “It’s a me, Mario!” There are three things my two year old brother likes: the movie Cars, Mickey Mouse and Mario Kart. He doesn’t know how to play yet, but he loves to watch me play, and specifically asks to watch that game. Mario is the Mickey Mouse of video games (Sonic is the Looney Tunes in this analogy because I don’t care about them that much): everyone knows and loves Mickey and everyone knows and LOVES Mario. Or at least they should.
But unlike Mickey, there’s not nearly enough Mario comics. In 1990, Valiant Comics licensed the franchise and a few issues were released. I can’t say if they’re good since I haven’t read them, but I can say they look… amateurish? Maybe I’m being mean but it’s just not … great looking. Then, in 1992, we have Super Mario Adventures, serialized in Nintendo Power, written by Kentaro Takekuma and drawn by Charlie Nozawa. This is a masterpiece, it has everything you want out of a Mario Comic: it’s gorgeous, it’s funny, there’s Peach dressed like Luigi, there’s Doctor Mario helping a Boo overcome their childhood traumas. It’s great.
Meanwhile, in Japan, the manga Super Mario-Kun began its serialization in 1990 in the CoroCoro Comic magazine, written and drawn by Yukio Sawada. After 30 years, Super Mario-Kun is still being published in CoroCoro alongside titles like Doraemon, Pokémon, Yokai Watch and Splatoon; and it’s the oldest comic still running in the magazine.
The comic loosely follows the story of each game as they’re released, which means it uses specific elements and characters of each different title for its gags and narrative. Story in the main Mario games is pretty much non-existent, it’s all setting, a purpose for the gameplay, however spinoff games like Paper Mario and Mario and Luigi are far more story heavy. There’s no such thing as Mario canon, there’s not even the resemblance of a timeline attempt like in Zelda, and it’s for the better. Instead of a definite canon, we have mythology and iconography, some loosely placed rules that are there to be broken. Mario story is presented in little interactions between characters, in things that are always flavor text. There are limitless possibilities for stories with these characters because the usual story is something so miniscule like: “the princess is in another castle!”. Even with little to no exposition the characters have such charm and personality, thanks to that Nintendo magic. Mario could be an icon in comics just like he is in video games. The mythology is also always evolving thanks to fanarts, my favorite being Yobby, Yoshi’s Dad. Other examples are all the love/hate for Waluigi and when the internet went wild over Bowsette.
Mario has such powerful imagery that even a different colored Yoshi becomes a completely different character, look at him, his name is Yobby, I love him. It’s fun to play with these icons, they’re not overly developed but they have enough baked in to be absolutely captivating. Here are two examples done by Nintendo: Goombella from Paper Mario and Captain Toad, a character that got it’s own spin off game.
Nintendo knows the power of its imagery and that’s why there’s always so much potential. Mario can be anything, so there’s a game with Mario being EVERYTHING. Kart, Tennis, Soccer, the Olympics. Mario is a baby, Mario is a Doctor, Luigi is a ghost hunter. Mario goes to Space, Mario goes on Vacation, Mario goes to Hell. If you can put Mario in any game, you could also put him in any story. I know you want a Super Mario meets Spider-Man comic, I do too. Imagine Spider-Man web-swinging in New Donk City while Mario flies alongside him with the cape power up. There’s at least a few Marvel writers who would love to Venomize Bowser, and I can’t say that I blame them.
This tangent went on for too long……….. I’m sorry, let’s tie this back into Mario-Kun. Limitless possibilities in games translates into limitless possibilities in stories and Yukio Sawada gets to tell them all.
After 30 years of publication, the series is in it’s 56th volume and, in 2017, Sawada himself hand-picked some stories to be released in one volume called Super Mario Bros Manga Mania, which was just released by VIZ, marking the first time ever Mario-Kun has ever been officially translated in English and released in the West. It’s like a greatest hits album and it also shows the range of stories being told in this gag manga. I’ll go over each story now, commenting my impressions on them.
The first story is about Paper Mario, a game I’ve never played. You see, I always loved these games, but the only Nintendo consoles I had were the Wii, the 3DS and now the Switch so I still have a lot of catching up to do. I played some games on emulators but mostly my love was for precisely the characters, which is almost like loving Mickey but only through seeing him in promotional images, it’s the power of an icon. Mario however feels different somehow to me. Even when you know him only as a media icon, he FEELS more than that, he feels like a human that could inhabit the spectacular Mushroom Kingdom, and who wouldn’t want that?
Talking about the comic itself, Sawada’s art is amazing. The characters are all recognizable, they feel like they follow the model sheet, yet they’re completely his style. He’s a great cartoonist but I find that the art gets a little crammed in the small size of the comic. When he uses fewer panels per page you can see his clear artwork shine, like in the covers or main illustrations.
The story is pretty straightforward, Mario and his party clearing a level of the game and fighting a boss to get one of the stars in the end. What’s great about this story is seeing Mario on an adventure with a Goomba, a Koopa and a Cheep Cheep in his party. I love it when Mario breaks its rules -like these characters are almost always represented as antagonists.- the Goomba in particular is adorable and I’d read a whole manga about him.
The second story is about Super Mario Sunshine and to that game I have a strange attachment. Like the previous one, I haven’t played it yet (I’m about to if I can get the 3D All Stars before Nintendo locks it away forever in their vault) but Giant Bomb, the video games site, made a series where they played the whole game while making bets, and that’s my favorite thing in the world. I must’ve watched each episode dozens of times. I paid the premium subscription to only watch that series. I was watching the livestream of an episode when my mom told me she was pregnant. It’s the one where Dan clipped through the platform and if you’ve seen it you instantly know the one I’m talking about, and if you haven’t seen it just trust me that it’s funny. The thing about Steal My Sunshine (the name of that series) was that it was fun seeing them becoming frustrated with the game, with each level Dan becoming closer to admit that the game wasn’t a masterpiece. That game is full of bullshit, but I love it for that.
In this story, Mario has to collect 8 red coins that are all over the city -one of the game’s bullshits- but he’s doing so only to help the beautiful sister of Strollin-Stu. In this story Mario is kind of an asshole and it’s great. He doesn’t care about Stu’s sad story, but F.LU.D.D. (Flash Liquidizer Ultra Dousing Device) does. F.LU.D.D. is a “water pack” that Mario uses to clean Isla Delfino. Their dynamic is great and I had never imagined Mario as this little gremlin but it just goes to show how versatile his character can be.
The third story is also about Sunshine and it features that boss battle where Mario fucking pulls out the tentacles of a giant Gooper Blooper Squid in front of its babies. It’s not nearly as bizarre as it is when you do it in the game.
Now we’re on the best story. The fourth is about Mario and Luigi: Partners in Time and it features Mario and Luigi teaming up with Baby Mario and Baby Luigi and Baby Peach and Toadsworth are also here. It’s another boss fight full of gags but what happens after that is just absolutely great. First of all, the villain is defeated by baby tears, which is also MY greatest weakness. And then it’s time for Mario and Luigi to return to their home and their time. This is the only Partners in Time chapter, which means we only see their departure and even so it’s still such an emotional moment when Baby Mario says to Adult Mario that he’s proud of being him when he grows up. Then there are more baby tears, and my tears as well. The image of Baby Mario and Baby Luigi looking at the sky and seeing Mario and Luigi saying goodbye is one that’ll stay with me for a while. I can only hope that Baby Me is at least a little bit proud of being me too.
Next is Super Paper Mario. There’s at least one standout thing I love in each chapter of this book, and this time it’s The Green Thunder, Mr. L., who’s clearly a brainwashed Luigi, easily recognized by everyone. He’s dressed like a Tokusatsu character/Super Villain and he looks great. Anti hero Luigi works so well, which again, proves the versatility of these characters. Luigi is usually always scared of everything and to see him being a cool dude is very refreshing. Luigi hasn’t been this cool since Year of Luigi. A super hero book with Luigi would be the best thing in the world. As you can see I have lots of ideas of what I’d do if I were hired to write a Mario comic. Also Luigi has a battle robot in this story, which Mario punches after screaming “You’re my dear little brother.” It’s Shonen Mario and Luigi and it’s just great.
One thing I have to add is that I’d have loved if Sawada had incorporated the visual style of the game somehow, with its “paper” aspect. It would open the possibilities for unique gags using this specific game that would set it apart from the other stories.
The next chapter is also about Super Paper Mario. They’re searching for the next pure heart when they arrive at a kingdom where everyone is frozen, and the culprit is Bonechill, a snake skeleton in a barrel with wheels. Mario, Luigi and Bowser are the three Heroes of Light but who could be the fourth? Is it Toadsworth? Is it YOBBY? IS YOBBY THE FOURTH HERO OF LIGHT? … look, it isn’t Yobby okay, but it’s Peach and she’s just as cool as Yobby. She appears to save the day, which is great cause Sawada draws a great Peach. The way he renders her hair, the smile, the shape of her face, the unique way he draws eyes, it’s a delight to look at and such great cartooning. There’s also a princess who hates facial hair in this story.
We’re almost done now. The next two stories are about Super Mario Galaxy and Super Mario Bros Wii. Galaxy is indeed a masterpiece and Bros Wii was fun at the time I thought, but I don’t know how it holds up today. Both stories are similar, they’re about monsters who end up becoming friendly in the end. One is a Boo Bouldergeist and the other is a hungry Chain Chomp. The Bros Wii story is the better one between these two, it basically tells a superior version of the exact same story and I don’t know why they’re both here, side by side, in this book.
After that we get a little Sunshine story with Yoshi feeling left out only to be surprised in the end with a present. Grumpy Yoshi is funny, but not as much as Jerk Gremlin Mario in that previous story.
The last story comes with a content warning so I feel like I should give one here as well: it deals with the passing of a parent.
This story shows an old tired Mario that has been living these adventures for 25 years, while at the same time Sawada, the author, tells you that one of the chapters was made while his father was in the hospital and he still had to fill the comic with jokes and gags even when he wasn’t feeling like it, and that there were other similar situations in those 25 long years. And so Dr. Mario appears to cure Mario and remind him that there were plenty of good things as well, and he reveals that he’s Mario 25 years in the future, when the comic is celebrating its 50th anniversary. In the end Sawada realizes that the gags and jokes helped him through the tough times, and it probably helped other people as well.
Now my final thoughts on the whole package. It’s undeniable that this is a gag manga. Even with the good translation, I feel like I’m sometimes missing something. Or maybe its because I prefer when the comedy comes from the characters and their interactions rather than puns. I also feel like the selection of stories is peculiar. For one, in a series with hundreds of chapters, Sawada selected at least two almost identical stories. There’s too much Paper Mario and Mario Sunshine, and I don’t think it does a very good job at covering Mario’s history in that regard. There’s also the problem of pacing. You’d think that a gag manga would be a perfect fit for a greatest hits volume but I don’t think it ever comes together well enough to form a cohesive unity of storytelling. Maybe reading the original volumes as serialized when it was originally released would make for a better reading experience.
And last but not least: there’s no Yobby in this comic.