Hidekaz Himaruya’s Hetalia: Axis Powers finds its inspiration in two rather unlikely sources of humor (Or at least unlikely source of humor for the modern, Western mass media): The events of World War II and ethnic/national stereotyping.
In fact, it’s not hard to imagine many readers stopping cold at the cover, which depicts a winking Italy and his ever-present white flag of surrender along with cute manga characters representing Japan and Germany.
Stopping there would probably be a mistake, since as provocative as the work might sometimes be, it is strongly rooted in the tradition of political cartooning, particularly in its anthropomorphizing entire nations into individual cartoon characters whose personalities and relationships are meant to represent those countries’ places in the world. Hetlaia is political cartoon as comic strip and, now, political cartoon as graphic novel (It began as an online comic strip and was later published as tankobon in Japan; Tokyopop is releasing the volumes in the U.S.).
The title is itself something of an insult to Italy, as it’s a Japanese portmanteau pun blending hetare (weak, cowardly or incompetent) with Italia. Our title character is first encountered in this volume at a UN-like “Meeting of the World,” where, when given the floor, he shouts: “Pasta!!!” In the narrative, dour, business-like Germany finds Hetalia cowering in a tomato crate.
The pair is an odd couple, with Hetalia portrayed as a dim-witted, lazy, cowardly, gluttonous and flirtatious man-child, more of a pain in Germany’s neck than a true ally.
The third point of their axis, Japan, is quiet and inscrutable, curious about Western culture, but ultimately rather clueless about it, and most of the jokes involving him are of the fish-out-of-water sort.
If you’re not offended by the depiction of Italy here, there’s actually relatively little to even potentially offend readers. As someone with the surname “Mozzocco,” I didn’t mind really mind Italy’s depiction, which is actually something more akin to the lovable loser of a lot of manga than, say, WWII-era cultural stereotyping of the sort you would have found in U.S. super-comics of the ’40s. The potential insults are made all the more innocent by the fact that Hetalia’s incompetence at war is part of the character’s comedic DNA; before we meet him, we meet his grandfather, mighty Roman Empire, and Hetalia’s failings are a reversal of expectations…in addition to something to make him incompatible with Germany.
As for the pitfall of dealing with the Axis powers in anything approaching a sympathetic light, Himaruya is clearly dealing with the characters as countries separate from the people who ran them; Germany and Italy meet during World War I, and as the volume progresses, we go further and further back in time. At one point Germany refers to his “crazy boss,” which is about as close as anything in the book comes to talking about Hitler, the Nazis or the holocaust.
Not that it doesn’t get awfully specific about other things. The cast expands rapidly to include the allies, and the Axis powers are often abandoned to explore other relationships, like France and England’s centuries long rivalry with one another, England’s frustration with his once-beloved little brother America (who lost all respect for him as he grew up) and big, powerful, occasionally psychotic Russia’s inadvertent terrorizing of his nearest neighbors.
A long passage is devoted to young Hetalia’s time in the Holy Roman Empire, another story to the War of Austrian Succession, another to Sealand’s place in the world, and so on. In Hetalia, all the world’s a stage, and the countries are the actors.
The specificity of so many of the gags and plots make Hetalia more of a book for history buffs who also happen to be fairly literate of manga and its tropes, but it bears a look and some consideration by anyone interested in comics in general and political cartooning in particular.
By the way, if you’re curious, here’s what the character America is like (Remember, read right to left):
“America is a quick-thinker with a positive attitude and a pioneering spirit,” says America’s prose profile. “Youthful and energetic, he always wants to be number one. He absolutely loves heroes, justice, freedom and hamburgers. Unfortunately, due to his egotistical personality, England and Japan are his only friends.”