Do you like penguins? Do you not know much about penguins? Do you think penguins are cute? Do you want to see penguins as human hunks? If you answered, “Yes,” to any one of these questions, Penguin Gentlemen is worth a pick-up for a fun piece of edutainment.
For me, I like penguins but was never obsessed with them. I know lots about Emperor penguins thanks to March of the Penguins, but not other penguin species. While penguins are cute, I never thought of them as humanoids. However, the concept of the manga intrigued me. The book centers around the staff of The Watering Hole, a cafe with a striking penguin theme. Wouldn't you know it, the staff are all anthropomorphic, human-looking penguins! Each character represents a different penguin species. You have the Emperor, King, Gentoo, Adelie, Chinstrap, and African penguins. These men used to be penguins, but it’s never made clear what caused them to change. It’s for the best; why open up a whole can of tuna that the author and reader are not interested in? No, what we want is penguin facts, and the author delivers with its precise structure.
The book’s story structure stands out from other manga I’ve read. The book is split into chapters around a single topic such as the Pygoscelis genus and child-rearing. Those chapters are split into what I’ll call vignettes. These vignettes are usually two pages long and center around a single penguin fact. This is where the human/penguin idea shines. To quote the back-cover, “You can take the penguin out of the Antarctic, but you can’t take the Antarctic out of the penguin*
*Not all penguins come from the Antarctic.”
Even though the penguins are humans, they still act like penguins. For example, Gentoo and Adelie visit a fancy restaurant and order fish. Gentoo grabs it and eats it whole, tail first. Adelie is horrified; you have to eat it whole head first, silly! This is true: Penguins have to eat fish head first or else the fish scales will mess with swallowing. Situations like this play out in every vignette. It may sound repetitive, but for me, the penguin’s personalities make it feel fresh. The penguin gentlemen not only mimic their specie’s behaviors but also their temperaments. Gentoo is very kind and proper. Meanwhile Adelie is very brash, constantly picking fights with his aggressive genus cousin, Chinstrap. They even copy physical attributes. Chinstraps are also called the Beard penguin for the thin black line under its beak, so of course the human Chinstrap has a chin strap beard. It’s through Kishi Ueno’s strong art that this is accomplished.
The majority of the manga is in black-and-white, but the first thirty-two pages are in color. The predominant purple and orange colors convey both the regality of the penguins and the creativity needed to pull this idea off. On the back slip cover is the author's Twitter handle (@reisei_zero for the curious). I took a look and these pages are the same quality as their single picture tweets. It shows the large amount of effort put into this book.
The way the author used both human and bird forms was also interesting. Sometimes the author would switch between the character’s human and penguin forms. It was initially confusing, but it’s done with purpose. Sometimes it would be a penguin to realistically convey their animal behavior. Other times you just want a laugh, so they go to human form instead. It’s all in the name of edutainment, and Ueno does a good job of that.
If you want a good laugh and learn about the cute waddlers, Penguin Gentlemen will provide a fun read. Because of its structure, the manga is readable for any attention span. With attention to detail, the manga is able to convey lots of information. Then it has the humor to make it more enjoyable than a textbook. Penguin admirers rejoice, for Penguin Gentlemen is serving up factual goodness.
Let’s talk about penguins! Who doesn’t love penguins?! Penguins, penguins, penguins! Are you feeling the enthusiasm yet? Well, you better if you want to read Penguin Gentlemen by Kishi Ueno. This mangaka is clearly obsessed with penguins. He reminds me of Crump of the Big Five from the Yu-Gi-Oh! anime, who was so obsessed with the flightless birds that he took the form of “Nightmare Penguin” in the virtual world and had an entire deck based on them. When I chose to review this manga, I thought it would be a funny story about some fancy gentlemen and penguins in bow ties running a restaurant together, but I was wrong. The men are actually penguins who took human form; think of them as reverse Crumps.
Even though the men and penguins are one in the same, I still thought I would get an entertaining tale about their daily lives running the restaurant. When I read manga, I expect a good story with great characters. With Penguin Gentlemen, I unfortunately didn’t get that. Instead, what I got was basically the Wikipedia page for “Penguin” with some art that I have mixed feelings about. There is absolutely no flow to the manga itself. Instead of a story, the author chose to present short vignettes with facts about penguins that only took up an average of two pages. We jump from one penguin fact to another without any sort of transition, and it feels more like you’re reading a collection of comic strips from the newspaper. The characters switch between their penguin forms and human forms so frequently and without explanation that I’m not really sure what the point was. And though they mention working at this restaurant called “The Watering Hole,” there weren’t any funny scenes such as penguins tripping while serving wine or platters of food like I was hoping for. Basically, the plot of the penguins taking the form of humans to run a restaurant was pointless, glanced over, and went nowhere.
The art is the second big criticism I have of this manga. Kishi Ueno does a fine job of illustrating the different species of penguins, but the human characters unfortunately look like dime store imitations of characters from JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure. Then again, I never liked the style of JoJo either, so this art wasn’t appealing to me at all. What’s worse is that if you take away any facial hair and glasses, the mens’ faces look practically the same. Even a woman who appears towards the end has a rather masculine face. Sure, Ueno draws a lot better than I ever could, and I wouldn’t say he’s a terrible artist, but there was little distinction between the human designs, and I was hoping the penguins would be a lot cuter.
There were 32 full color pages at the beginning of the book, which was nice and did make the art look significantly better. However, 32 pages is enough to wonder why all 157 weren’t in color. Or, if not in color throughout the whole book, I would have preferred to see the colored pages interspersed rather than all at the beginning, especially because there was discussion about colors that help you distinguish different kinds of penguins later in the book.
Yes, I know I sound overly negative in this review, but I will admit that I learned a lot about penguins that I didn’t know before. Kishi Ueno definitely knows a lot about them. However, there are probably hundreds of other books that present the same information in different ways. Ueno did not push the restaurant or human transformation plot enough to make this manga feel like a new concept. Heaven’s Design Team is a manga I recently reviewed and absolutely loved because it shared interesting information about animals while also telling a fun and humorous story. But unlike Heaven’s Design Team, this manga does not have interesting characters or a good narrative driving all the random penguin facts thrown around. You can open the book to any page and read it without having any context or knowledge of what came earlier. While you do learn the differences between species of penguins in terms of appearance and behavior, Penguin Gentlemen is an information dump that unfortunately will not keep you entertained.