In any manga or anime set in a school there is usually a 'delinquent', a kid who prefers brawn to brain and puts fighting ability above all else. They are often an obstacle to the main character or, when they are the main character, they have a hidden sense of honour and generally do the right thing. The difference between Cromartie High School and other school series is that Cromartie High School has a student body made up entirely of delinquent students. And Takeshi Kamiyama.
For Kamiyama helping a friend get through education by lowering his sights to Cromartie seemed like a good idea, right up until the point when his friend failed the entrance exam and he entered the school alone. Surrounded by violent thugs on a daily basis doesn't turn out as bad as he first thought though, as his intelligence and boldness for even being there in the first place slowly begins to gain him the respect of his classmates, including the extremely odd ones...
There are so many comedy manga series out nowadays that it is quite hard to be original, but Cromartie High School manages it. Most comedy manga series frequently use visual devices, such as simplified art and caricatures, to get the jokes across, but Cromartie High School doesn't do this. Flicking through the first few pages of this volume you wouldn't know it was a parody without reading the dialogue, and this is why it works, it understands that to be a great parody you have to look and feel like the thing you are making fun of.
The art is excellent, and played completely straight. No matter how bizarre the character, they are drawn realistically and this is what makes Cromartie High School so funny. As the volume progresses it gets increasingly surreal - gorillas, robots and a Freddie Mercury lookalike all appear before the end of this volume - and the po-faced style makes it all the weirder. The characters are great, particularly mediocre thug Maeda, but it's Kamiyama who steals the show as he slowly slips into the Cromartie mindset whilst trying to reform his fellow students. A studious person like Kamiyama would seem to be in serious trouble in a school full of bullies, but in fact everyone is wary of him because logically he shouldn't be there and his intelligence soon sees him rise to become top dog at the school without so much as a single brawl.
Kamiyama's story is told in a series of chapter long short stories which are frequently hilarious - whether it's fighting the thugs of Bass High School in order to teach someone to count, trying to test the intelligence of a gorilla or trying to work out why no-one else notices the fact that one student is blatantly a robot! There is plenty to laugh at, but it must be said that some of the running gags, such as Takenouchi's motion sickness, wear thin pretty quickly, whilst the imperious Hokuto is a bit of a weak character. However, the sheer amount of surrealist gags pulls it through such blips, and in the end there is far more to like than to dislike.
Cromartie High School vol 1 is an extremely funny, but also very original comedy that manages to pack in a lot of likeable characters and some classic scenes. The style and surrealism gives it a unique edge and I found myself laughing pretty much from start to finish, there are some weaker moments but overall this is one of the best comedy series I've read in a while.
Two bonus manga stories grace this volume, first up is an 8 page comedy manga about pro-wrestling, which isn't that funny, and the other is a scribbled two page story about the artist himself. Neither are that great, but there are also three pages of translators notes that explain some of the Japanese terms used in Cromartie High School, which is pretty useful, and various character profiles scattered through the book. A few adverts also grace the final pages.