Wednesday, November 19, 2003

Is manga better or just different? 

Today Mr. Bacardi talked about Shonen Jump. The question of the Jump's title is answered in his comments section, but I want to expand a bit further on a responce to this:

I look and see a host of stories with subject matter such as transformer-style robots, samurai warriors, teenage soap operas, big hyperexaggerated gladiatorial arena-fight style sagas, sometimes all at once, and I wonder- is this the model to which Western comics should aspire? Leaving aside the actual cost-effectiveness argument (John Jakala's already-classic comparison can't be disputed) is it really all that much better than what we're generally being served up by America and the rest of the world? Or is it just different, and therefore somehow better by inference?

The following is something of a realization that I came to a while back. Keep in mind that this is all broad strokes with plenty of exceptions on either side. I'm going to primarily limit myself to the "popular" stuff on each side. The kind of manga that'd be in anthologies like Shonen Jump, and superheros in the US.

My thinking is that in a certain way, these stories are being approached from opposite angles in the two countries. What do I mean by this? Basically that for manga, there are certain story structures and formulas tha are known to work, but which have all of their "trappings" changed from story to story. The situations, worlds, and surface details change, but in other ways they have a lot of similarities. On the other side, I feel like the big US companies want to hold onto a particular set of trappings while changing the story. They have superheros who wear spandex and share a universe, but create fighting, mystery, and romance within that.

What are some things that a lot of boys like? They like exploring and adventure, fighting, big robots, friendship, competing, and they often want to be the "greatest!" at something (they also like weird hair, but that's another story altogether). So you see these themes again and again in manga for boys, but the stories could take place anywhere, fights could involve superpowers or just martial arts, etc. Competing to be the greatest could involve fighting monsters or other people, but it could also be competing at a sport. And that could be any kind of sport-like thing, whether it is basketball, a board game, or even cooking.

Many of these will share similar traits like a main character that starts off pretty weak and has to do a lot of training. As this happens they encounter greater obsticles. Probably will have a master at some point that might get killed off, leaving them looking for vengeance. A sports title may go similarly, or perhaps take a different cliche like a misfit team that is thrown together with a misfit coach and can they somehow win against all odds?

There is all sorts of romance stories. Whether it is a soap-operatic love-quadrangle or a forbidden love. Even taking something like forbidden love, it could be a poor guy and rich girl in highschool. It could be two male cops. It coul be a rebel leader lady and a sworn enemy king who don't realize each other's true identity in a medieval fantasy world. You're going to cover a lot of the same ground, but the different situations and settings can count for a lot.

So, I guess my main point is that sure, manga has its fair share of cliches in it. In fact, many of those cliches are common to other countries and mediums. For instance the misfit sports team has been done in many US movies before. The success will have to do more with the exact execution or if the cliche has been turned on its ear a bit. Also, even if you've seen something done a million times before, it may be new to someone else, and if it is a solid story, the cliches can be more easily overlooked.

So, I think the manga side tends to be more in tune with what themes the kids are really interested in reading about and then making enough variations (each pretty much self-contained) that it is easy for someone to find something they like. If you like competition-based stories but hate aliens or superpowers, maybe a straight basketball story is for you, even if the underlying themes are very similar.

On the US side, I think too many of the companies have gotten too narrow of a focus. Even if we limit the discussion to stories involving people with superpowers fighting villains, the manga seems like it has more variety. The infamous DBZ has quite a long history, morphing in theme as it went along. Characters grow old and have kids, etc. It is a particular world with certain rules (certain aliens, dragon balls, etc.) and a particular visual style. One guy wrote the whole story, and despite the the holes Toriyama backed himself into for doing it way longer than he indended, it is still unique enough to be very recognizable. YuYu Hakusho is a totally different setup. Tough kid gets killed but has a chance to come back because of the unexpected good deed he did to get himself killed. Ends up becoming a spirit detective, teaming up with some good demons, and fighting a host of various bad guys. A somewhat different visual style and world and also self-contained.

If you then go to the superhero universes, almost everyone wears spandex as the costume for no real reason. They are all in the same world so that it becomes more of a weird hodgepoge world. I think it is especially detrimental for stories where you'd usually assume it was the real world. I know I got yanked out of the story when I read Books of Magic when they mentioned Superman, because it reminded me that all this magical stuff under the surface of the world was really under the DC world and not the real world. There's already so much weird stuff going on that I'm surprised that anyone would think magic didn't exist... ;)

You also have the constant new artists and writers coming to titles. This tends to keep any character from having a consistant visual style or even target audience. Wolverine can be in a super-violent story on one hand, or on a coloring book on the other hand. This sort of thing can be confusing. Say someone sees the Spiderman movie and wants to see where it came from. They pick up some TPB that looks good. Then they go and pick up another one. Now the artist and writer are totally different and they don't like this one nearly as much. What now? How do they know what is good or bad without extensive research? It isn't just the title but the exact run that matters, but the run still probably relies on past issues. Even if you follow a favorite writer along to different titles, unless you're following those other titles to begin with, you might be confused on what's going on. That's without getting into retcons or alternate universes. Can get really confusing really fast...

I think a lot of people are used to the book mentality. If an authors writes a series, it is usually theirs and if you like one book by them, you have a decent chance of liking others. There may be a shared universe in terms of the single author exploring different parts of it with different books, but it is a lot rarer to farm it off to other writers all the time. For a lot of manga, you can pretty much glance at the cover, recognize who the artist is (who is usually also the writer), and probably have some idea on if it is for you already...

I don't want to get too too much on a shared world tangent, since I have some pretty strong thoughts on that, but I do think that it tends to create a kind of fanfiction environment which is more fun the more you know about it, but can be pretty daunting at first. There's also no real way of keeping complexity from rising over time. It also tends to lead to certain iconic characters constantly being re-invented instead of creating new characters from scratch. It is true that they stick around because they are good archetypes. Manga tends to have certain kinds of characters that re-appear a lot, just with different names faces and situations. Personally, I think I favor the variations on a kind of character versus variations on one particular character, but I know many would disagree.

So, pretty much I agree that for all the variety people talk about in manga, there are quite a few cliches that happen over and over again, as well as general kinds of stories that are the basis of most stories out there in any form. I think this is part of why John wasn't as amazed by Iron Wok Jan as many others. If you've read a lot of sports titles or others involving competition, despite how well the comic is done, the cooking aspect is mostly window dressing. But for others, it isn't just the cooking, but the the whole "I will be the best and do it through practice!" theme which is new, as opposed to the somewhat different heroism theme in superheros where a person has powers whether they want them or not and has defend against people causing problems in the world or attacking them (more like DBZ).

But the combination of even the mainstream manga tackling a variety of basic themes, and putting different spins on each of these in terms of setting, clothing, and situation, I think helps to draw a lot of people in and keep them excited.

I do think it can help that even most mundane manga stories take place in another country, so that it has a different flavor to it, but I still think a lot of the same things can work in american comics if creators can find their own voice. Some of the stories for the second Rising Stars of Manga seem to fit that, IMO, with a girl and her pet ferret, or a romance while rafting in the Rocky Mountains. These are pretty american themes, but sound like something I'd be interested in reading... In that way, I do think a lot of comics can benefit from copying manga. It isn't so much about an art style or a country, but light entertainment that people can enjoy reading.

Any thoughts?

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