Wednesday, June 18, 2008

On Manga

Dramacon is by no means my first outing into comics, but I think I can officially call it my first successful outing into manga. It's a great book, about learning to stand up for yourself, and finding out that you are strong and talented, even if you didn't know it before. I love the fact that the main character is a high school girl who produces her own mildly successful comics. The focus, sense of purpose and identity that displays is exciting, and the confidence she finds in that over the course of the book is pretty rewarding.

It is (relatively) widely known that I kind of despise manga. I hate that all the characters look alike. I dislike the weird combination of realistic/idealized images with cartoonish pictures. I am turned off by those giant, shiny eyes. But honestly, what's really stopped me near the beginning of so many promising comics is that everyone is so shouty. Everyone's always sweating or screaming or crying or just OVERACTING. Even the serious drama (Eagle) and very American stuff (At Death's Door) just has so much shouting in it, it's emotionally reminiscent of watching the Three Stooges, something else I don't do voluntarily.

So I'm grateful for two things right now: the necessity of picking up and finishing Dramacon, which I now have to read the sequel to because he gets a girlfriend? But they're supposed to be together! And the necessity of picking up Manga and Anime, by Robin E. Brenner, which does a certain amount to demystify manga. At the very least, she's acknowledging my observations (criticisms!) and even explaining some of them.

The fact, for example, that manga writer/artists turn out at least 30 pages a week, instead of a team turning out 32 pages-minus-ads per month, allows me to forgive them a little bit for the characters that look the same. The fact that they're serialized in magazines that are considered somewhat disposable, more like the funnies in the newspaper than a novel, lets me cut some slack for shorthanding a lot of action through silly, simple conventions. That the Japanese consider themselves a "wet" or emotional people, as distinct from us dry, unemotional Westerners will never cause me to ignore the shouting, but at least it explains it.

Because of this long-standing hatred, I've thought a lot about why on earth people like this stuff. I love comics, but I'm pretty picky about the art. But of course I've noticed that a huge percentage of what's out there falls into the superhero category, which is not at all a broad range of appeal. Of course, the fantasy of being strong and competent, able to save the world and worthy to stand against all foes is a pleasing one, and escapist, and, I know, often dealt with in complex ways, but if you're not going to read a superhero comic, you're just not. And sure, there are other kinds of graphic novels (from Fables to Fun Home to Blankets to Persepolis), but not nearly enough.

This is where manga comes in. For sheer volume of stories, it can hardly be beat. And, unlike American comics, it's not nearly so weighted to the science fiction/action-adventure genres. There are comics marketed toward girls, tons of straight-out romance stories, personal drama, queer characters--just sheer breadth. There's something for everyone, and I think that the fast-paced, pop-culture appeal of comics draws in a lot of reluctant readers who are looking for a romance or a high school drama or any of the many characters and stories to see themselves in. You can find plenty of novels in any genre, but when it comes to comics, manga is where the variety is.

The very simplification of characters--good guys vs. bad guys vs. villains, loyalties and betrayals, characters who are mostly exactly who they appear to be--is probably very appealing for teenagers, hoping to fit everything they're seeing around them into familiar shapes and categories. If you can tell by the size of a character's eyes whether you're dealing with an ingenue, a rogue, or a villain, you can find the shape of the story, the lessons and patterns and familiarity, much faster.

----Amusing aside, from Manga and Anime, page 41

Apparently blood type is considered an indication of character in Japan, rather like astrological sign might be here. If your blood type is A, you're probably "a team player, industrious, trustworthy, needs leadership, can be inflexible." B is "independent, creative, honest, emotional, can be irresponsible." O is "ambitious, a planner, romantic, focused on status, can be superficial," and AB is "diplomatic, organized, sensible, moral, can be unforgiving." This I find to be kind of crazy-awesome, and I wanted to share. Thanks to Robin E. Brenner for the quotes.


Linda Braun said...

Ahhhh Fables......

Librarians I talk to often say that when they realized that manga was meant to be read quickly it changed the whole reading manga experience for them. It meant that they didn't feel like they had to struggle over meaning of images and text. It meant that they could let the story wash over them. It meant that they understood why teens went through dozens of the books a day (well maybe a week.)

Manga is part of a culture and I think it's hard for Americans to just take up this kind of reading without understanding a bit of where it came from. (Of course Dramacon isn't Japanese but...)

I'm now curious to read/hear your thoughts on the other manga you read for class.

LibraryHungry said...

I feel bad for the artists, though--if you do look closely (especially in something like Death Note), there are a lot of really detailed, thorough images. Someone put all that love into the art, and we just skim right through it! I guess it's a problem with American comics, too, though.