Sunday, June 16, 2013

Border Crossings: On American and Japanese Comic Book Culture

*Man of Steel spoiler below!*

I saw Man of Steel 8:00PM Saturday night with a couple friends. A devout fan of anything involving Christopher Nolan (except that last Batman movie, that I could have lived without), I was expecting great things from Man of Steel. My friend Leslie, after viewing the blockbuster, felt no shame in claiming it was better than The Dark Knight; I'm still debating that myself. Later that night I told Erica, Project Otaku's site manager and co-founder, about the film. She hilariously responded with, “I don't intend to watch. Not big on Marvel heroes.” We'll forgive her for the huge faux pas, but it does raise some interesting questions about Americans who enjoy Japanese manga and anime, but cannot stomach our own home-grown superheroes.

With the exception of my friend Leslie, I can't personally identify many who embrace both American comic book and Japanese manga traditions. I think people who are able to appreciate both are a special breed, indeed. The similarities between the two broad categories we'll identify as 'comic books' (American) and “manga' (Japanese) are numerous, but there seems enough cultural difference to prevent a perfect union for many people. I used to complain about manga's absurd distortion of anatomy, a subject I know well considering I've taken myriad art classes and studied many books. Comic books are guilty of similar crimes, but follow the Greco-Roman model of idealized forms familiar to Americans. Manga also has the habit of depicting action using speed lines, a practice uncommon in most comic books. If Americans want action, we do it the way Stan Lee outlined it in his iconic How to Draw Comics the Marvel Way, with dynamic foreshortening and poses that defy gravity. In addition to the visual aberrations, Americans don't do incest or bestiality in comics. Those will get you shot around here. Hell, until recently, our stomachs churned at the thought of comics being too violent.

I used to be an avid fan of DC and Marvel until a few years ago, when I realized I was spending a lot of money on franchises that were milking me for all I had without consideration for narrative integrity. For example, my friend Tom would argue that Superman set a terrible precedent when he was first killed by Doomsday. I agree with him. Comic books, since breaking the rules on life and death, have let resurrection run rampant. Batman died, Jason Todd died, Captain America died... and then they all came back. I think that's stupid. I'm also not a fan of superheroes not killing anyone. Luckily, Man of Steel restored my faith in superheroes by having Superman snap General Zod's neck. Good shit, Snyder.

Marvel and DC are names too big to ignore in the States, and they dwarved the good independent publishers when I was growing up. I think my disdain for shonen manga is closely related to the things I dislike in mainstream American superhero titles; I actually don't read much manga precisely because they never seem to end, which Americans alternatively try to correct for by resetting their continuities through multidimensional crises. Shonen manga also doesn't have a problem pulling shit out of its ass and screwing up canon; just today Leslie was telling me Bleach's Ichigo's only been using Quincy and Hollow powers instead of fully activating his zanpakto. Really, Tite Kubo? I can feel the gears in your imagination grinding against each other for lack of proper greasing.

Nowadays, as far as comic books and manga, I have an appreciation for shorter stories published by less popular creative teams. My favorite manga includes Planetes; the original Battle Angel Alita run (before Last Order); Azumanga Daioh; and of course, Ghost in the Shell. My Japanese friend Mago laughed at me when I gave him these titles, saying that Dragonball and Evangelion are still the powerhouses in Japan. He hadn't heard of any of the titles I loved.

The moral of the story is this: I eventually resorted to watching mostly original anime, and reading comic books and manga series that were already finished. I'm a super picky guy when it comes to art. Guess that comes with studying art and film in college. But I thoroughly enjoy most of what I select. It's a nice feeling, having faith in one's own judiciousness. Everyone should study art like I did. The end!

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