New Manga: Inside & Out
Friday, August 13, 2010
Well look at that! Incontrovertible truths, straight from Japan! Before we’re even past the break! Take my hand, sweet reader, as we journey deeper into… the dreams of manga!
Bakuman Vol. 1 (Tsugumi Ohba & Takeshi Obata; Viz, $9.99)
This is the new ongoing series from the creators of Death Note, a potentially decade-defining, Shonen Jump-bolstering boys’ comics megahit. You must never, ever forget that fact. True, Ohba & Obata aren’t likely to let you forget, in that this debut collection is sprinkled with specific references to their mighty prior success, but know that it all goes much deeper than self-congratulation; a purported slice-of-life portrayal of two young teenage boys with a very shonen-style ambition to become most excellent mangaka, Bakuman carries with it a specific ethos, best understood via the unique context in which its creators work.
What you’re seeing above isn’t just your typical schoolyard/barroom shit-shooting session on the mysteries of attraction; it’s a reprisal — knowing, I think — of the wordy logic games of Death Note, but shifted from the high-stakes venue of international detection to a pair of junior high school-aged boys discussing how smart girls are kind of gross. The kids in question are cocky class prodigy Akito, whose ambition is to become a wildly successful manga scriptwriter, and nervous/lazy Moritaka, a seemingly natural-born comics talent who gets aggressively roped into his classmate’s scheme. Together they form a rough dichotomy: Akito, the writer, as avatar for cunning commercial calculation, and Moritaka, the artist, as bubbling emotion and creation-as-feeling. Can there be any doubt that together they form… comics?!
Mainstream comics, of course. Big ticket shonen manga, with the serial’s Japanese publisher Shueisha flattered in-story as rightful top of the pops, and not inaccurately; Shonen Jump also runs Naruto and One Piece, remember, and it used to boast a weekly circulation of over five million back when Dragon Ball was king. Our Heroes mention Dragon Ball, naturally, as well as the older boys’ comics touchstone Tomorrow’s Joe. Indeed, much of the book is taken up with the two discussing the ins and outs of manga creation, like a dramatic rendition of Even a Monkey Can Draw Manga – devotees of the American comic book assembly line process will be amused by Moritaka’s zero-tolerance policy toward writers that can’t thumbnail a page. “If you’re going to just give me a bunch of sentences and tell me that’s the story, then you should become a novelist or team up with somebody else instead,” remarks the young artist, his words presented with all the studied gravity of a physics lecture.
This isn’t what makes Bakuman interesting, nor is it the banal relationship drama that occupies its non-manga-creation pages, drizzling the rest with tubed immediacy – watch Moritaka impulsively propose marriage to the aforementioned ideally demure female specimen, and thrill as she tentatively agrees on the condition that they fulfill their creative ambitions and not go on dates and shit until then! One step closer… to fulfilling our dream!! No, what’s interesting is how the two elements interact, how Akito delights in the sexless, uncommunicative state of Moritaka’s relationship as preferable, after which the two seek to devise a manga of pure manly idealism: no girls’ content, like sex, or wishy-washy otaku (read: moe) bullshit. It’s hard-headed, two-fisted classicism all the way for these two, much in the way that the Garo artists struggled toward an older ideal in the ’60s — a virtue to which the Western incursion of feminism was anathema — or how Hideo Azuma recounts in his Disappearance Diary how the birth of the cutie-pie fetish lolicon porno subgenre was a response to the presence of woman-targeted and woman-created yaoi in amateur manga circles, inseparable to the rise of wave-making female mangaka in the ’70s. That’s when you remember that Death Note was also wave-making – a ‘boy’ serial in a ‘boy’ magazine that reaped massive benefits from specifically courting a female audience via its sexy cast of devious males beautifully killing each other off. And then you remember that Ohba always did treat Death Note‘s famously awful, incompetent female cast with readily discernible contempt, which it can be argued allowed female readers more triumphant access to the personae of the men at play. Given this, Bakuman registers as a push back, a roar of defiance against the girlish elements infesting manly comics for boys, a repudiation of Death Note and its calculated outreach; it’s not that the story hates modern otaku stuff, even — do note that Moritaka’s goal is the semi-mainstream-ish occupation of manga artist, while his lady love wants to be a voice actress in anime, an ossified ultra-niche geek thing that belies her status as pandering to the hapless among the male readership — it’s just that *god* all that glommy ‘feelings’ garbage is wussy! No wonder Ohba’s story analogizes the romance of manga creation to the perfect romance of pure, idealized love – heterosexual romance without women around to fuck it all up.
Now, the trick is pondering how much of this Ohba actually means. Just as recurring rumors have posited the press-shy, pseudonymous writer as a woman enjoying a prolonged horselaugh at demographic formula — the big joke of Death Note is that it’s exactly the same friendship! perseverance! victory! story as Naruto or One Piece, except the big goal is to be the best-ever murderer, in a manner that obliterates the virtue of such underlying shonen themes — there are suggestions that the boys of the series’ focus are, after all, just boys. Hint #1: it’s pretty much a romance comic, when you get down to it. Moritaka is haunted by memories of his dead uncle, a gag cartoonist who either worked himself to death or committed suicide when he couldn’t follow up his one and only hit series — no doubt a cheery bit of self-reference on sophomore scribe Ohba’s part, even discounting (alternate) rumors that ‘he’ works under his own name as a gag cartoonist in another magazine — and maintained an unconsummated non-relationship with a lovely classmate he adored, who turns out to be, dear readers, the mother of Moritaka’s schoolhouse beloved!!
She actually seems rather bemused with the boys’ antics, perhaps signaling an adult’s narrative presence. At times, artist Obata (or an adept studio assistant) draws his protagonists with woozy cartoon expressions, gently undercutting the gravity of Ohba’s scripting; truthfully, visual design work is probably all he can do with content blocked out for him by Ohba, who generously imbues the artist character Moritaka with narrative primacy. And of course, shonen formula dictates that challengers must arise for the heroes to initially overcome and eventually bring to peace; it could be that their prejudices are the key slice-of-life enemy here, and that no temporary villain could be more pertinent than a female comics artist, as unimaginable to the story thus far as making comics for (UGH) art’s sake.
Yet for now, the very state of the world seems supportive of classic male ideals, codified in the golden ’70s, safe away in its demographic. Why aren’t these kids using any digital media whatsoever in making comics? Because they must master the old tools, the good tools, samurai practicing with wooden swords. It’s societal, like in how Moritaka’s father is only ever present through the phone, like the dad in Earthbound, tirelessly laboring into the night without complaint to provide for his family, deviating only to share go get ‘em advice with the boy and shush up the ball ‘n chain when she gets too mouthy. You can smell the aftershave on this stuff, the steely man’s swagger in a parable from the front lines against the feminization of funnybooks, an incursion on the male sphere. That it might be so straightforward as to set itself up for a fall in a future we can’t yet see, unless we’re pirating, is the peril of serial analysis.
Peepo Choo Vol. 1 (of 3) (Felipe Smith; Vertical, $12.95)
This is a manga dream of a different kind, hyperactive and fever-sick with cross-cultural worry, blood-drenched from agony of influence; it may be the most ’2010′ comic I’ve read all year. Creator Felipe Smith may be familiar from his 2005-07 Tokyopop series MBQ — of the same Original English Language book series that debuted Brandon Graham’s King City (and, admittedly, a lot of shit) — but Peepo Choo has a more unique pedigree: it’s authentic manga, having been serialized for its duration in big ass publisher Kodansha’s ‘alternative’-flavored seinen anthology Morning 2, suggested for mature male readers. Naturally, then, just as Bakuman is a glimpse inside the secret domestic battles of top money Japanese comics, Smith’s outsider art concerns itself with the eternal disconnect between comic-cultural expectations.
But enough of that for a minute – what Smith’s work really reminds me of is Ralph Bakshi, specifically his early features, Heavy Traffic and Coonskin, broad and scattershot in their satire, funny and numbing in their brazen desire to provoke, and alternately striking and hobbled by visual shortcomings. There’s even a dangerous heroine with gigantic breasts! And just as those ’70s films let their plots wander across racial and narrative fault lines, so does Smith follow a motley gaggle of American and Japanese characters nearly at random, although the nominal protagonist is young Milton, a Chicago boy sick of abiding by community standards of masculinity when he could be cosplaying as adorable anime critter Peepo Choo, whose exotic dance and beautiful words can bring peace to any situation. And while it quickly becomes apparent to us that the Peepo Choo anime is almost certainly a marginal, possibly subversive product of the usually-marginal, occasionally subversive anime industry, poor Milton and his J-fetish buddies take it as a documentary portrait of the magical, happy geek paradise that Japan must surely be.
Naturally, it’s not. It’s not real either, though – what Milton can’t hope to expect is that the Japan of Peepo Choo is a hideous carnival of classical seinen types: yakuza, barmaids, prostitutes, street toughs. It’s not so specifically culture vs. culture as pop vs. pop, with the childish drive of boys’ & girls’ manga so well-known in North America crashing headlong into the seedy sexual twilight of Other Japanese Comics, the bad ones we don’t see so much, not unless we keep our treasured copies of Viz’s Pulp magazine in a safe, dry place. There was a great seinen spoof in there: Toyokazu Matsunaga’s Bakune Young, also a three-volume series (1993-2000) and often psychedelic in exploring the society-shattering impact of bad gangster behavior and lusty political maneuvering. The second collected volume of that is one of my favorite action comics of all time, totally drunk with assurance and mad visual wit; Smith, in comparison, does not come off well, content as it is right now to enumerate misunderstandings between irate caricatures when not simply following them on their caricatured business.
Oh, there’s wit in Peepo Choo, sure; it’s not for nothing that Smith’s character design for Melvin resembles nothing so much as Osamu Tezuka’s self-portrait transformed into a young black man (and it’s telling that Smith’s style in general recalls the anime-infused approach of The Boondocks on tv). Melvin’s a culture-mixing idealist, you see, just like the father of contemporary manga and anime, who blended Disney cartoons and American newspaper comics into the prevailing postwar style. But we’re far past the war, and the world has flattened so that culture can splash around and scorch the unwary, and delight the ignorant – the funniest bit in this volume sees a prospective yakuza getting physically ecstatic over an American gangbanger show presented like Ben Marra’s Gangsta Rap Posse to the tenth power, genuinely queasy in its caricature.
But Smith isn’t always so adept. A considerable amount of space is given over to comic shop-based struggles between manga die-hards and American comic book nerds, none of which goes anywhere beyond superhero satire rush-delivered from Kurtzman & Wood circa 1953 — have you heard musclemen in stretch pants whomping each other is kinda odd and possibly g-g-gay? — and oddly miscellaneous conflations of anime/manga sexual hangups; I find it curious that a mess-spattered satire of J-fandom would treat moe with such kid gloves, though there’s always future volumes I guess. Some unity is imposed through Milton’s local Direct Market retailer, who spends his night as an ultraviolent costumed vigilante-for-hire, obviously comparable to the bloody gangsters of the book’s Japanese cast, but drawn in a muscles-atop-muscles Image-derived superhero style; Smith is visually at his best while drawing violence, which his rawbone yakuza and leather assassin state of Japan flatters – his comedic drawings are considerably less sure, at times tenuously doodled against white space.
It’s a little less assured than even the other serials in Morning 2, a big publisher’s safe space for visually off-kilter material; if Bakuman led you to think all manga in Japan is slick, that’s just another trick of perception. Still, I was entertained by this comic; it’s got energy, the gross parts can get really fucking funny, and its extravagant accumulation of mean doodles representing hapless international/interpersonal misunderstandings eventually forms a pleasingly nightmarish vision of all-out war among insular cliques absolutely certain they’ve got the world all figured out. And by “the world” I mean comics, mostly; in both of these books they seem one and the same.