Tuesday, June 23, 2009

The Hero With A Thousand Faces

The advent of 'Manga' has done a number of things for the western world. The most positive questionably is that it has young girls reading comics, as Japan is one of the few cultures to successfully streamline comics to appeal to young girls. Of course the major question being 'what appeals to young girls' and whether this serves to just reinforce sexual stereotypes is of course a question for just about every media.

But then it has done a bunch of bad things too. And I thought I'd recap on some of the things that threaten the psychosphere of young manga readers.

1. It has brought A-grade Nerds into my section of the bookstore.

Here I am quietly reading 'Ex Machina' or something, and four guys who look 16 and still getting dressed by their mums and told 'they look cool' are standing around committing arguably the biggest drawback of being a nerd, and that is the unruly art of expressing themselves out loud. 'Oh my God, Bleach this section of Bleach when it was published in SHonen Jump was all in colour and it was the most perfect piece of manga ever!' and 'Dragon Ball, man the manga is so much better than the anime, remember when Goku was summoning the spirit-bomb, it took like 30 episodes!' I find this sort of out-loud thinking unproductive and disruptive. I mean why even come into a store to look at books you've already read and pass judgement on it? Comic book stores always had nerds, but recently they have increased ten-fold. You need to keep yourself at a safe distance from manga, or else it can do terrible things to your brain.

2. Sex sells crap.

90% of anything is crap, not 'not brilliant' but generally just mediocre crap. Manga is no exception. A good way to get around this is to inject it with sex appeal. This principle is best observed in the porno world. Porn outsells big budget hollywood movies by 100-1 or something, but porno movies are known for very poor, poor, crappy plots, shitty dialogue and one dimensional characters. Fortunately those one dimensional characters happen to be really good at sucking dicks and fingering one another. Manga is not quite as extreme, but I have read a few titles such as 'Air Gear' that has a plot that is quite seriously, one of the most crappy and convoluted ever. It is incredibly messy and frankly is just plain garbage. Air Gear won the prestigious 'best new series' award the year it came out though, because Air Gear is one manga you can rest assured will feature at least an upskirt shot or exposed breasts in every installment. Even Dragonball which is held in really high esteem I had assumed was because of it's convoluted but world class action scenes and humorous characters. But when I went back to read the origins of this celebrated story, I discovered it was more or less pure garbage, its one redeeming quality being the humourousness of the 'lecherous old man' character, but even then I couldn't believe that Dragonball got its jump start from Benny Hill type interchanges between a perverted old man who got nose bleeds every time he saw the young female protagonists breasts or vag. I am probably crossing some sacrosanct line here, but Dragonball truly started off as 'pure garbage'.

3. Dues Ex Machina is order of the day.

I originally praised Naruto as one of the top two present day manga's, largely because of the logic and cleverness of the action sequences. That is the author created interesting combat sequences from extremely limited repertoire.
I retract this statement, having recently read through the latter 200 installments to say that whilst factually speaking, Naruto is the top 2 manga series in present day in sales, its no longer that clever. Infact its now expanded beyond the point the story can keep its integrity. All combat revolves around the tried, tested and perpetually found wanting 'Deus Ex Machina' (God out of the Machine) it basically goes Hero: Now my final attack! Villain: Ha ha, was that all you have! Hero: Tricked you, it wasn't actually my final attack, THIS is my final final attack! Villain: Oh no! Something I've never heard or seen of before! I am dead, I can't believe it...
Unfortunately, neither can I at least. I'm sure the average reader of manga being a 12-16 year old japanese kid, goes 'Wow! I can't believe it!' or in the western sphere some 30 year old white virgin says 'Wow! I can't believe it!' but it's no where near as clever as when you see characters use something already actually predicated or logical in a really unexpected way. Naruto started off being one of the best at this, but since then has ended up being the same old same old 'You thought I could only use that technique 3 times, but secretely I've always been able to use it 5 times!' and really lazy shit like that.
This is the trick to Deus Ex Machina, if you have to obscure something from the reader completely in order to make it surprising, don't do it. It isn't good enough.

4. The Ever Expanding Cast of Characters

Eichiro Ooda, originally planned to end 'One Piece' within 5 years, but it's ended up taking him twice the time to get 'halfway'. He follows a tried and true formula of bad guy cabals that have to be fought through, the 7 warlords, the 4 kings of the sea, the 3 ultimate admirals etc. The good guys team typically picks up 1 new crew member ever major story arc, which creates a compounding burden as each new foe they face needs +1 bad guy 3 episode showdown to give each crew member their due. One Piece though I think will end up being a timeless masterpiece of the Shonen legacy because it probably is the best ongoing series out there, and he does seem to have a plan. But still it runs the risk of what should become known in literary terms as 'RJing' the plot, that is doing what Robert Jordan did with best selling fantasy series 'The Wheel of Time' which was to expand the world the events took place in that the number of volumes expanded while less and less headway was made on the plot in each successively thicker and thicker volume until the fans got pissed off at him until he then became terminally ill and then the fans got extremely anxious hoping that he would actually live to finish off the final volume. He didn't, but it will get finished by his hand picked editor from the notes that Jordan himself left that are apparantly extensive.
But it's a typical trap for authors of fantasy to get into, and Manga rather than being the exception of it, is infact the epitome of it. Naruto's author seems to have become conscious of this, because his 'Part 2' story arc seems to be a hastily expanding, then rushed tidy up of the plethora of bad guys he poorly concieved in the first place. Such that there is no longer any 'ultimate nemisis' that is easily identifiable and several bad guys seem so poorly concieved of that it seems to have caught the author offguard that it's incredibly hard to have a plot where two bad guys at odds with one another can actually conclude a linear narrative. So one was hastily given the axe.
The point is though, that the cast needs a 'Chekov Gun' approach, that is if you put a gun on the sets wall in the first act, have a character point to it in the second act then the gun must be fired by the third act. Each character that you introduce will take more time to resolve than to introduce, creating an exponential burden for the overall narrative. It seems like the easiest structure in the world for manga, a tried and true one to have 6 characters that the hero fights their way through, from typically weakest to strongest. You can even save time by having the character fight 2 at once. But authors of manga have a nasty habit of frontloading these 'to kill' lists up early. I'm trying to concieve of a series I can submit to shonen jump where each bad guy represents a different element of the periodic table of elements, thats right all 118 of them! that series would only take at an average of 12 installments per bad guy x 20 pages plus say 40 x 6 installment mini-arcs just 118 x 12 x 40 x 6 x 20 pages to complete, thats just 6,798,000 pages to draw. I'll start right now!

5. It gets worse...

Remember how I said 90% of anything is crap. Well Naruto, Dragonball and One Piece all represent that top 10% and they tend to suffer from Deus Ex Machina and Kaleidoscopic casts, then theres the other 90% the worst of which I never read, like Yu-Gi-Oh and Pokemon that actually are pretty close to my Periodic Table of Villains idea, in Pokemons 'Gotta catch them all' mentality with 100,000,000 fucking crappy little monsters some idiot kid has to catch and train in mindlessly recurring scenarios designed purely to sell merchandise. Then there's fucking Yu-Gi-Oh which is worse, being an illustrated adventure of people playing a fucking card game, designed to sell just another rip of 'Magic the Gathering' except they still manage to work in the same errors as the best manga, deus ex machina, expanding plots and lechery.

6. Elementary Dear Watson.

If it wasn't for watson, Sherlock Holmes would just be a story where Sherlock goes and solves a case then retires back to hit the bottle of cocain or some other oppiate. Watson provides the narrator idiot that allows Sherlock to explain whats going on to him. And it works well. Manga is characterized by a winning formula of having two or three characters doing all the actual action, and about 18 characters standing on the sidelines thinking about what is happening in order to explain it to us, the dumb reader.
You'd be surprised at how much shit you can learn reading manga, like how refraction through different temperatures of air can create a mirage that can conceal you, which I learnt thanks to a double page spread of DIY science experiments in Air Gear. Arguably the single worst characteristic of Manga is this, 'I'm so glad there's all these characters around to explain shit to me' phenomena. If you read Batman it's like watching a movie, he walks up to commisioner Gordon and the two have a discussion or an arguement and then batman dissappears. Then he reappears in Two-Face's lair and the two duke it out and it's over. If a manga author where to take on batman, the rest of the Gotham City Police force would be there to explain why Batman pulled out and 'Ultimate, ten-thousand heaven hand bat-a-rang' from his utility belt even though we've never scene it before and why that trumps Two-Faces 'Hidden thousand particle mirror technique' we've also never ever seen before.


The sad fact is that Manga still needs it's Alan Moore, to come in and deconstruct it. Unfortunately, deconstruction seems to be a uniquely western philosophy, thus there will be no 'Miracleman' of Manga or 'Watchmen' for that matter until Shonen jump starts publishing foreign authors, which won't happen because Western comics only window in to Japan's market is through the movies, and let's face it, only Iron Man and Spiderman 2 really hold up as having any intrinsic merit out of the past 13 adaptations. Otherwise movies remain comics poor cousin.

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