Wednesday, January 27, 2010

The Manga Fetish

When one thinks about what lonely men do in their basement on a computer one usually shudders. I question why I let it bother me, but it does because of the advent of the credit card, internet polls and basically ways for these douchebags to actually effect the world outside, whereas in the 1940's through to 1980's they tended just to collect stamps and lingeret catelogues from department stores.

That there lifestyle has gotten easier means they have also gotten more numerous. I'm sure the preference to lead a reclusive escapist life was always there but now there are no real social pressures remaining to put up any resistence to their inclination at all.

One (of many) manifestations of this new market-powerhouse is the rising domination of Manga. "Manga" it's poor cousin "Anime" and it's devotees "Otaku" get up my nose, thankfully not literally, but you occassionally one does wander out of the confines of their house into my actual presence at a retail outlet.

Straight up, I'm going to stop participating in the fetish by not using the redundant lingo that has made its way into the mainstream vocabulary.

Did you know "Manga" means "Comic" and thus is as applicable to Batman and Robin, Superman, The Fantastic Four, Peanuts and Fred Basset? A better and less pretentious way to refer to the phenomena is 'Japanese comic' which I will do from here on out.

Likewise did you know that "Anime" is just the japanese pronunciation of "Animation" the Japanese thanks to their use of chinese characters have far more homonyms (I think, I actually don't know English grammar too well, if you hadn't guessed already) and far fewer words with any more than four 'japanese' letters (usually 8 in roman characters).
While it is pretentious in Australia to pronounce 'Paris' 'Pa-ree' (ie. correctly in French) and it is probablly pretentious, if not downright harmful to the social fabric of Japan to demonstrate the presumed superiority of pronouncing an english word correctly and in full, there is nothing stopping non-japanese from refering to Japanese cartoons as 'Japanese cartoons' or 'Japanese animation'. Which I'll also do.

And lastly the most disturbing trend is that socially inept individuals all over Australian, US and UK basements are now starting to refer to themselves as "Otaku" with a sickening seeming sense of pride.
The Japanese would argue, that "Otaku" has subtle nuances that are uniquelly Japanese that make 'fanboy' the traditional western term for dudes that masturbate to Storm, Jean Grey, Lois Lane and Catwoman, that own lifesize Buffy cut-outs in their bedroom and voted 'Serenity' as Australia's favorite film of all time in the relatively recent ABC poll, yes maybe they don't literally translate, but both really are just redundant terms for 'loser'.
There's no way to tip-toe around that. Furthermore, one of the endearing traits of Japanese culture is that they insist everything about Japan is unique, including the laws of physics.
The sadness of the Japan-fetish cum Japanese-comics fetish is how much longer the wikipedia article dedicated to "Otaku" is than "Fan-boy".

Now I sympathise with kids that are blown away by Japanese cartoons in their teens and japanese comic books. I was with them back when I was 14-16. But 'Samurai Pizza cats' aside, Japanese cartoons quickly revealed themselves as inferior to what was being done in America with the medium - Simpsons, South-Park and Ren & Stimpy come to mind.

In Japan 40-50 year olds watch the exact same shows that kids do, thus they never really developed an adult market for cartoons. Furthermore, the reverse is true to say that even little kids watch the ultra-violent sex driven cartoons one could unsuccessfully argue are pitched at adults.

But people will traditionally compare Japanese cartoons to American ones by pointing at Nickelodeon and try and claim that the complex plots and mature subject matter are superior to Nickelodeon's offerings.

Comics are a bit harder. Japanese comics follow a 'creator-driven' model where the writer is the artist and they actually take responsibility for making the entire comic over its publishing life-span. Where in America comics are 80% 'publisher driven' where DC will hire a moron like Grant Morrison or Mark Miller to pick up the mess of character continuities created by every writer that preceded them and try and stitch together some messier sales promoted event. The other 20% of American comic books is the more artistic creator driven comics like Chris Ware, Seth Green and Dave Gibbons that work like the Japanese model (but more prone to creative writer/artist team ups) and realese their own serial.
What's surprising is that even in the vast superhero dominated publisher driven mess, it usually produces more interesting (if convoluted) comics than the Japanese do.
Try telling this to a Japanese person and the will scoff and flap their hand at you dismissively. This is because Japan only really discovered American comics through their poor cousin 'movies' back in like 2002 or whenever 'Spiderman 1' came out with Tobey McGuire. They haven't had a chance to actually pick up a western comic and read it yet.

True or not, what is true is that anyone who doesn't want to learn from what others are doing in the medium is always poorer for it.

But it wouldn't appear that way, it appears the fetish has many devotees, one need only witness the war of attrition going on in the Boarders bookshelves, or source the Saturday morning/weekday morning cartoons to the writers country of origin.

On the animated side John K says it better than I ever could. (John K created Ren & Stimpy).

What surprises me about the fetishising fanboys, is that my experience is the more yo dig into Japanese comics the less you find.

Dragonball for example is as near as I can find to 'complete garbage' its one saving grace being its humour. But in the early days its humour was very much the Benny Hill sex obsessed kind, funnier than Benny Hill, but that said pervert humour hasn't been cutting edge in most of the world since Benny Hill.

Then there's the storelines, Japanese comics may be ostensibly 'creator driven' but in reality the Shonen-Jump publishing house is more dominent than DC and Marvel out west, (they are becoming more dominent in DC and Marvel's traditional territory too). Which means that under their profit model, Japanese comics typically conform to the same basic formula.

I'm not talking about drawing styles either, it's more the Archetypes and plots. For example the dominant genre is 'the epic' with the main character being 1 of 2 archetypes: 'kid hungry' or 'loner samurai' either character will do anything to protect their friends through convoluted and poorly planned plots designed to have them fight large vertically organised gangs.

They will usually fight somebody with fire powers, somebody with earth powers, somebody with lightning powers, somebody with ice powers, somebody water powers and then to mix it up somebody who can command the dead.

When done well, like in 'One Piece' there's nothing wrong with a piece of classical literature. Particularly when it doesn't presume as Alan Moore says 'that conflict is inherently interesting' though Japan hasn't had the Alan Moore/Frank Miller revolution that moved superhero comics away from pure conflict periodicals to deeper explorations of the human condition.

Pick up your average western comic book now and whilst you may see plenty of explosions or 'effects' the most combat you will see will be a couple of panels going up to 4 pages for an 'epic' fight.

Why then if I'm so insistent on Western comics being superior (even at their worst) does the Japanese comic fetish seem so powerful?

Simple answer: Standardisation.

I would put it out there that Japans success globally in the comic book world is just really an accident of history, that being that Osamu Tezuka was born and worked in Japan instead of France, Belgium, Italy or the US.

But before going into that, let me elaborate on standardisation, and why it sells so well. I once read an article that said 'when people tune into a television show they watched last week, they don't want to see a new episode, they want to see the episode they watched last week for the first time again.' Same applies to movies, its why sequals make the big money yet there's almost no examples of sequals that surpassed their original (evil dead II: dead by dawn comes to mind, but that's about it).
This quirk of human psychology has made some of the longest running TV shows the most tired and formulaic. Think 'The Nanny' or even 'Family Guy', or if you really want a strong example think 'Gilligan's Island'.

Now when I pick up a comic I've never read before I want it to be something new, I want it to show me something I've never seen before. Grant Morrison and Mark Miller two of the comic book industries current darling writers may write garbled messy crap, but they do at least have something going on at a conceptual level and are actively trying to break the mold in one of the hardest environments to do so - ongoing comic books.

Not so with Japanese comics, coming from a culture where precedent is everything, very very few creators try anything new. The newness is always a matter of details not actually story telling technique. Reading even the better examples like '20th Century Boys' its clear Alan Moore's deconstructionist influence hasn't reached their shores yet.

Whilst they can kill a character and leave them dead, Japanese comics pull very few tricks over their western competition. In terms of composition and pacing there's very little Frank Miller could teach them, but beyond composition and pacing, Frank Miller isn't actually a very good writer. (he likes dark and gritty Noir, even his revolutionary work on Batman in the 80's was brought over from his revolutionary work on Daredevil, another 'dark noir loner' archetype).

Which means, Japanese comics often have less interesting artwork than western comics because of the homogenous approach they take to character design versus the blown open rotating stable of artists the superhero comics employ from OTT classicists like Greg Cappullo or Skottie Young to cutting edge mixed media artist like Ben Templesmith and that guy who does 'Kabuki'. In the west it's technically possible for all four to work on the one title, over the same story arc.

I haven't yet heard of anything near the equivalent happening in Japan.

But to the average comic book reader, picking up a Japanese comic is a much surer bet than picking up an American comic. While it's true your chances of picking up a 'Watchmen' are 0% your chances of picking up a 'Prelude to Final Crisis' are also 0% and many people would happily sacrifice the upside to eliminate the downside it would seem.

This safe bet has a foundation, that foundation is Japan's 'God of Manga' Osamu Tezuka, best known for 'Astro Boy' but whose work was so prolific that he pretty much invented every advantage Japanese comics have over western today. The large female audience is the result of his pioneering works with 'Princess Knight' he created diverse genres in samurai epics, historical biopics, literary translations (like crime and punishment), sci fi and of course Astro Boy created an explosion in adventure comics.

In many cases he solves all the problems for generations to come. Many comic writers can learn for example from Alan Moore on how to avoid tired conflict based plots in his 'Writing for Comics' essay, and look at Frank Miller to solve a lot of composition and pacing issues.

Tezuka pretty much set the rules (without trying) for Japanese comics and has pretty much been imitated ever since. There has been no quantum innovation in Japanese comics to compare with what Miller or Moore have done in the same time period.

There hasn't even really been one as regards character design or artwork alone.

But the fanboy dollar is powerful and it can cannibalise something worth keeping, it destroys opportunities for the artform to advance by having all the publishing companies back the same tired formulas.

Thus thusly, I'm through with the fetish.

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