Thoughts about manga

BakumanAt the prompting of others (particularly Johanna at Comics Worth Reading) and since non-“Big Two” comics have been on my mind a lot lately, I thought I’d write about my experiences (such as they are) with manga.

Manga’s popularity (via English language translations) in recent years in the United States has helped add to the variety of comics available. They’re a perpetual part of comic conventions, and are easily found in mainstream bookstores and comic shops.

Some reasons for manga’s recent popularity might include the following:

  • Variety: Manga offers a variety of genres, including romance, action adventure, science fiction/fantasy, humor, etc. Marvel and DC used to publish said genres as well decades ago; however, in recent decades they’ve opted to solely focus on superheroes. For those that aren’t superhero fans (or just want something different), manga offers various alternative genres. Of course, some American companies do as well: Archie, Dark Horse, etc.
  • Cost effectiveness: The price of a manga paperback volume goes for what a paperback book costs, around $10-$12. While often in black-and-white, one gets several hundred pages of material that’s bookshelf friendly. Meanwhile, American-style comics, while in color, usually cost $3-$4 for a 22-page color pamphlet that’s not bookshelf friendly. While there’s trade paperbacks that’re bookshelf friendly, they usually cost more than what a single manga volume runs. Digital versions of manga volumes seem even cheaper, though I’ve read that manga publishers have been slower/more reluctant than American comics to switch to digital comics.
  • Visibility: Manga’s found in “real” bookstores, giving it plenty of visibility. While the same bookstores often carry Marvel/DC trade paperbacks, manga tends to have its own section that stands out. I often see a diverse range of people in age, gender, etc. thumbing through the manga material at Barnes and Noble.
  • Anime: Anime also has become popular in recent years in the US, which might also attract people to give its comic counterpart a try.
  • Stereotypes: Manga might have fewer stereotypes of its readership attached by the general public, versus “The Big Bang Theory”‘s cast or the Simpsons’ Comic Book Guy summing up how Americans view American superhero comic fans.
  • Newbie friendly: A lot of manga seems easier to get started reading—most of it comes in clearly labeled volume numbers, has self-contained storylines, and footnotes (in English translations) explaining any Japanese cultural elements. Compare that to the typical Marvel or DC comic: soap opera-esque continuity; endless crossovers; misuse of caption boxes in place of thought balloons (and no footnotes); and the massive number of spinoff and ancillary books related to just one character.
  • Cultural osmosis: Manga and anime’s art styles have come to influence mainstream American comics and animation… see the 2000s “Teen Titans” cartoon.
  • Competition: Manga can and does have other media tie-ins (anime spinoffs, etc.), but for most Americans, it pales compared to the amount of tie-ins that, say, Batman has. Why bother buying a Batman comic (or 12) when he’s on TV every day, not to mention video games and DVDs?

While I’m enjoying Archie, “Atomic Robo,” and comic strips/webcomics, I’ve been looking to try something new, with my interest in Marvel and DC having largely died off save for reprints and non-canonical material. And by “new,” I mean something without cynical crossovers or reboots, forced attempts at making normally mild-mannered characters seem “bada$$,” or one-dimensional mass-murdering clowns gruesomely and pointlessly killing enough people to require scientific notation to track the body count. I’ve read or flipped through a few manga stories in the past, but I otherwise hadn’t thought about it much until recently.

Manga I’ve read or flipped through recently include:

  • Bakuman: a twenty(!)-volume story about two teenage boys who wish to become manga artists. I’m up to volume five currently; enjoyable, but guess my reading’s a bit slow (it’s a text-heavy series).
  • Sabrina the Teenage Witch: Archie converted Sabrina’s comic into a manga series for its late 2000s run, with an extended storyline about trouble afoot in the magic realm. The series is now being collected in a black-and-white, four-volume manga digest format. The first two volumes are already released, with volume three due in September and four late this year. I’ve always liked Sabrina, and enjoyed reading her more dramatic manga run so far. I’m not sure what more hardcore manga fans would make of this and other American-made manga series, however; the subject of “what’s true manga?” seems to be of some debate in some online forums’ manga sections.
  • Yotsuba&!: This oddly-spelled-in-the-title series is about a little girl named Yotsuba, and her day-too-day adventures with her family, neighbors, and friends. While I’ve only scanned it at the bookstore, it looks like a cute series, without falling into a saccharine state.
  • A few American manga-esque series, including Marvel’s “Big Hero 6,” obtained via the 700 free comics promotion last spring. While I suppose it’s not “true” manga, I did enjoy the characters and their adventures. I liked seeing one character forget it’s “yards” and not “meters” in American football.

Reading from right to left took some adjusting. Other manga style elements that stand out:

  • Even more dramatic stories don’t seem to be afraid to use the occasional cartoonish looking “take” or art element. There seems to be a general embracing of manga’s usual stylistic elements. Contrast to Marvel/DC superhero comics, which strive to avoid cartoonishness at all costs in the name of realism. It’s even gotten to the point that they want their books to look “cinematic” (despite being a comic book, not a motion picture) and have ditched the use of thought balloons in favor of confusing caption boxes. While manga stories seem to use caption boxes for characters’ thoughts as well, it doesn’t seem to stick out or go against manga conventions. Meanwhile, caption boxes look odd and feel awkward in Marvel/DC stories, especially with the boxes causing a story shift between first- and third-person perspectives. That said, other comic companies (especially newspaper comics/webcomics) seem less afraid of embracing traditional elements such as thought balloons.
  • Some stories have sound effects for actions most US-style comics wouldn’t use sound effects for (nodding one’s head, etc.).
  • Speaking of nodding or bowing, Japanese cultural elements also are to be expected, of course: food, heavier use of mass transit, school uniforms, and Japanese holidays, among others. There’s also Japanese names/terms to remember, including those related to manga.
  • Outside of the American-made manga, I haven’t seen many non-Asian ethnic minorities, which I suppose is reflective of where the comics were written.
  • Like in anime, “cute” characters tend to have gigantic eyes.
  • Also like anime, the titles of some manga seem literally (versus figuratively) translated from Japanese into English.

Overall, I’m enjoying what I’m reading so far, and wouldn’t mind finding more to read in a style that’d fit my tastes. If anyone has any suggestions, I’ll be glad to hear them.

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