There’s an odd relationship between comicbooks and manga. Despite the fact that the two are essentially the same format, just from different parts of the world, there’s a bizarre reluctance for the two mediums to acknowledge one another. Many comicbook fans wouldn’t ever venture near the digest-crammed shelves because they “don’t read manga” and manga fans will turn away from a book simply because it’s in colour because they’re “not interested in comics.”
Well, here’s a revelation: they are, essentially, the same thing. From the graphical language to the technical lexicon, it’s all one format. There are cultural idiosyncracies, yes, but especially when you get into the league of OEL – so-called “Original English Language” manga, you can no longer reasonably argue that the two are any different.
My theory is that certainly comicbook fans are trapped in a certain mindset, with expectations of what manga is actually about, assuming that it’s all giant robots and Dragonballesque Shonen adventure – is only true so far as manga fans might avoid western comics because they’re “all” continuity-heavy neverending yarns about superheroes. Let’s see if we can’t change some of those preconceptions.
This week, three alternative manga series I’ve enjoyed:
Cromartie High School: While you might see a lot of review of this (or its accompanying anime series) describing it as “hilariously surreal” or “off the wall” this is only half of the story. The true appeal of Cromartie comes through the genius-level comedic timing of Eiji Nonaka’s writing, and the astonishing depth of insight into life’s small moments of ludicrousness, explored through the characters at each turn. There are plenty of moments you’ll be reading Cromartie High and instantly recognise, like waiting until the last possible moment to ring the bell on a bus, turning it into a game of chicken, or the happiness experienced in finding money that you had forgotten you had, and how you might force that situation to occur. Nonaka brings these moments to life masterfully, bringing their inherent humour to the surface. Appearances from gorillas, robots and Freddie Mercury just give it that extra touch of absurdity to make it truly stand out. The best reason western comics readers might enjoy it is simply because there’s very little like it available in the western format. Humour comics aren’t in fashion at the moment, and certainly not with this ability to build up running jokes over this long a time period – the full run will eventually pass 15 volumes, and while they’re not all perfect (the one that was mostly based on a Planet of the Apes parody stands as a particularly weak moment) it’s still worth reading just for its individuality.
Gantz: Just about to receive its first collection from Dark Horse is Gantz, a ridiculously excessive (and incredibly slow-paced) manga about what happens when you die…and Gantz decides that you’re not ready to go. Drawn into a twisted game to win back their lives by tracking down and killing increasingly powerful demons using the weapons provided to them by whoever (or whatever) Gantz is, this is a book where no character in the cast is safe. It reads not entirely unlike a computer game plays, with the stakes continually on the up and a minimum of downtime between missions, during which the characters have limited space to get their lives together before they’re thrown into the next life-or-death situation, usually ending with the latter. The real fun comes once you see what happens when someone actually wins the game. While its adolescent tendencies are occasionally a little distasteful early on, Gantz eventually learns its strengths and, over 200 chapters in, can guarantee a superhero-esque action story that takes all the ideas in the genre to their logical extremes, unafraid to show the reader what happens when unrealistic fights have realistic impacts.
Genshiken: It’s a fair bet that if you read comics, you’re familiar with the experience of being a geek. Genshiken is a romantic-comedy about a group of Japanese geeks and their love of all things nerdy, be it cosplay, manga or computer games. Genshiken accurately depicts not only the geek culture, but also the geek mindset, applying with remarkable specificity to nerds all over the planet. Geek, it seems, is a worldwide language. Genshiken’s character-heavy plot and gentle, nerd-themed humour will provide situations any western comics reader can identify with, and the soap-opera background is compelling without being overdone. Think Scott Pilgrim without the fantastical elements and, structurally, you’re more or less there – only it’s much, much better than that. A 9-volume run means it ends before it gets stale but still provides a substantial amount of material.
Next week, three comics series that Manga fans should have a look at. Feel free to use the comments here to recommend your favourite series that might have some crossover appeal.
In the meantime, read James’ last column here.