One of the big duh stories in the comics industry over the last year has been the growing popularity of Japanese manga in the U.S. marketplace. Where mainstream American comics companies have been limping along with readerships that are but a fraction of what they used to be, the manga audience just seems to keep growing bigger and bigger, fueled in part by anime and toy tie-ins, but also by the fact that Japanese publishing companies seem to have a much broader view of audience age- and interest-range than the superhero-stuck Yanks. Go into any chain bookstore, head for the Graphic Novels section, and you’ll probably find at least half of the offerings are Japanese – or a bastardized imitation like Marvel’s Mangaverse series.
I remember when the manga market was just opening up in this country. Followed some of the earliest translations (Lone Wolf and Cub, Mai, the Psychic Girl), but when I stopped following comics heavily, all of my manga reading ceased with it. When I picked back up again two years ago, I didn’t delve into the bewildering array of manga trade paperbacks that’d grown on the shelves in the intervening years. So it’s with relatively fresh eyes that I approached Shonen Jump, the new hit mangazine that takes from the popular weekly anthology. Didn’t really know any of the artists or characters; have only a passing acquaintance with the rules and conventions of Japanese comics. Thankfully, the editors at Viz Communications were ready for a dinosaur like me: the mag’s packed with explanatory background features and regular reminders that yes, dumbie, you really do need to read these comics from back to front and right to left.
Picked up the first three issues of the magazine at my local Kroger’s. Prior to its appearance, the only comics titles that have appeared in the grocery store’s magazine racks in last few years have been Mad and Archie Comics digests. I can see why smaller pamphlet comics are generally less appealing to a larger store (too easy to swipe; too quick an in-store read; too difficult to keep track of). Shonen Jump is phone book size, and two of the three issues I’ve bought were sealed in plastic to discourage kids from taking the freebie cards inside. Much easier to manage, I bet.
Five of the current series all began with their opening episodes in issue #1 – 3; only “Dragonball Z” takes up mid-story, presumably on the assumption that most readers will be familiar enough with the ongoing anime teleseries to be able to jump right in. I came to the party clueless about that series, and after wending through the first three sets of manga installments, I remain so. (Looks like American comics publishers don’t have a monopoly on opaque extended mythologies.) But the rest of the mag’s series have their moments of pleasure.
Three issues in, the most intriguing series have to be Eiichiro Oda’s “One Piece,” Yoshihiro Takahashi’s “Yu Yu Hakusho” and Kazuki Taqkahashi’s “Yu-Gi-Oh.” The first is a pirate story, featuring a rubberized kid hero who wants to become King of the Pirates; second concerns a high school delinquent who is nearly killed and wanders the land of limbo, trying to redeem himself so he can be brought back to life; third features a game-playing school kid who turns into an ironic dispenser of justice. First series is goofy and adventure-filled; second has a nice overlay of melancholy; the third wound up reminding me of DC’s infamous Spectre comics from the seventies (when writer Michael Fleischer was chopping gangsters in twain with giant magical scissors and the like). The mag’s rated “Teen” (for violence, presumably), but I’m betting that the pre-teen middle school crowd also provides core readership. Its covers are so busy most parents are probably gonna miss that box with the “Teen” advisory, anyway.
Manga have some visual conventions that are strange to neophyte American readers (nose bleeds to signify sexual excitement?), while most of the Shonen Jump artists feel no need to adhere to the niceties of “realistic” graphic art. Their cartoonish characters shrink or grow as the situation requires – while their facial features can be serious one moment, literally blank or exaggerated the next. For young readers, in particular, I’m betting that’s a part of their charm. By overemphasizing ersatz photo-realism as the primary means of telling a genre story, mainstream American comics publishers have largely turned their backs on an audience that just wants their comics to be comics. . . Powered by Sidelines