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Bill Sherman free-associates on the manga revolution...

The Lure of Manga

Of all the Blogcritics posts I've written, the ones that most consistently appear to yield the long range comments have been the manga reviews. Some young manga fan goes a-Googlin' the title of a a new fave, discovers there's a BC review on it and writes to say that the comic schoolgirl series Kodocha is the most awesome manga ever! Don't see this same fervor as much in American comics nowadays, though I've reviewed as many American series as I have manga GNs.

This says a lot about the passion that a manga series can elicit among its readership. To those of us with a passing acquaintance with the earlier years of America comics fandom, the dynamics are fascinating and familiar. “Why I remember when I was as excited about superhero comics,” the geezerly former fanboy notes, polishing his trifocals to better squint his way through the tinier lettering in a volume of the cooking series Iron Wok Jan. American publishers still have their loyalists, but the numbers clearly favor Japanese comics.

Diversity and economics remain the prime factors. Take a gander at the manga shelves in your local chain bookstore and you'll find a bewildering array of genre work: a broader spectrum of story types that also skews toward a wider age range. In America, translated manga pbs include a rating on the cover – from "All Ages" to "Mature." Many of the latter titles (like the ultra-violent Battle Royale) even come shrink-wrapped. Our local Borders even includes a warning in its manga section advising parents to supervise their young 'uns if they're looking at books: even a "Teen"-rated title like the mystery series Kindaichi Case Files can contain mild nudity (usually of murder victims, but still…) As for the economic factor: the price of your average manga collection – $7.95 to $9.95 – easily tromps the American competition. A manga paperback of 200 or so pages versus a $2.95 comic with maybe twenty pages of story? No contest.

There is, of course, a lotta formulaic crap out there – this is, after all, largely a commercial enterprise – and sometimes sifting through book upon book with large-eyed winsome heroines, androgynous young boys or sword-wielding tuff guys on the cover can be a bit much. But as web-based manga fandom has grown, it's become easier for the canny neophyte to pick out titles that'll meet his or her entertainment needs. Another selling point: unlike most successful American comics series, many manga series actually end (among the series I've enjoyed that have concluded: Royale and Planetes) instead of carrying on long past their freshness date. There's a lot to be said for knowing when to gracefully call it quits.

For many older comics fans (like myself), learning how to read manga required a different set of mental and aesthetic muscles than we were accustomed to flexing. Japanese comic artists have developed a different set of visual conventions than their Western counterparts (though many of these have also carried through into animé), while the "pure manga" format of laying out comics so that they read from right to left can require some concerted retraining for a Western reader. My own admittedly half-baked theory is that reading manga like this re-stimulates brain cells in a way that’s healthy for one's long-term mental acuity. (I eagerly await the first published neuro-psych study supporting this theory.) Just think of it: a study which actually proved that reading monthly Shonen Jump magazine was healthy! The mind truly boggles.

About Bill Sherman

Bill Sherman is a Books editor for Blogcritics. With his lovely wife Rebecca Fox, he has co-authored a light-hearted fat acceptance romance entitled Measure By Measure.

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