Patriot that I am, I have always been a great fan of American comics — and by association that goes for various British authors as well. I grew up on superheroes primarily, though of course comics is a medium not a genre and there’s no reason I can’t read more literary and independent series along with the flying adolescent fantasies.
However, so far I admit to having been too Western-centric. There happens to be a whole other country with a tremendous comics tradition that dwarfs the whole of North America and Europe together. I speak of course, of that mysterious land of Japan.
Goodreads shelf: manga
The Eastern style is so different, and in many ways superior to the assembly-line system of writers, artists, inker and colorist . The cartoonist in Japan is almost always both author and illustrator, the he or she is helped by assistants. Black and white except for special occasions. Adaptations, usually made famous in anime productions, are word-for-word and shot-by-shot remakes extremely faithful to the source material. Comics being taken seriously by the literary world is fairly recent in the West, yet Japan embraced adult comics right after the post-war period as an efficient form of entertainment when they couldn’t afford to make films. They are produced quickly, read fast, and often stories come into hundreds of chapters (dozens of graphic novel volumes) for a story to be patiently completed by the auteur.
I recommend the brilliant essay/graphic novel Understanding Comics by Scott McCloud to delve deeply into the nature of East vs. West art forms, upon the subjects of minimalism and respect for words & pictures at once as well as studies on neurological effects of cartoons.
Let’s start with some history. Best place to begin is with Osamu Tezuka, the God of Manga. An insanely-prolific writer and artist, the mangaka drew over 100,000 pages in his lifetime! Originally inspired by Disney stylings, he soon found his own voice in the 1950s and 60s. Funny how Disney later ripped off his Kimba the White Lion with a certain lion king…
I came late to the party, but did all I could to read his best works in my late teens and early twenties in the 90s and 2000s.
You may know the character of Astro Boy.
Tezuka was originally trained as a doctor before he found his artistic calling, and his medical drama Black Jack comes highly recommended.
There was also Adolf, about World War II. Buddha, biography of the holy one. Phoenix, an epic tale that bounced from ancient Japanese history to the far future.
Here’s the Goodreads shelf for more:
Now, I wasn’t watching the Astro Boy cartoon in the 1960s. I got into anime in the 90s like everybody else starting with a VHS tape of Akira.
I was way too young to be watching a movie like that, and I was blown away. The most badass cyberpunk film ever made, still awesome today.
“Neo-Tokyo is about to explode.”
The comic was even better. While the film had the title character — the government pscychic test subject Akira — only as brain tissue in jars, the comic had the super child reborn. And, when Neo-Tokyo was nuked the film ended. That was only half of the comics series. Then it continued twice as long with in the post-apocalyptic wasteland of World War IV. With incredibly detailed art work by Katsuhiro Otomo, who also directed the film.
There were higher standards back then. When manga really blew up in the 2000s, we learned that Japan produces a lot of crap as well. But in the 90s only the best of the best was worth translating into English. Dark Horse Comics in particular was the quality publishing company of record.
Ghost in the Shell, by Masamune Shirow, took hard science fiction to a whole other level.
Masamune Shirow was never very prolific, but his books had a level of intricacy and know-how never before seen. Appleseed was more his opus, but Ghost in the Shell became his main franchise still going strong today. I enjoyed Black Magic and Orion equally.
But it wasn’t all seriousness and mindfuck scifi. A lot of these comics were more fun. Take the comics published by Viz:
I remember me and my sister bonding over Ranma, the gender-bending comedy of a martial artist who turns into a girl, with bunches of supporting characters who turned to animals. Challenging cisgender heteronormalcy before it was cool.
I wasn’t as into Sailor Moon as my sister, and most Shōjo is frankly crap. It was the works by top female mangaka Rumiko Takahashi that were so funny and so creative. I went further back, and discovered old Urusei Yatsura stories from the 70s about an alien demoness named Lum and her pervert ‘boyfriend.’
I never did get into Inuyasha though.
Back to the world of grownup books, I must mention the brilliant Naoki Urasawa. Masterpiece after masterpiece, gripping dramas, perfectly controlled art. What a storyteller.
I first read the crime drama Monster, and moved on to the epic 20th Century Boys; the tale a strange cult incorporating kid’s mythology and global dictatorship and rock n roll. I have seen all the live-action films, but still haven’t made it to the end of the manga. Next I need to read Pluto.
See, very literary. Not to mention the indie comics tradition of Japan, such as those by Yoshihiro Tatsumi. Very dark tales of urban life, the short stories from the Push Man collection and the Abandon The Old in Tokyo are must-reads.
Although I am talking about comics, let’s not forget that manga more often than not overlaps with anime. While most animated works in Japan are respectful adaptions of the original comics, many are original productions. Evangalion from Gainax comes to mind. Robotech/Macross, etc. Many of my favorites.
On the subject of giant robots, I used to be the biggest Gundam fan. I prefer Universal Century to those spinoffs like Gundam Wing, but I used to absorb as much as I could. About to catch up on Gundam Unicorn. I believe they were originally novels. There were many animation-to-comics adaptations very much worth reading, like the legendary Origin by character designer Yoshikazu Yasuhiko.
Lastly, let’s talk about novels.
As we all should know by now, Hunger Games is suspiciously similar to the cult Japanese film Battle Royale, released in 2000. I’m not one to accuse someone of plagiarism or anything, but just saying.
Yet, did you know Battle Royale was first a novel by Koushun Takami? And, did you know that the novelist didn’t approve of the film at all and had written a manga version so as to have the last word on the visual take?
Funny, because the manga version was legitimately translated and published long ago. But for years only the pirated film was available. Which were you familiar with?!
Anyway, in this rare case the author wasn’t the illustrator of the modern manga classic. Perhaps that’s why the writing (and art) were so top-notch.
Over the course of 15 volumes, every single character had a unique personality. No throwaway deaths. You would read and cheer on a major character, and they he or she would be killed and it broke your heart. The violence was all the more powerful in this smart action story.
How can I express the intensity of this work? I know, copy-paste from Wikipedia:
The manga follows the plot of the novel fairly closely, but expands on the backstory of each of the students. It is far more sexually graphic than the novel and film versions, but like them, is noted for its intense, gory violence.
That’s Japan. Nowhere else in the world comes close.
If you haven’t noticed, I have left out a lot of important manga works. The above are among my favorites, and yet there’s also… Dragon Ball! (And, Z!) Naruto! My very fave of all One Piece!! How can those be absent, you ask??
The answer involves the greatest anthology series of shōnen comics in the history of ever, and it will take me a week to organize my thoughts about that.
Next post: Shonen Jump