"I mean, I'm a teacher, right? How could I not get a perfect score?"
--Eikichi Onizuka, GTO: GREAT TEACHER ONIZUKA
Marvel Comics has announced the first six titles in its manga-inspired TSUNAMI imprint and my initial reaction was, "That sounds kind of neat." Even after three decades in the comics industry, I lean to the optimistic.
I deliberately did no more than glance at the artwork which accompanied the announcements, preferring to avoid any preconceived notions before I read the actual comic books. Likewise, I didn't do more than skim the coverage of the news, instead, allowing the odd quote to jump out at me.
That the Tsunami titles are designed to appeal to those eager manga readers found in mainstream bookstores, especially the girls among them, struck me as an excellent notion. My own readers have been telling me manga rules the "graphic novels" sections of their local bookstores and confirming that manga seems to draw the most interest from younger browsers. Does that interest translate into sales? I hope so.
The Tsunami titles won't be an exact fit with Marvel Universe continuity, but, for me, that's a ship that sailed a long time ago. All I need are characters who are true to their essential concepts and personalities and good stories, and I'm a satisfied customer. Why sweat the minutia?
One Bill Jemas comment did elicit a sad sigh from me. He was quoted as saying these books were part of a Marvel commitment to give young writers "a soapbox and a podium to say what they have to say." Joe Quesada said much the same thing, substituting "new" for "young." Were I were prone to self-flagellation, I could count how many times Jemas and Quesada used "new," "young," and "youthful" in their remarks. Intentional or not, it fosters the impression that older writers have nothing to say. Sigh.
I think what impressed me most about the Marvel comments was that Jemas and crew admit they don't know exactly what makes manga tick, but do realize that, whatever that "what" is, it's more than wide-eyed characters, giant robots, and a specific artistic style. Because, for me, what makes manga tick is the variety of subjects its stories can encompass.
Off the top of my head, there isn't anything in American comic books that resembles such personal favorites as Area 88, Eagle: The Making of an Asian-American President, and Maison Ikkoku, just to name three. Along that line of reasoning, the thing which somewhat bridles my Tsunami optimism is that the announced titles all fall pretty squarely into the "super-hero" genre. Didn't these bright- new-young writers have any ideas outside the standard Marvel Comics box? Or am I wallowing in my oldness?
Actually, I'm just being difficult. It makes good sense for Marvel to play to its strengths with its initial Tsunami offerings, much more so than with its Max imprint. But, for me, and I suspect many writers, new and old, the real challenge would be step outside the Marvel Universe and create something truly different. That's how the Tsunami imprint will keep me as a customer.
The above was prelude to another one of those deep questions I like to ask of my readers, the questions that, several weeks from now, will allow me to fill a column or two with your words instead of mine. Us old guys need a week off now and then.
Here's the question:
What makes manga tick for you?
You know my answer: the variety. But what floats your manga-dinghy? Is it a certain style of artwork? Giant robots? Heroines in sailor-suits? Wild martial-arts battles? Stunted characters? Sword-swinging samurai? Strange creatures that fit in the palm of your hand? Those wide-eyed gals and guys?
When I say "manga" to you, what's the first example that comes to mind? Or, if you have no interest in the stuff, what turns you off about it? Talk to the nice columnist, kids.
While you're mulling over your responses, let's take a look at some non-Marvel manga...
I've become an absolute fiend for Tohru Fujisawa's GTO: GREAT TEACHER ONIZUKA (Toykopop; $9.99 per volume). When I shop for manga in PREVIEWS, though I sometimes look for series by creators whose past works have entertained me, I primarily look for subjects I won't find in American comics. This rules out fantasy, horror, martial arts, science fiction, and super-heroes. Reading that GTO was about an unconventional high-school teacher, having heard good things about it, I ordered it and the volumes have been stacking up every since. I started reading when the stack hit seven volumes; as of the third volume, I've been reading GTO to the near-exclusion of all other comics. I'm well and truly hooked.
Eikichi Onizuka is a 22-year-old slacker who finds his calling as a teacher. Graduating from a fifth-rate college, coming from an adolescence of petty crimes and self-indulgence, he stumbles into teaching. His initial motivations comes from his inability to find any other decent job, and his unrequited lust for school girls who are barely of legal age. The latter doesn't come off as depraved as it should, especially for manga, but we'll discuss that just a bit down the road.
The cocky Onizuka vows to become, not merely a teacher, but a great teacher and takes to calling himself "Great Teacher Onizuka." His bravado, punk-ish appearance, and weird teaching methods do not endear him to the more stuffy among his associates, but others see amazing promise in him. His students are the demons of Holy Forest Academy; breaking teachers is a sporting event to them. Onizuka's predecessor ended up in a UFO cult.
Whatever obstacles cross Onizuka's path, and, to date, these have included vengeful co-workers, the Parent-Teacher Association, the police, kidnappers, and the Yakuza, he rises to the challenge. He makes a difference in the education and lives of his students, albeit amidst much excitement and raucous humor.
Fujisawa's storytelling is as frenzied as the situations into which he hurls Onizuka. Every chapter drives you to read the next chapter. I finish one volume and I reach for the next.
Fujisawa also has a knack for creating intriguing characters. Onizuka is confident, but he suffers doubt. He has a pornography collection and fantasizes about women of all ages, but he's also a virgin who wants his first time to be special. The supporting cast is equally intriguing. I've read over 1400 pages of GTO and I'm still finding these characters fascinating.
Digression. At one point in the ongoing story, Onizuka's job turns on his taking the same standardized test as his students and getting the highest score in the country. No one thinks he can do it. In resolving this crisis, Fujisawa reveals surprising things about several characters and leaves the readers guessing as to what actually happened. It's a standout sequence, one combining first-rate characterization and plotting.
GTO is drawn in a realistic style. The people look like real people and they don't all look related to one another. The school girls are delightfully cute, the women often sexy, and, as in real life, there's that gray area where the girls are starting to become women. The background details are also convincing and, because of that, even the occasional over-the-top action scenes don't seem out of place. It's the right style for the series.
Let me drag myself out of "gushing" mode to tell you what else you need to know about GTO...
Each slightly-larger-than-paperback-size volume contains about 200 pages of story. The books are printed manga-style so you'll be reading from right to left.
Toykopop recommends GTO for older teens and up. That's a good call. The stories contain elements, sometimes kinky or scatological in nature, not suitable for younger readers. Despite an awareness that my discomfort with these scenes is symptomatic of the cultural differences between Japan and the United States, I still found them unsettling.
Fujisawa packs a lot of dialogue into these pages. When his characters lower their voices, talk in a crowd, or think out loud, the lettering gets smaller, often so small that I need a magnifying glass to read it. It's an inconvenience, but, though it's possible to skip over the smallest lettering and still enjoy the stories, I couldn't bring myself to do that. I want to absorb every detail of these stories.
GTO: GREAT TEACHER ONIZUKA is absolutely worth ten dollars per volume. On my scale of zero to five floating heads, it earns the full five Tonys.
I got IRON WOK JAN (ComicsOne; $9.95) for no other reason than I'd never read a comic about cooking. I've no particular interest in cooking or gourmet dining. I'm a man of simple, nay, embryonic, culinary skills and tastes. But, when it comes to comics, I hunger for the meals I've never savored.
IRON WOK JAN is produced by Shinji Saijyo, which I'm guessing is a studio, with Keiko Oyama credited as supervisor. The writing is good, but not exceptional. The art is realistic with a touch of caricature. The series is about the same size as GTO and is also presented in its original right-to-left format.
The title hero is a talented chef-in-training at a top-class Chinese restaurant in Tokyo. His grandfather was a legend in the field of Chinese cuisine. Jan is arrogant and cocky, driven by his need to assume what he feels to be his rightful place as the best chef in all of Japan. In this, he is challenged by Kiriko, herself a talented chef and niece of the restaurant's head chief. But, as much as the rivalry pushes Jan, it's the memory of his grandfather that looms over his every moment in the kitchen.
The lead characters share the spotlight with the exotic dishes the chefs prepare. Peasant that I am, I've never heard of most of these concoctions. Skeptic that I am, I suspect some are figments of the studio's imagination. But darned if it isn't enthralling and even exciting to witness their preparation.
On the downside, I wish there was more story in IRON WOK JAN. An condescending food critic was introduced and dealt with all too quickly; he had potential as a recurring "villain." We don't know much about any character except for Jan, and we rarely see the cast outside of the restaurant. The series needs to widen its range to retain my interest. As it is, I'm good for another volume or two, and those will determine my future patronage.
IRON WOK JAN is an above-average manga series that scores high on my "well, this is certainly different" meter. It picks up four Tonys, which I'm told can be quite tasty when covered with flour, baked, and served with stir-fried intestines.
I'm on the fence vis-a-vis ASTRO BOY (Dark Horse Comics; $9.95 per volume). While there is an infectious and joyful energy to the original Osamu Tezuka comics about the boy robot and the futuristic world in which he lives, too many of the stories center around the standard "good robots, bad humans, basically good robots ordered to do bad things" conflict. That's certainly the case with Volume 3's "The Greatest Robot on Earth." At ten bucks per book, I need more variety from this series.
There is a lot I do like about ASTRO BOY. Many of the stories deal with prejudice against robots...and I think kids will pick up that it's a human problem as well. Tezuka's introductions to the longer stories offer an interesting look at the thinking behind his tales. Most of the time, the writing and art of the longer stories are pretty good. Despite the paperback-size format, reading these volumes are easy on the eyes.
What I don't like, beyond the repetitiveness of some stories, is that the shorter tales sometimes read like abridged versions of lead adventures. This volume's "Mad Machine" was little more than a generic super-hero story; virtually any hero could have defeated the mad scientist and foiled his plan to make machines go berserk. Astro Boy could have taken the day off.
I'm not giving up on this series yet, but the best score I can give ASTRO BOY VOLUME 3 is three Tonys.
The above column first appeared in COMICS BUYER'S GUIDE #1528 [February 28, 2003], which shipped on February 10. To my surprise, I received few responses to my "manga" question, which scuttles my plan of getting a "free" column out of my readers. However, as a believer in wasting not, I'm running the few responses I received somewhere south of this paragraph.
One more "addendum" note. Rereading my ASTRO BOY review got me to thinking about the unread ASTRO BOY volumes piling up in my office. Thinking about the volumes got me to realizing that I had no particular urge to read them. Realizing my lack of urge made me decide to stop buying the volumes. If I can find a spare moment, I'll put the set up for auction on eBay. I've got a house full of stuff I can and should sell; these books would be as good a place to start as any.
Our first letter comes from JON KNUTSON:
I'm not a big manga reader, but I have read some, and for me, the variety is a big part of it. Probably my favorite manga is a series that, so far as I'm aware, has never been published in English. It's called CATSEYE; I have 10 issues of it I purchased during one of my many stops in Japan when I was in the Navy in the 1980s. I discovered it while watching the anime series on TV over there and was delighted to find the books.
CATESYE is about three women, sisters, who own a coffee shop, but it's about much more than that. Now I could be off on some of the details here, because as I said, I've never read it in English, but, basically, the father of the sisters had an art collection that was stolen from him some time ago, and the three sisters are cat burglars who are stealing it back from the various persons who bought the works from the original thief. The other continuing character is the police officer investigating these thefts, but he is unaware the three women running his favorite coffee shop are the persons stealing the artwork back. I've often hoped someone would either publish this manga in English, or dub the anime into English for Cartoon Network's "Adult Swim" programming.
Anime introduced me to my other favorite manga: DRAGONBALL Z. DBZ is more or less super-heroes. The characters wear distinctive costumes and have abilities far beyond those of mortal men...and they also cause a lot of collateral damage in their battles. With DBZ, it's not the special effects that appeal to me so much as the characterization and inter-relationships between the characters. Another factor is the inherent sense of humor that comes across. I must also confess the somewhat ritualistic nature of DBZ also appeals to me in much the same way as do other Japanese super-hero shows and monster movies. DBZ is super-heroes, but very different than what DC or Marvel produce.
Next up is KEN RECORR:
If it's considered manga, my first and only example would be Katsuhiro Otomo's AKIRA. The story makes the impossible seem possible, the unbelievable seem real, which is what initially inclined me to give the book a try. Within the first few pages (or scenes from the movie), we are assaulted with a sudden, cataclysmic explosion that obliterates most of Tokyo. The unexplained blast unleashes World War III, which sets the stage for the story that follows.
Indeed, Akira has its share of robots, wide-eyed characters and uses a specific artistic style. But to me, these aren't the only attributes of manga. You mentioned variety as your primary selling point for manga; this is but one aspect. Fantastic conflict is another as is serialization of ongoing drama. What sells manga for me is not only gravity-defying battles, but also extraordinary battles between the wills of the characters. Well-written conflict is the basis for any good story, be it in novels or comics. Manga is conflict in extreme circumstances.
That Marvel's Tsunami line is described as manga-inspired seems to serve dual purposes. The manga market is hot so it stands to reason that a publisher such as Marvel would dip into this abundant well. That Marvel is using established properties functions as a great branding technique.
In CBG #1528, Ben Fine lamented that Marvel Comics missed a great opportunity in advertising their titles to comic recipients during Free Comic Day. Tsunami's second purpose is to introduce the Marvel characters and properties with fresh starts, and, in some ways, continuity-free. With the successes of Marvel's "Ultimate" line, additional entry points into the Marvel Universe--such as the Tsunami titles--would contain more known characters than unknown ones; both for established readers who enjoy alternate character tangents and for readers new to heroes and villains like Namor, the Human Torch and Venom.
If these heroic titles succeed, perhaps Marvel may introduce titles along the lines of Max's ALIAS or some of the more ordinary titles you reviewed like GTO: GREAT TEACHER ONIZUKA or IRON WOK JAN. However, sales alone should not determine whether to include new, non-hero-based titles since a growing portion of the manga market is geared around conflicts without capes.
Without drifting too far into a marketing discussion, I, too, am eager to see these new entries to the manga realm. So long as the stories are good, I'll keep reading.
Finally, we have this from MATT LEVIN:
The first thing I think of when I hear "manga, manga" is fettuccini. "Eat, eat," my Jewish grandma says.
The other first thing that comes to mind is LONE WOLF AND CUB. Daigoro loves fettuccini. No, no, wait! It's just too darn late at night for me. One more try.
LW&C is "manga" to me. Its vivid subject matter, its heart of honor, its characterization, and adult presentation, its lonnnnng storyline: all of this appeals to me. And, it was the very first comic, courtesy of First Comics, of its sort that I saw. And soon after that I read KAMUI and MAI.
I'm with you: what attracts me to manga is variety, and, to this, I reiterate the characterization, emphasis on relationships, adult presentation, and lengthy storylines.
What I dislike: the big-eyed faces; the up-skirt crotch-shots (I'd prefer actual nudity to the tease stuff.); the scratchy-line art; and, of late, the increasingly common right-to-left format. After forty years of left-to-right reading, it's too hard for me to reverse my usual reading technique.
I was surprised by the lack of response to my manga question, mostly because my manga reviews always seem to be well-received by my readers. If I had to venture a theory, it would be that CBG's older readers are being slow to embrace manga. They appreciate my opening a doorway for them, but they aren't quite ready to step out into this new world of comics.
I'll continue to review manga in CBG and elsewhere...because I enjoy it and because I believe it holds important lessons for the American comics industry. As always, I welcome your suggestions on other comics titles...manga or otherwise...which you think might be of interest to me.
I took a few days off from my thrice-weekly TONY'S ONLINE TIPS columns for personal reasons. Nothing serious. Just doing my bit to make the world a slightly better place. I'll be back next week with the usual mix of comics and commentary.
The next stop on my TONY ISABELLA FAREWELL TOUR will be PLANET COMICON in Kansas City on Saturday and Sunday, March 29 and 30. In addition to the usual signing and socializing, I'm scheduled to be part of a "Marvel Comics in the 1970s" panel with Steve Englehart, Len Wein, and Marv Wolfman. For more information on the convention and its other special guests, head over to:
ZERO: Burn your money before buying any comic receiving this rating. It doesn't *necessarily* mean there's absolutely nothing of value here - though it *could* - but whatever value it might possess shrinks into insignificance before its overall awfulness.
ONE: Buy something else. Maybe I found something which wasn't completely dreadful in the item, but not enough for me to recommend it when there are better comics available. I only want what's best for you, my children.
TWO: Basic judgment call. I found some value, but not enough to recommend it. My review should give you enough info to decide if you want to take a chance on it. Are you feeling lucky today, punk? Well, are you?
THREE: This denotes something I find perfectly respectable. There are better books out there, but I wouldn't regret buying this item. Based on my review, you should be able to determine if it's of interest to you. Let the Force guide you.
FOUR: I recommend anything earning this rating. Unless you don't like the genre, subject matter, or past work of the creators, I believe you'll enjoy this item. Isn't it uncanny how I can look right into your soul that way?
FIVE: Anything getting this rating is among the best comicdom has to offer. You should buy/read this, even if the genre/subject matter doesn't appeal to you. It's for your own good. Me, I live for comics and books this good...but not in a pathetic "Comic-Book Guy" sort of way.
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