Friday, April 22, 2011

On manga, and why you should read, like, seven of them.

Ok, that's a bit of an underestimation, but whatever. The point is that I read some manga. Not as much as I used to, back when the only responsibilities I had were feeding and bathing myself. I read some shitty manga, and some awesome manga. Let's talk about some shitty manga first.
Shitty manga #1: Bleach, by Tite Kubo
I am privileged to say that I have not read every issue of Bleach, because, holy fucking shit. There are plenty of issues to be made with this manga. Most people talk about the pacing or the fanservice or the generic plot that changes every page. I despise this manga, and yet still read it, because of it's wasted potential. This manga is packed with interesting, if not two-dimensional, stuff. Ghost lords fighting other ghost lords with swords that are semi-sentient sounds awesome. There's also a whole other angle about how the secondary characters (who are ten times cooler than the main ones) really don't give two fucks about the main characters and should be able to kill them with ease.
Unfortunately, we are tethered to the worst protagonist in recent history. Sure, you may think RedLetterMedia was right about Episode I not having a protagonist, but at least you can argue that movie had an implied main character. We knew it would be about Darth Vader, after all. Bleach, on the other hand, has a character who only fits into the story via retcon and clumsy plot inserts.
We also get a group of secondary protagonists who do nothing but get their asses beat. And cry. It's pretty tragic. The whole series started off about a cool punk who saw ghosts and said "Fuck you!" to everyone and now we have a boring asshole with nothing to really bring to the table. It's really pretty sad, when you think about. Nearly 500 chapters and barely a one of them is any good.

Shitty Manga #2 Naruto by Masashi Kishimoto
See, Naruto was pretty cool for a while. Ninjas being real ninjas sometimes, crazy wizards another time, and an awesome mixture occasionally was really fun for a quite a long time. It also gave us this gem, which almost acts as a sad parable.

Some people will argue about when the series jumped the shark and became stupid. It's really difficult, because there are honestly several moments where this could have happened. Regardless, the series eventually became something like a bad soap opera that has been going on far too long. Eventually, it just got out of hand. Character growth became stilted and boring, the fights became contests of who could pull something out of their ass hardest, and the plot plodded.

Which is truly a shame, because there were some things that Kishimoto captured that were pretty good. He wrote children pretty well. Trust me, I know. Children can be heartless, stubborn, and offensively short-sighted. Naruto himself embodies all of these, and we can easily tell that from the first issue. Hell, his first appearance is him desecrating his village's Mount Rushmore, for no reason other than he's sad and lonely. (Even though, one of the faces was his father's, which is a fact he really should have figured out. Maybe that's where the series jumped the shark.) Of course, kids grow up, and I guess that means kids become boring cut-outs who do little to nothing. I guess, if I had to say, the chief problem with this whole series is the lack of consistency. I mean, how can we go from Rock Lee being a splendid ninja to Naruto spending at least two hundred issues in some sort of training for reasons that become less and less clear.

Also, did you know they sell boxsets of Naruto anime filler at Wal-Mart? Jesus, man.

Those are the big two that I still read for whatever reason. They also happen to be the most popular here in America. Well, maybe not. I think Yu-Gi-Oh is still on or something. Regardless, now we've come to the best part of this little spiel.

Awesome Manga #1: One Piece, by Eiichiro Oda.
Well, I mean, you knew it was coming. I want you to do something before you read this. I want you to close your eyes, and think about how you would write a shonen manga. If you had no limits, except for "Make it appeal to boys and manboys and make it awesome". What would you include? What aspects would you put in or take out or alter? Make it perfect.
Ok, then read One Piece. It's pretty much what you created in your head. The main characters are not obnoxious, at their worst, and amazingly introspective at best. The pacing is lightning-quick, especially by manga standards. The plot is simple, yet layered. You know, I didn't post any links to Bleach because all the issues run together and I really could post any one that would prove a point. I could do that with Naruto. But, I can't do it with One Piece. Because there are too many. There are too many reasons for the manga to be good.
Let's get in depth here. The main reason why One Piece is as compelling as it is is because Oda is a master at making you feel for his characters. Most of it isn't just exploitative, either. It's not empathizing for the sake of wrenching your heart, like certain clumsy American comic book writers do. It's an explanation of who these people are and why they act like they do. That sounds really plebeian. Of course that's how you describe characters. Every good writer does that. But, in this world of mainstream comics and shitty TV shows, we easily forget that. Sometimes, it would just be easier to kill off people and add an edge to something, rather than exploring the character as it is. Oda does this by starting off big. All of his main characters have that angle to them that draws you in. Guy with a sword in his mouth. Skeleton that asks to see panties. Cute, tiny creature that wants to be a doctor. These are almost characters that you would ironically propose for a webcomic, and I suppose that's probably the easiest trick in the book. "This sounds so silly, I have to read it!"
I think I'm over-analyzing this. Everything that One Piece does right can really be boiled down to "Good writing". Which, I'm ashamed to say, is a bragging point. But, really, though. Just read the damn manga already. It alone is worth surrendering American comic shelf space at Barnes and Noble.

Awesome Manga #2 Toriko, by Mitsutoshi Shimabukuro.
Now, Toriko has some faults. Mainly, it's really fucking dumb. About every ten pages or so, I have to stop and rub my head. It's really one of those things that defies explanation. I mean, the first issue involves a 15kg shit by the main character. If One Piece has main characters created for an ironic webcomic, than Toriko is that ironic webcomic. In a world where fiction needs to be realistic half of the time, it seems incongruous to see a manga about gourmet fighting chefs fighting ingredients. But I guess that's why it's awesome. Everything takes itself so seriously. Seriously. It's like we're back in the era of "On a very special episode...". Consider how many times we have to see a character die or get addicted to drugs or get cancer these days. Grant Morrison said it best: "Only a child would confuse pessimism with reality!".
Which is why, in a nutshell, that Toriko is the spiritual successor to Flex Mentallo.

Of course, those are the just the two most popular examples. In reality, there are dozens of manga you should read. Here's a small list.

Akira (Quick, before George Takei gives it more free publicity!)
Ode to Kirihito
Billy Bat
20th Century Boys
Yu Yu Hakusho.

Basically, anything Otomo, Tezuka, or Urasawa, really. It's all good.
The reason why I'm writing this is because we are really at a huge crossroads right now. Comics are as shitty as they've been in quite a while. Probably since the Liefield era. We exist in an era of circular storytelling. Characters and storylines just reference other characters and storylines. New things aren't being created. It's the "old boys club" Sarah Palin railed against three years ago. It's just a loop. We can't keep going back to the same boring shit over and over again just because it was good once and just because it's what we're used to. Honestly, I'd much rather read a manga about schoolgirls than another big mega-event about masturbating over a character from the fucking 1950's. Also, you're kind of a xenophobe if you refuse to read manga because there are some mangas that have weird shit in them.
Just saying.

1 comment:

  1. I've always wondered what the good mangas are. Those B&N shelves look so heavy with useless crap.

    I do have to agree with you on Bleach, though. Pretty much everything you said about it. Never read Naruto, though. Thanks for this post.