Ask Chris #19: Manga Recommendations and What Makes a Batman?
Here at ComicsAlliance, we value our readership and are always open to what the masses of Internet readers have to say. That's why we've given Senior Writer Chris Sims the
punishment pleasure of stepping into the grand tradition of the Answer Man as he responds to your reader questions!
Q: I usually don't read manga because I don't know where to start. But thanks to you I just read "Pluto"and I was blown away. What should I read next? -- John Maynard, via email
A: As much as I love comics, I'm not a huge manga expert, mostly owing to the fact that I burnt myself out on it back in my younger days. Growing up in the late '80s and early '90s, manga and anime were, to me, the punk rock of comics: They were something that took a familiar format and used it in a strange new way (which as a bonus often involved nudity and people getting punched so hard they exploded), and it was something that the squares hadn't caught onto yet. You had to hunt for it, staying up 'til 4 AM to catch a Sci-Fi Channel showing of "Project A-Ko" or picking up stray volumes from the sketchier comic book stores.It sounds weird to be nostalgic for what was essentially a massive inconvenience in getting comics, but I think at the time, I liked the thrill of the chase and the social aspects of being in with the anime crowd more than the actual product. When the manga market exploded onto the US scene, however, things were completely changed, and like a lot of folks that were suddenly spoiled for choice, I binged, until I ended up getting so mad at "Love Hina" that I essentially ran out into a thunderstorm and swore to the heavens that I would never read manga again!
I was, uh, a little dramatic when I was younger.
Anyway, it's only in the past few years that I've gotten back into following any manga regularly (though I never lost my absolute love of Adam Warren), but I picked a pretty good time to do so, because there's some great stuff out there right now.
The interesting thing about manga -- for me anyway --is that unlike American comics, where I'm predominantly a super-hero fan, there's no particular genre that interests me. Of the series I follow, they're all pretty distinctive, and almost as importantly, they're all pretty easy to jump on. One of the things that frustrated me as a reader was that manga tends to go on forever, and while I know that's weird coming from someone who could happily read "Batman" For 700+ issues, there's something that just strikes me as daunting about a 49-volume series of graphic novels, but I can't imagine that's anything more than just what I'm familiar with.
You mention Naoki Urasawa's "Pluto," a series that I just recently finished, and while everyone and their sister has sung this book's praises, it really is that good. For those of you who haven't read it, the idea here is that Urasawa (who also did "20th Century Boys" and "Monster," both of which I've heard are fantastic but haven't read yet) is re-telling "The Greatest Robot on Earth," which is probably the most popular Astro Boy story of the '60s by Osamu Tezuka, who is considered the godfather of manga.
The thing is, though, "Pluto" is accessible and thrilling even if, like me, you'd never read a single page of Tezuka's work before you jumped in, which has a lot to do with the way Urasawa sets it up. Rather than a straight-up action story like the original, Urasawa tells it as a dense, heavily psychological murder mystery thriller. Urasawa sets up everything you need to know in no time -- it's the future and robots are commonplace, there are seven robots that are considered to be supremely powerful, they were all involved in a recent war, and someone or something is killing them one by one -- and then steps aside to let amazing character work drive the story.
It's brilliant stuff, engaging the reader with themes involving the nature of humanity, the mental scars left by war, the tragedy of racism, and robots beating the living hell out of each other. Even stuff that could come off as silly under a lesser creator -- imagine the Hannibal Lechter scenes from "Silence of the Lambs," but with robots -- come off as disturbing and compelling. It's awesome, and has a nice, finite eight-volume run.
And it'll spark an interest, too: Since reading it, I've been going back through Dark Horse's "Astro Boy" reprints, and I'm almost to the story it was based on.
Other than that, my favorite series right now is probably "Yotsuba&!" by Kiyohiko Azuma, which is about as far from the psychological murder mystery of "Pluto" as you can get. It's a pure comedy manga centered on a little girl, Yotsuba, who doesn't know anything.
It sounds strange, but that's about the only way to put it: All of the comedy is based around the fact that Yotsuba needs virtually everything in the world explained to her, from air conditioning to apartment buildings to festivals to fireworks, often completely mystifying the people around her. It's utterly charming and cute without ever slipping into cloying and sentiment, and is frequently genuinely hilarious.
Unfortunately, when ADV went out of business, it switched over to being published by Yen Press, and while it's great that they picked it up, they're also doing things slightly differently as far as design and translation. I prefer the ADV translations, but it's not really a big deal, the jokes are still there; the bigger sin is that they've done away with the logo on the ADV trades (seen at right) and replaced it with one that looks like it was done in five minutes in PhotoShop. I have no idea why -- one would assume that they got the existing logo when they picked up the rights -- but for some reason it sticks out like a sore thumb to me.
Azuma also did another series called "Azumanga Daioh" that followed a class of girls through their high school years, and while I read every bit of it and watched the anime version, I'm a little conflicted. The vast majority of it is done as four-panel strips (think a newspaper comic strip, but vertical), but there's a completely perplexing lack of punchlines. I suspect it might be an issue of translation -- about halfway through, it suddenly gets a lot funnier and I'm thinking there was someone new brought in -- but the character work is really compelling regardless. "Yotsuba," on the other hand, refines Azuma's comedy darn near to a science. It's currently on its 7th volume, and well worth picking up.
I've mentioned it before, but my favorite new manga series of the past couple of years has been "Detroit Metal City," by Kiminori Wakasugi. It's essentially Japan's answer to "Metalocalypse," but with the added twist that Lord Johannes Krauser II, lead singer of Japan's most evilcore death metal band, is actually Shinichi Negishi, a hipster who is really into Swedish pop music and fine pastries and hates the songs he makes as an underground metal icon.
The stories all tend to be extremely formulaic -- against his will, Shinichi gets himself into a situation in which he is driven to Hulk out and become Krauser, going nuts and metalling things up -- but the comedy is rooted in the fact that the series just keeps getting more and more over the top, which has led to it being one of the most monumentally obscene things I've ever read, and also one of the more hilarious.
The fifth volume was recently released by Viz, but it wrapped in Japan in April, though not before spawning an anime, a live-action movie with a cameo by Gene Simmons, and a soundtrack album for the latter.
And while this may come as a surprise, "Satsugai" is actually a pretty awesome song.
If you're more into horror, there are a couple of series coming out from Dark Horse that I'm quite fond of: Housui Yamazaki's "Mail" and "The Kurosagi Corpse Delivery Service," by Eiji Otsuka and Yamazaki. "Mail," I think, is a little easier to jump on -- it's only three volumes, though the main character later shows up for a team-up in "Kurosagi" -- and is essentially what "Night Gallery" would've been like if Rod Serling had shown up at the end of each episode to blow ghosts away with his magic handgun. It does, however, get more than a little weird towards the end when the six year-old Frankenstein girl shows up.
"Kurosagi" is a little more involved -- it's up to eleven volumes and has a more ongoing story, though its focus is almost equally episodic -- but worth picking up, especially for the occasional stories in which Otsuka and Yamazaki blend humor in with their creepiness. There's one episode fairly far on in the series where three teenage scientists who have bound the soul of a dead, video game obsessed nerd to a robot (at which time he promptly starts running around trying to kill people so he can level up), then spend a good chunk of time standing around debating the nature of robots in anime. BIzarre? Yes. But it's also one of the funnier uses of the fan in comics that I've seen.
I'm not a huge horror guy, but one of the things I really like about both series is the way that Yamazaki relies on creepy atmosphere and distortion rather than gore, although there's an unfortunately high amount of naked lady corpses, so, you know. Be advised.
All told, those are a pretty good place to start, though I'm also a big fan of Kenichi Sonada's "Gunsmith Cats," though re-reading it as Dark Horse released the Omnibuses and the new volumes really put into stark contrast how much of that book is built around everyone being totally cool with Minnie May getting married to a guy that she started dating when she was a fourteen year-old prostitute and he was a 28 year-old bombmaker for the mob, which sort of distracts from the really well-done action scenes.
Q: Most modern portrayals of Batman's origin have the shooting as, in some part, Bruce's fault. Either he insists they leave the show early or asks his mom to wear her pearls or startles a jumpy Joe Chill with a pretend sword thrust. Do you think this a significant change? And, if so, for the better or worse? -- BillJ, via email
A: I do think it's a significant change, and one that is absolutely terrible.
As you might imagine, I'm a little picky about my Batman origins, because even a slight change in the elements can throw off the metaphor of the character, and the more filigree you add to an origin story, the further away it gets from what, in my opinion, it should mean.
Batman's origin is simple: a child's parents are murdered in front of him and he swears to keep that from happening to anyone else. Everything else is just set dressing: The fact that he's rich is just a way to explain how he has an anti-crime basement full of cars and autogyros, Martha's pearls are just a neat visual, and the fact that he's going to see "Zorro" is just a nice way to explain why he opts for a black cape. The simplicity makes it brilliant, and the genius of it is that it plays on a what's often considered to be a child's worst fear on a profoundly metaphorical level that makes it everyone's fear. Thomas and Martha Wayne aren't just Bruce's parents; they're not even stand-ins for the reader's parents. They're Safety, Comfort and Home. And in one instant, they're taken away -- and this is the important bit for me -- completely at random.
In my ideal Batman origin, Joe Chill (the mugger who killed Batman's parents) wouldn't even have a name, because that diminishes what he represents. He's not a man, he's Crime. He's the thing that Batman fights against every night when he suits up to stand between Crime and Safety. If that simple element is changed to remove the random element of chance -- the idea that there is Something Out There that can destroy your life through no fault of your own because no one is there to stop it -- as a direct result of his actions, then Batman is no longer altruistic, he's guilty. His actions stop being one of sacrifice and start being one of penance, and in my mind that makes him less heroic.
He becomes Spider-Man, and while I love Spider-Man, there's a nobility to Batman essentially sacrificing "Bruce Wayne's" life that Spider-Man doesn't have. Peter Parker is working off a mistake he made because his inaction cost him something, Batman was just in the wrong place at the wrong time, and now devotes himself to being in that same place to help others. He has no real reason to do so -- he already lost his parents and nothing's going to bring them back -- he just can't bear for anyone else to go through what he did. Both are perfect in their own way, but Batman works better without having to be guilted into being Batman.
There's a slightly more gray area that arises in the Silver Age story (one that Morrison's been playing with) that reveals that it wasn't a simple mugging, but rather a mob hit orchestrated by Lew Moxon, a gangster that was sent to jail on Thomas Wayne's testimony after Wayne refused to operate on him. I like this a little better, as it involves Thomas Wayne being killed for doing the right thing rather than because Bruce screwed up, and it leaves Bruce blameless, but I still don't care for it as much as if it's just random chance and bad luck. Sometimes bad things happen to good people because no one's there to stop them, so Bruce Wayne becomes the thing that does.
Along the same lines, I'm equally displeased when writers portray Bruce Wayne as a unhappy child or arguing with his parents. Bruce Wayne should be the happiest kid on Earth, because if he's not, then the change when his parents get killed isn't as drastic, and it needs to be drastic because he decides to dress up like a bat and karate people every night. He's a character of extremes, and in order for him to be driven to the extreme of Batman, Bruce Wayne has to have an equal and opposite extreme. If he's going to have the motivation to become Batman, to drive himself to physical and mental perfection, then the thing he loses -- his life with his parents -- needs to be the best life anyone has ever had. He needs to understand loss better than anyone, because his loss is greater. If he's a sullen, brooding kid who grows up into a sullen, brooding adult, then where's the change? It's not there.
In short, it's Crime that needs to make Batman, not the other way around.
And now that I've met my mandatory thousand words about Batman, a few quick Q&As:
Q: What's the best way to sell or donate excess comics? -- tobascodagama
A: If you're looking for money, you're better off doing just about anything but selling them to a comic book store. That's not a knock on shops, it's just the nature of retail that they need to pay less than they're worth so that they can make a profit -- and in six years of comics retail, I cannot even count the number of times that I had to explain to people that yes, we were going to sell them for more than we paid for them, because that is how capitalism works. It's better to go directly through the buyer, through eBay or however.
If you're more into giving them away, check with your local library, or better yet, a children's home. I've got a friend who sorts out everything that's appropriate for kids and then donates them that way, which not only gets comics into a kid's hand and can foster a love of learning, but also has the potential to genuinely brighten someone's life who might need it. Along the same lines, I used to give stacks of unsold kids' comics to the middle school where my mother teaches, and her students absolutely loved 'em.
Unfortunately a lot of places don't know how to deal with comics and "donations" just end up getting thrown away, so make sure to call first and check around with local charities to makes sure they'll know what to do with them, and always screen your comics first. I'm no fan of censorship, but the last thing anyone needs is a twelve year-old getting a copy of "Tarot" #53 and spending puberty worried about haunted ladybits.
Q: if you became a pro wrestler, what would your ring name be and why? (either WWE or luchador, or both) -- cell23
A: El Hijo de Murciélago
Q: Man, that The Amazing Transformations of Jimmy Olsen trade really is The Best, isn't it? -- Velcrobinson
Yes. Yes it is.
That's all for this week, but if you've got a question for Chris, email it to comicsalliance (at) gmail.com with [Ask Chris] in the subject line, or put it on Twitter with the tag #AskChris!