Review: When Manga Came to America

"When Manga Came to America" book coverTitle: When Manga Came to America. Super-Hero Revisionism in Mai, The Psychic Girl
Language: English
Author: Julian Darius
Year: 2014
Publisher: Sequart
Pages: 69
Price: $6.99 (US)
Website: http://sequart.org/books/35/when-manga-came-to-america-super-hero-revisionism-in-mai-the-psychic-girl/
ISBN: 978-1-9405-8903-9

When I first heard about this book, I was looking forward to it (even though most of it had been published before as a series of blog posts), because it seemed to be about roughly the same topic as my PhD research project, or at least some aspects of it. The more other people write about it, the less I still need to write. However, When Manga Came to America turned out to be of not very much use to me, and I doubt it’s of much use to scholarly research in general.

Darius’s book is divided into three chapters, plus an Introduction (pp. 1-11). The very first sentence of this introduction is already telling: “In early 1987, Eclipse introduced American comics readers to manga with three translated series” (p. 1). This sentence tells us that the book isn’t really about the manga Mai by Kazuya Kudō and Ryōichi Ikegami per se, but rather about its American edition. Granted, the title of the book is When Manga Came to America, but it is striking that Darius doesn’t say anything at all about the original Japanese publication – even though sometimes he really should, e.g. when he critisises the narrative structure of the comic on p. 7 (which may be better explained by its original serialised magazine publication than by the three ‘acts’ Darius has made up), when he compares it to other comics published in the US at the same time on p. 41 (instead of comparing it to other manga originally created at the same time), when he talks about Mai as an example of an “extended finite” comic book series on p. 49 (thus again ignoring its original publication format), or when he says that a dialogue “simply feels off” on p. 53 (without mentioning that it’s only a translation).

It’s also noteworthy that Darius says “American comics readers” in that first sentence. Rather than considering the reception of Mai among Americans in general, including those who haven’t read comics before, Darius imagines a specific type of reader who is familiar with superhero comic books and who sees Mai in this context. (It should be noted that Darius doesn’t talk about the actual reception history of Mai - i.e. no empirical evidence is presented, such as contemporary reviews or interviews -, and probably not even his personal reception as he was only 10 years old when Mai first came out in May 1987. Instead, he speculates about what the reading experience must have been like at that time.)

The first two chapters must be read with this particular angle in mind. In the chapter “The Depiction of Super-Powers in Mai, the Psychic Girl” (pp. 12-40), Darius offers a lengthy summary of the plot of the series with an emphasis on its supernatural, psychic elements in comparison to superpowers in standard American superhero comic books. While doing so, Darius dishes out his subjective, ungrounded opinions, e.g. “there’s no doubt that the third act is rushed” (p. 30).

The second chapter, “Mai, the Psychic Girl and Revisionism” (pp. 41-49), is much shorter and examines Mai in the context of superhero comics of the late 80s, above all Alan Moore’s Marvelman/Miracleman. Again, I find this comparison somewhat pointless without considering the original publication, as the American readers must have been well aware that Mai was a Japanese comic. Darius makes quite a bold statement again when he says, “Mai was published in English at the height of the revisionism, and it couldn’t help but be understood in this context, even if this wasn’t the context in which Mai had been created in Japan” (p. 41).

In the third chapter, “Sexuality in Mai, the Psychic Girl” (pp. 50-66), Darius thankfully does away with the superhero comparisons. He identifies several scenes with nudity or other sexual content and comes to the conclusion that Mai, even though it “is pretty restrained” (p. 63), is really “a story of sexual self-discovery” (p. 65), and “a story in which this [Mai’s psychic abilities] is linked to sexual maturity” (p. 58). This looks to me as if Darius misses the mark and over-interprets the story in a desperate attempt to make sense of the occasional suggestive imagery (which definitely feels out of place in this comic). The question is indeed “whether Mai is entirely of good taste” (p. 63). This chapter gets more awkward the further Darius digresses from the comic, saying things like “breasts, in particular, are a traditional symbol of nature’s bounty” (p. 61), or “healthy male brains often find girls attractive at around the age that girls become capable of reproduction” (p. 62). (Why male, by the way? What about female readers?) This excursus on paedophilia, by the way, contains the only footnote reference in the whole book. I’m not saying a text without formal literature references can’t have any scholarly merit, but it is certainly indicative.

It’s not as if When Manga Came to America wasn’t worth your time or your money, as it is both short and affordable. The reason why I’m reviewing it at all is connected to a larger issue within Comics Studies, as well as within Humanities as a whole: there is a widespread attitude that a researcher may choose which secondary literature to read and cite, and which to ignore – unlike in the Sciences, where it is usually clear which literature needs to be cited in a text on a specific topic. I’ve always felt the Humanities could and should do better in this regard. Therefore, I’d like to suggest how to deal with Darius’s book in a scholarly context, because it is a piece of secondary literature that isn’t easily defined as either a scholarly book or a journalistic review. Its merits notwithstanding, in my opinion, this book may be safely ignored in scholarly discourse, at least as a secondary source alongside proper scholarly texts. Of course, the author probably never intended it as a contribution to scholarly discourse in the first place. And who knows, When Manga Came to America may still serve as an entertaining book for fans who can’t stop thinking about Mai, the Psychic Girl, and who appreciate the opinions of another well-read fan.

Rating: ● ○ ○ ○ ○


Akira Lego

Already in October/November last year, on the occasion of Designer Con in Pasadena, California, some people re-created comic book covers with Lego bricks and put pictures of them online, mostly on Flickr in the group Comic Bricks! and/or using the tag “comicbricks” (Nerdist and several other websites reported). Some of these pictures are fascinating in the way in which a three-dimensional object was extrapolated from a two-dimensional cover, e.g. the iconic “Demon in a Bottle” Iron Man cover.

The most interesting Lego cover from my perspective is, of course, the only one in that Flickr photo pool that is based on a manga cover: Akira #31. Its mere existence among otherwise American comics is remarkable. Then again, an issue from the old, coloured, 38-part Epic Comics edition was used, which was more like a US comic book than the later black-and-white collected volumes.

detail of Akira #31 photograph by Tommy Williamson

The creator of this Lego cover retained the abstract elements of the cover and interpreted them as a sort of window frame through which we see Kaneda and Kai riding the ‘caretaker’ robot. In contrast to the original cover, though, one leg of the robot extends through this frame in the front, while another robot leg can be seen extending to the right behind the frame (and also parts of the wall in the background to both sides), making for an imaginative compromise between 2-D and 3-D elements which, as far as I’ve seen, hasn’t been tried in any of the other Comic Bricks covers.


Manga in #fourcomics

screenshot of Scott Snyder's #fourcomics Twitter postA week ago, Twitter users started posting cover images (or sometimes interior pages/panels) of “four comics that influenced you when you were growing up” (Jim Zub’s original wording). The Beat posted a summary of participating comic creators. Most of them are middle-aged Americans, so I wondered if they had selected any manga at all. And indeed they had:

  1. Akira (Scott Snyder, Jim Demonakos)
  2. Battle Angel Alita (Jake Parker, Jennifer de Guzman)
  3. Appleseed (Brandon Graham)
  4. Blade of the Immortal (Becky Cloonan)
  5. Children of the Sea (Sarah Horrocks)
  6. Jing: King of Bandits (Zachary Clemente)
  7. Ranma 1/2 (Becky Cloonan)
  8. Sand Land (Zachary Clemente)

Clearly, some people interpreted the challenge differently and chose comics that they must have read as adults. Interestingly, while Akira was chosen twice, no one chose Lone Wolf and Cub. Then again, the selection of comics creators (32 people) in this The Beat blogpost is quite limited. Unfortunately, most Twitter users posted only images and not the titles as text, so it’s not feasible to automatically compile them into a list.


30 day comic challenge, days 29 + 30

A little bit delayed, but here are the final items on the list:

Detail from Azumanga Daioh by Kiyohiko AzumaDay 29  – A song comic currently stuck in your head

Now that I’ve seen part of the adorable anime series, I keep wondering what Kiyohiko Azuma’s manga Azumanga Daioh looks like (or, generally, how a yon-koma (4-panel strip) manga can be adapted into a continuous anime at all). This might be the next comic I’ll buy.

 

cover detail from a Les petits hommes album by Pierre SeronDay 30  – A song comic that you haven’t listened to read in awhile

As a child I read a lot of Franco-Belgian humorous adventure comics, many of which I only borrowed from the library instead of buying them (or having them bought for me). One of these series was Les petits hommes by Pierre Seron. I vaguely remember that it wasn’t that great, but apparently there are many more albums in this series than I’ve actually read. Maybe I should give it a second chance.

And that’s it. I almost managed to finish this ’30 day comic challenge’ in time. Looking back, I realise that this format has some issues, mainly because some of the items on the original “30 day song challenge” list don’t translate well into comics. Furthermore, the list items would be more interesting if they weren’t so personal – “a song that reminds you …”, “a song that makes you …” – because you can’t really argue about these things. Instead, I would have preferred less subjective and more absolute statements, e.g. “the longest song/comic you know”, or “the song/comic that best represents globalisation” (or what have you), “the song/comic with the most unexpected twist”, etc. Who knows, I might create my own “30 day comics challenge” one day.


30 day comic challenge, week 4

panel detail from Japan Inc. by Shotaro IshinomoriDay 22 – A song comic that would be the theme song to featured in a TV show about your life

It’s getting harder and harder to come up with comic-related equivalents for these “30 day song challenge” items, but OK – suppose someone wanted to make a documentary about me, which comic should the camera focus on at least once? Apart from Akira, a suitable choice would be Shōtarō Ishinomori’s Japan Inc., both the English and the German edition of the first volume, as they exemplify what I do in my research.

 

panel detail from The Ultimates by Mark Millar and Bryan HitchDay 23 – A song comic that makes you angry

Comics can be enraging when they’re bad, but there’s another, good kind of anger that comics can instil: for instance, when acts of injustice are convincingly narrated, readers may sympathise with one character (the victim) and feel sorry for him or her, and become angry at another (the evildoer). Mark Millar is a writer who is particularly good at portraying the darker sides of human nature and eliciting strong emotions such as anger – e.g. in many scenes in The Ultimates, drawn by Bryan Hitch.

 

detail of a page from The Multiversity: Pax Americana by Grant Morrison and Frank QuitelyDay 24 – A cover song comic remake of another comic

Currently I’m thrilled about The Multiversity: Pax Americana by Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely. I’m not giving away which other comic it is based on, though, in case this might still be a spoiler for anyone. For me it certainly was a major appeal to only gradually realise this while I was reading it.

 

image detail from Pograzye 23 by Clive ScrutonDay 25 – An acoustic small press song comic you love

Paper Tiger Comix was an enjoyable, though rather short-lived, British underground anthology magazine. Highlights: the surreal, enigmatic multi-part “story” Pograzye 23 by Clive Scruton, and several short stories by Richard Cowdry, who is always brilliant.

 

panel detail from Knights of Sidonia by Tsutomu NiheiDay 26 – A song comic by your favorite band author

Tsutomu Nihei is one of my favourite comic creators, though I must say his current mecha space horror series Knights of Sidonia (already mentioned in a previous blog post) is his least interesting of those I’ve read so far – and at the same time probably his most successful, being adapted into an anime.

 

panel detail from Mai the Psychic Girl by Kazuya Kudō and Ryōichi IkegamiDay 27 – A song comic you make fun of

Making fun of a comic is hardly ever an appropriate way of criticising it, but some comics almost ask for it. Mai, the Psychic Girl by Kazuya Kudō and Ryōichi Ikegami (blogged about a year ago) has many virtues, but also some rather ridiculous elements that one can’t help making fun of, e.g. the name of the German antagonist – “Turm Garten” (literally “tower garden”).

 

panel detail from Paris aishiteruze by J.P. NishiDay 28 – A song comic that reminds you of your boyfriend/girlfriend (if you don’t have one, make one up :])

Several ex-girlfriends kindly gave me comics as presents. I’ve blogged about one of these comics: Paris aishiteruze (À Nous Deux, Paris!) by J. P. Nishi.


30 day comic challenge, week 3

gallery for 30 day comic challenge, week 3
Day 15 – A song comic people wouldn’t expect you to like

I hardly ever blog about French-language comics, so some people might think I don’t like them. But I do, actually – Donjon by Lewis Trondheim and Joann Sfar, for instance, is even on my top 10 favourite comics list.

Day 16 – A song comic that holds a lot of meaning to you

Civil War by Mark Millar and Steve McNiven was the first comic I’ve written about in a scholarly article, so naturally this comic has a lot of meaning to me.

Day 17 – A song comic that annoys you

Comics can be annoying in a lot of different ways. It’s annoying when you have wasted time reading a comic you don’t like, or wasted money purchasing a copy. It’s annoying when other people or advertisements tell you how great a certain comic is, when you have already found out you don’t like it. Rather than merely being disappointed with a comic that you’ve read once and tossed away for good, however, annoyance is more of a perpetual nuisance: an annoying comic just keeps popping up and demanding your attention. For the last couple of months, Hajime Isayama’s Shingeki no Kyojin a.k.a. Attack on Titan has been that annoying comic for me. Although no one could possibly expect this manga to live up to the enourmous hype surrounding it, one is at the same time tempted to think, “millions of readers can’t be wrong, right?”. So I thought I’d give this series a chance and at least read the first volume. I did, and annoyed I was. With other best-selling shōnen manga, I can at least understand why other people like it, even though I don’t like them much myself: One Piece is genuinely funny, Naruto is well drawn – but Shingeki no Kyojin is neither, nor has it any other redeeming qualities. Still, now that the live-action film adaptation is around the corner, there seems to be no end to the hype.

Day 18 – A song comic you have as your ringtone/want to be your ringtone desktop background image

My computer desktops still have their standard operating system images, but the other day I was tempted for a moment to change that when a nice wallpaper image of Kozue Chiba’s Koi toka, kiss toka, karada toka was posted on I Love Shojo (see also my blogpost about ILS). Then again, I haven’t read this manga yet, and I didn’t even like Kozue Chiba’s Crayon Days much (see my short review), so ultimately I left my desktops as they were.

Day 19 – A song comic you’re currently obsessed with

Katsuhiro Ōtomo’s Akira will probably play an important part in the PhD thesis I’m writing, so I currently spend more time reading this comic (and reading about it) than any other.

Day 20 – A song comic episode from a new album collection you are waiting for to come out

Robin Vehrs posted a few more Enjambements episodes after the first book came out (reviewed here), so I’m hoping there will be a second collected volume someday.

Day 21 – A song comic you want to dance to read at your wedding

I’m not sure how the hypothetical bride would feel about this, but Action Comics #1 would certainly make a nice wedding present. On the other hand, it may be a bit too long to be read at the wedding right away. So how about a 1986 Sunday strip of Calvin & Hobbes, watercoloured by Bill Watterson himself, instead?


30 day comic challenge, week 2

gallery for 30 day comic challenge, week 2

Day 08 – A song comic you liked when you were younger

I’m still fond of many comics I liked as a child. A series I don’t quite like as much now as I think I did back then is Hägar the Horrible, still drawn by Dik Browne at that time. Some gags will always be hilarious, but many are not. Often, Browne simply ignored the Viking setting and made dull jokes about marriage and taxes instead. Current strips (by Chris Browne) can be read at hagarthehorrible.com.

Day 09 – A song comic that makes you want to dance draw

Granted, “draw” isn’t exactly to “comic” as “dance” is to “song”, but I couldn’t think of a better analogy, and at least the transfer from passive reception to activity is retained. Initially I was thinking of comics that represent the act of drawing, such as Kozue Chiba’s Crayon Days (briefly reviewed here), but one of the few comics that actually made me pick up pencil and paper was Civil War: X-Men. The drawings of penciller Yanick Paquette and inker Serge Lapointe make use of clear outlines and compact shadows, with often only minimal parallel hatching, which makes them relatively easy to copy. It’s not as if the colouring (by Stephane Peru) wasn’t good, but the quality of the pencil and ink drawings is palpable even in the finished comic.

Day 10 – A song comic that makes you cry

Although I can’t say it actually made me cry, I remember a scene early in Hal Foster’s Prince Valiant as a striking rendering of sadness and despair: Prince Valiant (and that other guy, Prince Arn) mourning the death of Ilene. That must have been around episode #80, from 1938.

Day 11 – A song comic that reminds you of summer

While some episodes of Jirō Taniguchi’s The Walking Man are clearly set in other seasons, some most likely take place in summer, e.g. “Night Swimming”. Generally, taking a walk or aimlessly wandering around (which is what this comic is all about) is more fun when it’s warm and bright.

Day 12 – A song comic that reminds you of your best friend

Back in school, Pat Mills’s Sláine was popular among me and my friends, particularly the albums of Simon Bisley’s run. That was at the same time when Braveheart became a cult film among us, and when listening to Irish folk music and drinking mead became fashionable.

Day 13 – A song comic you sing to read in the shower bathroom

Currently there’s a “Snoopy & die Peanuts” collection (i.e. late Peanuts, originally from the mid-80s) that a flatmate put there. I think I’ll read some of it eventually, although I don’t like what I’ve read so far.

Day 14 – A song comic you like hearing being read live

Uli Oesterle’s reading of Hector Umbra, which I think took place around the time it was re-released by Carlsen (2009), was great fun. He even had a DJ with him (which is only fitting, as there is also a DJ in the story).


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