Sometimes a Giant Robot Isn't Just a Giant Robot in the World of Japanese Comics
Outing yourself as a manga fan in a room of comics fans--let alone normal folks--can make you feel like you're the guy at the pervert convention admitting he's into corprophagia. Maybe it's the fact that for so many years American fans had to be scary obsessives just to keep up with manga at all. Or maybe it's the tentacle porn. But even within the world of geeks, manga fans have a certain rep.
At least they did in the late '90s when I stopped buying manga so I could start spending my limited funds on records and beer. But a lot's changed in a decade. Manga in the U.S. has gone from being an obscure adjunct of the comic-book industry to a major slice of tween/teen entertainment pie. After years as a sideline at comic-book conventions and with little in the way of critical respect, manga and anime have become routinized in America, just another entertainment option alongside your Game Boy DS, porn stash, and iTunes account. There are more manga fans in the U.S. than ever before--as anyone living in Baltimore should be well aware.
Otakon began in 1994 with around 350 attendees in State College, Pa., moved to the Baltimore Convention Center in '99, and this year clocked somewhere in the neighborhood of 20,000+. Oh, and most of the hotels are already sold out for next year. But probably the biggest shock for a lapsed manga fan is a simple trip to your local mall. In the early '90s, manga in the U.S. was limited to a handful of translated titles available in comic shops. Now mainstream bookstores devote entire sections to rows of neatly arranged, uniformly sized manga volumes with age-appropriate ratings on the back. They're even printed back-to-front, right-to-left, the traditional Japanese style.
And it's not just comics publishers; the juvenile arms of book giants like Del Ray have realized the easy moneymaking potential of paperback-sized manga volumes for an audience that can barely be bothered to read. While Japan produces a healthy share of underground and adult (in the art sense, not the porno sense) manga, the majority of what's available in the U.S. is aimed at young adults and teens.
So while it would have been easy to focus on the handful of adult manga available in the U.S., it'd feel kind of disingenuous, like praising Arrested Development while ignoring Two and a Half Men and Deal or No Deal. Part of the reason manga has exploded in the U.S. is because publishers are targeting--some might argue pandering to--a very specific readership. But still, even if 75 percent of current translated manga is aimed at teenage boys, with all those tiny books out there have to be some that transcend their formula.
I wanted to see what I'd find in the great, pulpy middle of the current manga explosion, a medium that's given the world Osamu Tezuka, Hayao Miyazaki, and Monkey Punch among others--masters of taking genre entertainment, "kid stuff," and turning it into art. (I even sat in Barnes and Noble for six hours one afternoon, reading manga like a zoned-out kid who'd been dumped there by parents eager to walk around the harbor in peace.) It certainly wasn't a complete survey of the current manga market--Tokyopop alone lists somewhere in the neighborhood of a hundred titles published in the last few years. But in the polemical race to legitimize a medium that's given the world decidedly un-kid friendly artists from Mark Beyer to S. Clay Wilson, it's easy to forget that teenagers sometimes need wish-fulfillment fantasies. Comic books are about the only things that keep some of us from turning into total sociopaths when confronted with the indignities of middle and high school.
And at the moment, manga's got wish-fulfillment fantasies on lock, typically mating them with the science-fiction stories that the medium has excelled in from its earliest days, from Astro Boy's Pinocchio-biting "real boy" fantasies to the leagues of on-the-cusp-of-adulthood spaceship pilots. What better way to metaphorically play with the traumas and tribulations of puberty than with giant robots that don't have to worry about sprouting hair in odd places? Or there's the "cute alien girl crashes at feckless human nerd's house" subgenre, where a bumbling Jack Tripper-esque protagonist tries to fight off alien affection while half-assedly saving the world. Yeah--a teenage dork trying to avoid sex. Only in comics.
A.I. Love You (Tokyopop), for instance, is Weird Science with Kelly LeBrock replaced by a dishpan-eyed anime gamine, created by a kid named Hitoshi Kobe, probably the ultimate loser. (He sucks at sports and school. He can't even be a proper nerd!) And yet despite being a poor student, he's still somehow enough of a supergenius to create a wholly realistic, artificially intelligent teenage girl that (wait for it) a freak lightning storm brings to life. Later in the series another of Hitoshi's A.I. characters comes to life, this one who he locked in computer cold storage because it teased him too much. Anyone else feel like smacking this kid before you read the book? The appeal of this sort of thing is totally obvious. But the power of a lot of shonen (boys) manga diminishes greatly after you finally get laid. Despite the bouncing breasts and pert little teen cyborgs eager to please, these stories are pretty asexual in a way common to those of an age when the female orgasm is still one of life's great mysteries.
Chobits, by Clamp, is also a boys comic--another "magical girlfriend" comic, in fact, this one a personal computer--but the art is in the more florid, fluid style of shojo (girls) manga, all long swoops of ribbonlike hair and delicately tapered limbs, the ladies of Clamp searching for ever more ornate ways to render the folds of frilly dresses and the hair impervious to gravity and growing of its own accord. With its oversized, ornately arranged panels, the plot of Chobits felt more like a delivery system for images of elfin figures in freakish embraces and creative shots of panties.
Things improved dramatically when I moved away from cutesy robot girl comedies and into traditional hard SF, the real space opera, no-girls-allowed boys stuff. Planetes (Tokyopop) is the story of an interplanetary space-refuse crew, traveling the solar system and preventing asteroids and whatnot from damaging space equipment. Fullmetal Alchemist (Viz) is an incredibly popular series that takes place in an alternate-universe earth in the early 20th century where alchemy is more than pseudoscience and people walk around with prosthetic steampunk metal limbs and stuck inside clanking suits of armor. Both were actually great--more well-written young adult novel than Philip K. Dick--and the focus on work, machines, and the creation of credible alternate universes keep the books from being a series of gags where the female lead loses her clothes at strategic moments.
So I was surprised that the best book I read fits squarely into the sad geekboy/magical girlfriend subgenre, even if it's twisted beyond recognition. FLCL (Tokyopop) is based on a six-episode anime series, written by Gainax and illustrated by Hajime Ueda. It takes the manga coming-of-age story, mates it with the cute-alien-girl subgenre, and then feeds the resulting baby some barely digested freshman psychoanalysis--darker, less googly-eyed, less serious, and less coherent than the any of the other books I read. And all the better for it--it's the only one of these books that you couldn't imagine in any form other than comics.
Twelve-year-old Naota lives in Mabase, Japan, a future suburban sprawl, a world of post-millennial mini-mall ennui. His father is a letch--sexualized older characters that inspire fear/anger/envy in the protagonist being another shonen manga hallmark--and his baseball-playing older brother is in America. Then an alien girl named Haruko appears on a Vespa--smacking Naota in the face with a guitar--as part of an advance force against, you guessed it, invading alien robots.
But the real fun begins when Naota suddenly develops a "horn" on his forehead where Haruko smacked him that looks like, well, a hard, fleshy cock. ("A purely psychological adolescent epidermal ossifying syndrome," Haruko tells him at one point. "You know, children growing horns out of their head due to stress. It's a common affliction.") The horn produces a robot, a sort of guardian angel figure. By now they're just laying on metaphor with a trowel.
Ueda's art is rough and delightful, all rectangular appendages and hard angles and stubby fingers in wide black lines or harsh little scribbly scratches. Some of the fight scenes devolve into scrawls of action lines so abstract they rival anything by the Fort Thunder kids. And at key moments the characters become even more cartoonish, like the work of a puckish grade-schooler armed with a magic marker.
And unlike the manic Looney Tunes quality of the FLCL anime, wackiness boils over to unexpected violence in the manga, Naota brutally murdering his father with a baseball bat. Even for adults who supposedly have worked past "daddy issues," the scene has more of a visceral charge than is comfortable.
So thankfully FLCL isn't all "aw, look, he's got a boner" cute-and-awkward stuff. "It's common for guys to believe that shared traumatic experiences form real bonds between people," Haruko tells Naota toward the climax, when Mabase is about to be destroyed and his guardian robot seems to have betrayed him. "But now look. Your robot buddy is under my control." This is bros before hoes rendered as cosmic struggle. At the end of most of these series, the boy gets the girl. Naota gets a slightly incomprehensible dreamlike ending with a murdered cop, a Playboy bunny who climbs out of his head, and a little bargain-basement metaphysics. From Ghost in the Shell to Akira to FLCL, sci-fi manga is very big on the "cosmic" ending that relieves the creators from good stuff like thematic resolution, catharsis, and having to actually wrestle with all the big ideas they throw out there. But hey, sometimes the universe feels completely inexplicable, whether you're 15 or 50.
Too bad Ueda's newest comic available in the U.S., Q-Ko-Chan: The Earth Invader Girl (Del Ray, the most recent volume was released last month), is a Xerox of FLCL with a handful of elements shuffled around. The art remains a unique joy amid shelves of cookie-cutter big eyes, but without Gainax's psychosexual obsessions underpinning it, it's just another magical girlfriend story. Still, discovering FLCL was exactly what I was hoping for when I took this assignment. Here's a modern boys sci-fi manga you can recommend to a 13-year-old cousin and an Atomic Books shopper at the same time.
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