A Love Letter To Japan

PrintE-mail Written by P.M. Buchan Monday, 14 November 2011

Adventures on Alternative Earths - by P.M Buchan

Welcome to another apocalyptic instalment of Adventures On Alternate Earths, the column that stomps all over Neo-Tokyo and keeps on giving you reasons to try out new comics. This month I started writing Reasons To Love Manga but found that my love of Japanese comics was inextricable from my love for Japan. Join me as I take you on a journey from the false starts of Manga Entertainment in the 1990s to the generation of British artists that grew up reading Japanese comics. Along the way we’ll take in suicides in purgatory, underground civilisations on the brink of extinction and an island full of schoolchildren intent on dismembering one another.

Manga is the Japanese word for comics, and as such we use it widely to refer to comics of Japanese origin. Japanese and American comics aren't so very different, but there are key factors that have led to significant differences in mainstream comics in the two nations. Classifications of creator-owned comics, which I use mostly to differentiate between ideas owned by comic publishers and ideas owned by their creators, don't apply in Japan. In Japanese media creative rights invariably land at big publishers like Shonen Jump, but where Marvel might take a popular character like Wolverine and farm him out to as many different writers as possible the creative teams in Shonen Jump remain consistent and always aim to see their stories through to completion. It would be unheralded for someone like Masashi Kishimoto to be separated from his creation Naruto or for another creator to take over such a series. Anthology formats and tight profit margins in Japan mean that the threat of cancellation always looms over all but the most popular manga creators, and the demands of ongoing serialisation can make for some very odd collected volumes, but without the stranglehold of corporate-owned characters creativity has thrived and Japan offers some of the most vital and deranged comics in existence as exports.

The biggest difference between manga and what we commonly perceive to be Western-style comics has been censorship. During World War 2 comics in America were big business, with titles such as Action Comics selling in excess of half-a million copies per month. To put this into context the best-selling comic of all time according to the Guinness Book of Records is X-Men #1 by Jim Lee & Chris Claremont, selling somewhere between 3 and 8 million copies, but during DC’s New 52 the state of the comic industry was such that they were bragging because Justice League #1 sold-out a first print-run of around 200,000 copies this year. After the World War 2 boom in comic sales a backlash was inevitable, and it came in 1954 in the form of Dr Frederick Wertham and his book Seduction of the Innocent. Accusing comic-books in America of polluting the minds of young people Wertham’s book led to a congressional hearing that resulted in comic publishers voluntarily imposing the Comics Code of Authority on themselves, making it impossible for comics containing graphic violence and adult themes to find distribution on news-stands. America’s self-imposed censorship had a knock-on effect on the UK, which imported American comics heavily, leading to the juvenilisation of an entire medium in the UK and US for the second half of the 20th century. There were notable exceptions, beginning with the counter-culture movements in the 1960s and leading to watershed adult graphic novels like Maus, Watchmen and the Dark Knight Returns in the late 1980s. These initiated the gradual decline of the Comics Code of Authority, which finally died this year, but there can be no denying the devastating effect that the Seduction of the Innocents had on our entire medium in the West. In Japan, conversely, the production of comics enjoyed a boom in popularity in the wake of World War 2, when a devastated country was looking for affordable forms of entertainment and found them in comics, distributed widely at libraries and printed on cheap paper stocks in massive collections. Without the restrictions imposed by a widely recognised censorship body Japanese comics catered to all ages and genders and have continued to do so ever since.

Aesthetically there are many differences between Western comics and manga, from the page sizes, use of colour and reading direction to more subtle things like the language of visual shorthand that manga has developed to portray symbolically what Stan Lee might have expressed in a thought bubble or caption. Page layouts are generally less formal and restrained in manga than in their western counterparts, which I attribute to the fact that Marvel and DC’s production-line philosophy imposed a division between writer and artist that is much less common in manga. With more freedom to express themselves on the page Japanese artists tend not to restrict themselves to formal nine-panel structures, but of course this unification of writer and artist can mean that many manga series will have gorgeous art and weak, derivative plots, or might be excellently plotted but poorly illustrated.


I was born in 1982 and when I was growing up the word manga had been claimed by Manga Entertainment, a company founded in 1991 that specialises in licensing and distribution Japanese animations (anime) to the west, not in translating Japanese comics (manga)! Beginning by distributing feature-length anime like Akira and Ghost In The Shell on VHS, Manga Entertainment found massive popularity with their early releases but somehow wound up in a situation whereby the anime that they chose to license influenced an English-speaking generation about the nature of animation in Japan. After an initial spate of releases like Ninja Scroll that rightly earned certificates making them inaccessible to minors, Manga Entertainment decided that Western consumers wanted excess from Japan and craved sex and graphic violence. They also felt that they could market feature-length animations much more easily than they could conventional Japanese anime, which most commonly airs as serialised television series. This mix of factors led to some very odd marketing decisions from Manga Entertainment, who first released as many offensive animations as they could get their hands on and then started creating strange hybrid products, either editing together episodes of series like Clamp’s X into feature-length movies that made little sense or adding prolific swearing to the English dubs of animations so that they would receive a higher age certificate, meeting the needs of their perceived audience. With such strange business practices prevalent during my formative teenage years it’s little wonder that my generation grew up believing that Japan was a country predisposed towards tentacle porn and neon ultra-violence.


As a young teenager I followed Manga Entertainment’s VHS schedule religiously and went crazy for their £5.99 per-episode releases of Bio-Booster Armour Guyver, the story of a boy that bonds with a biomechanical armour designed to combat human-monster hybrids. After only 12 episodes and an open-ending I was left wanting more, and whatever translations of the manga existed were inaccessible to me at the time. I had a brief love affair with Patlabor: The Movie, a surprisingly mature Mecha drama about a society reliant on giant robots and the consequences of relying on technology for progress. Again this anime seemed entirely disconnected from the world of comic books so I abandoned my affair with Manga Entertainment, pursuing the teenage dream of drugs, alcohol and unrequited romance instead.


The gateway drug that finally, irreversibly got me hooked on manga was volume 1 of Battle Royale, created by Koushun Takami and Masayuki Takaguchi, adapted into English by Keith Giffen and published by Tokyopop sometime around 2001. (As a sidenote, Tokyopop can largely be credited with the widescale introduction of translated manga to English-speaking audiences. Founded in 1997, Tokyopop sadly ceased trading this year, apart from a German branch whose continued existence confuses me).  This was the time in my life just after leaving home and starting university and perversely I was using my newfound freedom to quit smoking. Shopping through Forbidden Planet for comics to buy instead of cigarettes I picked up the first volume of Battle Royale and was instantly hooked by the gore and ultraviolent beauty. Based on Koushun Takami’s novel of the same name, which was also adapted into one of my four favourite films of all time (the other three are Lost Highway, The Good, The Bad & The Ugly and Black Death, if you’re wondering), Battle Royale is a comic of glorious excess, chronicling the deaths of a class of angst-ridden schoolchildren forced to battle to the death on a remote island. Giffen’s adaptation plays more loosely than most translations in an attempt to appeal outside of normal manga readers and for me the ploy worked brilliantly, cementing my love of comics as a medium and indirectly leading me to write this column. Lovelorn lovers commit to bloody suicide pacts, friends dismember friends and psychopaths with abusive pasts stalk the island using panty-shots and sexual promises to massacre their classmates. I can’t recommend Battle Royale enough in any medium, combining every theme and element that I’ve ever wanted out of entertainment.


From Battle Royale it didn’t take me long to investigate the state of modern anime and find that the West was beginning to begrudgingly accept that Japanese animation was far more focussed on television series than feature-length movies, with series like Shinichiro Watanabe’s Cowboy Bebop first airing in the UK in 2002. By this point in life I was rebelling against a life of long hair, black metal and torn denim, so a series about intergalactic bounty hunters set to a space-jazz soundtrack that referenced the Beats and focussed on themes of existential-angst was absolutely what I was looking for. The music alone is worth the price of admission and because this was a story originally envisioned as an anime and not translated from manga the story actually has a start and finish, ending on the sort of nihilistic note that has earned Cowboy Bebop a place in my heart from now until my dying days. From here I investigated by downloading a lot of other anime series but none had such a profound effect on me. Shinichiro Watanabe’s later effort Samurai Champloo did come close, blending Edo-period Japan with hip-hop culture and soundtracks to devastating effect. My biggest problem with Samurai Champloo is that the narrative sets up a confrontation that never happens. When Champloo failed to take the same nihilistic tone of Cowboy Bebop I couldn’t help but be disappointed.


Another anime that I discovered around this time was Hiabane Renmei, which follows a newly-hatched girl, born into a walled-town which she is forbidden to leave and with no memory of how she came to be there. The girl is one of a gathering of angel-type beings and their existence draws parallel to an idyllic purgatory, with hints that they must use their time there to work through the sins of their lifetimes. Suicide is referenced and darkness lingers around this melancholic community, creating a beautiful atmosphere of wonderment and giving no definitive answers. Seeing that Haibane Renmei was created in part by Yoshitoshi Abe I tried out another series that he played a hand in, Texhnolyze, which turned out to be fiercely bleak and oppressive, the story of a dying world wilfully feeding their humanity to machines. I don’t think that I’ve ever encountered a piece of speculative fiction offering such a grim prediction for the future.

Parallel to these discoveries I indulged in a new-found passion for Japanese cinema and went crazy for black-and-white samurai movies like Sword of Doom. The acceptance and even respect for suicide that was part of feudal Japan created a culture where plunging headlong into reckless and foolhardy endeavours was considered to be heroic and noble, traits that inform some of my favourite fictional characters, such as Guts in Kentaro Miura’s Berserk, a man that loses many body-parts waging a war that he can never win against a race of dark gods that torture humanity for their perverse amusement. Samurai’s led to Yakuza, which led inevitably to the films of Takeshi Kitano, thoughtful and meditative affairs that are punctuated by unexpected acts of violence and invariably end when their protagonists shoot themselves in the head.


All of these factors created in me a lifelong affection for Japan. When I started working at a comic shop in 2004 Tokyopop’s fortunes were really ascending and each week saw the release of scores of newly translated manga, taking up at least as much space in the store as Western monthly comics. Unlike the comic shops that I remembered from my childhood teenage girls were flocking to us en-masse and Saturdays began to look like cosplay meet-ups, with gangs of youths carrying oversized home-made swords and wearing an array of Naruto headbands and hoods with animal ears. Forays into new genres led to my wife and I to collect manga like Chobits, Love Hina, GTO, Nana, Naruto, Fullmetal Alchemist, Ouran High School Host Club, Honey and Clover, Death Note, Paradise Kiss, Uzumaki and so many more since. These weren’t commitments taken on lightly, to date I’ve bought the first 52 volumes of Naruto and I still wait avidly for each new instalment. My love for manga has left my wallet considerably lighter, but the themes that they tackle are like nothing offered by Marvel or DC and the focus of a single creator steering the fortunes of a story from start to finish is a breath of fresh air in a world where Spider-Man might be written and illustrated by top-tier artists one month and then buried by idiots in the next.

Our Western culture of following fictional characters and not their creators is baffling. Occasionally an idea might be so compelling that I want to see another writer take a stab at it, David Lapham has brilliantly risen to the challenge that Garth Ennis laid down in Crossed, but in general Wolverine is just a man in a mask with claws. However cool he might seem Wolverine has been plagued by far more terrible writers than he has been elevated by good ones and Wolverine is a character, not a story. Nobody should pledge allegiance to a fictional character. It makes me sick to see novelists using the same logic and branding their books as The Latest Alex Pike adventure. Excuse me? Alex Pike? You’re selling 600 pages based on the fact that they’re about Alex Pike, a character that I’ve never heard of but that’s probably a law-man with a good heart but a shadowy past? Follow the creators, not their creations, even if you ignore every other piece of advice that I give out in this column.

The publishing landscape today is very different from the one that I sold comics in. Over the past decade young people have grown into a culture where their older peers are obsessed with Death Note and Naruto. Prejudices will never die, the captain of the school rugby team will always laugh at the boy that dresses up like a ninja for fun, but recognition of manga as an art-form is growing worldwide and Japanese properties like the Studio Ghibli films have permeated our national consciousness. We’re reaching a point where the first generation of British artists to grow up reading manga are coming of age and their work shows the influences of Japanese artists reinterpreted in Western styles. One of the champions for this generation in the UK has been SelfMadeHero, whose line of Manga Shakespeare titles represented the first professional work for a lot of manga-influenced artists.


Oxford-based Kate Brown benefitted from the Manga Shakespeare line, adapting A Midsummer Night’s Dream in 2008 and serialising her strip The Spider Moon in the weekly children’s strip The DFC (which is set to return in spirit next year in the guise of The Phoenix). Today I read the SelfMadeHero published hardcover of Kate’s original graphic novel Fish + Chocolate and the contents were nothing short of breathtaking. Tackling themes of family, isolation, motherhood and abandonment Fish + Chocolate can only be talked about in terms of its success as a work of art. The narrative of the three short stories contained within takes a back-seat to emotion and honesty, but as a work of art this graphic novel is a resounding success. The fusion of styles is dazzling, from evolved layouts that speak of Kate’s manga-influences to gorgeously vibrant but understated colours that were honed during her time on the webcomic Freakangels. Everything about this book is unconventional and brilliant. The stories have a particularly feminised slant, tackling maternal fears, smothering behaviour and what could be miscarriage or the loss of a child, but this is as it should be. In a landscape where so many teenage girls grow up reading predominantly Shonen fodder like Naruto it’s fitting that artists like Kate Brown should emerge creating comics that explore what it is not to be a simpering teenage girl in a boy’s adventure, but to be a woman in our modern world. I am not the target audience for Fish + Chocolate but I loved reading it and won’t hesitate to pass it on to my wife, my sisters and my daughter when she’s older. The love that has gone into its creation shines through and I hope that it will stand as beacon for all the girls in this country that grow up reading manga and aspire to create comics professionally.


Another British artist that’s breaking through on a global level is Cambridge-based Emma Vieceli, a key member of the comics collective Sweatdrop Studios, who I’ll say a little more about shortly. Coming into the public eye with her Manga Shakespeare adaptations of Hamlet in 2007 and Much Ado About Nothing in 2009, Emma has since contributed to Marvel’s Girl Comics anthology (alongside one of my favourite artists Steph Buscema) and in 2010 she published a collection of her creator-owned comic Dragon Heir: Reborn. Dragon Heir is worlds apart from Fish + Chocolate and the distance between these two books highlights the breadth of possibilities available to the next generation of British manga-influenced artists. Dragon Heir stays much closer to the Japanese format of black-and-white artwork, shaded with screen-tones and interspersed with stylised chibi-illustrations where emotional scenes are highlighted by drawings of childlike-simplicity. The subject matter fits into the realm of Tolkein-esque fantasy, dealing with a group of characters embarking on a mission to fulfil their destiny, beset by adversaries just as they struggle to gel as a group and put aside individual motivations in order to work together. The subject matter is conventional but the execution is not, with fluid line-work and the author’s obvious affection for the characters uniting to create something that stands aside from its British and Japanese cousins as something new and exciting. I’m wary of independently published comics that take such glee in introducing new worlds and adding layers of intrigue to the plot with every chapter, because I’m afraid that ambition will overtake ability and these quests will never be resolved, but that clearly isn’t going to be the case for Emma Vieceli. Her star is ascending and the higher her public profile becomes the higher the demand for Dragon Heir will become, so I look forward to following her on that journey and finding whether these characters can ever shed their dragon spirits and get the chance to begin their lives as mortals. Look out for Emma’s work on the Channel 4 motion-comic The Thrill Electric, written by Leah Moore & John Reppion.


 P M BUCHAN & KATE HOLDEN’S ‘DRAG THE LAKE

It wouldn’t be an epic instalment of Adventures On Alternate Earths without me slipping in a little publicity for the comics that I’m working on. Some of the most talented artists that I've had the privilege to write for have been influenced by manga and working with them has taught me a lot about breaking free from formal page structures. Issue 4 of SCREAM: The Horror Magazine contained a strip that I'd written for the Manga Jiman-winning Kate Holden and she delivered brilliantly exactly what I specified in the script, but I realised far too late that by asking for too many panels in the page I hadn't left Kate room to do anything but use a tight grid. I love the end result but Kate must have been cursing me while she sat at a drawing board deciding what details in the script to sacrifice for the sake of squeezing everything onto a single page. If you want to see what Kate is capable of without my restrictions check out her Fan Dan Go webcomic, which should be available to buy as a full colour book by the time you read this column. Pay close attention to the detail that Kate puts into her characters' costumes because I've never met anybody else that makes clothes look as cool as she does!


P M BUCHAN & KAREN YUMI LUSTED’S ‘LA BELLE DAME SANS MERCI

The next manga-influenced artist that I got the opportunity to work with was Karen Yumi Lusted and we decided to enter the Myriad Editions First Graphic Novel competition, which had a minimum requirement of 15 pages. The finished pages of our strip La Belle Dame Sans Merci occupied twice the space that I expected them to but have a wonderful flow, so although the competition hasn't been judged yet I'm confident that we'll find a good home for the story regardless of the result. It shouldn't escape regular readers of Adventures On Alternate Earths what a bloodthirsty taste in entertainment I can have. I attribute this to my naturally sunny disposition, which leads me to seek out harrowing and depressing fiction. The great thing about working with Kate and Karen has been that neither felt comfortable with the graphic excesses that I normally write so I'm learning to approach horror from new angles. For anybody looking for artists to collaborate with I’d advise you to check the forums for Sweatdrop Studios, the UK’s most influential manga-styled comics collective. I’ve never posted there because I’m drowning in a sea of deadlines and commitments, but everybody tells me that the Sweatdrop forums are the go-to place for writers or artists looking for like-minded collaborators. Platforms like Sweatdrop are the key for aspiring comic-creators to get out of their bedrooms and join a wider community, which is massively important for an art form that’s created largely in solitude.

There you have it folks, I wanted to create a list of manga series for you to try out but it seems that my love for Japanese comics is inextricably linked to my love for their culture, alike to us in so many respects and alien in so many others. Putting my money where my mouth is you’ll find me at Doki Doki this month enjoying Manchester’s first Japanese Festival, including guests like Al Davison, Sonia Leong & Emma Vieceli, then on to Thought Bubble, where I hope to meet most of the people that I’ve spent the last year writing about and conduct enough interviews to fuel Starburst to the end of 2012. At the end of November I’ll be throwing a third-birthday party for my son and attending a film festival that I’ve helped to organise in my home-town. The Cutting Edge runs from 2pm until 11pm on Saturday 26th November across two venues in Newcastle-Upon-Tyne and will celebrate short horror films and underground artists of the weird and macabre in the north-east. Come down and say hi if you’re around that day. Finally look out for issue 1 of an exciting new magazine called The Bleed that will hopefully contain my first published short story. The Bleed will be distributed for free in art galleries, comic shops and other dens of iniquity around the North-East, but for everybody else the magazine is also hosted on their website. Issue #0 featured a cover by Bryan Talbot and a two-page strip by Andy Waugh, so The Bleed’s Starburst credentials have already been firmly established.

Now get out there and start making and reading comics!


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Other articles in Adventures on Alternative Earths - by P.M Buchan

Antidotes to DC Comics 14 October 2011

All Comics Are Created Equal 14 September 2011

X-Men: Road to Schism 14 August 2011

52 First Issues?!? 14 July 2011

Teen Angst, Talking Corpses & Pompous Frogs 14 June 2011

What makes a great comic? 04 May 2011

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