Last week I demonstrated how claims for the ubiquity of manga styles, especially in the West, are more often than not predicated upon a complete lack of comparative analysis. As a result, comparative analysis is really the only means for determining what is stylistically distinct between Anglo-American and Japanese comics. However, this is made doubly difficult by the fact that there is, in fact, a great deal of variety in the styles we see in each major comic market, even if, as I claimed last week, that there does appear to be a limited range of stylistic deviations, once we limit ourselves to the stereotypes of the most popular demographics, those for young boys (shōnen) and girls (shōjo). Moreover, the work of both Japanese and non-Japanese artists has influence on both sides of the world. Frank Miller produced original cover art for the English translation of Lone Wolf and Cub, and his seminal Dark Knight Returns shows clear signs of having been influenced by Koike’s profoundly pessimistic worldview. Yet, Miller, I assume, would never consider himself a mangaka, as opposed to a “mere” comic book artist/writer. Similarly, though animation and not comics, in the second episode of Enokido Yōji’s FLCL (produced by Gainax and Production IG), there is a scene that is clearly aping the unique visual style of Parker and Stone’s South Park.
So, I think the best way to approach this sticky issue is to juxtapose the “comic” and “manga” styles of one artist, and thankfully Colleen Doran has produced the perfect text for this sort of analysis, hers and Barry Lyga’s Mangaman, the story of a young “man,” Kiyama Ryoko, who is one day suddenly sucked out of his manga world into our, not real, but differently (yet eerily similar) comic world. I would like particularly to focus on Doran’s art and how she pulls off what might easily become a gag or gimmick, good enough for a laugh or two but otherwise not noteworthy.
Also, before I get into the details of Mangaman, I have to thank my former student Mark Rhomberg for bringing this text to my attention. While I may not entirely agree with the arguments he made about it, I would be remiss for not mentioning that it was he who first piqued my interest in this wholly peculiar work.
“Big-time high school challenge!”
As several parts parody, Mangaman, of necessity, trades in certain stereotypes: school rivals, big shiny eyes, the “effeminate” men of shōjo manga, sudden knock-down-drag-out fights, mecha, the new kid who both threatens and excites everyone, etc. If it weren’t for the clash between “manga” and “comic” styles, the story would border on after-school-special simplistic: boy enters school from out of town (i.e. another dimension), falls in love with pretty girl, runs afoul of pretty girl’s boyfriend, they fight, boy is driven out, boy and girl run away together, and so forth. How this simple story is colored by the effects Ryoko’s manga-ness has on Marissa’s, the girl’s, world and on her perception of it is part and parcel of the meta-critical take the comic has on the very stereotypes it must reproduce in order to deconstruct.
There is a clear stylistic movement that uses the text, in a sense, recursively. 1) We are presented with certain gross manga stereotypes that 2) later undermine the “reality”–particularly the characters’ assumptions of the realness of their world–of Doran’s more photo-realistic style which helps Lyga and Doran’s reader go back and 3) consider what gross stereotypes “our own” comics trade in. For instance, until Ryoko and Marissa almost-but-don’t have sex at the end of chapter 8, Marissa dresses in a series of costumes: a geisha outfit, Cleopatra, Julie Newmar’s Catwoman, Marilyn Monroe, an Elizabethan pageboy, etc. Marissa only dresses “normally” once Ryoko has finally convinced her that her world is not real but on a page, in frames.
Many of the gags in the text play off Ryoko’s girlishness: the beautifully detailed eyes, the long flowing hair, blush lines, and rose-laden panels, just to name a few. Even his name is not a man’s at all, and when he first appears at the party in chapter 1, someone in the crowd comments, “I don’t know if I should kick its ass or screw it” (p. 14). There’s a lot to unpack just in that one statement: the inhumanity of this stylistic outsider (“it”), the threat of physical (for men) and sexual violence (for women), and overall the objectification both of Ryoko as a character/person and as a cache of stereotyped conventions. Ryoko is, for everyone except Marissa, an intrusion, sometimes comic, as when students complain about his speed lines getting in the way (p. 27), and sometimes threatening, as when Marissa’s preference for Ryoko’s sensitivity raises the ire of the caricatures of masculinity that otherwise populate the high school in which most of Mangaman is set (pp. 89ff).
It is Ryoko as intrustion, though, as not quite masculine and not quite feminine (or at least stereotypes thereof), that helps Marissa (and likewise Lyga and Doran’s reader) see past the suspension of disbelief that so often attains to narrative in any media. The point is to see not the story, necessarily, but the page and format, the construction of types both in narratological and visual terms. The characters in Doran’s “own” style, recognizable from previous work such as A Distant Soil, remain consistent in style (and behavior) whereas Ryoko at times seems all over the place. One moment, we seem to be in shōjo land (as above), when only a few pages later Ryoko transforms into a shōnen stereotype, and we get the climatic battle between rivals that we might expect from any of a bazillion shōnen titles over the years.
Doran’s manga style is, I think of a necessity, mixed. It represents not a confusion of the stylistic conventions of various manga demographics but rather is a means to point to the rigidity of visual design of her other, as Ryoko says (p. 59), “rounder” and more photo-realistic characters. This visual rigidity is echoed in their limited worldview and stereotypical behavior. Ryoko is far more accepting of the oddness of this new world in which he finds himself, because he has no unwavering belief in the reality even of the world from which he comes. “You know I come from manga, right? / The world is broken up into these discrete units… / I have a theory… / …that what you call the ‘real world’ is just another form of manga. A different version or style of it.”
Another form of manga–Ryoko’s worldview is, of course, flipped, and it decenters Marissa’s. She begins to see her world as a comic and, as such, becomes capable of moving through it without being penned in by the arbitrary (and imagined) limits of any one particular panel, which is to say she understands her world as a reader of it would and not as just a character within it. Marissa’s exploration of the manga-ness of her own world culminates in Mangaman‘s surprising climax, when Marissa herself turns stylistically into a manga trope.
[Yet] Another Form of Manga
Marissa’s transformation is only one half of the undermining of comic, or perhaps cartoonish, conventions that Mangaman depicts, nor is it even the most unsettling. While the expansion of Marissa’s perspective on her own world makes for an intriguing variation on the classic coming-of-age story, it is paralleled, yet oddly only in hindsight, by Ryoko’s failure to learn anything much from his/her being transposed into Marissa’s “form of manga.” As I say above, the final movement in the clash of manga and comics in their non/distinctions is recursive. Marissa’s transformation, though it takes place at the end of the text, is necessary to see the inhumanity of Ryoko’s cartoonish assumptions about the world. In a cartoon (e.g. Tom and Jerry or its Simpsons parody The Itchy and Scratchy Show), what might otherwise come off as horrible violence and brutality is comic, because there are no lasting ramifications to such violence. So, Ryoko is genuinely shocked when his fight with Chaz in chapter 9 leaves the latter lying bloody on the ground, not breathing and inches from death.
For whatever reason, Marissa’s psychic transformation is not accompanied by a similar change in Ryoko. Despite the variation Ryoko undergoes in the text, all those variations are still limited to a kind of manga, for, in a sense, even in the Anglo-American comic universe with its differing assumptions about the representation of “reality,” Ryoko is always still a manga trope. That the kind of trope varies changes very little, for while Mangaman seems to celebrate the liberation inherent in seeing things in a “manga way,” this liberation only exists for those proper to the other comic universe into which Ryoko is transplanted. So, when read again, Ryoko’s unchangedness on the final page, as he and Marissa “begin” their journey together, is rather haunting. If he hasn’t learned anything so far, what can he hope to discover going forward?
So, with cartoonish violence in mind, next week I will attempt to broach certain problems of manga historiography through the lens of three works by Shirato Sanpei, who, despite being basically unknown in the West, is one of the most important influences on all “serious” manga and whose work undermines most of the categorical distinctions that are so often made in writing the history of comics in Japan.
contact me: firstname.lastname@example.org