The Basement Tapes: Issue #9

Tue, September 28th, 2004 at 12:00am PDT

Comic Books
Joe Casey & Matt Fraction, Columnist

Sometimes, this is what happens when two writers e-mail each other:

An ongoing conversation behind closed doors, equal parts experience, opinion, critique, and outright rambling, THE BASEMENT TAPES are an attempt to present somewhat serious discussion about the somewhat serious business of comic books between two writers waist-deep in the perplexing and ever-evolving morass of their own careers.

Manga is the 900-pound bear in the comics shop. Inescapable, unavoidable, and impossible to ignore, the manga explosion is either going to go away-which is bad, as so many mass-market bookstores seem to be bulking up their comics supply based on manga's lead-or manga will continue to grow-also bad, as the direct market scrambles to keep up. The entire industry is being forced, month by month, little by little, into a paradigm shift not seen since the advent of the direct market in the early '80s, all thanks to these strange little books from far away. Joe and I started talking beyond manga's financial might in the marketplace, and started talking about what lessons, if any, there are to learn.

FRACTION: I'm a big Paul Pope fan. He used to talk about making books he thought could reach out to teen girls as its audience, and a lot of people pointed and laughed at him for it.

So: Manga. It's being read by everyone but regular comics readers, and being bought everywhere but comic stores (Go with the generalization, please, so I don't have to qualify every statement from here on out). We could go on and on about what it means to the market, if anything; about what the market did, is doing, and will do to chase after those sales, and how many copies AMBIGUOUSLY-SEXED POP STAR GOES A'COURTIN' sells over IDEALIZED MALE POWER FANTASY, but that would require, you know, math and stuff.

What I do want to talk about is the pure dose of alien culture manga's had on how I consider comics, pop, and "visual fiction"-- it's literally been like finding a hidden bookstore on the moon or something. The last three, four years have been a learning experience to say the least.

What about you?

CASEY: Pope was ahead of the curve by about a decade, I figure.

I think what's daunting about manga for most readers who are more comfortable with English language comic books (I don't want to go so far as to say "superhero fans," but you and I both know that's what I'm talking about) is that there's suddenly so much of it available. And such a wide variety of subject matter. Maybe too much for comic book readers who are used to limited choices. But if that's the case, they're certainly missing the point.

Personally, I'm damn glad that there is plenty of shojo out there for girls to read. That doesn't mean I have to read it. But I can still appreciate it. My experience with reading manga is an experience that you'd be hard-pressed to have in North American/English language comic books. Obviously, I have a scattered sociological interest in politics, so I was naturally drawn to FIRST PRESIDENT OF JAPAN. There was no American equivalent. Maybe now, with EX MACHINA, but not back then. On the other hand, I'm a big Keith Giffen fan, so I was able to slide into BATTLE ROYALE simply because he was translating it (although I quickly discovered that there's nothing particularly "Giffen-esque" about the BR translations, and I'm still wondering if who does the translating makes any significant difference. Again, my limited exposure becomes obvious…). What manga provides is diversity. That diversity is its appeal for me. If anything, manga fulfills the promise of diversity that a lot of us always hoped for with North American comic books, but has yet to be fully realized (and, quite honestly, may never be realized). Of course, that hasn't stopped me from writing one (KRASH BASTARDS, coming soon from AiT/PlanetLar).

I guess my general feeling is this: if manga is indeed still considered somewhat "alien" to mainstream American readers... it could only be labeled so because it's getting it right.

The question I'd have for you is... what manga do you read, or what manga have you read? And, did you read it out of an analytical, anthropological interest, or did you choose what you read out of a genuine interest in the story or the subject matter...? Because the true test here is whether or not we -- as readers weaned on American storytelling idioms -- can become engaged not only in the way manga tells stories, but in what the stories are about. Beyond the "alien-ness" of the format, have you read any manga that engages you on a purely conceptual or story level...?

FRACTION: You should see it in Japan-- it's, like, THE PRIZE. It's the brass ring, the big finish that everyone in western comics dreams about. Giant stores with nothing but fat book after fat book, jammed elbow to elbow with readers of all stripes. Every single convenient store or subway stand sells twenty, thirty titles. People read them constantly, everywhere. Our inkling of manga, as an industry and economic presence, only scratches the surface of its penetration on its home turf. I took a lot of pictures of people just reading or browsing. To prove it exists. To prove it can happen.

I've read a ton of manga in all sorts of genres; I like EAGLE more than FIRST PRESIDENT, I like DOMU more than AKIRA, but I have a kind of nostalgic fondness for the latter from it's days at Ye Olde Epic; I've read a lot, but not all that's available of Osamu Tezuka, and like ADOLF best; Junko Mizuno is pure sex-pop and Junji Ito does some of the best horror anywhere bar none; I like the film and novel of BATTLE ROYALE better than the manga, but that's more of an art issue and it felt old and forcedly hip in the reading.

One of my favorite creators working today, in any idiom, is Taiyo Matsumoto-- BLACK AND WHITE is easily in my top-five of all time. And that's just off the top of my head, I've read a bunch more-- INITIAL D, IRON WOK JAN, VAGABOND, LUPIN III-- and they're varying levels of good-to-great.

Some of it I've come to from a purely anthropological standpoint-- What the hell is a cooking manga?-- and come away a fan as often as a simple observer-- So he races his car again, huh? Okay. There's a large technical aspect to my spark of interest originally, and that spark has evolved into... whatever-it-is that makes you a fan, a reader, whatever. It was a lot like going into a comic store the first few times. I knew I liked what they were selling, but had to sample around a lot to find what suited my tastes.

For every one-off curiosity, there's a HOTEL HARBOR VIEW that resonates and reflects itself and its presence within my understanding and love of the medium as much as any Moore or Chaykin ever did.

What about you?

CASEY: Well, you've got it all over me when it comes to amount of material read. The first manga I read regularly was LONE WOLF AND CUB, back when First Comics was doing the reprints (although, one could argue that the first manga I read was the first half of Frank Miller's RONIN...). I've read some SILENT MOBIUS… at the time I was viewing it as some sort of alternative superhero comic book (which it is, as far as I'm concerned. It's got all the angst and soap opera-ness of the Claremont-written comic books I read as a kid). Then there's BUSINESS COMMANDO, which is self-explanatory. I was hip to RAIJIN COMICS when it was coming out as an anthology on the newsstands... that's where I was initially exposed to FIRST PRESIDENT. I liked SLAM DUNK, too.

I don't know if any of them have affected me on a visceral, emotional level. But the wide cultural acceptance and continued proliferation of manga in its "home country" certainly does.

FRACTION: Okay, I've never heard of BUSINESS COMMANDO, and I just punched myself in the head for not thinking of it myself.

Do you remember JADEMAN comics? They were, like, Chinese comics? Imported over here, repackaged and the dialogue was redone for American audiences. I want to say Mike Baron was doing some of the dialogue rewrites for them. I hadn't been reading comics long when they started coming out; LONE WOLF from First (with the Frank Miller covers...!) and AKIRA weren't too far behind that. As my exposure to comics grew, books from Japan, China, Korea, wherever... all of them were folded into my idea of comics as a whole. And even if the stories left me out in the cold, the visual energy was so... new. So not Jim Aparo, you know?

CASEY: Fucking hell... of course I remember Jademan Comics! Thanks to the glory that is Mike Baron, I bought up those initial reprints like a motherfucker. Quite frankly, I thought I was the only one...! And yeah, I think they were Chinese comic books. These days, I get that same Jademan-like experience from STORM RIDERS.

FRACTION: A lot of it is like any injection of foreign culture, be it film or novels or music-- the rules are similar but the game is played differently. And either you can get into it or you can't. So you dive in until you teach yourself how it works, I guess. You should check out Matsumoto's work, though. That guy's picked up radio waves from Mars or something.

The greatest thing about the volume of manga that's being pumped out over here is that there's mediocre shit, too. It's a huge relief to find that not everything is AKIRA or ADOLF-- when it was a more select kind of delicacy, though, it was hard to tell. At first I thought everything was a work of genius.

Y'know, my wife does the English adaptations of, like, seven hundred different books for Viz and TokyoPop, a lot of them Shojo, so I've been exposed to a lot of that recently, too. Talk about X-book style angst and soap-operatics-- shojo is like a smart bomb aimed at nervous, insecure girls. They're some of the most emotionally exploitative, target-marketed, and demographically lethal things I've ever seen-- Claremont WISHES he could twist his little girls in knots like Mayu Shinjo can.

The strange thing is that they seem so utterly without guile. The books don't feel like the product of a committee, but if you're an insecure girl with body and confidence issues, she's got you dead to rights. If they weren't so sweetly naive, they'd be cruelly manipulative.

Fashion, tastes, accessories, fads-- The sun rises and sets on the whims of Japanese girls. Wouldn't it be great if the Stan Lee of Japan wasn't a hyperbolic carnie huckster raising a boy-army of misfits and pop junkies, but a nervous, shy, post-schoolgirl still obsessed with boy bands and losing weight, leading all of the other unpopular girls to stuff their backpacks with phonebook weepies? Mayu Shinjo is the Bizarro-Stan. AntiStan!

CASEY: Sounds about right to me. I mean, look, we're talking about an audience that I probably never speak to in any of my work that's seen print so far, but I do find it fascinating as hell. And hearing about the American teenage girls currently interested in shojo does make me curious if their needs are being met in the same way that Japanese girls are. Or are the different audiences -- culturally speaking -- picking up on different things?

Watching the awkward attempts to tap into that girl market with ill-conceived American comic book "equivalents" is like watching a virgin fumbling with a bra clasp. Chalk another one up to American greed. "If they can do it so well, shouldn't webe able to do it ten times better...?" At least the manga I'm writing is all about swordfightin' and spaceships and shit like that.

FRACTION: Media excels at making women feel inferior in a way it doesn't for men-- don't be fat, don't be ugly, don't be unpopular, boys don't make passes at girls who wear glasses and all that. There are commercials for creams that help twenty-year olds "defy the signs of aging." From that angle, girls are a universally more exploitable audience than boys are, and shojo taps into that.

And you're exactly right-- that's the biggest failing in the American monkeysee manga trend, honestly. It's not just the format, dummy. It's not just the art. Big eyes on Mary Jane or 300 black and white pages of ROBIN in a 7x5 format would be like wearing a beret and striped shirt and expecting to be embraced as a native Parisian-- it's shallow, superficial, and most of all, crass and naive. Medium and message; form and content. Same old narrow thinking as always.

Which brings in something Kel and I talk about a lot-- the purity vs. idiom aspect of adapting these things. Manga publishers over here seem to vary on this position book to book, but there's a loyal, vocal fan-base that want literal, exact translations. That's kind of dumb, honestly. It's a different idiom and a different culture, and one that entry-level comic/manga readers-- girls-won't necessarily innately groove. I don't see the virtue in not providing an occidental polish to these books to make them as palatable to as many people as possible. And I tend to think of the people repulsed by that as the manga-equivalent of core X-MEN readers: they'll bay like mad dogs online, but they're still gonna buy it month in and month out…

(Of course, it's not exactly hurt manga/shojo sales much either way, so what do I know?)

CASEY: Now, here's a question for you... as a writer, is there anything craft-wise you take from manga? Any tricks that have bubbled up simply from being exposed to those specific sequentials that you can identify in your own writing...?

FRACTION: Yeah, my exposure to manga has been quite influential on how I write. It's like having a handful of metric wrenches and standard wrenches.

CASEY: I hear ya'. I think it's interesting that you brought up the opinions of manga fans, putting it in the same light as American comic book fans being passionate about their favorite characters, series, etc. What I find most interesting about that is how, over here, we're squabbling over a few crumbs on the plate... while over there, the passions rage over the equivalent of a three-course meal. Kinda' puts things into perspective.

The other point you make that's even more pertinent... if, in fact, the girl market in the East is, in a sense, being "exploited", is there that much of a difference when it comes to our homegrown comic book market, where superhero comic book readers -- smaller number they may happen to be -- are equally being exploited? Publishers, writers and artists identifying their audiences' fears and insecurities (in this case, "Oh no! The X-Men are changing costumes!" or "We love Superman. Why doesn't he sell better?") to keep some sort of continuous, hypnotic hold over them...

FRACTION: There's a difference-- however arcane and ethereal-- between writing for trade and decompression; ultimately, the 22-page comic is a format served poorly by a twenty-page sequence of three-panel pages showing a dude opening a door. For three bucks? Kiss my ass. But part of it, again, is cultural-- Japanese is processed as a written language much faster than English is; part of manga's girth is a matter of necessity, in a way because it can be read sofuckingfast.

Peter Siegel and I met a cat in Berkeley named Neil Cohn who was doing a lot of research into the application of advanced language semiotics to the comics page. Fascinatingly weird shit, the first true post-McCloud theory writing that's not been written by McCloud. You can check out his book at www.emaki.net, because he's going to explain it much better than I.

There's a reason why the explosion of the First Person Shooter into the lifestyle of males 14-24 parallels the decline of the comics market. Why read about The Punisher when you can be The Punisher? Girl neuroses are an internal, shameful kind of thing-- body and soul dysmorphia-- that's an emotional kind of burden. Internal, interior-- reading first person accounts of a Girl Just Like You resonates by embracing, by being inclusive, by having a subtext of you're not alone and you can find your happy ending.

Boy neuroses mean hitting stuff. And there are ultimately better vessels than comics that can provide that. Manga has such diverse readership-- it's targeting the emotional and visceral subtexts of people outside of the 14-24 male demographic. There's the question for the comics mainstream as it gnashes its teeth over the manga invasion: whom are you serving? What are you trying to resonate with inside your audience?

You wanna know why marauding hordes of girls haven't read comics until now? There weren't any comics for girls.

CASEY: You mean MILLIE THE MODEL doesn't count...?

I'm trying to remember if I had a deeper interior life when I was part of that 14-24 demo. Hell, it wasn't that long ago…! I have to assume that I did to some fucking degree, otherwise I'd probably still be flipping burgers and making nachos in a Memphis "gentlemen's club" right now.

So, I don't know if we've come to a conclusion here, but I'd be curious to hear your response... this "exploitation" of girls' neuroses by shojo creators: is it a good thing or a bad thing? Are they taking advantage of their audience in some distastefully manipulative way? Or do they simply have their finger on a specific pulse and to communicate so strongly with that audience is a great thing for one and all...?

FRACTION: So much is lost in translation tonally, historically, and contextually... my gut says that no, the creators are as they seem, and on the flipside, I've never met a businessman that didn't like a dollar. So, both, then: I doubt very much that Mayu Shinjo or the CLAMP girls sit down, cackle over their laptops, and set out to furiously attack the deep-seeded neuroses of their audience for fun and profit-- it just happens. And publishers see that there's an audience aching for it. So the creators create, the publishers publish, and the audience feels like, just for a second, that there might be a happy ending out there for them after all.

You know that guy that's never, ever listening to anything other than Zeppelin IV? That uber-Spicoli that never quite left his spring semester of 10th grade? That's the comics mainstream. Windin' down the road. Its shadow taller than its soul. There walks a lady we all know. Who shines white light and wants to show.

It's Mayu Shinjo, and she's on her way to the bank.

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