This week on Manga Island we take a trip back to the area of what Tokyopop has termed OEL (Original English Language) Manga. Leaving terms and semantics aside, we turn our exploration to Felipe Smith's urban slice of life (and sometimes semi-autobiographical) story "MBQ." Having met Felipe at this year's Comicon and talked to him about the book and his thoughts on comics, manga, and life, I felt I had to spread the word about this unique and engrossing OEL title.
The main story of "MBQ" (which gets its name from the fictional Mc Burger Queen franchise) focuses on Omario, a struggling creator who is trying to break into the comics industry. His problem is that he doesn't want to do traditional comics. The world of superheroes, giant robots, gothic adventures, and other comic clich's perpetrated by most comic companies has as much appeal as cleaning toilets. Omario is plagued by all of the problems a typical starving artist has, and has yet to figure out how to solve his financial woes, and his hotheaded nature isn't helping. When we are first introduced to Omario, he is on his way to take care of some business with a gun. It appears to be a business deal that could be lucrative, if he can just get the nerve to go through with it. Probably not the kind of scenario that many starving artists have been through, but certainly one that can be envisioned, especially when you live in the not so great parts of Los Angeles. After dealing with the dilemma of whether to subsidize his living by less than scrupulous means, we are quickly introduced to the cast of characters that extends beyond the protagonist, and the larger world of "MBQ" begins to unfold.
One of Felipe Smith's strong points is his ability to create interesting, believable characters from all walks of life. Since they are taken from elements of his own experiences, they all seem to carry an air of believability and a sense that they all have a history. "MBQ's" non-linear story introduces a large but focused cast of interesting characters for the reader to follow. The tougher than nails gangsta Dee, Brian the Karaoke bar worker and aspiring DJ, Omario's roommate Jeff (who works at the Mc Burger Queen where MBQ gets its title), as well as the police officers O'Malley and Finch each get their own time in the spotlight (as much or more Omario in some cases). Each set of characters and their subplots are compelling enough, that I could envision them having their own side story book. Like most good non-linear stories the cast seems to slowly intertwine and at the end of Volume One, it appears to definitely be building up how all the storylines will inter-relate. It must be noted however, that like real life, the world of "MBQ" is not always a pretty, wholesome place to live. Hardcore gangsters cuss and use violence whenever they feel; people make out, watch porn, and talk trash, in ways that are not family friendly or politically correct. "MBQ" doesn't seem to pull any punches, but it also isn't overburdened with trying to be too "dark" or "edgy" for "edginess" sake. The characters do what they would normally do in their daily lives, and for some of them, those live happen to be the reality of seedier side of LA.
Omario's sentiments on comics are reflected in Felipe Smith's views on how he wants to write comics and his attitude in general. Both the creator and protagonist write from the heart, and it is obvious Felipe has a lot of love for characters in his book, as well as their real world counterparts. Omario's and the other character's personalities all come bursting forth from the page (in many cases larger than life, figuratively and literally) yet all of them are still grounded in reality. They are presented with situations that we might have been through, or choices we have had to make at some point in our lives. Anyone who has met Felipe will attest to the fact that his enthusiasm for his work is as exuberant and heartfelt as the stories that he tells.
Felipe's art style is gritty mix of manga influences along with an almost indy comic edge. In fact, one of the things I like about "MBQ" is the fact that the combination of art style and realism to the story, gives it a feel that it's an indy book that just happens to have the backing of a large mainstream publisher (a publisher that seems to have let Smith be uncensored for the most part as well). The art of "MBQ" shares a lot in common with grittier, less mainstream Japanese books, but it is certainly a style all its own, and different from a lot of manga and comics coming out these days. (Omario's room, for example, is almost a carbon copy of Felipe's own work space, the kind of comforting clutter that most artists have around.) Felipe shows off his own skills at drawing in various styles when he contrasts the comics he doesn't want to draw. Given his renderings of Robots, catgirls, super muscled heroes, and battle monsters, it seems as if Felipe could draw any genre he wanted if he just wanted to go with the status quo. Not complacent with this, he's come up with his own style that encompasses hardcore street manga influences, some realistic photo renderings, and deft caricature. Some of my favorite touches are the way that Omario's literally larger-than-life roommate is handled in how he navigates the normal world. Even his room has a slightly bowed look as if he is about to burst his surroundings. His renderings of the sadder side of comic fandom are also hilarious (although Felipe and Omario admit that they too are geeks who love comics).
I happened to read "MBQ" a couple of times on the way back home from Comicon in San Diego and even had a people in seats next to me checking out, the originality of the art style and subject matter had them checking it out as I re-read it. The thing that kept coming back to me is how perfect this title would be to adapt if I were a Hollywood producer. So, if the Hughes brothers, or any other Hollywood types are looking to produce an urban drama/comedy with great characters, run don't walk and option this book!! If you know anyone of importance to put this book in front of, do it now! The characters are people that people can connect to, whether you're a working stiff, artist, or just someone who's exposed to life in a big city.
If you are looking for a book that combines comedy, non-linear storytelling, drama, and the feel of someone who is writing from their heart, "MBQ" is for you. Comics fans who also enjoy slice of life indy comics, or movies like "Clerks" and "Training Day" might also be willing to give "MBQ" a shot. Also, manga fans, if you dug "Worst" and "IWGP," you might want to pick this up as well. Although the art is entirely different, "MBQ" has the same feel but from an American perspective. Personally I cannot wait to see how issue two resolves things, when it arrives on the shore of Manga Island.
Volume 1 (of 3)
Rating T 16+ (Strong Violence, Language, Sexual Situations and Nudity)
Links of interest:
Tokyopop's "MBQ" sites (including a preview on the Takuhai online site):
Tony Salvaggio has been a fan of anime and manga from an early age. He has been an animator in the video games industry and is currently co-writing an original graphic novel for Tokyopop, PSY-COMM (http://www.tokyopop.com/dbpage.php?propertycode=PCO&categorycode=BMG). He regularly hosts anime and Japanese related shows in Austin and his passion for all things anime and manga related is only excelled by his quest to become King of the Monsters.