Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Manga and Anime and Comic Book Fandom

As part of my job at Phantom of the Attic Comics I spent the weekend at Tekkoshocon, Pittsburgh's annual Manga and Anime convention. We set up every year as a way of promoting the store and hopefully selling some merchandise. While Phantom has always stocked a certain amount of Manga (actually we were on that trend long before it exploded in bookstores across America), it has never been our focus. We view it as another piece of the giant puzzle that is comic book retail, but for a long time there was simply no competing with the giant book chains in terms of depth of stock or pricing.

For the uninitiated Manga refers pretty specifically to comics produced in Japan. In Japan it refers to all comics. Manga is simply their word for comics (likewise, the term Anime refers to Japanese animation). Here in America Manga has come to refer to Japanese comics as a way of distinguishing them from American books. It has also, probably unfairly, come to refer to some very specific stylistic qualities, i.e. big eyes, small mouths, and wildly exaggerated hair, among others, that have very little to do with content. In Understanding Comics Scott McCloud makes the point that the word Comics does not refer to a genre. Any kind of story can be told using comics as a format. I think far too many people use the word Manga in the same way. It is not a genre, and Manga is not an all-inclusive term that defines content.

Manga developed on a parallel course with American comics, and the ways in which they have always influenced and been influenced by the other are too numerous to recount. It's part of the lecture I give on the topic in my Comics and Pop Culture class at Chatham University.

The distinctions between American comics and Manga seem somewhat arbitrary to me, and based more on surface qualities than anything else. There was a time when there was no distinction that really mattered. Most people of my generation have fond memories of watching cartoons like Speed Racer, Kimba the White Lion, and Astro Boy when they were kids. They were simply cartoons then. We didn't know their origin nor did we care. In the 80s shows like Robotech, Battle For the Planets, and Voltron appeared on American TV and while my generation was now older, we still watched and enjoyed a lot of this. Translated Manga began to appear in comics shops in the 80s as well. Comico published Macross (the series Robotech was based on). Series like Appleseed, Grey, and Akira appeared and we accepted them as part of the Direct Sales explosion of new titles that were appearing at that time. Many American creators were directly influenced by Manga. Wendy Pini on Elfquest is one. It can easily be seen in Scott McCloud's Zot! and later in his seminal Understanding Comics. Frank Miller's Ronin is pretty directly a result of him reading Lone Wolf and Cub.

But somewhere in the last thirty years there has been a tremendous backlash against Manga among older fans and I gotta say, I just don't understand it. These are stories that feature Superheroes, Fantasy and Science Fiction... you know, all of the things that drive most American comics. But I hear it from customers all of the time. When I posted on Facebook that this was the topic of my lecture this week many of the comments were derogatory toward Manga in general. Usually, these comments come from people who have never really read anything that closely resembles Manga, but the prejudice still exists.
I have to wonder why.

So let's explore that topic a little and see if we can come up with some answers.

Now I should begin with the caveat that I really don't read a lot of Manga. I too have been guilty of some of these prejudices. Some of it is that I have a really difficult time reading right to left, the way most Manga is published, instead of the left to right style I have always read in. I've tried, but I just can't make my brain do it. If I had been exposed to this at a much younger age I'm sure this wouldn't be a problem, but at 52 my brain isn't as flexible as it would have been when I was 10. It's a shame because I'm sure this has prevented me from reading some very good work.

I am more familiar with Manga than many people simply because of my profession. Over the last eighteen years I've sold a lot of it and seen series come and go. I have friends and customers who are really into it. I have godchildren who are pretty much full-fledged comics geeks and I have Manga to thank for that (though my influence no doubt played some part in that as well). My experiences at Tekkoshocon have given me some measure of insight into Manga fandom and culture as well, and it's not what the uninitiated think it is.

So what's the disconnect?

I think part of it is simply the factor of age. As much as we old folks hate to admit it we all get stuck in our past to some degree or another. Whatever it was that first turned us on to a hobby, whether it's music, or books, or sports or comics, that's the stuff that stays with us forever. Comics were never cooler than when we were twelve years old, no matter when that happened to be. The stuff that defined the experience for us still defines what we think comics should be. Many of the same people who I find disdainful of Manga really don't like what's going on at Marvel and DC right now with their favorite superheroes either. The art style has changed. The storytelling is different. Therefore, in an example of bad logic, they are not as good as my memory tells me the old comics were. Nostalgia preserves comics far better than any mylar bag. With Marvel and DC, because the same characters are still being published, we carry a fondness for these characters and an ongoing desire to recapture the feeling they once brought to you. With Manga, if you've never read any of it, it's easier to simply dismiss it wholesale. Everything about it is foreign to your experience. Putting it down is easier than engaging the vastness of genres and styles that are actually included.

Age plays another part in this as well. A significant percentage of the Manga that has been translated and brought to America in the last twenty years is aimed at a younger demographic, specifically teens. The sad truth, all my compatriot old dudes, is we're not the demographic Manga is produced for. It's okay if we don't like it or if it doesn't speak to us. It's not supposed to. We have gotten older and we expect our hobby to come along with us, and in many ways it has. But it has also continued to be produced for a completely different audience. One of the ongoing conversations in American comics fandom for the last thirty years has been the issue of “Why aren't more kids reading comics?” “What can we do to bring young people into the hobby?” Why don't they make comics for kids anymore?” The answer to that question is, they have been. But because it's Manga and not the same stuff you loved as a kid you don't recognize it as such.

The Manga explosion in national bookstores did more to bring young people into the hobby of reading comics than anything the major publishers have done in decades. Maybe not the comics you like, but comics none the less. Remember... the old folks didn't like the comics you were reading back then either. Thousands upon thousands of young people are now fans of comics as a storytelling medium as a direct result of Manga. The ten year olds who were into Fruits Basket and Naruto are now twenty year olds who are reading the Avengers and Captain Marvel and Batman and Saga. The increased presence of our favorite characters in the form of the movies has made these young readers more aware of them as well, and because they already read comics it's a natural transition that is taking place. Statistically more people are reading comics in some form than in years and years. Manga has played a huge role in this.

I also think there is a gender issue involved. Just like a lot of Manga is aimed at a younger audience a lot of it is aimed at a female demographic. That's an area our traditional comics publishers have been, and continue to be, notoriously bad at. As a result of this marketing more young women read comics than at anytime since the height of the Romance Comics genre (and that was in the late 40s and early 50s, so it's been a while). If you're a forty year old man, this stuff really isn't aimed at you, and that's all right. Not every book in the bookstore is aimed at you either. But, if you have a ten year old daughter that you want to read comics then Sailer Moon or Fruits Basket are probably better choices than that Walt Simonson run on Thor from the 80s that you love so much.

There are so many cliches and misperceptions as to what Manga is all about. On Saturday I posted a Facebook update with a Tekko anecdote because it was funny to those of us who know. In retrospect, based partly on the responses it garnered, I realize it helped promote a negative stereotype. In brief, my co-worker, a twenty-something woman, was approached by a middle aged man at our table. He was decked out in My Little Pony gear and asked her if she knew where the hentai table was (I'll wait a moment while those of you who don't know what this is take a moment to look it up. Warning, NSFW and you might want to clear your browser after. Back? Okay then). Was he being inappropriate in approaching her, or were his social skills just that bad? Either way, it was a little weird and amusing. But I realized by the responses this story received that a lot of people seemed to assume he represented the typical fan at Tekko, and that's just not true. He was very much the anomaly. But this has become the image a lot of people have of Manga and Anime. It's an unfair prejudice that does damage to the entire industry. It's not like American comics, or novels, or music, or whatever, don't have their share of strange sexual and pornographic imagery. Taking one example of something you find weird and generalizing it to the entire scope of an art form is simply lazy thinking.

I want to go on record here and say that as a comics retailer who sets up at conventions (not as many as lots of other stores do, but my fair share over the years), Tekko is by far the most fun show I work. There are two words that sum up the overall atmosphere of Tekko, and they are things that I feel are increasingly lacking at other comics related conventions I attend. The two words are enthusiasm and joy. This is a Con filled with hundreds of people who really, really love their hobby. They are having so much fun. Everyone is in costume. They are excitedly discussing their favorite books and characters and getting really excited by the paraphernalia in the dealers room. There is music and people dance. There's gaming and cheering and a whole lot of laughter. As someone who admittedly does not read most of what is available I still find the atmosphere to be contagious. It's difficult not to get caught up in it.

And isn't this what we want from comics fans? Enthusiasm and joy both seem to be conspicuously absent from other shows. Not entirely, obviously. Comics conventions are not dire halls of mourning, but the comparison between a Methodist funeral and a New Orleans style wake is not a big leap in my experience.

So next time you feel the urge to badmouth Manga remember that you're badmouthing joy. You're putting down something that is exactly how you felt about your favorite comics way back when. You are discounting something has been good for the comics industry. You don't have to like it. I don't read or watch very much of it (though I admit to being completely hooked on the Attack on Titan anime right now). You don't have to appreciate it. Like I said, most of it simply not for you, and that's okay. Appreciate it for what it brings to the hobby. Manga has been a gateway drug for reading comics for thousands of kids, many of whom will continue to read comics, someday maybe even the ones you think are good.

And isn't more people reading comics what we all really want?