September’s issue of Shonen Jump arrived in my mailbox today, nicely timed, as it contains “Chapter 0″ of Stan Lee and Hiroyuki Takei’s Ultimo, which I’d just been reading about in yesterday’s comic-con reports. Sadly, my reaction to it has been distressing.
SPOILERS FOR ULTIMO BELOW
Note: I find myself editing this post over and over because I feel so uncomfortable putting any kind of negativity about manga out into the world. I hope readers will understand that my distress and confusion about this are genuine.
Probably I was destined to have problems with this comic from the start, since the premise concerns two robot boys created to be “perfect good” and “perfect evil,” which are concepts I don’t believe actually exist in reality, and which I’m not especially interested in exploring. But these are popular concepts, and I can accept differences in taste and just move on. I didn’t really expect that the comic would be to my taste. My real problem with this chapter, though, and what I am finding distressing, is the constant narration, describing to me in detail not only the action being shown, but also the thoughts of every character, which seems really unnecessary to me in a comic book. Now, I don’t read a lot of western comics. You know this. Is this really common? I mean, a little narration I can handle, but I thought the whole point of comics was to let the pictures tell the parts of the story that would otherwise be written as description.
Here, I’ll give an example. There is a scene in which the two boys are facing off, the “evil” one having wreaked quite a bit of destruction on west Tokyo. The authorities are on the scene, but instead of being introduced to them through action and dialogue, the final panel on one page contains a drawing of a man walking out of the rubble of his destroyed truck, with the accompanying narration:
ALL THIS TIME S.K.A.T AGENT K HAS BEEN TREMBLING WITH A QUIET ANGER. THE MONSTER STOMPED ON HIS BELOVED TRUCK. AGENT K LOVES WEAPONS AND SPECIAL VEHICLES, AND THIS SYMBOL OF HIS FINALLY OVER-COMING A WEAK MIND AND BODY HAS NOW BEEN REDUCED TO A WRETCHED STATE.
Am I crazy for thinking this is really bizarre? We can clearly see that the truck has been stomped on, and in the panel previous, we’ve also been shown a quietly angry Agent K. The rest of it, I can see as description the writer might give to the artist to help explain the character’s motivations to enrich the artist’s understanding and influence how the character and scene are drawn, but to have it just written out like that seems counterintuitive and kind of, well, lazy. Does Stan Lee distrust the artist so much that he can’t leave anything to chance? Does he distrust his own ability to reveal these things organically in the story? Tell me if I’m out of line here, but I really don’t understand why this is a comic book. The whole chapter is like this. Regarding the robot of perfect good, Ultimo:
EVEN FROM A GREAT DISTANCE HIS BEAUTY AND GOODNESS ARE UNMISTAKABLE… THE CROWD CAN ONLY STARE IN AMAZEMENT.
Why not just show us a crowd staring in amazement at the good and beautiful Ultimo? I am sure my ignorance of western comics is showing here, but I’m really surprised.
I’m really sorry to rant on like this, I am just in some shock, I guess, and a bit disappointed. I really love the idea of American writers teaming up with Japanese artists, and it made a lot of sense to me that this would need to begin with very well-known American writers, if it was going to become a successful model that other American writers could one day hope to repeat. But if this is what a Japanese/American hybrid looks like, I’m distressed. Will people really read this? Am I blowing it completely out of proportion? Are people eating this up in Japan? Does this bother no one but me? SOS.
Edited to add: At least I’m not crazy in thinking this is unusual for manga. A quote from this article:
Hiroyuki explained the principle difference being that Ultimo has a more narrative style than traditional manga, a medium he has risen far in.
And in this article too:
Weidenbaum mentioned Lee’s use of caption boxes, which are not commonly used in the same way in manga. Osada-san described Takei’s method of adapting the boxes. “This sort of box narration is not used in Japanese manga so much,” he said, “so we always tried to see the best way to tell the story.”
I really am interested to know how well this is going over in Japan, or if there are other American manga fans who have had the same reaction as I had. I really wanted to like this. I really want it to be a success for Viz, and for American/Japanese collaborations in general. But I can’t help but feel that regardless of audience or mode of storytelling, the way narration is used in Ultimo is, at the very least, ineffective. Can I really be the only person who feels this way? Judging from other reactions I’ve seen online, it would appear so, which I find really confusing.