Yesterday, Brigid Alverson linked to an article by Bob Thompson at the Washington Post, in which he discussed the recent popularity of graphic novels, and his experiences sampling them as a steadfast “prose guy.” I link to Brigid’s post here, because her reaction to the article was much like mine (and a million other manga fans across the internet, including John Jakala, whose post on the subject she also linked to, and who spoke about it in thoughtful detail), which was something like politely irritated disbelief at the fact that he seemed to pass hasty judgement on manga as a whole based on one volume of Naruto and seemingly little else. This is especially interesting, given that he does recognize late in the article that, “in the world of Japanese comics, you can do anything you want.”
Nobody needs me to reiterate the article, and pretty much everything that could be said about it already has been, and by people much more eloquent and knowledgeable than I. If I have anything to offer here, it is my own story of learning to love manga, because really, if I could fall in love with it, anyone could, even Bob Thompson.
After sailing along easily through high school, even with novels hidden in my lap, I was dismayed to find that college was a very different matter, and after only a few weeks, was forced to give up fiction, cold turkey, for any chance at staying in the demanding program I’d chosen. Fortunately, as a classical voice major, I was given the opportunity to immerse myself in fiction through song, and that kept me from going completely insane without it. Later, as a musical theater professional, I was able to enjoy the best of both worlds–books by day and active participant by night, all fiction, all the time. It was a pretty awesome life.
In my post-performer adult life, I balanced books with television, which was becoming an amazing source of great storytelling that interested me, thanks to creators like Joss Whedon and Brian Fuller. Eventually these things drew me to online fandom, where I was able to share my enthusiasm for fiction with like-minded folks from all over the world. At a certain point, though, it seemed that all of my online friends were suddenly getting enthusiastic about either the DC universe, or Japanese animation and comics, and honestly, at the time I really felt complete and utter disbelief over it. I’d enjoyed some animated movies and poked through a few comics over the years, but the idea that anyone could get completely immersed in something that was basically just drawings blew my mind.
As recently as March of last year, I wrote a plaintive entry in my fannish journal, lamenting my inability to get even remotely interested in these mediums. I felt strongly then that there was no way that drawings could express the nuances of human emotion the way that flesh-and-blood actors could, and that comics offered flat representations of people and worlds that I could imagine much more vividly in my head when described effectively through prose. So firm were these feelings that I basically shut down on half of my online friends, as they traveled further and further down a path I believed I could not follow.
Then in June of 2007, my friend Aja convinced me, through some kind of dark magic which I still do not understand, to try a Japanese comic called Hikaru no Go. I thought I’d get a couple of chapters in, far enough to prove I’d tried, and then give it up like always. Instead, I raced through the entire series in a matter of two days, and have been crazy in love with manga ever since. The rich characterization and detailed art charmed me completely, as did the look into modern Japanese culture, and the sense of straightforward determination and sincerity without irony that I now associate strongly with Japanese comics and animation. It was luck, I suppose, that the first manga I tried happened to be exactly the right thing to hook me and it’s taken some time, and quite a bit of trial and error, to discover exactly what it is that I love in a manga and how to find it, but the journey has been honestly thrilling.
My friend Grace has lately been posting her “31 Days of Happiness” and on Day 20, she wrote, “Manga makes me happy… If I had to choose one form of reading and that’s all I could have the rest of my life, I’d choose manga.” When I read that, it really hit me just how much manga has changed me, because somehow, even after 30+ years as a passionate prose devotee, if I had to make that choice right now, I would choose just as she would.
It’s true that I still have not been able to get invested in western comics the same way, though not for lack of trying. My DC and Marvel-loving friends have done their best, and though I’ve thoroughly enjoyed some of it (Young Avengers! Captain America!) overall, I’ve had difficulty finding that magic something that inspires me to seek total immersion the way manga has. Still, I’ve certainly learned to never say never, and I expect that somewhere between superheroes and OEL manga the hidden magic lurks, patiently waiting for me to discover it.
Maybe Bob Thompson really is a “prose guy” for life. Maybe he’ll never really be able to find a piece of sequential art that moves him the way a novel can. Maybe he’ll never even try, satisfied that what he’s already seen is sufficiently representative of what’s out there. Maybe he’ll forever associate Japanese comics with volume 19 of Naruto, and never look substantially beyond that. Or maybe, one day, he’ll be inspired by a friend, or boredom, or chance to pick up some random volume out of all the random volumes in the rich world of manga, and that will be the one with the special magic something that speaks directly to him. Is it likely? I don’t know. But it’s definitely possible. I’m living proof of that.