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.
jansong@livejournal saysAugust 27, 2008 at 3:05 pm
At one point, my mother had to make a rule that I could only take out of the library as many books as I could carry out of there myself.
I don’t remember that. Interesting to read your reading history.
Melinda saysAugust 27, 2008 at 3:12 pm
Hee! I remember, because I thought it was *brutal*. :D Probably you were just sick of having to carry my books.
Jura saysAugust 28, 2008 at 9:56 am
Your blog looks awful in my browser.
Melinda saysAugust 28, 2008 at 10:03 am
Well, I’m not sure how much I can do about it, since I didn’t design it (it is just one of the many publicly available WordPress layouts), but even more to the point, there is certainly nothing I can do about it based on your comment. This would have been a useful comment if you had:
1. Told me what browser you are using, and on what OS.
2. Told me exactly what looks “awful” and how, maybe even including a link to a screencap if you felt you couldn’t describe it effectively.
As it is, with no information that could even remotely help me remedy the problem, your comment just seems kind of mean.
email@example.com saysAugust 27, 2008 at 4:03 pm
As an artist, what drew me to manga and anime originally was the art. At the time (early ’90s), there wasn’t really much available in the US – a small selection of anime on VHS, some old dubbed TV shows that weren’t airing anymore, a handful of manga that were published monthly like American comics and rarely if ever collected into graphic novels – all of which was extremely expensive and very limited in terms of selection, but a couple friends of mine showed me some Dragonball trading cards and I just fell completely and utterly in love with Toriyama Akira’s art. The fact that it wasn’t available in English is actually one of the things that made me decide to take Japanese in college, so really I wouldn’t be where I am now if not for love of his art.
I did read as much manga as I could get my hands on in English, though, which, after setting aside some series whose art I didn’t like, was basically X/1999, Ranma 1/2, Urusei Yatsura, Oh! My Goddess, and You’re Under Arrest. Oh, and 3×3 Eyes. Like I said, very limited selection.
I had never been a huge fan of American comics (I read my mom’s Superman comics over and over when I was really little, and for a while in late elementary school I was really into Donald Duck and Uncle Scrooge comics, but that’s pretty much the extent of it), but for me there was no hesitation. There was no period of adjustment or difficulty following them, even when I started reading in Japanese and the pages were right to left (back when I was reading in English, everything was published flipped for English-speaking audiences; I’m glad they’ve stopped that). It just felt completely natural.
firstname.lastname@example.org saysAugust 27, 2008 at 4:04 pm
LOL WTF, how did I misspell my username? *headdesk*
Melinda saysAugust 27, 2008 at 4:06 pm
I have edited it for you, so that you do not have to look back on it in pain. ;) Hee.
Melinda saysAugust 27, 2008 at 4:09 pm
There was no period of adjustment or difficulty following them, even when I started reading in Japanese and the pages were right to left (back when I was reading in English, everything was published flipped for English-speaking audiences; I’m glad they’ve stopped that). It just felt completely natural.
Weirdly, there was none of this for me either, once I started reading manga. I found that reading right-to-left felt very natural for me, and suddenly I had no problem at all following the art and dialogue, the way I had every time I’d ever picked up a western comic. I’ve wondered sometimes if part of that was that they were in black-and-white, so there was less data for me to process on every page.
swanjun@livejournal saysAugust 27, 2008 at 4:20 pm
Wow, we have a ton in common. I was a book addict as a teen, have a degree in classical piano, am over 30, love Joss Whedon, and think Hikaru no Go is exceptional.
I loved the Americanization of the Gatchaman anime as a kid, but only rediscovered it in my late 20s. I’d never seen any shoujo ’til my friend made me watch Fushigi Yuugi. Nuriko was a huge surprise.
Later, she loaned me a bit of manga, and I’ve outlived her own interest in the medium by 5-6 years now.
Melinda saysAugust 27, 2008 at 4:25 pm
Hee, we are practically the same person, only I am insanely jealous of you for being a pianist. :D
I think often about those crucial moments, the seemingly tiny things (like our friends introducing us to manga) that can often change the course of a person’s life. It’s a bit terrifying when you think about it too hard.
swanjun@livejournal saysAugust 27, 2008 at 4:45 pm
Well, I am jealous of you for being able to sing, so there you go. I can carry a tune decently enough, but I don’t have a very stable/good tone to go with it.
I forgot to mention that I’m also (as you might’ve noted from the icon) a Doctor Who fan. :)
And yeah, I never would’ve guessed that I’d spend my thirties writing about manga all over the place. I really do enjoy it, though. Someone told me I was shooting myself in the foot for doing it for free, but I remember what it was like to start playing piano for a grade, and I’m not sure I actually want it to become a real job. It’s much more fun and liberating if it’s just a hobby.
Melinda saysAugust 27, 2008 at 5:50 pm
Okay, I have finally added your blog to my blogroll, so that I will remember to go read all that writing about manga that you do for free. :D
Ah, yes, I’d figured out about Doctor Who. :)
swanjun@livejournal saysAugust 27, 2008 at 5:53 pm
Huzzah! Please leave me many amusing comments. :)
I see you’ve got Whedonesque on the blogroll as well. I use this same username there, too, so you might see me ’round sometime.
Melinda saysAugust 27, 2008 at 5:54 pm
I will do my best to amuse! :D
I’ll keep an eye out at Whedonesque too. :)
swanjun@livejournal saysAugust 27, 2008 at 6:10 pm
Oh, and if you wanted to read my impressions of the Princess Tutu manga, they’re on there. Just gotta search for ’em. :)
Melinda saysAugust 27, 2008 at 6:11 pm
Ahhhh yes, I will definitely look for that. Though maybe after I finish the anime, just in case there might be spoilers.
email@example.com saysAugust 28, 2008 at 10:42 am
A pianist? Where do you live? I’m Melinda’s mom and a voice teacher. That’s why I ask……
swanjun@livejournal saysAugust 28, 2008 at 10:50 am
Away down South… :)
jansong@livejournal saysAugust 28, 2008 at 11:21 am
Aw, shucks. :)
swanjun@livejournal saysAugust 27, 2008 at 6:00 pm
Estara saysAugust 30, 2008 at 6:20 pm
Actually there are a few Western comic artists who have as intricate storylines and characters as the Japanese ones, but I find them few and far between.
My most recent and most heartily endorsed discoveries of this are two women.
Linda Medley (the hardcover of the first collection is really worth it and beautifully produced at that) Castle Waiting
Carla Speed MacNeill, Finder
Melinda saysAugust 30, 2008 at 7:00 pm
Oh, thank you for the recommendations! I honestly don’t even know where to start looking for Western comics I might love, so I really appreciate the help!
Estara saysAugust 30, 2008 at 7:10 pm
I do think there aren’t all that many western comics that have similar sensibilities to really good manga, even though they have a western drawing style. But both of these are beautiful in their own right (you can see a bit in the amazon search inside for Castle Waiting and of course Finder offers first chapters for many of her books online).
While scrounging for links I saw the Fantagraphics offer for the first 10 pamphlets in the Castle Waiting Volume 2 and with the weak Dollar it’s affordable to import to Germany, so I did that, too, heh. The only thing I’m afraid of is that Medley might not finish Castle Waiting…
But the hardcover of Volume 1 ends on a satisfying note, so that’s fine.
McNeill keeps working as you can see, although except for those first chapters of the trade paperbacks her current Finder online only shows work in progress. Those chapters are a bit badly compressed though, but you can see the art as it is in the books. The only downside is that the art pages load reeeeeeally slow, heh.
Estara saysAugust 30, 2008 at 7:15 pm
And I might want to add for a shounen action like webcomic (with a story that gets ever huger and more dangerous) with a Jules Verne touch and a female heroine there’s always Katja and Phil Foglio’s Girl Genius
They collect the series, too, if you prefer books.
Melinda saysAugust 30, 2008 at 7:47 pm
Oh, thanks! And I do prefer books, so I’ll probably look into that if it seems like something I’ll enjoy.
Melinda saysAugust 30, 2008 at 7:47 pm
Hee- I love that somehow in looking for things to link for me, you’ve ended up buying more comics. I hope that series gets finished, so you aren’t left in the cold!
Estara saysAugust 31, 2008 at 4:09 am
So do I ^^, but she tends to have smaller arcs within her overarching storyline and if it should happen that she has to stop there, I’ll simply be pleased that I do have the relevant pamphlets. Much like with Five Star Stories, whose mangaka seems to have stopped the English version after volume 26 (and he published them in graphic novel format), then again I haven’t heard about a Japanese continuation of the series either. But since he has such a huge space opera time line and jumps between stories anyway, it’s still a fulfilling collection.
Estara saysAugust 31, 2008 at 4:11 am
Oh and should you decided to go for Castle Waiting Volume 2, take the Fantagraphics homepage offer about those 10 pamphlets, because Amazon.com only has one offer at twice the cost.
Melinda saysAugust 31, 2008 at 10:27 am
Oh, thanks for the heads up!
Estara saysAugust 31, 2008 at 4:59 am
Oh and while waiting for my manga recommendation comment to show up as in moderation, a few asides.
I ought to read your tags better, you already know of Basara and the OMF.
Thank you for adding me to your blogroll, but it won’t be really useful to you. I have stopped regular blogging for quite some time now, and just occasionally write something (mostly to vent steam for my real life – if you really want to read that, the password for those posts is temuair1 , I need one for my students). I do post regular comments on my lj reading list, though, but that’s mostly as far as it goes.
I came across your posts here via MangaBlog.
Melinda saysAugust 31, 2008 at 10:35 am
Ah, I’m sorry you’re not blogging much, but I’ll poke around for what I can get. :)
Estara saysAugust 31, 2008 at 12:26 pm
Well, since you’re double posting to lj, too, I’ll probably mostly comment on your posts there, from now ^^. It IS convenient, but like you I wanted to have some autonomy if the service changed too much or closed down, so I organises personal webspace and when I started blogging I started my own blog right away… I already lost two years of blogging because I didn’t know how to import the stuff from sunlog to wordpress 1.2 :P, ah well.
Melinda saysAugust 31, 2008 at 12:33 pm
Ah, yes, I was really grateful to find a plugin that would let me cross-post to LJ easily. I have found that, overall, I prefer blogging over here, but I had enough LJ friends back in my fannish life who I knew would never stray from their friends lists, that I’m grateful for a way to still keep in easy contact with them. I’ve found it’s convenient for some people I’ve met through this blog, too. So, welcome! :)