East Meets West Part 1: What can Superman learn from Japan?

I’ve made it clear before that I like it when artists try mixing two cultural styles to create something new and interesting. Though that’s partly because I love artistic experimentation, there’s a practical reason, too.  I’ve noticed there are certain things America is better at than Japan, and vice versa; and both countries have pursued ideas the other hasn’t. In this three-part series, I’ll analyze what I think are each country’s artistic advantages: why they’re good and what the other country can learn from them.

For this inaugural entry, my focus is on comic books. To make my comparisons easier to parse, “comics” will refer to American comic books and “manga” will refer to Japanese comic books.

America Builds Large Universes

One of the things I’ve always liked about comics is how interconnected they can be. Do you like Superman? Probably. Do you like Batman? Almost certainly. Well, why don’t we have them team up from time to time? Freakin’ epic! Having a large universe composed of multiple comic titles not only lets a creative team really flesh out its setting, but it can also act as a safety net for the consumer. Don’t like what’s going on in Wonder Woman right now? Well, maybe you’d prefer to see what Power Girl’s doing these days. You can keep reading about your favorite universe from a different perspective.

Of course, this is the idealized situation. There can be problems with a large-universe approach. For example, newcomers may be intimidated by the sheer amount of continuity, and big, established universes are inherently resistant to status-quo shake-ups. Still the DC and Marvel universe comics have an epic scale to them that I wish would show up more often in manga.

Japan Experiments

Now let me be clear: I know American publishers try new things, too. I’ve read Phonogram, after all. However, DC and Marvel are the juggernauts of the industry, and both of them have large, established universes that they don’t like to screw with too much. Superhero comics can be pretty flexible in terms of tone and content, but the Big Two will only let you bend their rules so far. But on the Japanese side, there are far fewer limitations for the kinds of stories you can get published in, for example, Shounen Jump. We’re talking about a magazine that has included Dragonball, Jojo’s Bizarre Adventure, Hikaru no Go and Death Note in its pages. That’s a whole lot of variety from just one magazine. So, yes, cookie-cutter stuff like Naruto, Bleach and One Piece still dominate; but when you look at all the other crazy ideas that get published (and sell decently), it seems like experimentation is less scary for Japanese publishers than it is for Americans.

Sadly, it will be difficult to change the state of affairs in America if the fans themselves keep discouraging experimentation. When DC and Marvel do try small experiments with existing, reasonably popular series (like making the new Blue Beetle a Hispanic teenager), lackluster sales tend to discourage their efforts. Fans like buying what they’re familiar with, so experiments end up competing with tried-and-true favorites for the customer’s dollar.

Guess which category almost always wins.

Comics Are Vibrant

Manga artists do some amazing work with black and white, I’ll admit. But one of the things I love about comics is how much bigger and more colorful they are than their Japanese counterparts. A lot of creative options are opened up when you have more space to arrange panels and a much larger color palette. J. H. Williams III’s art on the Batwoman arc of Detective Comics–lauded as one of the best looking books on the stands last year–has a striking visual style that you simply can’t do in black-and-white. As much as I love JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure, I sometimes wonder what it could have accomplished on bigger, colored pages. I’m honestly not sure why I almost never see full color manga (or even doujinshi) being produced. If anyone has insider knowledge (or any sort of theory), I’d love to see your opinion in the comments.

Also, I realize this is getting very subjective. I just like the feel of comic pages more than manga pages.

Manga Is Self-Contained

This one might take a little explaining. What I mean by “self-contained” is two-fold. First, most manga don’t run forever like a large portion of superhero comics. Sure, a few shounen series just won’t die, but they’re in the minority of absurdly popular titles. And even they can’t compare to the longevity of a dozen or so Marvel and DC comics that I can name off the top of my head. A lot of manga run for one to five years, then end. The advantage of this is that there’s a clear starting point for the reader. Want to get into Fullmetal Alchemist? Start with the first volume. You can’t really give a similar answer for someone who wants to start reading about Batman, Superman or Iron Man.

Second, the vast majority of manga have a single creative team (often one person, but sometimes more) working on them from start to finish. This usually means that they will have a certain quality and tone through their entire run. This is not true of a lot of comics, which cycle through creative teams. Sometimes a team gets a long time to work on a comic (like with Walt Simonson’s superb five-year run on Thor). Other times, they get just one year (such as Grey, Palmiotti and Connor’s fun take on Power Girl). Sometimes you get lucky, like with the aforementioned teams, and have a really good set of comics for a year or so. And other times you get arcs–J. Michael Straczynski’s latest Superman story, for example–that make you reluctantly stop buying the books. And don’t even get me started on the messy origin stories that can come from retcon-happy new writers. Seriously, some of this stuff is far too complicated for its own good. While these problems can pop up in manga, their self-contained nature means it happens much less often than it does in comics.

So What?

Good question. The answer is that, as fans of entertainment, we should try to be aware of the successes and failures of our favorite mediums. We can’t improve our art if we don’t know what’s wrong with it. Comparing ourselves with another country not only makes the issues easier to spot, but it also gives us good ideas for how to fix those issues. After all, cultural exchange is present in virtually every entertainment medium from Hollywood to hentai. Plus, this sort of thought experiment is just plain fun for critics like me. It’s why I’m starting this series in the first place. And if I can inspire any of you take a closer look at the entertainment you like? Even better.