Project Haruhi

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.

About Dustin

Dustin (aka Stilts) enjoys playing and yelling at video games, especially RPGs. He also likes super robot shows... the more outrageous the plot, the better!
  • Anonymous

    um how about we turn it the other way round; what Japan (Ultraman, super sentai, Kamen Rider) can learn from American superheroes (>_<)

    • Kei

      He did address that in the post. He talked about how American comics tend to be better-looking than manga (in his opinion) because they’re colored, and how comics generally have larger, better-established continuity. Perhaps manga could incorporate those techniques in the future?

      • Karry

        F*ck, i hope not. I sure dont need yet ANOTHER continuity hell, and constant switching between kickass artists/writers and sh*tty ones. Especially since sh*tty ones outnumber good ones 10:1.

      • Anonymous

        yeah I’d like to see that too though I’m more interested in how Ultraman/super sentai/Kamen Rider could get rid of the reputation of being a kiddy series and follow the way of American soaps instead, I mean for them to be seen as superheroes fighting the villains and not just fighting the giant monsters

  • Kei

    Personally, I’ve always felt that magaka have a greater mastery of sequential art than most American comic artists. For example, I’ve recently been reading Black Lagoon. When Revy gets the guns a-blazing, every panel is filled to the brim with vibrant motion. Speed lines, dynamic angles, tricks of perspective… the action always feels smooth and fluid. On the other hand, when I read Power Girl, the action scenes feel like a series of vaguely interconnected still images. It’s almost like looking at a series of screenshots.I wonder if comic artists are putting too much attention into how finely-tuned their art is, and not enough into how it flows.

  • I’ve always wondered why manga is black and white and not colour aswell. I just put it down to conservatism, why change something that works? I’m no comic historian but didn’t the Marvel/DC comics start out in colour early on, so they remain in colour to the point where it has set precedent for others to follow in the west? The same could be for manga.

  • Anon

    Only keep up with some marvel and DC titles (green lantern, thor, x-men, fantastic four, etc) but from what i see, most of it has a serious tone. You get small bits of comedy like Volstagg understanding quantum physics. Manga on the other hand mixes a lot more. Marvel and DC comics takes itself seriously while manga mixes genres, such as Sora no Otoshimono.

  • You get a cookie for being awesome and putting in a picture of Negative Happy Chainsaw Edge.

  • This subject is just infinitely intriguing for me, especially as a former huge comic fan (Spider-Man, X-Men) and now primarily an anime/manga fan. You did pretty well hitting on why I love and have fallen out of love with comics. It’s nice that the medium and often the individual comics themselves have a long history. But that long history combined with multiple creative teams and at times rabid retconning give me a headache. Honestly, going on Wikipedia or reading a certain characters history can send a new fan into a hopeless spiral of confusion and despair. For the comic material works best when I can sit down and read a graphic novel of a certain artists work or a popular story arc. You get a consistent tone, plot and generally everything remains tight and focused. I’m also enjoying the individual stories that are being made into these straight to video releases. Some turn out to be hits (Superman/Batman Apocalypse) or misses (Superman/Batman Public Enemies). I think the strength of comics is the wealth of stories that can be picked and molded into great media.

  • VXLbeast

    Well, I had little faith in either medium up until recently. After reading 7 Billion Needles, I have seen that a manga can be engaging, emotional, and intelligent.
    I have never read a comic and enjoyed, literally. Probably, more than anything, that is my ignorance as to what to read and what not to read, but I don’t even give comics a try anymore.
    As for color manga, I would love to see that as well. The first thing that comes to mind regarding the lack of color, obviously, is price. Manga’s are quite a bit longer than comics, so a full color manga would probably be pretty expensive. Still, I can’t see why there would never be one, as I am sure many people would be willing to shell out for a vibrant, full color version of their favorite manga. (Which has me thinking, what if they went back at a later date and added in color for a special addition release if it was mega popular? That would certainly be cool.)
    This is conjecture, but I think that the main reason mangas are not in color is because of the nature of the industry. From what I understand, mangaka’s aren’t paid nuthin’, and on top of that have nerve-wracking time constraints they are required to work under. These two factors together may be what makes color beyond the first couple of pages infeasible. Still, that doesn’t seem to sufficiently explain it.

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