Arts » Books

Of Manga and Manganese

Ain't Nothin' Like The Real Thing

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Manga, a Japanese form of comic books, generally comes in large book-like volumes with series running from 9 to 13 volumes. In America, comic books sell about $1 billion a year. In Japan, where manga is considered an artform rather than merely a product, sales run around $5 billion a year. Manga is generally written and drawn by the same artist, and both the writing and illustration are held to the highest standards. Here are some current releases.

Pet Shop of Horrors TokyoPop recently published the final volume of this impressive and innovative 10-book manga series. Keeping the original Japanese manga format, this translated comic has a right to left reading format, which once grasped, is easy to read. Author and Artist Matsuri Akino tells a series of morality tales through a pet shop owner, Count D, and his customers. Each pet has a contract that, if broken, can lead to disastrous results. Each pet is human in appearance and is tailored specifically to the customer. For example, a couple who enabled their drug abusing daughter to her death is given a rabbit which is the spitting image of their daughter. If they feed the rabbit anything other than vegetables, the contract is void. Unable to refuse the childlike animal sweets, the mother feeds the rabbit a cookie, at which point it multiplies and consumes both parents and almost the entire city.

Throughout the series, the stories become more complex, dealing with human failings and needs in a sympathetic and honest manner. Pulling much deeper than traditional American comic books, Pet Shop of Horrors produces original stories that are often poignant as well as beautiful. However, the series isn't devoid of comical content, finding humor as often as pain. These books are also extremely rewarding to readers searching for something beyond the Bang Pow heroics of the usual comic books.

Manga follows a very different artistic impulse. The artwork within pages of Pet Shop of Horrors is more than just rapidly produced images, it is true art. Much time and energy is given to each specific panel, and the visual format is far more innovative in its manipulation of time and transition than the American reader generally finds. Akino is a master of costume and human form, often creating awesome montages that are stunning in their production.

Only held back by its final volume, which desperately tries to put an end on a series and fails at creating a proper conclusion, Pet Shop of Horrors is a fantastic and captivating read if the reader is willing to invest in the series.

Tokyo Knights Top Cow comics is now printing American manga. Sticking to the general shape of manga books, these are much slimmer volumes that read left to right. Tokyo Knights by Michael Renegar and a massive team of 12 Top Cow employees is an example of Americanization gone horribly wrong. In an attempt to jump on the manga bandwagon, Renegar produced a sub-par script about a bunch of rich teenagers fighting gladiator style with giant robotic battle suits. The teens go about chattering in already outdated slang, calling the machines "dope¨" and each other "bro." There is no art to the dialogue and no skill in the story. Essentially, in other words, it's derivative crap. To top it off, the huge team generally botches the art, creating production line work whereas in Japan, an actual artistic standard is required of manga artists. In Top Cow's case, their manga is just a cheap photocopy of the real thing.

Sokora Refugees TokyoPop team Melissa DeJesus and Seguma offer a lighthearted and humorous American manga with Sokora Refugees. Honoring the Japanese pop culture tradition of using schoolgirls in uniform (Remember Sailor Moon and their miniskirts?) they mix in some fantasy adventure to create the first volume of a decent series.

The story centers around a dimensional portal that connects an Earth high school with the elf- and goblin-inhabited world of Sokora. The main cast includes elves, schoolgirls and a wood nymph that is part-raccoon, part-woman. Generally funny, the dialogue and plot doesn't stray to any depth and the book is consistently plagued with excessive skin and cleavage shots of the female characters.

Despite their attempts, the creative team doesn't achieve the artistic integrity and quality writing of authentic manga, but at least it tries to meld the Japanese form with American storytelling. Hopefully works like this will one day improve so America can produce the same quality of manga the Japanese create on a regular basis.

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