The merits of manga

Once upon a time, I didn’t know a thing about manga. I had no idea that such things existed. I didn’t know they required reading from right to left, like reading a book by starting at the end. I scoffed at most anime, having experience only in the Sailor Moon department. I was completely and utterly clueless.

Due to a number of circumstances, my manga and anime ignorance has taken a complete 180 degree turn. To-date, I’ve read and collected many series of manga. I’ve watched countless seasons of Gundam-style or steampunk or shojo anime. My dark side conversion has been completed.

It all started, oddly enough, on the LRT. It was during my first degree at the University of Alberta, where I was an English Honours major, converted over from an interesting but hardly employment-lucrative Philosophy degree. I had this friend—we’d worked together at Quizno’s in our teens—who had taken a job at a comic book store while he was in school.

We’d kept in touch over the years and, on my twenty-something birthday, he gave me the first volumes of Bleach and Naruto. I was intrigued but didn’t really know what to expect. The thought of reading a comic book backwards delighted me – it was so unusual.

I didn’t become a convert to manga right away. I bought a few more volumes of the same and enjoyed them, but they just weren’t intellectually stimulating enough. Bleach and Naruto tend to appeal to a younger crowd and are much more focused on images and fight scenes than extensive dialogue. Plus, there were just so god-damn many volumes that I wasn’t about to drop several thousand dollars on collecting them all.

Thankfully, shortly after my introduction to manga, my friend began reading the Death Note series. He called me and strongly recommended that I read them—apparently, they were right up my alley. He’d even get me them as soon as they were published in Canada (a long time after they’re published in Japan).

Thus began a number of illicit meetings on the LRT, which we happened to catch at the same time after class. We’d meet, he’d bring me the next volume or two of Death Note, and I’d give him a few bucks. He got a discount, so I never had to pay full price. I plowed through this text-heavy, mentally stimulating graphic novel and, from that point on, I had a new hobby.

If you’ve never read or watched Death Note, the main premise is based on a male high school student who finds a notebook. The notebook belongs to a death god (shinigami) and, if you write someone’s name in it, that person will die. There are a number of ways to be creative, though—you can control the nature and time of that person’s death by writing it in the notebook. The story becomes more intense as a quirky/creepy young detective is introduced and thus begins a battle of wits between the main character and the task force trying to find him (and of which the death note owner also becomes a member). It’s convoluted and brilliant.

I didn’t stop. I tried out a few other series, tending to lean towards ones with unique stories and brilliant narrative. Some manga series are just plain weird (Gantz), some have a clear and obvious niche (Initial D), and some are ridiculously gory (Battle Royale – the original Hunger Games). Some are just obsessed with schoolgirl boobs (Psychic Academy).

It’s a rich scene, almost as much so as the world of the literary. I started off with Death Note, an intellectual supernatural drama, moved on to Samurai Deeper Kyo, an action manga that deals with the divide between mankind and divinity (with tons of cool fight scenes), and became obsessed with Fullmetal Alchemist, a steampunk-eque storyline focused on the nature of alchemy, science, and philosophy…with automail limbs, of course.

Along the way, I even tried to give Bleach another try but, after 20 volumes, I had to stop. Collecting manga is a time- and money-consuming hobby. I’m of the opinion that, if you can read a manga volume in 5 minutes, it’s not worth buying. You wouldn’t pay $12-15 for a novel that you could read in less than an hour, would you?

When I read a really great book, I can picture everything. My imagination goes wild; it’s like watching a movie inside my own brain. Manga novels are similar—they provide some of the graphics, but a really good story will pull you in and force your mind to fill in the blanks. When you think back to the time you read a brilliant manga, it should replay in your head like a film. The graphics are there to guide you but, like any great novel, there’s so much more behind what’s being said and drawn. The important things sometimes lie directly outside of the panel. Your attention might be drawn to a significant object sitting just beyond the edge of the splash page. Speculation is key.

There’s plenty of literary merit in graphic novels and manga and it’s pretty widely recognized at this point in time. Universities are crafting classes around the study of the graphic novel and the significance of comics as a part of Japanese or European or North American culture. And it’s easy to see why: comic books can encompass a whole range of genres and literary themes. They represent the mid-way point between a literary culture and a world obsessed with the visual.

Manga is no different. It exemplifies unique approaches to the big questions of life through the eyes of Japanese culture. There might be an abundance of giant robots, supernatural beings, and (dare I say it?) tentacles, but, at the end of the day, they all tend to grapple with the same existential questions: why are we here and what is our purpose in life?

CC Photo: a scene from Battle Royale

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