My Introduction to Manga, Part 1:

Suppli Takes on Batman and Loses. By a Landslide.

Like many Western comic fans of a certain age (which will go unmentioned), I have had little exposure to manga and anime.

In fact, my only experience with anything related to the subject would have taken place nearly twenty-five years ago when Voltron was a regular staple of my after-school television diet. After years of ingesting mainstream superhero comics as well as healthy dollop of indie comics, it was no surprise I began my foray into manga with much trepidation. The reading experience proved my apprehensions correct in that this was not going to be related to the comfort food I typically enjoy, and I cannot confess Suppli — the subject of my first manga reading experience — has given rise to a change in my comic book tastes, as there are some characteristics of this book which proved too difficult for me to fully digest. Food metaphors aside, the pacing and dialogue arrangement proved too jarring and fast paced for me to truly immerse myself in this reading, and the result was that I found myself grasping for loose ends to tie the narrative together… and after a short time, I stopped trying to do what I felt the writer and artist should have done.

In DC Comics’s Batman (2011) #7, Scott Snyder (writer) and Greg Capullo (artist) make use of text boxes to help contextualize the action and dialogue for readers. There is typically a short amount of exposition provided, as the reader can use his or her imagination to fill in the rest based upon the artwork. Capullo does not constrain himself to the standard panel-after-panel approach to composing each page; instead, he regularly layers panels on top of larger pictures, varies size and shape so that form compliments content. Snyder makes use of both standard speech bubbles to represent dialogue as well as textboxes (with quotation marks) to indicate inner monologues — another approach used alongside the more common thought bubbles, which use bubbles connected to a character to indicate thought, as opposed to speech bubbles which have a line directly emanating from the character who is speaking. The result is readers are able to easily follow the narrative and readily determine who is speaking at any given time, what they may or may not be thinking, in addition to receiving important information from the narrator. Although it does not have to be presented in a linear format, these tools help guide readers through the given narrative… and this is something Mari Okazaki does not employ in Suppli (2004).

Admittedly, one could quickly point out that I am comparing apples to oranges, and this would be correct. Suppli is manga and Batman is a prime example of Grade A mainstream superhero comics. Yet, as a reader new to manga, I can only follow the minimal directions provided for neophyte readers of Asian comics in the front of the book and apply what I know of comic art in my reading. And so, it is with this faulty tool kit that I began reading Suppli. What struck me most — aside from what is essentially an inverted style of reading—was how astoundingly busy each page in this book was. For example, most pages on Batman #7 only contained around two or three text boxes and the same number of speech bubbles. In Suppli, however, it wasn’t uncommon at all to see ten or more speech bubbles and/or textboxes. It is also worth noting that the size of the page in Suppli was approximately 5” x 7” as opposed to Batman’s standard 8”x11.” The result was that Suppli possessed a far more compressed approach to page composition. This was also reflected in the way Okazaki eschewed formal panels through much of the book and often had multiple layers of images piled on top of one another. With Capullo’s use of lines to delineate one panel from the next, however, it made processing the information at a slower pace much more manageable—and actually resulting in my being able to read that issue much faster than Suppli. The question then arises why Okazaki would employ the use of compression in language and visual layout.

The overall story of Suppli is that of a young, twenty-five-year-old junior advertising executive, Minami, who finds little time for a personal life amidst the bustle of a demanding job. Okazaki wisely employs compression in this story to create a claustrophobic, cluttered, and chaotic tone and pace for the reader to experience as a means of better appreciating the plight of the protagonist. Minami bounces from assignment to assignment, loses her boyfriend in the process, and finds herself uncertain about the status of her relationships with Ogi-Sama and Ishida. Similarly, this reader struggled as he was bounced from various representations of dialogue to text boxes and back to the art to try and ascertain what was taking place. Western comics employ dialogue bubbles with straighter lines to indicate words that are spoken and rounded and bubbly balloons to indicate a character’s thoughts; however, the characters in Suppli do not adhere to such standards. Whether this results from my flawed comparison of two different art forms or represents an artistic choice on Okazaki’s part, I cannot say. The result was that I struggled to determine when something was being said and when something was being thought. While I do not believe in readers being spoon fed, I equally believe writers should not make a text unnecessarily difficult to decode. Further, I can appreciate the different approach to reading a manga right to left, as opposed to the Western approach to reading left to right; however, the excessive amount of art pressed into such a small page made visually decoding this book equally awkward. When combined with the labored pace of working out dialogue and exposition, the book became quite cumbersome. I can only imagine how stressed out poor Minami must feel in her life, as I was quite tired after only reading about a short stretch of it!

Although Suppli did little dissuade me in any way to further pursue adding manga to my already extensive reading pile, I do not want this review to reflect poorly on the book itself. I rather suspect this novel would find a very positive reception amongst young, working professional women who share similar struggles of the pressure to conform to societal gender expectations while still pursuing a career of their own. The artwork is exceptionally detailed and thoughtful in the varied ways it seeks to convey tone and enhance atmosphere through naturalistic and realistic conventions. Unfortunately, it simply tried too much in too short a period of time to prove effective in catching or keeping my interest.   As I tell my wife when being forced to try a new — and unappealing — dish at dinner: “I’ve had my ‘no thank you bite,’ and now I think I’ll stick with what works!”

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Dr. Forrest C. Helvie lives in Bristol, CT with his wife and two sons. He is an assistant professor of developmental English at Norwalk Community College in Connecticut. He received his Ph.D. in English Literature & Criticism from Indiana University of Pennsylvania where he wrote his dissertation on the influence of canonical American literature on the development of the comic book superhero. His literary interests are broad-ranging from medieval Arthurian to 19th-century American, and most importantly, pedagogy, comics studies, and super-heroes. He regularly writes for Sequart and reviews comics for Newsarama. Forrest can also be found on Twitter (@fhelvie) discussing all things comics related.

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6 Comments

  1. Ian Cyr says:

    I doubt I’ll change your mind, but I’d suggest you reconsider, and give manga another shot. There are some amazing stories out there that are well worth the read, and that rival anything the US industry has put out. For example, I just finished reading Nausicaa, by Miyazaki, and it’s probably one of the best graphical stories I’ve ever read, hands down.

    So I’d ask that you not turn your back on Manga as an medium, but instead take each title on it’s own strengths and weaknesses, like you would American comics. You wouldn’t want someone to give up on our industry just because the first title they picked up was the new Red Hood & The Outlaws, or something similarly uninspiring? (Apologies to those who liked RH&TO.)

    • Cody Walker says:

      Nausicaa is in my top 5 favorite animes of all time. I need to pick up the manga because it looks just as gorgeous.

      • Ian Cyr says:

        It is just as gorgeous, and it’s even deeper. The anime covers approximately the first 2 volumes of the Manga – and there are 5 more volumes that the anime “ignores”. I only use quotes because those volumes weren’t actually written at the time of the anime, so it wasn’t a choice, but more of a necessity.

        But yes, I don’t think you’ll be disappointed.

        (Also, since I can, I just want to tell you I absolutely loved Keeping the World Strange. Planetary is awesome, and that book showed me so much more I was missing…)

    • Ian,

      If I can offer you any hope…it is that this is the first of a two-part article. And Part Two does take a different direction than the first. Since first reading Suppli, I’ve come to find–like Western Comics–there are different subgenres of manga. While this particular subset of manga may not be to my liking, there are others that are more suited to my interests.

      Now don’t get me wrong, I don’ think we should strictly stay with our “comfort food” readings as I do believe it’s good to expand our horizons. I’m a firm believer in the “no thank you bite”–food or for any other form of experience. Otherwise, it’s difficult to really encounter something new. I can respect something without having to personally enjoy it. So fear not, my first experience hasn’t closed me off to the genre as a whole!

  2. Cody Walker says:

    Ian – You have no idea how much that means to me and how much I needed that comment today! I poured my heart into that book and I’m glad that it has made a difference.

  3. Here’s a link to really insightful blog post about compression and decompression in comics (manga in particular) that responds (in part) to this article of mine:

    http://ogiuemaniax.wordpress.com/2012/07/03/explaining-compression-in-comics/#comment-9582

    As I suggested in response to the original poster, while I appreciate and agree with the points the poster brings up with regards to compression and decompression as it relates to plot, I think it’s probably fair to also apply the terms to the page and panel composition as well.

    Good stuff!

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