In the words of Frederick Schodt: Manga! Manga! We all love manga. It’s replaced ice cream as that thing we all scream for. It’s just fun to say. Come on and say it with me: MANGA!
It’s all the rage. All the cool kids are shoplifting manga while your average garden-variety geek is still shoving the latest issue of Spawn into his black trenchcoat. Go to the graphic novels section at your local Barnes & Noble and the loitering kids sitting in the aisles reading manga outnumber the loitering kids sitting in the aisles reading the American comics.
On a side note — seeing how this is all one big sidenote until the review, anyway — take a good look at the faces of the dudes that read the American comics in those said aisles. They have that “…Jesus. It’s like Pearl Harbor all over again!” look your dad had when Japanese exports were killing our economy.
Some people view manga as the new “starter comics,” in that kids will read Dragonball Z or Inu Yasha and then graduate to something more sophisticated like Micronauts … in theory. Manga will save the mainstream comics industry in less than two generations because of the new readers it will bring on board … in theory. So, since manga is so popular, what American comics need to do is repackage their comics to look more like manga … iiiiinn theory.
The funny thing about that is most of the people who usually think this are basically idiots. For the most part, manga speaks to a different audience than domestic comics and kids trained to appreciate the nuances of something like Love Hina are going to find less things of interest in your basic Marvel comic than Montgomery Clift would find on the stage of a wet T-shirt contest.
This isn’t to say that one is superior / inferior to the other. They’re just different. If a kid starts out with Yuyu Hakusho, then he’s way more likely to graduate to something like Blackjack rather than something like The Ultimates.
If American comics want to regain the edge, the key isn’t simply appropriating manga. The key is to give these kids something they can’t live without. If Japanese comics have raised the bar, then why should our comic companies be content to just barely skid over said bar? “Mangafying” American comics is just dumb. It’s like Neil Diamond making a rap album because hip hop is the shiznit. There’s a whole unique cultural context to things like Superman that shouldn’t be diluted because “those Japanese guys are totally with-it.” Besides, they were diluted enough as it is with years of bad writing and horrible mismanagement. Why would you want to make it any worse?
The only thing manga’s doing right is capturing the imaginations of readers everywhere. The big eyes, speed-lines, and spiky hair have nothing to do with it. If you want to save American comics, don’t look to the East. Look … look within your hearts. The magic’s inside of you, man! It’s been there all along!
It’s been there all along…
NAUSICAA OF THE VALLEY OF THE WIND, I
The beauty of manga catching on stateside is that we’re being exposed to great works from great masters we may never have had a chance to see. We saw this earlier with all the amazing reprints of Osamu “God of comics” Tezuka, the beautifully repackaged Lone Wolf and Cub books, and Monkey Punch’s wickedly amoral Lupin III (which was coincidentally adapted to screen by Hayao Miyazaki, among others) and so on and so forth. Now Viz treats us to another wonderful gem in Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind, an ecological fable by famed animator Hayao Miyazaki.
I could be wrong, but this is the only comic in the marketplace written and drawn by an Academy Award winner. OK, fine — two-time winner Diane Wiest (Best Supporting Actress: Hannah and Her Sisters, Bullets over Broadway) wrote something called Badrock Vs. the Bride of Robotjox, but until Rob Liefeld finishes drawing it, it’s merely a comic solicited by an Academy Award winner and nothing more. At any rate, the Oscar’s probably a nice feather in Hayao Miyazaki’s cap, but it’s one accolade in a career chock full of accolades.
Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind takes place in a damaged land suffering the after-effects of an ecological holocaust brought about by a terrible war known as the “Seven Days of Fire” and criminal negligence from industrialized nations. A toxic forest known as the Sea of Corruption is slowly spreading across the land literally like a fungus, fouling the air with poisonous spores, encroaching upon what little useable land is left, and mutating insects into hideous monsters.
One of the few habitable places in this wasteland is the Valley of the Wind, in which a nice, coastal breeze restrains these nasty spores from its denizens. It’s kind of like living in Torrance, where the nice marine layer from Redondo Beach keeps out all the L.A. smog (Yes, everything is about me — Haven’t you gotten that yet?). In the Valley lives Nausicaa, a saintly young princess who has a unique bond with the creatures of this world, particularly the Ohmu, mournful giants resembling Mothra in his larval stage.
After a failed attempt to rescue a refugee freighter from the neighboring Peijitei kingdom from the giant landgrubs infesting it’s fuselage, Nausicaa is given a stone by the dying Peijitei princess with the promise that Nausicaa give the stone to her brother. Thus begins the power struggle for control of these badlands and of the last remaining “God Warrior,” the giant weapons that helped destroy the world in those seven days of brutal warfare.
One of the many positive aspects of manga is its portrayal of female characters. From the tomboy princess of Tezuka’s Ribon No Kishi to the odd boy / girl dynamic between the romantic leads of Ranma 1/2, Japanese creators seem to have a knack for presenting believable female characters in action / adventure settings with an elegance that makes it look so damn easy. Don’t get me wrong, they too can objectify women like Chaos! never went out of business; but their heroines seem much more compelling than most of their heroes. Nausicaa can hold her own with the boys on the battlefield, yet is still very much a young girl. Not-so-minor details such as this tend to get lost in usual action-adventure tales.
Nausicaa contains some of the most beautiful art you’ll ever see in comics, manga or otherwise. Lushly ornate and elegantly organic, these beautifully rendered pages make one wonder why Miyazaki ever declared he had no aptitude for comics, even if he said it in that charming brand of Japanese self-deprecation. The obvious comparisons to Moebius have been bandied about for a while now, but some of the bio-mechanical images also remind me of a gentler version of H.R. Giger without all the artsy-farsty pretension. There’s a very graceful, voluptuous tone in the art that you won’t find in most manga. One can actually see the trees wither and die in these earthy sketches.
Miyazaki’s mastery of rendering objects of nature serves this story extremely well, because the natural world plays an enormous part in the narrative. It makes a perfect companion piece to Princess Mononoke, for which this was a precursor. Every living creature has its purpose in Miyazaki’s world, and this is not a simple tale of man vs. nature. It’s a tale of man doing what it can to co-exist with nature; because in spite of all man has done, he is as much a victim to nature as it is to him. Everything creates and uncreates everything else around it.
It’s like an epic sci-fi / fantasy comic written by Walt Whitman.
As of this writing, Volume II is also available (ISBN 1-59116-350-1). So go get. After all, you know I’m always right.