Brain Diving Manga Futures
by Brian Ruh, Sep 28th 2010
A small digression to begin – I saw Takeshi Koike's Redline earlier this week! And was it good? Should you do everything in your power to go see it if you can? Hell yeah! Ahem.
Okay, I'm done.
I remember in high school I would page through issues of Wired and Mondo 2000 and try to envision myself in some sort of awesome science fiction future where we all had cybernetic implants and wore virtual reality goggles. Okay, that didn't exactly work out like I had thought it might. That's the thing about the future – it's almost never what you think it's going to be. We tend to admire the few whose predictive fictions came through, forgetting the hundreds of others whose awesome ideas (half-baked or otherwise) fell by the wayside.
The SF ideal has been to simply just jack information directly into the brain – it's a common staple from Neuromancer to Ghost in the Shell and many points in between. Looking around, it just doesn't seem like technology and society is quite at that level yet. Nor has this whole virtual reality thing that seemed like the Next Big Thing in the '90s come to pass. However, there is a bit of the future worming its way into everyday life, and it's increasingly seeming like we might be moving toward getting our books, magazines, and (of particular import for this column) manga through electronic means. Of course, electronic publishing has been on the horizon for quite a while now, so this shouldn't really rock anyone's paradigms. With the advent of the iPad and other similar portable devices, though, it's been seeming like we're at a turning point when it comes to electronic publishing, especially where manga is concerned. For example, earlier this year, manga publishers in the US and Japan formed a coalition to try to stop websites that were very publically pirating their work. The sites obviously noticed that such scanlation sites were eating into their bottom line and had to do something about it – one the other hand, they also saw that electronic manga could be very much in demand if they could figure out how to provide it to paying customers. Another recent development that seems like it might prove to be significant Square Enix's plans to launch an online manga store for North American and French audiences later this year.
Although I'm an admitted technophile, the change from print to electronic manga isn't really something I'm particularly looking forward to. As a consumer, I prefer printed manga because you can do more with it and the interface is better. If I buy a paper manga tankoubon, I can lend it out to whoever I want to, I can mark the pages, and I have complete control over what happens to the physical object. However, if I buy an electronic version of the same comic, I can't really do any of those things. And the transition from page to page just doesn't feel as right to me on electronic comics. (Plus, calling a good book that you read quickly a “page turner” is part of our popular language. What would the equivalent be for an e-book? “Button pusher”? “Finger swiper”?)
Moving into the domain of electronic manga should make us think of the characteristics that make manga manga. In other words, how can we successfully move from a paper form to something you read on a screen? I think now is a perfect time to revisit an old interview with Paul Pope in this week's Read This!
The interview between Pope and Carl Gustav Horn, subtitled “Ripping the Face Off Manga,” originally ran in the August 2001 issue of Viz's PULP magazine. (Both the magazine and its website are sadly defunct, but thank goodness for the Internet Archive.) For those who don't know, Pope is an American comic artist who spent some time in the 1990s working for Japanese publisher Kodansha. The interview provides a fascinating look at the inner workings of how manga editors work with artists to develop story ideas and what it might be like for anyone who has aspirations of breaking into the Japanese manga scene. (Another good example of a foreigner working in the manga industry can be seen in Felipe Smith's manga Peepo Choo, which was recently published by Vertical.)
Pope discusses his interactions with editors at Kodansha and the advice they gave him on how to structure his comics for the Japanese market. I want to quote Pope on panel layout here because I think it's particularly important:
When I was working for Kodansha, the joke was always, "A bad comic is where you have a panel where Superman jumps through a window, and the caption says "Superman jumps through a window," and he's saying, "I'm jumping through the window," and there's a sound effect that says, "JUMP." [LAUGH] Or you can imagine three panels: 1.) he's jumping through the window, 2.) he's landing on the ground, 3.) he says, "I've done it"--or something like that. I really have a sense from what I learned from manga, is that, rather than try to tell and directly tell the story where Superman is jumping through the window, that the best manga will try to give you the experience of jumping through the window--the tactile sensations, the speed of it, the rush of it--catch all the different moments in-between the three panels that an American comic might use to tell the story.
When I first read this years ago, it really got me thinking about the differences in how American and Japanese comics are put together in the panel designs and layouts. It's not just that manga often features wide-eyed characters and speed lines – even if the actual drawing style isn't what many people would call manga-esque, the feeling that you are reading a manga is carried by the transitions between the panels. (This is also one thing that irritates me about so many of the “how to draw manga” books that litter the shelves – very few of them discuss how to put stories, characters, and panels together in a cohesive way. They usually wallow in the shallows of “ooh, let's draw some cuties with big eyes.”)
If the essence of manga isn't superficial things like how you draw a character but rather how you tell and story and convey information to the reader, then making the switch from the printed page to a digital reader is going to have a big impact on the experience someone has of reading it. I don't think you can say that putting out electronic manga is as easy as scanning in a page and uploading it – there's a lot that needs to be considered with regard to user experience.
With this in mind, I want to take a quick look at some electronic manga currently available on the North American market. I don't mean for these examples to be exhaustive or necessarily representative. They're just the ones that, at the moment, have caught my eye. I used both my iPhone and my PC as the reader for all of these titles, except Koushika, which was only available to me as an iPhone app.
Hetalia by Hidekaz Himaruya on Comixology
One of the big announcements in the past week is that apparent fan-favorite Hetalia is available to download on the PC or iPhone/iPad through Comixology's website. I hadn't used Comixology before, but the announcement was timed well since this column was already underway. Before I get to the manga itself, I want to address a something I noticed about Comixology's approach to comics in general, which is evident from the header on their website that reads “Pull, Rate, Preview, Discuss… Is it Wednesday yet?” I'll just out myself right here and say that I am not a comics nerd in the least and that by using such fan-centric jargon like “pull” and talking about Wednesday as if it's the highlight of the week could be enough to alienate some non-comics people. I think one of the reasons manga was able to thrive (comparatively speaking) is that it took Japanese comics out of the comic stores and into the bookstores, which were generally accessible and far less intimidating to the uninitiated. Digital comics similarly have the opportunity to go after audiences that would never set foot in a comic book store, but only if they drop the jargon.
So, Hetalia… content wise, is it enough to say that I'm certainly not its target audience? Admittedly I only checked out the first chapter (since it was free), but I'm not sure what's supposed to be so funny about it. We are presented with a bunch of pretty boys with names of countries hanging out yelling nonsense at one another, and the “joke” that punctuates the end of the introductory color pages is when Italy yells “pasta!” Wow. Total comic genius right there. It's like someone illustrated a lame Saturday Night Live sketch from the dullest of the show's creative doldrums. Perhaps it gets better in later chapters, but there is nothing from my initial reading that makes me want to keep going.
What I found much more interesting than the comic itself was the way it was presented to the reader. On the iPhone, the only way to read the comic was one panel at a time – there didn't seem to be a way to view an entire page layout all at once. (This must be the Guided View™ Technology the app mentions when it starts up.) I don't like this and find it problematic with regard to manga in general. As I mentioned above, some of the key aspects to manga are panel layouts and transitions. A manga artist does not design a page with the idea that a reader is going to take an isolated look at each individual panel, but rather that the reader will read the whole page, with the art, dialogue, and layout guiding his or her eye. It just seems wrong to me to read single panels by themselves without being able to see the context around them. Thankfully the Comixology web interface allows for multiple views of the manga, letting the user have both two page spread and individual panel views. However, even the double page view isn't perfect – although the manga is published in a right-to-left format, the individual pages on the Comixology site are arranged left-to-right. It's certainly no barrier to reading, but it is a tad awkward. (And shows the site wasn't really set up to be able to handle manga formats.)
I Am an Alien. I Have a Question. by Yoshitoshi ABe on Amazon Kindle
ABe's manga is a great example of how comic artists might be able to use digital comics to promote their own works independent of any publisher. I Am an Alien. I Have a Question. is one of ABe's doujinshi works, but rather than having to slog through the lines at Comiket, you can just pay a dollar (the majority of which would go straight to the artist, I would imagine) and get a chance to read it in either English or Japanese.
As much as I like some of ABe's other works, I Am an Alien. I Have a Question. is a bit lackluster. It is about a space alien that learned to speak Japanese from television shows who visits the earth to learn more about humans. Brief hilarity ensues. Sort of. Since the comic is so short, it doesn't really have much room to develop. The layout of the English-language text also seems rather haphazard, since it's displayed in a variety of fonts and sizes to try to squeeze into the room allowed by the speech bubbles. But I really like the idea of Japanese manga artists having their releases translated and independently releasing them on their own. A very good idea, if somewhat flawed execution.
COMICLOUD volumes 1 and 2 on Amazon Kindle
I was just browsing Amazon one day when I happened to see the listing for the first volume of COMICLOUD. It seemed like a good idea – a short manga magazine in Japanese and English featuring content that I hadn't heard of before. The clincher was that it contained new manga by Shintaro Kago, so I had to give it a shot. It should tell you something that I liked it enough to pick up the second issue earlier this week.
Issue one of COMICLOUD contains four different manga – the auto racing drama Quadrifoglio Due by Takeshi Okamoto, the well-endowed “comedy” Kurogane by Shizuka Nanami, the historical mecha combat manga Nobuna-girl by Taro Matsumoto, and four one-panel gags by Shintaro Kago under the heading Kago Mania. (The pun in the name of Matsumoto's manga works better in Japanese, since it combines the name of Oda Nobunaga and the Japanese pronunciation of the English word “girl.”) I found something worthwhile in each of the inclusions, save Kurogane, which took a tired boy-suddenly-meets-chesty-girl-and-somehow-they-end-up-living-together trope and ended up making it even more worn out. Thankfully, it did not return for the second issue, which featured the second parts of Quadrifoglio Due and Nobuna-girl, as well as a surreal narrative manga called Detective SumoKING from Shintaro Kago, and a glimpse into the life of a mangaka in Bang Ippongi's Diary of a Manga Artist by, of course, Bang Ippongi (whose works were discussed in Jason Thompson's “House of 1000 Manga” column a few months ago). This second installment seemed much stronger to me, showcasing a good diversity of genres and styles.
As with ABe's doujin release, I have to get behind a magazine like this, which I don't believe has a paper-based equivalent. Such an online manga magazine is a great way for readers to be able to check out new artists, but it also provides a way for those artists to get paid. From what I've read, the editorial staff seems to be very open to new ideas as well. They're on Twitter (@comicloud in Japanese, @bookloud in English) and they say in the magazine that they're looking for new artists who can create new comics in English or Japanese. So if you've been working on that idea for a totally awesome manga but didn't know who to pitch it to, this may be your chance. I hope more manga magazine open up like this and express a greater willingness to take on artists from overseas.
Things looked pretty good on a technical level, too. There was one thing that did bug me a bit, though. I don't know if this is a limitation of the Kindle software in general, but neither COMICLOUD nor the ABe manga were able to provide full-frame images. The margins on each page were very large, meaning that I had to keep zooming in when I was using my iPhone. I am glad that the system does not try to guide you like the Comixology app, but having to zoom in and resize each page gets a little old after a while.
Koushika by Leiji Matsumoto on iPhone app
The last example of electronic manga I want to mention here is not available on a PC. First released for the Wii in Japan last year, Koushika was released as an app in the iTunes store earlier this year. If you've seen Star Blazers (Space Battleship Yamato), Galaxy Express 999, Captain Harlock, or any other Leiji Matsumoto anime or manga, you probably have a good idea of what to expect from Koushika. It's about a team of scientists who journey through time and space in order to solve the riddle of why and how they received an image of a prehistoric earth taken from an unknown field of flowers.
I won't go into the finer plot details here, not only because I don't want to spoil you, but even after reading the whole story a few times I'm still not sure what they are. It often feels as if Matsumoto is making things up as he goes along, combining pseudo-scientific babble with philosophy. However, Matsumoto at least tries to make it an entertaining ride, if not an entirely coherent one. The character and mechanical designs are certainly classic Matsumoto (good to know that some things don't change).
There are a couple of things that distinguish Koushika from the other electronic manga I've been looking at. The first is that all 200+ pages are in full color. This certainly distinguishes it from most other manga out there, which may have only a limited section in color, if any. The second Is that the app plays background music to go along with the comic depending on which page you are on. I was skeptical of this at first, but I didn't find it too obtrusive an actually found that it contributed to my enjoyment of the manga. Finally, since this manga was its own app and didn't rely on a larger platform like those from Amazon or Comixology, it could have its own interface, which was simple to use and understand and made navigating through the chapters a snap. Plus, since the comic image took up the whole screen, it was often much easier to read than those on the Kindle since I didn't have to keep zooming in and out as I read though.
This is just a small sampling of the digital manga that are out there. Usually electronic manga are cheaper than their dead-tree counterparts, but if I have the choice, for the time being I think I'll stick with paper. (Unless it's something that I can't get any other way.) It's worth it to me to hold a book in my hand, knowing it will never crash, run out of juice, or be yanked from my reader due to some licensing squabble. I understand why publishers feel like they need to go in this direction, though I'm still waiting for the first electronic manga that really wows me.
Brian Ruh is the author of Stray" Dog of Anime: The Films of Mamoru Oshii. You can find him on Twitter at @animeresearch.
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