Jason Thompson's House of 1000 Manga Justice & Star Trekker
by Jason Thompson, Jul 1st 2010
Episode IX: Double Feature - Justice & Star Trekker
Occasionally it is brought to my attention that there is a whole pop culture separate from manga, called "American pop culture," and a whole different type of comics, called "American comics." I mostly know about these things when they are referenced in manga. I'm always interested when Japanese artists work on American comic properties, if only for the cultural navel-gazing, but the theory is usually cooler than the reality, because of the many corporate licensing restrictions and, less often but still there, the sense that the artists are trying to pander to certain expectations of American tastes. Yoshihiro Natsume's Batman: Death Mask dumped Japanese elements into the Batman mythology, apparently unaware that he was rehashing old ideas that Frank Miller and Chris Claremont had tried 30 years earlier, the first time that Japan was cool. Katsuhiro Otomo drew a story for Batman: Black and White in the '90s, but it, too, was pretty forgettable. Tsutomu Nihei's Wolverine story, Snikt!, one of the best of the lot, could basically be described as "Let's put Wolverine in the Blame! universe!" The recent glut of "manga" books (most of them drawn by American or Korean artists) based on American properties such as Twilight, Star Trek, Ghostbusters and World of Warcraft is hardly inspiring.
With such meager "official" offerings, I'd go so far as to say that the best Japanese takes on American properties are in dojinshi. It's basic crowdsourcing; among so many thousands of Harry Potter dôjinshi, some of them have to be good. But regardless of quality, all dôjinshi are equally illegal, and equally likely to be stamped down on by litigious Western companies trying to protect their copyrights. (Due to the differences between American and Japanese copyright law, Japanese corporations don't have to aggressively attack copyright violators or risk losing their copyright. So oddly enough, Japanese law permits more dôjinshi because Japanese copyright law is actually stronger.) Even a work like Tomoyuki Saito's Dame Dame Saito Nikki—a short-lived autobiographical manga about the artist's experiences living in America which ran in Dengeki Daioh magazine—could get in trouble with DC and Marvel for merely including drawings of people cosplaying as American superheroes at San Diego Comic-Con
So dôjinshi, like fanfiction, is everywhere, but you have to keep a low profile lest you become the unlucky one person sued for millions of dollars as a deterrent to other dôjinshi creators. Luckily, not everyone is smart enough to keep a low profile, which leads to some interesting comics getting published. Way back in the early '90s, before imported dôjinshi was easily available at most anime conventions, Antarctic Press published a short-lived and ill-advised comic series titled simply Dôjinshi, which had reprinted scans of Japanese dojinshi without getting permission from the artists. When news of this reached Japan, the artists were not pleased, and Antarctic Press immediately stopped publishing the comic. (Funny how this doesn't stop scanlation sites.) But Antarctic Press bounced back and asked permission next time. They ended up publishing two dôjinshi based on Western properties, Justice and Star Trekker.
Justice is a 48-page one-shot reprinting art and essays from dojins based on American superhero comics. It was published in 1994, a time when the American superhero comics market was particularly bloated, with the Death of Superman plotline, the recent creation of Todd McFarlane's Spawn, a rise in gimmicks like holographic variant covers, and other media events which drove superhero fans into a collecting frenzy. Manga, although on the rise, was a tiny subculture which was mostly excluded from the big money. "I hope to bridge the gap between American superhero readers and manga readers…there does not need to be an adversarial relation," wrote Antarctic publisher/editor-in-chief Ben Dunn in his opening essay. "While I realize that this is only a one shot issue, I hope that it will strike a cord with many of you and get you to give manga a try and to show you that fans are basically the same the world over."
The resulting book, contains material from the dojins Justice and Gadget, published by a Japanese group called the CLA (Comic Lovers' Association). They were artists who liked American comics, which they read either in limited translation or by import, which at the time was confined to a few specialty stores like the Tokyo-based store Manga no Mori, whose owner, Takashi Oshiguchi, used to have a column on world comics in VIZ's defunct Animerica magazine. Today, the contributors are a pretty obscure lot, but among them are a few whose work was later published in English: Toshihiro Ono, who drew Tokyopop's manga adaptation of Seikai no Monshō ("Crest of the Stars") and Viz's very first Pokémon manga; Tommy Ohtsuka (aka Studio Zombie), an artist who published some work with CPM; and noted Transformers fan/Takara employee Hirofumi Tachikawa (http://transformers.wikia.com/wiki/Hirofumi_Ichikawa).
The artists combine a mix of Western and Japanese art styles, with some pieces so American-style I thought I was really reading a dusty Western comic from some back-issue bin. (In the scans for this article, I've gone with the more moe, more manga-style ones.) The content is a mixture of essays, fanart and four-panel manga. Some of the best art is based on the young superhero teams of the '80s, Teen Titans, Alpha Flight and Fallen Angels, perhaps because they had more cute girls and opportunities for romantic hijinks. There's also several pages of designs of Iron Man suits and Batman costumes. Perhaps the weirdest bit of fan art is of Phil Foglio's Angel and the Ape.
The essays, written mostly by a CLA member named Yujin (aka Eugene) Ishikawa and presumably picked by Ben Dunn, are a window on the superhero scene twenty years ago. In one essay from 1989, Yujin Ishikawa and Takehiko Fujiwara complain about Tim Burton's 1989 Batman movie. They love the set design, but they feel the story is too self-indulgent. Ishikawa is annoyed that they don't show Batman's origin story. "They probably omited it because American audiences already know all about his origin," Fujiwara suggests. Ishikawa retorts, "I don't care how many times you say, "Everyone knows that'; a hero's origin is a tradition!" But in an essay from two years later, after seeing Batman Returns, Ishikawa is apparently been won over by Burton. "Returns could arguably be his greatest masterpiece," he gushes. "The theme of resentment towards a society whose members try to exclude and discriminate against those different from themselves, which could be called the source of Burton's creative will, is excellently depicted through the tragic life of the Penguin." Ishikawa goes on: "Rather than see him do a third Batman movie, I'd prefer the director realize a Godzilla film that he himself proposes to TOHO (unreasonable as that may seem). So far he has been writing almost nothing but characters like the Penguin in Batman Returns or Edward Scissorhands, characters who are crushed by society in the end. I am strongly interested in seeing how he would handle an invincible character like Godzilla, who submits to no one."
This being the pre-Internet age, Justice also serves as a vehicle for news and commentary about what is going on in the American superhero scene. The authors translate precious bits of information culled from English issues of Comics Interview magazine. When Todd McFarlane and other artists announce their decision to leave Marvel and form Image Comics, a decision which would shake up American comics publishing for years, Ishikawa and the others are skeptical. "McFarlane, huh?" says Tetsuya Shinoda. "I didn't know guys like him were the most popular artists out there, but looking at this art, I don't imagine that'll last too long. What I like about American comics is that they accept and appreciate more realistic art and that they're more professional. If this is considered top work, though, then the overall quality level of the American comics world may be dropping." He goes on to compare McFarlane to anime character designer Masami Obari, another artist known for his exaggeration and hyper-stylized anatomy, in contrast to the stiffer styles of the '80s.
But beyond criticizing McFarlane's art, Ishikawa also criticizes his move to self-publishing, and what it represents. He doesn't want to see McFarlane drawing original, creator-owned characters; he wants to see McFarlane drawing Spider-Man and the other classic superheroes. ("Could they possibly be thinking that their current popularity is primarily due to just their own efforts? Just who do they think is responsible for having brought Spider-Man, the X-Men, and all those other characters this far all these years?") It's the same argument I've heard countless times from American fanboys defending the immortal, unaging, boring characters of American superhero comics; the "iconic characters" argument. Personally, I reject the idea that comics created by committee are better than creator-owned comics, or that characters are more important than the story around them. But characters are easier to sell, and easier to grasp-- it's usually the look, the design that pulls you in, the face that launches a thousand pieces of fanart. How many people have cosplayed as Edward Elric, Vash the Stampede or Alucard without having read the original manga they came from? How many people would say they are fans of Superman or Batman, but haven't read any of the original, now-ancient comics?
Despite Ishikawa's skepticism towards self-publishing, it's a rare critic who doesn't want to create the thing he critiques, and Yujin Ishikawa was no exception; he drew a short-lived original comic for Antarctic Press, The Mighty Bombshells. I hesitate to call it a "manga," because The Mighty Bombshells is an almost exact clone of a B-grade American superhero comic from the 1980s, square jaws and cramped panel layouts and all. The Mighty Bombshells proves that Ishikawa definitely knows his American superhero comics; but to someone like me, who started reading manga in the first place because I didn't like superhero comics, it's a hard read. Like manga-influenced American comic artists drawing shojo and shonen manga in an imitation of styles from 10+ years ago, Ishikawa was drawing his dream, unaware that the dream was already fading into the past.
Antarctic's other dôjnshi publishing experiment was a little less reverent towards its subject matter. Atelier Lana's Star Trekker is a goofy, affectionate '80s-style parody of the Star Trek series. The comics are the story of the Constellation II, a separate Enterprise-style spaceship, which roams the galaxy on various silly adventures. In addition to all the nameless redshirts, the primary crew consists of Captain Aya, her first officer and "mirror twin" Homare, Lieutenant T'Pall the lady Vulcan, Claire the catgirl Communications Officer, and the ship's android doctor, who looks exactly like Robocop. When not exploring the galaxy, they are falling all over eachother in romantic comedy adventures. Homare has a crush on Aya, despite them being sort-of-related (incest fetish ho!). Aya tries to keep the ship together despite being a partier and a drunk.
In his introduction to one of the comic issues, Ben Dunn writes "'Woah! Hold on there! How could the japanese appreciate Star Trek enough to parody it?' one might say on these shores. Well, I hate to disappoint those who might think that, but the Japanese are not only hip to Star Trek, they can see all its little nuances." The series is filled with silly cameos and in-jokes; Kamen Rider and JRPG characters roam through the halls; Kirk and Spock run by shouting "You're not God! You're not God!" like in Star Trek V: The Final Frontier. There's lots of bras, panties, and even some sex, although the art is too plain and cartoony to be sexy; instead, it looks cute and childishly sweet.
The combination of manga cuteness and Star Trek was surprisingly popular, and Antarctic released an entire Star Trekker graphic novel as well as several uncollected issues of the comic. The party stopped when Paramount pictures, always notoriously harsh on anything which might harm the Star Trek franchise, discovered the existence of the book. Paramount's lawyers contacted Antarctic, and Star Trekker came to an abrupt end. The graphic novel is now rare and hard to find.
Despite their various weaknesses, both Justice and Star Trekker are, at their heart, warm personal tributes to things the artists obviously like. Today, these kinds of things would almost certainly be put online (legally or illegally) rather than published in print, but I'd much rather read selections of translated dôjinshi than most of the official "manga" adaptations of Western movies, comics and TV shows. Out of the sea of untranslated dôjinshi, these books stand like two strange little islands.
Jason Thompson is the author of Manga: The Complete Guide and King of RPGs, as well as manga editor for Otaku USA magazine.
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