Jason Thompson's House of 1000 Manga - ComicLoudby Jason Thompson, Dec 6th 2012
Episode CXXXI: ComicLoud
Last week, I wrote about what I wanted in digital manga: "obscure, weird, niche manga which could never make back its print costs." The truth is that, actually, most manga doesn't make back its print costs nowadays; it's survival, not just experimentation, that's making manga publishers move to digital. That being the case, (1) publishers, if you're losing money anyway, why DON'T you just go all out in a blaze of glory and publish the strangest stuff imaginable? On the other hand, (2) I have to respect anyone who can make it work and publish digital manga in a sustainable, profitable way. The digital manga industry today is like bicycles in the 1800s, with every publisher producing stuff in totally different ways, and no one sure what way is going to become standard.
One example: the ebook magazine ComicLoud. I don't know how profitable it actually is, but it's been coming out monthly for nearly three years now, so I assume it doesn't lose money. (Assuming it's not a vanity press funded by some shadowy super-rich donor who really wants Nobunagirl to be published in English.) Published in Japan, it's available on Kindle (or any computer with Amazon Cloud), Google Play and PC streaming. In a 2010 interview with Deb Aoki, when it launched, the publishers said they were working on an iPad version, but it still hasn't come out yet. At $4.99 for each issue of about 80 pages, it's not a great deal by sheer page-per-dollar comparison to some companies' digital manga, but since most of the material isn't available anywhere else, I've never felt like I didn't get my money's worth out of it.
ComicLoud is a manga anthology of original material by Japanese artists. The English translations are solid, if non-native-speaker-y around the edges, as in the magazine's subtitle, "E-Magazine for Social Communication." It also has the same kind of screaming loud self-promo text used in actual Japanese magazines ("NEXT ISSUE: COMICLOUD IS COOKING UP SOME HOT MANGA TO GET YOU THROUGH THE COLD WINTER!"). Kindle books read left to right, but the manga is unflopped; it's a little disorienting having to flip L->R to go to the next page and then read each individual page R->L, but you get used to it. Another Kindle problem is that the resolution is low (the books of course are compatible with the oldest Kindles), but again, you get used to it.
I'll be honest and start with my favorite artist in the magazine. One of the best things about webcomics and indy comics is feeling like you have an inside connection (however illusionary) to the artist, and one of the best things about ComicLoud is the autobiographical comics by Ippongi Bang. Starting out as a dojinshi/cosplay/AV star in Japan in the 1980s, a girl geek in a then-even-more-boy-oriented world, she rose to cult popularity in the U.S. in the 1990s but later fell off the radar. But lo and behold, she's still out there, teaching comic classes at a vocational school in Hachijoji and drawing Bang Ippongi's Diary of a Manga Artist. With a style something like Phil Foglio + Hideo Azuma + Go Nagai, her manga is frantically exaggerated, disarmingly personal, and full of in-jokes, speed lines and big cute eyes. Diary of a Manga Artist (the second or third work she's done by that title, on top of other semi-autobiographical works like Doujin Shojo JB) is a rambling diary/essay about making manga, talking to young and often foreign artists, and chilling with old luminaries of the manga industry like Kaoru Shintani (Area 88), Haruka Takachiho (The Dirty Pair), Yoshikazu Yasuhiko (Gundam: The Origin) and so on. (When she meets Yoshikazu Yasuhiko at a science fiction convention, she asks him "How can I draw manga as fast as you?"). She rambles on about censorship, weeaboos, screentone and cleaning her studio, but if I had to pick one chapter as the most Bang-like, it'd be the one where she advises aspiring mangaka to go out and get worldly experience instead of just sitting in their studio doing nothing but drawing manga all the time. Falling in love, a bad breakup, being busted by the cops for carrying pharmaceuticals—it's all good for Experience Points!! ("Manga are all about imagination and empathy. People who don't understand pain cannot draw manga!" ) It helps to know all the '80s and '90s manga references she throws out, but Bang's work is more than just Kazuhiko Shimamoto-esque retro madness (Shimamoto also makes a cameo, BTW); it's a candid look inside the vast world of semi-pro, original manga artists that Americans rarely see.
Most of the artists in ComicLoud might be "semi-pro", if your definition of "pro" is "currently working in a print manga magazine", an increasingly irrelevant distinction. That's not to say they don't have the skills, though. Quadrifoglio 2, by Takeshi Okamoto, is a car-racing manga about the gang of teens who hangs out at the university autocross club, where everyone knows as much about cars as the author does. ("This is a pretty beat up 145 you've bought, Shun." "That car behind us…could it be?! A Renault Sport Spider! And it's got a saute-vent with no windshield!" "My dad drove a Renault 5 Turbo at that time…that car was what made him love Renault!") The art is good, with crisp character artwork (mostly of cute girls) and smooth photographic/computer-assisted cars; if it doesn't have the earthy grittiness that makes Initial D so intense, like the cars are going to crash and splinter apart into masses of speedlines, it's got the auto-fanservice of lots of precisely rendered European vehicles. The main characters of the ensemble cast are two girls, Yotsuba (a cheerful pit-stop mechanic who works at the family car repair business) and Chloe (a French girl who's Yotsuba's childhood friend). Many minor characters offer roadside commentary as the cars race by. The mood is unrelievedly light and sunny ("It describes a good life with good cars" says ComicLoud editor Jiro Nemoto), delivering reliable car-racing and PG-rated soap opera.
Ryu-Zin's X Hunter Ray, another one of the titles in almost every issue of the magazine, is more of a car crash. A semi-sci-fi crime story set in a future when RA-Phones, aka "Reality-Altering Phones", allow people to download the abilities of others (a sniper's skills, a boxer's punch, etc.), it's sort of like Joss Whedon's Dollhouse minus the intelligence, the humor and Eliza Dushku. The main characters are Rei, a bishonen bounty hunter who hunts down RAP-abusing criminals, and Allie, a cute girl in a nurse's outfit. Rei has a special "X-class" phone which allows him to download, not just human skills, but superhuman skills (superhuman speed, the ability to survive being frozen, etc.). They spend most of their time fighting ugly, middle-aged goons who, in contrast to Rei & Allie's big-eyed hotness, are drawn in a hyper-realistic '80s-muscle-manga style; as for Rei & Allie, they look suspiciously like Light and Misa from Death Note, so perhaps this world is the hell they go to after the end of that series. Okay, maybe it's unfair picking on X Hunter Ray, when it's really just mediocre; like so many manga, it's got excessively polished artwork and a story that's clichéd, ridiculous and not exciting (since Rei's Dial H for Hero-like deus ex machina superpower lets him do anything). It's the kind of manga that makes me wonder how someone could lavish so much time on the art and so little on the writing.
On the other hand, I feel it's totally fair to pick on Samurai Sword Nobunagirl, a manga so bizarre and bad—and so far below the generally high art quality of ComicLoud—that I'm half convinced it's some intentional heta-uma self-parody. The plot spans from the past to the future and into alternate dimensions. In 1582 Japan, warring-states general Nobunaga Oda tried to conquer Japan using kiryoku, the power of the oni. Hundreds of years later, in 201X, Japan is under attack by alien invaders (in disguise as suspiciously American-looking generals), and the oni power resurfaces in the possession of a sailor-suited girl, who fights with a "bio-loader," a living weapon that can change shape from a motorcycle to an H.R. Giger-esque samurai alien warrior. That's the basics, but the plot gets much, much more complicated. The dialogue is absurd, a mix of non sequiturs and wanna-be dramatic movie lines ("My name is Nobunaga Oda, a warring state daimyo, and I have come to fight and save the world from the oni." "Uh…wait a sec." "Uh, OK, I'm waiting."). The art looks like fan art propped up with major Photoshop abuse. It's all so awful it's kind of entertaining, and is that actually the point? Is this a John Waters-style in-joke, a manga so bad you're supposed to laugh at it? Taro Matsumoto's website and biographical information ("A Lutheran pastor, manga artist and singer-songwriter") only adds to the mystery.
One general truth about ComicLoud is that the stand-alone stories tend to be better than the ongoing stories (X Hunter Ray, Nobunagirl and Quadrifoglio). Maybe a month between 16-page installments is just too long a wait to tell fast-paced, cliffhanger stories. Luckily, ComicLoud also has a variety of one-shots, although they're of varying quality. Shizuka Nanami's Kurogane, a fanservice manga about a ditzy girl who has huge boobs and is a professional knife-sharpener, was mercifully only in one issue, as was Haruki Fujimoto's The Seed of Love, a boring yaoi one-shot with no sex, about a gay couple taking care of a toddler. Maki Haneda, a horror artist somewhat in the style of Junji Ito but not as clever, contributes stories to a few issues. Ichiro Harai's Pocket Husband, despite its crude art, is one of the more interesting intermittent stories, a Meiji Era-tale about a woman married to a six-inch-tall genius who makes a living repairing toy trains and watches. (He also rides around inside her kimono and gets her attention by pinching her nipples; you've got to let the artist do something to make his manga less family-friendly than The Secret World of Arriety.) Haruki Fujimoto also contributes Kitsuman, an infrequent serial about a scruffy manga artist who goes to various cafés to work on his art; it's a promising idea but, even by the standards of lazy-day daily-life manga, nothing really happens.
The star of the one-shot manga, however, is Shintaro Kago, ComicLoud's best artist alongside Ippongi Bang (and incidentally, as far as I know, he's also the only other previously-published-in-print artist in the magazine; I don't know if this means anything, but I don't think I'm just being unconsciously biased). A surreal horror mangaka, Kago, like Koji Kumeta, is known for his finely detailed stories which start with some minor, whimsical intrusion into reality and then exaggerate and exaggerate that intrusion until it balloons into insane horror, like picking at a scab until you're stripping the flesh from your own bones. ComicLoud seems to have a self-imposed PG content rating, though, so Kago never goes into the extreme gore and (often sexual) violence of his untranslated work. But even 13-and-up Kago is really damn weird, from the body-warping of his one-shots Detective Sumoking and Divide (about criminals who separate the lower & upper halves of people's bodies), to the series he's drawn for the last 24+ issues, Dementia 21. Since nudity & major gore are off limits, Kago chooses the next grossest thing he can come up with, an entire series of creepy stories about geriatrics and the elderly, starring young Yukie Saki, a nurse in a private nursing service. ("Our motto is 'Enjoy the evening of your life in your own home!'") The resulting stories are twisted mockeries of senility, dementia, and degraded hospital conditions; killer dentures, endlessly multiplying hordes of old people who spill forth from their overcrowded rooms in a living blob, and diaper zombies to name a few. (The diaper zombies can only be defeated by peeing your pants: "Diapers are originally meant to prevent the leaking of excretions. So they're unable to comprehend people who comfortably excrete on their own will with their clothes on!") Considering it seems like it'd be a one-joke premise, it's amazing he's been able to keep this series going for so long, and amazing how good it is.
In Diary of a Manga Artist, Ippongi Bang estimates how many working manga artists there are in Japan. "Approximately 5000 professional manga artists live here, or so they say. Of those, only about 10% are in the black solely by drawing manga scripts." I don't know how many of the ComicLoud artists live entirely off manga, and how many, like so many American artists, also dabble in freelance illustration, teaching, or any number of day jobs. I do know that ComicLoud is a good read with a lot of interesting artists (if not all good ones), and I only wish there was more of it, more frequently. (Frankly, I'd also love to see a new series to replace Nobunagirl or X Hunter Ray.) Keep up the good work, guys, and keep making it better.
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