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Jason Thompson's House of 1000 Manga - Spider-man: The Manga

by Jason Thompson,


Episode XV: Spider-Man: The Manga

So the Spider-Man movie franchise is being relaunched, and Sam Raimi and Tobey Maguire are being kicked to the curb. I would have liked to see thirtysomething Tobey Maguire fight the Lizard, but revamps have always been the great strength—and weakness—of American superhero comic franchises: they are designed to be endlessly mutated, restarted, translated, produced in different forms, and never resolved. Every generation, sometimes every country, gets the Spider-Man that they deserve.

In Japan in 1970, that was the Spider-Man manga by Ryōichi Ikegami, the strange result of an early attempt by Marvel Comics to sell Spider-Man in Japan. It was only seven years since Stan Lee and Steve Ditko had created the character, but already Spider-Man was a licensing powerhouse. But Marvel's overseas licensing division soon discovered that Japanese comics had their own style; they couldn't just resell color, 32-page American monthly comics in the Japanese market. Instead, Marvel teamed up with Kodansha to create a new Spider-Man series just for Japan. Just as Japanese movies like The Ring are remade with an American cast, or how internationally co-produced movies used to be filmed with casts of different nationalities taking turns sharing the same sets, the Spider-Man manga was to be a retelling of the series with a Japanese cast. Spider-Man became Yūko Mori, a Japanese teenager. Aunt May became Aunt Mei. In place of Gwen Stacy or Mary Jane, Spider-Man gained a new love interest, a Japanese girl, Rumi.

It might have turned out as a simple knock-off, like Jiro Kuwata's 1966 Batman manga (reprinted in the U.S. as Bat-Manga!). But Kuwata and Ikegami had different styles, and Kuwata had more restrictions…and less ambitions. Kuwata was drawing the Batman manga purely as kids' stuff, as a spin-off of the campy 1960s Batman TV series, which was running on television in Japan. Contrarily, the legendarily badly animated 1967 Spider-Man animated series ("Spider-Man, Spider-Man, does whatever a spider can…") did not air in Japan, and most Japanese people had no preconceptions of what or who Spider-Man was. As a result, even though he was just doing work-for-hire for Kodansha and Marvel, Ikegami had a lot of freedom to remake Spider-Man on his own terms.

In an interview in Animerica magazine in 1990s, Ikegami talked a bit about Spider-Man, saying that he had probably been hired because of his realistic art style. Ikegami's art was indeed realistic by the cartoony standards of shonen manga of the time (Gō Nagai, Osamu Tezuka, etc.), and over the course of Spider-Man it got more and more so, evolving towards the photorealistic style which would make him famous in Sanctuary and Crying Freeman (and which was parodied in Cromartie High School). In the early chapters, there are occasional goofy faces and sight gags (i.e. Spider-Man imagining himself in the form of a little chibi spider), but as the series goes on these childish elements fade away. Instead, Ikegami focuses on stark realism, from the heavily rendered anatomy of Spider-Man and his enemies, to the urban landscapes where they live. Ikegami, who had once submitted stories to the underground manga magazine Garo, brought the sensibilities of gekiga ("dramatic pictures," oldschool men's manga) to what was originally a boys' manga story. Ikegami was influenced, not only by underground manga, but by American artists, chiefly Neal Adams, whose ultra-realistic art style stood out in American comics of the time. (In contrast, Jiro Kuwata, in an interview in the American edition of Bat-Manga!, said that he had wanted to adopt a more realistic art style for the Batman manga, but he just never got around to it.)

Neal Adams and writer Denny O'Neil were also famous for their attempts to tackle social issues in their comics. Today, their efforts seem preachy and unintentionally funny, but at the time, their work on Green Lantern/Green Arrow, climaxing in the 1971 storyline in which Green Arrow's sidekick turns out to be a heroin junkie, was instrumental in loosening the restrictive American Comics Code. (Cover text: "DC attacks youth's greatest problem…drugs!") In Japanese comics as well, it was a much more political time, a time when the Hiroshima bombing manga Barefoot Gen (1973) ran in Weekly Shônen Jump and Fujio Fujiko A., one of the creators of Doraemon, could draw a biographical manga about Mao Zedong in Shûkan Manga Sunday (1971). As the would-be social revolutionaries of the late 1960s were integrated into the mainstream, their imaginations sizzled and fumed into the form of escapism, into the form of manga.

At first, Ikegami played it safe, more or less directly adapting the original Marvel Comics storylines. (Since the comics weren't translated, Ikegami got translations from Kōsei Ono, a book critic and international comics fan.) Yūko Mori gains his powers by being bitten by a radioactive spider, he makes a Spider-Man suit, and he fights supervillains in order to protect his friends and family. The first villain is Electro, who in Ikegami's version is a cyborg. Then he fights the Lizard, whose origin story is also changed, making him a scientist who mutated into a lizard from the 'evolutionary pressures' of being lost in a South Pacific jungle. ("I found myself in a terrible place! Countless gigantic lizard began to attack me! Then one day, all of a sudden, my body experienced a Darwinian change…I found myself imitating the movements and actions of the lizards. By doing this, my nervous system was affected, and it adapted to these new patterns. I felt my body changing, becoming more lizard-like!") Continuing the animal theme, Ikegami introduced a new villain, the Kangaroo. ("I was born in the Australian wilderness. I always ran around with the kangaroos! But later in life, I came to realize I had a special ability…the power to jump higher than kangaroos!") Somehow, in Ikegami's universe, an ex-pro-wrestler with shaggy hair and super jumping ability is terrifying enough to drive the entire city of Tokyo into a panic. J. Jonah Jameson even shows up in the form of Yu's cigar-smoking boss at the Joho Newspaper. Although he isn't explicitly motivated by envy of Spider-Man's awesomeness, as in Steve Ditko's original, Objectivism-inspired conception of Jameson, he too ends up leading a media crusade against the masked webcrawler, beginning when Spider-Man wins the paper's $100,000 reward for catching a bad guy. ("That Spider-Man came and took our money! Every time I see him, I get so steamed!") Soon J. Jonah Jameson is blaming Spider-Man for the most irrational things (he let the Kangaroo get away because he was busy saving a child!), the public hates Spider-Man, and just like Peter Parker in the original 1960s comics, Yūko Mori just can't get any respect. 

However, the manga series was not a huge hit, and Ikegami soon felt the need, or the desire, to move farther away from Marvel's version. Even at the beginning, the series had always had a strange disconnect between cartoony and realistic, both in Ikegami's artwork and in the plots themselves. In early volumes, suited heroes and villains fight it out while the side characters try hard to pontificate about those crazy kids today and try hard to convince us that Spider-Man  is socially relevant. ("Critics say that criminals like Electro reflect the changing nature of today's society." "His bizarre, spider-like appearance symbolizes the frustrations of the younger generation today.") Ikegami hired Kazumasa Hirai, the creator of 8 Man, to write original scripts for the series, and soon, the comic went nuts. After a final superhero storyline involving Mysterio, the new direction turned Spider-Man: The Manga from a costumed crimefighter story to a story of a boy with super strength and wall-climbing ability who has the most miserable life imaginable. At the end of issue #9 of the U.S. edition, Yu throws away his Spider-Man costume, and he barely puts it on for the rest of the series. ("Egotist! Hypocrite! If I continue being Spider-Man, I might make the same mistakes the Kangaroo made," he thinks.) Standing on a grassy riverbank in the rain, Yu watches his Spider-Man costume vanish in the river's current. Wearing his tattered school uniform and cap, he looks nothing like Peter Parker, instead like a Japanese bancho tough kid, the same kind of fistfighting street punk who would star in Ikegami's Otoko Gumi ("Men's Gang").

But Yu doesn't get to even enjoy the manly pleasures of being a superpowered badass. Instead, he remains a tragic and lonely figure, tormented by his superpowers, unable to be happy no matter what. In a typical scene, Yu bumps into some yakuza in a train station, then allows himself to get beaten up rather than use his Spider-Man powers and risk injuring them with his super-strength. Realistic violence intrudes on escapist fantasy: in a relatively early chapter, Yu and his friends are driving motorbikes down the road, exchanging wisecracks ("Decided to play, huh, Komori? I always thought you were a bookworm!"). Suddenly, two of his friends are nailed by a car going full speed, sending their motorbike flying and leaving them lying on the grass covered in blood. ("A Hit and Run! That guy blew through the light and just kept going!") The bad guys turn from supervillains into pathetic, miserable everyday criminals: sleazy hippies; a group of kendo students who gang up and attempt to rape a girl; a troubled young man who gets super-strength and takes revenge on his tormentors. The grimy darkness of these stories, and their generally forced attempts at socially relevant content, go beyond Green Lantern/Green Arrow and to the depths of 'realistic' superhero comics in the 1980s and 1990s, in which superheroes were reduced to fighting child molesters and people who tampered with medicine bottles in drugstores. One of the few supernatural stories in the later part of the story involves a psychic woman (possibly a take on the yuki-onna or snow woman, since she is followed by cold weather) whose psychic powers uncontrollably kill anyone who offends her. ("Think about it. If you could kill people through hatred, without even touching them, there would be mountains of dead bodies. People bury their evil desires and murderous intents deep in their subconscious, unaware they are even there…")

Most of all, again and again, Yu's worst enemy is himself. Twice he fights an evil impostor pretending to be Spider-Man. Continually he is ashamed and revolted by his own spider-powers, and imagines giving in to his own dark desires. This Spider-Man is an antihero, but not a "cool" antihero like Rorschach or the Punisher, who kills and hurts people because he's such a badass, because he's had a hard life, etcetera. Instead, Yūko Mori mostly resists his worst impulses, and in so doing, errs on the side of doing nothing. But oh, his fantasies. At one point when the fate of the city rests in his hands, he contemplates letting everyone die, all those people who hate him. In another scene, Yu is caught in a traffic jam. He fantasizes about how, if he wanted to, he could flip all the cars over and throw them out of the way. Somehow, this stray thought turns into a six-page fantasy sequence of car-flipping, which ends with Yu looking upon a heap of burning cars and dead bodies, thinking "What have I done?!" Towards the end of the series, mere street punk with a gun is enough to send Yūko Mori into depression. ("A gun…it's the same as having super powers…If I had a gun, I could do whatever I wanted to…") It all feels more like If… (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/If....) than Marvel Comics. This is a world where idealistic youth is doomed, where heroes simply can't win.

In short, Ryōichi Ikegami's Spider-Man goes beyond antiheroic superhero deconstruction and becomes so grim-and-gritty it's nihilistic, or just ridiculous. Or perhaps more likely, Ikegami simply got tired of doing Spider-Man and decided to draw whatever stories he wanted using the Yūko Mori character. The later stories feel detached from one another and seem to have almost no connection to the beginning (no one ever says, "Say, Yūko Mori, remember the Kangaroo? Remember how he terrorized the city with those big hairy Hobbit feet?") Transitions between chapters are so awkward that it feels like pages are missing; the translated version, published by Marvel Comics from 1998 to 1999, skipped several of the story arcs, giving it an even more disconnected, dreamlike feel. (Some of them were skipped for content reasons, such as the one when Yu discovers masturbation. Seriously.)

What is awesome about this under any circumstances, however, is Ikegami's artwork, particularly in the latter half of the series. It's a gekiga world, a world of rundown factories and dark skies, of auto shops and demolished buildings. Everything looks industrial, abandoned, half in ruins. In one scene, Ikegami copies hideous faces from Hieronymus Bosch's painting Chris Carrying the Cross; in other scenes, he makes up his own faces of evil. Above this dark world, Spider-Man stands over the city on an invisible thread, as if walking on air. (In one of the series' few cute touches, we see him sleeping in a web spun across the walls of his room.) The series' implicit attitudes towards women and minorities make it a product of its time. In one storyline, a woman goes insane from selling her body to prostitution ("I'm a filthy woman!"). The faces of black men are used in montages seemingly to signify social upheaval, danger, doom. Then again, coming from the creator of Crying Freeman  and AIUEO Boy, in which the hero is hired by anti-feminists to rape Helen Gurley Brown, Spider-Man is definitely one of his least chauvinistic manga. The amazing thing is that Marvel Comics let this all be printed. They did eventually get sick and tired of the English translated version, though, ending it in mid-storyline after 31 issues of low sales. It was never collected as a graphic novel, but the individual back-issues are still easy to find online.

"We got all the way up to the fifth volume before the cultural differences sort of did us in," Ikegami said about the end of Spider-Man, adding that the later, darker stories were a little more popular, but not enough. But for all its quirks, Ikegami's Spider-Man still isn't weirdest Spider-Man adaptation in Japan. Just as Ikegami recreated Spider-Man in the image of gekiga and sordid urban drama, a later Marvel licensor redid Spider-Man in the image of a late-70s trend, the giant robot show. In Toei's 1978 Spider-Man live-action TV series, Spider-Man gets his powers from outer space and pilots a giant robot. The kiddified Toei version of Spider-Man got paid homage in CAPCOM's Marvel super heroes fighting games and still has a beloved imprint on Japanese pop culture, whereas Ryōichi Ikegami's just stands out as a transitional work for Ikegami, and an example of what work-for-hire comic artists can get away with when the licensing department can't read the language they're working in.

Jason Thompson is the author of Manga: The Complete Guide and King of RPGs, as well as manga editor for Otaku USA magazine.
Banner designed by Lanny Liu.

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