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Jason Thompson's House of 1000 Manga - The Saga of Shonen Jump Part II

by Jason Thompson,

Episode CXXXVII: The Saga of Shonen Jump: Part 2

In last week's column, I went back in time to 2002 and talked about the launch of Viz's Shonen Jump magazine. This week, I check out Weekly Shonen Jump Alpha, the newest incarnation of Jump, and the first time it's ever had a simultaneous Japanese & American release. Is the new generation of Jump editors keeping the magazine together?

Print magazines. Despite all the competition from mobile/digital media, they say there's still a big audience for them—but if there's such a big audience, why do they have to run ads begging people to buy advertising? Definitely, "general audience" magazines, like Newsweek (RIP), seem to have suffered the hardest in the last decade of Internet Dominance, whereas weird, niche-interest magazines seem to do better, like Otaku USA(not like I mention it because I write for it or anything, but PLUG PLUG PLUG) or all the organic gardening, Buddhism and chicken farming magazines I always see at my local hippie grocery store. So one question about Shonen Jump Alpha is, is it for "general audiences," like the old available-in-Walmart print version used to be, or is it for weirdos? Is all manga for weirdos again, like it was before 2002? And more importantly, can they make money by publishing it?

One thing is certain: Shonen Jump Alpha, the replacement for the old print Jump, is a bargain. I used to think paying $4.95 for 250 pages of manga was a pretty good deal, but Weekly Shonen Jump Alpha costs $25 for an annual subscription of 48 issues—1/10th of what the printed version used to cost. It reminded me how comparatively overpriced some other manga magazines I've reviewed are, although I admit I hold Viz and Jump to a higher standard because they're so much bigger. The digital magazine is available for Web, Android and iOS via the VIZ Manga app. My iPad version kept giving me a "Data Access Problem" error today, but it worked from the laptop and iPhone, allowing me to tap into that delicious Jump manga from anywhere. Like all Viz's digital manga, you access it from vizmanga.com (their print and physical stuff is on store.viz.com). It was easy to take the plunge and buy a year's subscription with my credit card. One very small but kind of nice thing is that when you get a subscription, you get the current issue, plus the subscription page fills up with placeholders for the other 47 issues you'll be getting—it's like an advent calendar! You can also buy the current issue for 99 cents, although unfortunately, you can't buy back issues or choose to 'start' your subscription elsewhere than at the current issue. (This would be nice because of all the weird goodies buried away in older issues, which I'll talk about later.) I really wish I could just say "no thanks" to the four free Yu-Gi-Oh! cards included with the subscription, since I hate wasting holographic foil paper, but I guess I had no choice.

First I spent some time checking out the Jump site. The site design is decent (with a few gaps like the incomplete "media guide"), with nice bonuses such as promo music videos and sped-up drawing videos of the artists doing their work. (It'd have been amusing if at the end of the Bleach video you saw the artist's face and it turned out to be Nick Simmons.) I wish there was even more stuff like this, like links to the Japanese artists' sites and twitters—they're all in Japanese, sure, but who cares? The "reviews" section is as cheesy as you'd expect—of course it's FULL of viciously savage criticisms of Jump properties—but the print version of Jump used to have the same sort of thing, so that's life. Jump USA has embraced digital media: each issue has a comments section with tons of comments from readers, their twitter is active, and basically it seems like it's produced by a bunch of human beings, not some faceless drones somewhere. Misaki Kido's tweets and Urian Brown's writing are always funny. ("In this special One-Punch Man chapter, Saitama takes on the brutal crab-man-thing, Crablante, whose catchphrase “GURGLE-BLORGLE!” will no doubt soon be taking America by storm!") Even though they are, of course, like all manga editors, tragically viewed by most fans as obstacles rather than facilitators, and even though it must be pretty chaotic getting each issue translated and lettered with only a few days' lead notice, the whole staff manage to bring a little of their personality to the magazine. When a special issue ran a page on "Best of SJ Super Fans," listing their favorite things their twitter followers said, it warmed my heart with a bit of that oldschool letter column otaku-community feel. Hanging out with other manga weirdos is fun. Yes: I love you, fellow manga weirdos!

Now that I've subscribed, each Monday, a new issue of Jump appears in my vizmanga account. (I'd kinda like it if they emailed me to remind me, but maybe I'd get tired eventually.) The manga viewing experience is fine. I personally prefer to view it on the iPhone (despite the small size) or iPad rather than on my laptop, because the touchscreen finger-swiping page-turning is more convenient than moving the mouse around. The Viz digital manga app doesn't have "guided view" mode where you go panel by panel, like Comixology or jmanga, but frankly you don't miss it; the manga wasn't drawn to be read that way, after all. The digital magazines also don't have quite as much miscellaneous bonus material as the print magazines used to have, but that's because that stuff is on the website now. Some extra space for "the story thus far…" info (characters, etc.) might be helpful, but OTOH, there's no way they'd ever have enough space to summarize the stories of One Piece, Bleach, and Naruto. (On the other hand, at least you can read the first chapters for free on the website, in case anyone hasn't read them yet.)

I have to confess: out of the three flagship Jump manga Naruto, One Piece and Bleach, I'm only up to date with One Piece. Coming from a position of not having read it in years, I find Naruto the hardest to jump back into, because of the insanely high power-escalation currently going on in the storyline. When your heroes are fighting an enemy so big you can't even show them in the same shot with it, your manga might suffer from power-escalation (unless your manga is Berserk). The complicated explanations of chakra, the incessant "YEAH! Naruto is AWESOME!" empowerment speeches from all the side characters, it all felt familiar, but not in a good way. To give an idea of how long it's been since I read Naruto, I feel like the last time I paid attention to Masashi Kishimoto, he was a mere lad, and now in every interview he's talking about how much he loves his kids and how important his family and marriage is to him and so on. Not like Eiichiro Oda, who DOES NOTHING BUT STAY IN HIS STUDIO DRAWING ONE PIECE FOR 20 HOURS A DAY!!! YEAH!!! One Piece, like Naruto, also repeats itself, but it still feels fresh: the art is so imaginative and the characters may be super strong but they don't look or feel like they've turned into caricatures of themselves. As for Bleach, I sort of stopped taking it seriously when Yammy and Ulqiorra showed up in the human world and it was an exact replay of the scene when Vegeta and Nappa showed up in Dragon Ball Z, but since they're both Shonen Jump titles I guess it was a homage, not a rip-off. While Masashi Kishimoto's art tends towards excessive detail, Tite Kubo keeps it simpler, but on the other hand I can't always tell what's going on in his fight scenes. Anyway, One Piece still has the feeling of the creation of a maniacal drawing machine (this is a good thing), but I've lost touch with the other two, although I'll have to reread them from the beginning eventually.

Among the newer manga (relatively speaking), the food/battle/fantasy manga Toriko has a lot of goofy charm, although it's never actually appetizing because of all the bizarre imaginary ingredients. (As food porn goes, it's like porn involving people with made-up sex organs.) All muscles and speedlines and wacky faces and over-the-top monsters, it's one of those titles that's so uncool, it's cool. On the other hand, Blue Exorcist is beautifully drawn and imaginative and just plain cool, a title an adult manga fan can show to an adult non-manga-fan without having to mumble "mmbbll ironic hipster entertainment mmbmbl mbmmbl". I love the creatures and the relationship between the brothers. Since it runs in the monthly Jump Square in Japan, it only shows up in Weekly Shonen Jump Alpha infrequently, but each chapter is a treat. Another title that shows up infrequently is Yu-Gi-Oh! Zexal, about which the less said the better. I'm actually very fond of the original Yu-Gi-Oh!, which I edited in English, but I hate all the endless spinoffs drawn in increasingly broken imitations of Kazuki Takahashi's already broken art style. IMHO, the series was more interesting when it was set in the supposedly-real-world (plus the Ancient Egyptian magic thing), but in every spinoff it's been set in a sci-fi make-believe futureland where everyone on Earth plays Yu-Gi-Oh! all the time, and that's way too sad a sales tactic for my taste.

It's nice having some romance to balance out the testosterone and collectible cards, so I'm glad the lineup includes some rom-coms as well. Cross Manage, about a teenager who has to stop playing soccer because of an injury but instead becomes coach of the girl's lacrosse team, is fun. Kaito, the artist, has a nice knack for storytelling and facial expressions, especially for Misora, the super-enthusiastic cute girl who convinces our hero to coach her team. ("It feels great to move your body. It's totally different playing a game than watching it. Watching is fun, but sports are meant to be played!") There's lots of info about lacrosse (wisely starting from the assumption that the reader knows zero about it), and lots of assorted girls crushing on the main character, although it's really very gentle and chaste. (I knew Shonen Jump had gotten more family-friendly when in the first chapter the hero accidentally sees up a girl's skirt—AND THEY DON'T SHOW A PANTY SHOT.) Nisekoi: False Love is likewise more about pitter-pattering hearts than about fanservice. It's even more about comedy than about hearts: the main character's the mild-mannered son of a yakuza clan ("I'm a run-of-the-mill teenager, except for just one thing…") who has to pretend to be in love with a feisty gangster heiress to prevent their families from fighting. ("What's with this chick?! Is she really a girl even?") Plus, she went to school in the U.S.A., making her EXTRA feisty! The love-com aspect of the series is all right, but I really hate "funny yakuza"; I assume that violent-dumb-and-lovable tattooed yakuza goons are the Japanese comedy equivalent of Jersey Shore stereotypes or Southern rednecks. If it's this clichéd to me, I can't even imagine how clichéd it must be to a Japanese person. Basically, Nisekoi is too predictable, telegraphs all its jokes way too soon, and just doesn't have the heart (or, alternately, the sleaze) to be a good rom-com.

Some of the most interesting things in Weekly Shonen Jump Alpha aren't the regular titles at all: they're the short series that come and go. Of course, there are not-so-interesting ones, like Rurouni Kenshin: Restoration, an unnecessary retelling of the original Kenshin storyline created as a tie-in for the live-action movie. It's nice that it's by the original creator Nobuhiro Watsuki, but it must be boring for him to go back and redo his old work; it's certainly boring for me to read it. Since Alpha runs simultaneous with the magazine in Japan, there's also a handful of promising series that Viz chose to translate but which were canceled unexpectedly because Japanese audiences don't like them: the science fiction manga Barrage and the schoolyard fightin' manga Takamagahara for two examples. For some, it may be frustrating to have these series end abruptly, but personally, I think it's neat to be right there on the battlefield, watching a new Jump series get started, not knowing if it'll live or die.

The magazine also occasionally includes one-shots that were never meant to be longer series, such as a Toriko x One Piece one-shot, or Otter No. 11, a hilarious "sample chapter" of the fictional absurd black-humor manga from Bakuman. One recent issue contained Kintoki, a one-shot by Akira Toriyama. Kintoki confirms that Toriyama's art and subject matter have frozen in time since he finished Dragon Ball 15 years ago, although he still has a great sense of color; I hope the forthcoming colorized Dragon Ball Z chapters look this good. The Shonen Jump Alpha Members Yearbook, a digital bonus issue I got for subscribing, included another Toriyama piece, Sachie-chan Good!!, a collaboration written (and apparently storyboarded) by Toriyama and drawn by Masakazu Katsura (I"s). A piece of fluff about a ditzy girl with superpowers, drawn in an awkward Toriyama-Katsura hybrid style (it's hard to tell if the girl is supposed to be 7 or 14), it also includes a 6-page conversation/interview between Toriyama and Katsura, in which they basically explain that Toriyama likes making frivolous manga and Katsura likes emo stuff (Katsura: "I found out during this project that Toriyama intentionally avoids creating a plot. You consciously avoid eliciting an emotional reaction, don't you?" Toriyama: "The part I like best is the back and forth banter that happens in the middle of a story. Expressing the humanistic element is my least favorite.") None of the Toriyama one-shots are particularly great, but they're nice for Toriyama completists: for that matter, when is Viz ever going to collect Neko Majin Z? It's a shame that so many things like this are buried in back issues where you can't get to them if you didn't subscribe back in the past.

When you've read a lot of manga, you may develop a taste for parodies: for ironic, self-referential stuff. That leads me to the newest Alpha manga, One-Punch Man, one of the growing list of Japanese manga properties that started out as a webcomic; you can still read the original here, but now it's been redrawn by Yusuke Murata (Eyeshield 21) with the original author ONE getting story credit. It appears in every other issue or so, as it's published biweekly in Japan. One-Punch Man is just what it sounds like, a gag manga about a guy who becomes so insanely powerful he can defeat any enemy with one punch, regardless of whether they're a 100 foot tall giant monster, a space alien, really angry, etc. With absolute power comes absolute boredom, however, and his frustrating search for excitement or meaning in life…well…somehow becomes a plot. ("After training so hard that I went bald, I achieved overwhelming power and became the hero I dreamed of becoming. So why am I still not satisfied?") Murata's excellent art makes for ironic contrast with the silly character designs. It's unexpected and clever, and if the Japanese Jump is able to print titles like this, I'll…oh, wait, it's printed in Japan in the webmagazine Tonari no Young Jump. Really? The best new title in Shonen Jump Alpha isn't from Shonen Jump? I wonder if they'll ever translate the other Tonari no Young Jump title by ONE, Makai no Ossan ("Old Dude of the World of Black Magic"), featuring his original heta-uma artwork.

Shonen Jump Alpha is a good magazine. I don't like all the titles, but I like most of them. It's a good reading interface, it's cheap and convenient, and the staff has their hearts in it. But is it the best possible Shonen Jump? Could it be improved? I'm going to propose something now that I know would be nigh-impossible: Shonen Jump Alpha right now is a set-course meal, but it should be a buffet. This is digital, after all: instead of having to buy a magazine with chapters of manga you hate mixed with chapters of manga you love, what if your 'subscription' let you pick and choose from ALL THE MANGA CURRENTLY IN THE JAPANESE SHONEN JUMP, and you made your own "customized ideal magazine" by selecting a half-dozen titles to receive in the VIZ manga app every Monday morning? It'd sure please the hardcore fans who want to read Ansatsu Kyoshitsu or Beelzebub, and the feeling that each Jump would be YOUR PERSONAL FAVORITE Jump would be very cool.

Of course, it'd be a big expenditure to Viz to have to translate and letter all 20 or so titles in the Japanese Jump when there's no guarantee which ones would be popular. And sure, you'd be fragmenting the readership, because no one would ever exactly know what the other readers were getting that week. And of course, none of these ideas would make Shonen Jump "mainstream" again, the way it was during the manga boom when it was possible for people to randomly see it in Wal-Mart and the Scholastic Books catalog? But I can dream. What is a 'magazine', anyway? Digital media is still changing, after all, and there's no particular reason why a "manga magazine" should be what it is, particularly when a manga magazine is basically a sampler of material that gets collected in graphic novels later. (Except those sneaky one-shots, darnit!) Shonen Jump Alpha, I like you. I challenge you to become even awesomer, not because I'm trying to be mean, but to make you awesomer. You're close, but you haven't defeated the manga world with one punch yet.

Banner designed by Lanny Liu.

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