House of 1000 Manga
by Shaenon K. Garrity,
My colleague Jason just spent the past two weeks of this column covering Naruto, the most popular manga of all time, at least in the U.S. It got such a positive response that we've decided to go all-mainstream, all the time. Which is why this week I'll be talking about three indie graphic novels published by Gen Manga, a small publisher specializing in doujinshi, or self-published manga.
What? That's not mainstream? It's in fact as far from mainstream as you can possibly get and still be reading manga? Well, maybe—but consider that Comiket, Tokyo's famous twice-yearly doujinshi convention, attracts half a million attendees per weekend, and you get an idea of how many eyeballs a doujinshi artist can attract. The vast majority of work displayed at Comiket is fan art of some kind (something that's rapidly becoming the reality at American indie comics conventions as well), but doujinshi is a big tent and also includes manga equivalent to American underground, self-published, and small-press comics. This type of manga has seldom been published in English translation, at least until Gen stepped into the breach in 2011.
Gen's website advertises itself as “Indie Manga From the Tokyo Underground,” and if that sounds a bit DJ Milky-ish in its ballyhoo (and there's a reference for you longtime otaku), it's mostly accurate. Gen's output is a mixture of small-press seinen, yaoi, gekiga, and occasionally uncategorizable manga. It also publishes a line of Korean manhwa, which technically does not come to you from the Tokyo underground, but what the hell. The comics are available online for an annual subscription of $24 or as individual ebooks for about two dollars a pop, which seems reasonable for digital manga. (I wish the site made it clearer what you get for the subscription, though.) But rather than delving into the digital options, I consumed three titles—One Is Enough, Wolf, and Alive—in the ancient wood-pulp format into which Gen has recently expanded.
Of the three Gen doujinshi I sampled, One Is Enough, by love (no, that's the pen name), is likely to be the most recognizable to modern American manga fans. This is yaoi, plain and simple. A little too simple, honestly. The straightforward romance finds two high-school boys—shy, virginal Matsumoto and sulky bad boy Mizushima—falling in lust after Matsumoto catches Mizushima cutting himself in the supply closet. The brief story gets points for including issues like cutting, depression, bullying, and homophobia, grounding the romance in a bit more reality than your standard boys' love manga. But there's not a lot to the guys’ relationship beyond that, and the art struggles to make it sexy. If you've ever looked at one of the less anatomically plausible Boys Love manga from a professional publisher and wondered what the not-ready-for-prime-time version looks like, here's your answer: awkward, thinly-inked figures decorated with discount-bin screentone. (I do kind of like the screentone, though, especially when big ol' roses and hearts spring up around a shirtless dude.) It's a cute manga but very much the work of an amateur, someone you can picture seated eagerly behind a folding table at Comiket, dreaming of getting spotted by an editor for June.
Wolf, by contrast, is by an old pro. According to the back cover (I can find no other information on the man in English), Shige Nakamura drew manga for Shonen Jump in the 1980s, left to do illustration work and probably get paid better, and later started making manga again. His art is pure '80s shonen manga: simple, cartoony character designs, macho heroes with bushy eyebrows, busty girls, and speedlines shooting from fists. The story wouldn't be out of place in an old issue of Shonen Jump, either. Tough-guy hero Naoto leaves his saintly mother to become a pro boxer in the big city—and find and punch out his deadbeat boxer dad. The plot is over-the-top, and the art is rough, inconsistent, and often unfinished-looking.
But dammit if I didn't enjoy the heck out of Wolf. It's simultaneously cheerful and badass in true Shonen Jump tradition, with lots of sweat-and-tears boxing action and corny slapstick comedy. It also benefits from a solid supporting cast; I'd read an entire manga about Shota, the big-hearted trainee sumo wrestler Naoto encounters early in his travels. It'd be cool if old American superhero artists, rather than trying to update their art styles for the kids these days, just kept drawing the same way and moved to the indie comics circuit. But of course they wouldn't be able to draw the licensed characters on which they built their careers and would have to make up original superheroes instead, and then you end up with Neal Adams's Skateman. It's easier if you're an old Shonen Jump artist and you can just draw another boxer.
Alive, by Taguchi Hajime, is my favorite of the trio, and the closest to what American comics fans would think of as an indie comic. The seventeen short stories in this fat volume present slices of mostly contemporary life, rendered in choppy art that flirts with stylization and symbol. The back cover promises “a world that is dark and disturbing,” but there are sweet stories, like one about a girl getting her first period, and funny ones, as when a girl buys a pair of magic glasses that block out things she doesn't want to look at. (After the inevitable monkey's-paw escalation, with the glasses pixellating everything in her field of vision, she realizes it's not that that much of a nightmare: “Oh yeah! I could have just taken those dumb glasses off anytime…”)
But the strongest stories are melancholy snapshots of loneliness. My favorite involves two teenagers who run away from home and live on the roof of their high-rise apartment building, sleeping in a cardboard shack, growing tomatoes, and trying to escape reality together. (“If only the rain wouldn't stop falling. Then we could be alone, just the two of us in the world.”) Hajime's art is rough, but he comes up with arresting images: two tense lovers depicted as fighting fish, a woman remembering her ex by popping a sheet of bubble wrap, a fantasy village surrounded by impossibly high cliffs. It's a solid collection of a type of manga you don't see enough of in translation.
That's just what I want out of a project like Gen Manga: comics I haven't seen before. Gen's editorial quality is shaky; the books contain typos and missing dialogue, and the translations are often stiff. (I like the cartoony teen talk in One Is Enough, though: “You didn't bang me one friggin’ time, you banged me a bunch of friggin’ times! Stupid! Bastard!”) But that's almost appropriate for underground manga. Perusing the Gen website, I'm interested in reading the horror story collection Anomal (I'm always up for horror manga), the ramen-otaku (no, really) manga Let's Eat Ramen, and Flavor, about teenage girls befriending monsters and ghosts. They're the perfect palate-cleansers between volumes of Naruto.
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