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Confessions of a Comic Book Guy--This Far And No Farther

Column by Steve Bennett

Published: 03/26/2008 12:00am
An anime-inspired Britney Spears

Confessions of a Comic Book Guy is a weekly column by retailer Steve Bennett of Super-Fly Comics and Games in Yellow Springs, Ohio.  This week, Bennett talks about manga and American comic book culture in the U.S.:

It's been two weeks since my last confession.  I'm usually far too cranky and opinionated to stay away for this long but I've experienced the perfect storm of extenuating circumstances: I was snowed in for two days, drove to Yellow Springs for a root canal then drove back to Akron where I single-handily put everything I owned into a twelve foot van.  In Cincinnati I unloaded it in the pouring rain the same way after which I went back for still more oral surgery (yes I've moved again, more on that next week).

All of which may sound like self pity but it's been independently verified I suffer more than the usual amount of bad luck, which is why I identified so strongly with those early issues of Justice League featuring Amos Fortune, discoverer of the "luck gland."  Good old pudgy, essentially harmless Amos.  It would be nice to see him again (of course now he would have found the "luck genome") but in a world where Marvel has given us the world's first crystal meth smoking super-villain, DC would inevitably want to up the ante by having him shoot heroin into his eyeballs or something.

I missed the Anime Britney story while I was away, but I came across some incidents proving Japanese pop culture has become ubiquitous in America.  Like when the first thing my dentist, a man in his 60s with a predilection for jaunty bow ties, wanted to talk about when I got into his chair was anime.

Or when on the drive back I heard Glen Beck (who, I need to make very clear, I only listened to due to my severe lack of entertainment choices) desperately trying to prove he wasn't a racist by invoking the familiar bromide of "I don't care if a person is white, black, purple..."  Then after entirely too much dead air he finally finished with "...anime," by which I assume he meant he wasn't prejudiced against people with enormous eyes and blue bouffant hairdos.

The final confirmation came when I was shopping at Wal-Mart (don't judge me) and found, in a inexplicably inappropriate high traffic area, a large cardboard display full of copies of Fruits Basket Ultimate Edition.

But there definitely seems to be limits to its popularity. Several companies have tried but so far no one's been able to launch a national basic cable anime channel.  And while Naruto could not be a bigger hit for Cartoon Network, it still schedules new anime series with an eye dropper.  (Undoubtedly it's mostly a matter of expense.  CN has always operated on the cheap, but now it's gotten so bad they're unashamedly showing an hour of the decade old Goosebumps live action show during prime time Saturday nights.)

While in other parts of the world manga's signature art style has become so popular it's started to endanger indigenous ones (see the graphic novel Asterix and the Falling Sky), so far the American comic book industry has resisted assimilation.  Sure back in the 90s manga influence could be seen in superhero comics, but now it's mostly relegated to kid titles like Power Pack, though a sub-par version is currently available in what Tony of Super-Fly likes to call the "Emo-Raven" miniseries.  If you want to see superhero done anime style you'll have to wait until next year when the Wolverine and The X-Men and Iron Man series premiere on Nicktoons.*

It's kind of interesting the way compulsive copycats Marvel and DC have studiously avoided learning anything from the success of manga.  For example, DC wants to sell Supergirl brand merchandise to little girls but heaven forbid it produces a comic about her that instead of fighting focused on feelings and relationships (and super powered horses of course).  Take for example Shonen Jump, the most widely distributed comic magazine in America (it's easier to list the places where it's not available).  You'd think that by now both publishers would have their own comics out in that format, but the closest either has come is Marvel's series of one-shot Spider-Man magazines.

It went pretty much unnoted last year but when Gemstone announced its new publishing schedule (returning to its core menu of publishing Disney comics for 50 year-old men), they said they were thinking about launching a Shonen Jump-like black and white magazine.  At the time I thought it was a terrific idea, an ingenious method for making classic Disney characters appeal to today's kids.  Add some Kingdom Hearts manga and a chapter of W.I.T.C.H. to the European Disney reprints then slap photos of the homunculi stars of the Disney Channel series The Suite Life of Zack and Cody, and you just might have something that could actually appeal to kids in general and girls in particular.

Of course it never happened and since no one's mentioned it since, I have to assume it's a dead issue.  As stated here too many times, magazine publishing is a mug's game, unless you've got deep pockets and a willingness to play the long game, and I'm guessing Disney didn't want to put its considerable muscle behind it.

It's fine for them to partner with a Japanese studio to produce a home-grown version of Lilo and Stitch, the same way it's fine for Stan Lee to team-up with Shaman King creator Hiroyuki Take to produce a manga, but it's a little frustrating this cultural exchange is pretty much one-sided.  Where's the Kingdom Hearts anime?  When is DC going to head hunt a top Japanese creator to do a manga version of Superman (one that could simultaneously run in Japan and America)?

 By now I imagine a lot of you have filed this column into the category of "what does this have to do with us?" -- and you'd have a point.  We don't sell manga and from the retailers I've spoken to over the last couple of months, it's clear most of us can't sell it -- not in significant numbers to justify the floor space it's taking up.  But we used to; no one talks about it, but it was the American comic book industry that introduced manga to America.

We just haven't profited from it.  Back when they made the switch from floppies to paperbacks, we had a golden opportunity to step outside our comfort zone and use knowledgeable customer service and anime merchandise to compete with the huge selection of the Barnes & Borders for its predominately female readership. But we didn't, and now there's a generation of comic book fans in our stores who think manga and anime are icky and our industry has become just that much more insular and incestuous because of it.

And if I had to hazard a guess, that's why American comics have resisted becoming Japanized (for want of a better word), and isn't that just sad?

*It should be noted that being scheduled on Nicktoons isn't exactly a vote of confidence for either show, seeing as how the network is essentially a Nickelodeon dumping ground for moldy reruns and their mostly European acquisitions that aren't a fit with their rigidly controlled brand.  But then there's no reason to expect either show will do any better than the relentlessly awful Gallic-anime version of Fantasitic Four did, a show so bad, not even having a major motion picture with the same name in theaters couldn't keep it on Cartoon Network's schedule more than a couple of weeks.

And it should be noted this version of Iron Man features the dread specter of Teen Tony Stark.  Be afraid, be very afraid.

The opinions expressed in this Talk Back article are solely those of the writer, and do not necessarily reflect the views of the editorial staff of ICv2.com.

 
 
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