Manga Friday: Out of the Past
This week, Manga Friday heads into the past…sort of. I picked up the first volume of two extremely popular manga series, to see what they’re all about. But we’ll start with something even less likely.
Siku is the pseudonym for a British cartoonist of Nigerian heritage who’s worked extensively in the British comics industry for the last ten years, including the obligatory stint on Judge Dredd. But he’s done something very different now – a book called The Manga Bible. It’s exactly what it sounds like: a retelling of the entire Christian Bible, in a manga-influenced art style, in two hundred pages. The script was written by Akin Akinsiku, another Nigerian-British comics creator, and there’s a lot of script.
Now, I’ve read Bible comics before. (You might not know this, but your humble Manga Friday correspondent won his church’s Bible Olympics two straight years back in his ill-spent youth.) There was a set of ten or so books that I particularly remember from that time, which adapted the entire bible, one chunk per book. And even those comics were pretty wordy – folks in the Bible tend to talk a lot (even with a New International Version translation, like the Manga Bible uses), and descriptive captions are often required to explain what’s going on and who all of these people are.
The Manga Bible is extremely wordy; each page is nearly covered in captions and dialogue balloons, to the detriment of the art. Yes, the characters are drawn in a manga-influenced style, but the storytelling doesn’t owe much to manga at all. It’s exceptionally compressed, like an early ‘60s Superman story, without the expansiveness and flowing layouts of real manga. The art is eye-catching, though not so stylized as to appear completely alien to American eyes. So it’s a shame that it’s so cramped, shoved into small panels by the relentless flow of words, words, words.
The Manga Bible is a good concept, but it was developed along completely the wrong lines. To tell the Bible’s stories in manga form, you need much more space. If I’d been their editor, I’d have suggested decompressing the story a lot – the first two-hundred page volume should only go through the lives of Adam & Eve and their children, honestly. The Manga Bible could have taken some pointers from Osamu Tezuka’s eight-volume Buddha; that tells the life story of one religious figure at about sixteen times the length that The Manga Bible uses to cover several thousand years and two entire religions. I have a feeling The Manga Bible will be used for a lot of attempted proselytizing, but I don’t expect it will be terribly successful – the God of the Israelites comes across badly in short-form versions of the Old Testaments, which careen from genocide to petulance and back again, and even Jesus is more like a kick-ass malcontent than a spiritual leader here
After fighting through the very long and wordy Manga Bible for several days, I needed something lighter, something with a lot of action and adventure. So I figured I might as well look at the single most popular manga series in the US today: Naruto. (As I write this, six of the ten books on Publishers Weekly’s “Comics Bestsellers” series are Naruto volumes.)
Do I need to explain this one? OK, here’s a thumbnail sketch: a dozen years ago, in a mythical Japan, a great ninja battled a demon fox and bound the fox’s spirit into a newborn boy, before dying. The boy grew up to be a loudmouthed, troublemaking orphan with a burning desire to be the best ninja ever (though not much follow-through at first) – he’s our hero, Naruto Uzumaki. In the first volume, we meet him and are introduced to his world, as he finally graduates from ninja school. He then gets two rivals/friends and a new mentor, and has some mostly school-based adventures.
I know from osmosis that the series opens up a lot as it goes on, leaving the school/training focus behind somewhat, but this part is just fine: there’s a very strong main character, with a clearly defined goal, who nevertheless gets in his own way all of the time. It’s just a damn good adventure story, and I’ll probably end up reading a bunch more of it. So it’s pretty clear to me why Naruto is so popular: there’s a great audience-identification character, non-stop action (in a boys-manga style that’s easy for Americans to follow visually), plenty of incidental drama, and sub-plots galore. If Chris Claremont had been born in Japan, this is the sort of thing he would have done.
While I was checking out big popular manga, I also grabbed the first volume of Death Note, a psychological fantasy/horror story. Japanese teenager Light Yagami finds a magical notebook dropped by a shingami (the Japanese equivalent of the Grim Reaper, only there are a lot of them), which allows him to kill anyone he wants, in any way he wants, as long as he knows the person’s name.
So Light sets out to make the world a better place by killing criminals. In this volume, he isn’t terribly political – he does explicitly intend to make a perfect world, with himself as its benevolent dictator, but he hasn’t started to kill off politicians who do things he doesn’t like. (Though, from his personality, I’d expect him to get to that point before too long.)
Complications quickly begin to pile up. The shingami, Ryuk, follows Light around everywhere – though only Light can see him. The notebook has a set of very complicated rules, which continue to proliferate. And, by the end of this volume, Interpol has figured out that all of these deaths are being caused by one person or group, and they’re trying to find him. (Under the leadership of the very unlikely figure of a shadowy super-policeman of the world known only as “L.”)
There’s something a bit Unknown-ish about Death Note; it takes one supernatural premise (the killer notebook) and relentlessly runs through all of the ramifications and possibilities of that premise. (I may be assuming too much about the plots of subsequent volumes, but it certainly looks like Death Note is going to be about all of the different things Light, or maybe other people, do with the notebook.)
The art, like Naruto, is mostly squared-off panels in easy-to-follow grids; any reader who can stand reading “backwards” at all will be able to enjoy Death Note. Again, it’s pretty clear why this is popular: it has an intriguing “what would you do” premise, a fascinatingly cold protagonist, and a well-crafted dual cat-and-mouse structure. If the most popular manga are all as professional, entertaining, and fun as these, my faith in the American masses will reach heights I never expected…
The Manga Bible
Concept and art: Siku; script: Akinsiku
Galilee/Doubleday, 2008, $12.95
Naruto, Vol. 1
Viz Media, 2003, $7.95
Death Note, Vol. 1
Story by Tsugumi Ohba; Art by Takeshi Obata
Viz Media, 2005, $7.99
Andrew Wheeler has been a publishing professional for nearly twenty years, with a long stint as a Senior Editor at the Science Fiction Book Club and a current position at John Wiley & Sons. He’s been reading comics for longer than he cares to mention, and maintains a personal, mostly book-oriented blog at antickmusings.blogspot.com.
Publishers who would like their books to be reviewed at ComicMix should contact ComicMix through the usual channels or e-mail Andrew Wheeler directly at acwheele (at) optonline (dot) net.