When I first started reading manga, I had a self-imposed rule (more of a guideline, I suppose): don’t start reading a series unless you’ve got a pretty good idea how many volumes it’s going to run to. I was trying to defend my time and budget in the face of manga’s tendency to produce series that just go on and on and on …
Well, so much for that. Two new series here that could go on forever, for all I know. I couldn’t resist trying them anyway, since one is by an artist I particularly like and the other is the hot new thing in manga, both in Japan and the West. A proper, license-to-print money kind of hit.
These two comics share the age-old manga theme of man vs monsters. In both we have Humanity at Bay! Barely Sentient Monsters on the Prowl! Elite Young Heroes Rising to Mankind’s Defence! In fact, they have an enormous number of similarities, but they still manage to be utterly and completely different. I like it when that kind of thing happens. One’s mecha sf, one’s … well, kind of hard to categorise but let’s call it a horror/sf hybrid.
As a paid up member of the geek squad, there are two animation studios that I naturally revere above all others: Pixar and Studio Ghibli.
Studio Ghibli is, I don’t suppose many folks round here need telling, the spring from which such wonders as Spirited Away, Princess Mononoke and (personal favourite coming up) My Neighbor Totoro have flowed. As I understand it, its origins can be traced to the success of a much earlier film, Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind, which was an adaptation by Hayao Miyazaki (subsequently one of Ghibli’s co-founders) of his own manga.
I’ve never seen the film version of Nausicaa (I’d quite like to now – I assume it’s worth a watch, but maybe someone can confirm?), but I gather it’s a somewhat slimmed down version of the story told in the manga. That’s easy to believe, as said manga covers a lot of ground. Ground that’s so strewn with the themes, preoccupations and tropes that pervade Studio Ghibli’s later output that it feels completely convincing as the seed from which that great tree has grown. It almost feels as if all Miyazaki’s subsequent filmic output is hidden here in the pages of Nausicaa, in embryonic form.
In 1954, Fredric Wertham’s book Seduction of the Innocent was published, and the US comics industry was never the same again. His angst over the corruption of young minds by comics led fairly directly to all manner of stifling consequences, not the least of which was the near extinction of a previously thriving market for horror comics. (And, perhaps indirectly, the rise to dominance of the smothering comfort blanket that is the superhero genre).
Japan never had a Wertham to contend with. There, a million strange and unsettling flowers have been allowed to blossom unhindered in the comics medium; including, notably, some pretty full-on horror blooms. I can’t imagine what Wertham would make of modern manga. Quite possibly, he’d have a seizure of some sort, the poor chap.
I am consistently caught off guard by manga, in a way that US comics very rarely manage. I regularly have my brain twisted into shapes to which it is unaccustomed. (Wertham would not approve). Witness today’s example, which in the space of just three volumes took me from ‘This is rather silly, but kind of creepy’ to being genuinely startled by its disturbing closing chapters. Plus, it changed the way I look at snails, which is … well, no comic’s ever done that before.
Three preconceptions I had about manga, before I started reading the stuff, were that it had:
- a puzzling fascination with teenage girls, extending into their sexual objectification, and a sideline in the oddly child-like depiction of adult characters
- a persistent interest in organic horror – the transformation, corruption or cancerous eruption of the body
- wildly complicated, over-extended storylines that require obsessive inclinations and a big bank balance to follow.
My conclusion, after recent paddling about in the margins of the manga ocean, is that all of them are true. But only sometimes, no more so than any of the easy generalisations that could be made about US or European comics, and often in ways that are surprising.
The manga I want to talk about now is shortish – a mere four concise volumes – so that’s the preconception about over-extended storylines quashed. But it’s definitely preoccupied with the transformation of organic forms, and is largely about teenage girls (though thankfully restrained on the overt sexualisation front).
Buckle up. A wild ride lies ahead.
You sometimes hear the science fiction genre described as an ongoing dialogue between current authors and those who have gone before (I’m paraphrasing. I want to say the idea was articulated by the late Charles Brown, of Locus fame, but I might be wrong.).
The notion’s appealing, though I’ve never been quite sold on it as a characteristic uniquely applicable to prose science fiction. But suppose it’s true. Does that mean your enjoyment of a given novel, no matter how great, is less than it could be if you had greater familiarity with its antecedents? I don’t know. But I’m going to – kind of – talk about it anyway.
Our subject is a manga series that takes the idea of dialogue with past creators to an extreme. I know pretty much nothing about the older material that inspired it. I enjoyed it enormously, though. So much so that I think any sf fan curious about the comics medium should consider giving it a look. I kind of think this is what Isaac Asimov might have come up with, were he a 21st century manga creator with an urge to tell robot stories.