And now. What you've all been waiting for:
JOHNNY B DOES MANGA!
Japanese culture is very seductive. The art, the films, the language and customs- some people get obsessed by it, and while I'm not exactly there I've enjoyed my share of Japanese films, took a language course in college (retained very little, thank you), and hold out a faint hope that someday I'll visit that tiny island nation before my time is done. I have fond, faintly fleeting memories of watching Astro Boy cartoons on the Bowling Green TV station (and there's no WAY that dreadfully stodgy station would show that sort of thing now) in the early 60s, as well as Tobor, The Eighth Man on one of the Louisville stations. Guess I wanted to establish that I'm open, receptive, and friendly to the culture, which would seem to clash completely with my stance so far on manga.
Right now, Japanese comics aka manga are all the rage, not only with the Comics Blogosphereiverse, but surprisingly with the general populace, especially kids and teens. Me, I remember the prehistoric era of manga over here, in the late 70s-early 80s, when we were introduced to such titles as Barefoot Gen, Lone Wolf and Cub, and Mai The Psychic Girl. And while some of it was skillfully done, I just never warmed to it. There was just a monotony to the subject matter and art style that didn't, and still doesn't, appeal to me. Add to that the fact that all Western manga are by necessity translated from the original katakana or whatever they're written it in, and frankly the dialogue in nearly every manga I've read (and I'll be the first to admit that there is a LOT that I haven't sampled) scans as flat, awkward, matter-of-fact and dead, and reads like it's a translation- and something's getting lost. There's no flow, no poetry, none of the idiosyncratic personality that can (not always, but can) be found in Western comics. I'm sure many of you out there can cite me dozens upon dozens of examples of exceptions, and I kinda hope you do, but right now I'm just callin' 'em as I see 'em. Recently, I decided that since it's a well-established fact that I don't know everything, and have been known (believe it or not) to be absolutely wrong on more than one occasion, that I should listen to the multitude of voices of those whose opinions I respect and dip my toe back into the mangapool. Trying to decide what to buy, I kept seeing one title mentioned over and over again: the four volume series from Tokyopop, Planetes, written and drawn by Makoto Yakimura.
First of all, what or who or why is a/the "Planetes"? How is it pronounced? Plan-et-EES? Plan-etts? Plan-ett-us? Planuties? I'm confus-ed. It's certainly never mentioned in the first volume. Now, all facetiousness aside, I gotta say that in spite of my reservations, I got really caught up in the exploits of the three garbagemen in space, set in the year 2074. All three characters got lots of screen time, so we could find out what drives each of them. First up was Yuri, who we see lose his wife in a space shuttle accident, who is quite understandably scarred by this and is seeking to lose himself in his work. The pages that depicted the shuttle accident were in color, even though the rest of the book was in black & white; I wondered why this was. Hachimaki Hoshino, the rookie of the group, dreams of becoming a rich and famous astronaut and sees the garbage detail as a necessary step towards realizing his ambition. Hotheaded, chain-smoking, impulsive Fee (and I'm sorry, but I kept thinking of the Tubes' Fee Waybill) is the pilot of the ship and probably gets the least development, at least this time out. In this volume, we also see Yuri get a measure of peace with the tragedy in his life and befriend Hachi's young, rocket-building brother in an interlude on Earth, probably the best chapter; Fee gets an amusing, action-filled showcase when an eco-terrorist group prevents her from finding a place to smoke; Hachi meets a young girl who was raised on the moon and has never been to Earth; and in the final story has to cope with isolation therapy in the aftermath of an accident in space in which he was exposed to radiation, and realizes if he can't overcome his fears he'll never get to go back in space, let alone become an astronaut.
Yukimura's art is great. He especially excels at depicting the majesty and beauty of outer space, the shots of Earth below as the astronauts float in the emptiness and so on. It's nicely detailed, and he does action very well, too, especially in the aforementioned Fee showcase story. There were many scenes that were staged in a fashion that reminded me of work I've seen by John Cassaday and Warren Ellis on Planetary, especially in the opening color sequence. Guess we know what Cassaday probably referenced, huh! One thing I can't help but wonder, though, and bear in mind that this is an uninformed question: why do manga artists, almost unanimously and without fail, draw their characters with Western, or at least race-neutral, features? None of the presumably Japanese people look even remotely Asian! I'm sure the desire not to be race-specific and the desire to appeal to a world audience as opposed to a Japan-centric one is the key there, but why is this, I wonder?
Well, all things considered, I liked the first volume of Planetes, and I can certainly see me picking up the next four books in the series one of these days. I still can't see a time when I'll become a regular reader of manga- there just aren't enough colors for me in the palette- but as long as I can keep finding solid reads like this I'll certainly try a few more titles before I'm done.