Comics are a staple of Western geek culture, and rightly so. They’ve spawned iconic characters such as Superman and Batman, superheroes that fulfill some of the wildest dreams of both children and adults alike. For an impressionable child such as myself, American comics were objects of fascination that I always wanted to buy to immerse myself in the epic stories promised. However, I always found it tough to get involved with them on the level I desired, and thus as I have grown older I have increasingly turned to the storytelling style of Japanese comics, commonly known as manga. There are a variety of reasons manga has been so appealing to me over American comics, so let’s take a look:
*Note: The term ‘Western comics’ is used in this article to refer to the mainstream and well-known series, often published by companies such as DC and Marvel.*
If there is one single factor most limiting to a younger child’s interests, it would be cost. My parents certainly weren’t about to dish out the kind of money I would need to follow multiple series with each edition that released, and I didn’t exactly have all of the opportunities to make the purchases myself. However, it’s not just younger children who might be turned off from purchasing comics, considering the 20-30 pages you might get for an often $5 price tag. That’s a lot of money that adds up quite quickly if you want to get into multiple series! While some American series will be serialized into more substantial volumes, the prices still range from $15-$30 dollars for a couple hundred pages and very few series are actually sold in volumes like this. Manga, on the other hand, always serializes in Tankobon (volumes) that average a couple hundred pages, priced from $10 to $15 at most.
Fortunately for American comics fans, services such as Comixology and Marvel’s own digital offerings have allowed the prices to be lowered. However there are similar and cheaper services for manga, such as Crunchyroll’s manga section (free for all premium anime users, so $60 a year) that allows unlimited access to their series including big shots like Attack on Titan as well as simulpubs, or digital publication of series immediately following their release. Other services also exist, such as Viz Media’s Shounen Jump imprint, which costs cost a mere $26 a year for access to weekly publications of many of the company’s series. With such an ease of access and ease of monetary stress, manga is made more appealing for newcomers, but the costs of American comics actually compound as an issue because of...
You all know what I’m about to say here.
American comics are often very prolific series, and why end a series when it makes money? Simple, you don’t. Batman originated in 1939, Superman in 1938, and Spiderman in 1962. All three of these heroes are joined by a plethora of others, each with their own series and many with an incredibly long-running backlog of issues from the past 50+ years of serialization. That’s quite a bit of catching up to do for a newcomer, especially when you consider how difficult it is to find specific issues (the first issue featuring Superman comes to mind). Manga can suffer from similar problems at times, such as with series like Naruto, which ran from 1999 to 2014. However, the longevity of a series such as Naruto is an exception to the general rule, and pales in comparison to the multiple decades of serialization for most of the major American series. The average life of a manga series is usually more or less five years, making the art form feel more fresh as newer series take the spotlight instead of the same old ones.
Fortunately for many American comics fans, there have been reboots of the series of many iconic characters. In fact, there have been numerous reboots, including the famous complete reboot for many of DC Comics’ series in 2011 referred to as the New 52. However, the problem still remains that it’s the same heroes (who do admittedly go through changes in each iteration), and the stories and settings all begin to feel very familiar as they are re-skinned repeatedly. Both the reboots and the original series all suffer from one issue however, an issue that plagues American comics even more so due to their long-running nature:
American comics and manga have one difference that I would argue is the most determining factor: who, or rather, how many “who”s, write them. Manga, as a general rule, is tied to its creator, and the series lives and dies by the author. This allows for a consistency in terms of writing and storytelling, and fans are generally able to consistently receive the level of quality they expect from a series because it is helmed by the original writers.
This is not the case with American comics. After all, they are continued for such a large span of time that no one writer or group of writers would be able to stick with the project for so long. In fact, most series go through a slew of different authors, and each reboot always features new ones. This potentially harms the series in two ways: quality and consistency. Quality is relatively straightforward. Some writers and illustrators are better than others, and thus ‘Green Lantern Series X’ might be worse than ‘Green Lantern Series Y’. Consistency is much more convoluted both figuratively and literally, because the different writers will literally make the continuity of popular series more convoluted as they write about different events, focus on different aspects of the characters, and create so many alternate realities that your head will spin. The longer a series runs, the more mixed up and contrived its story line gets, as the universe is confused by different writers who have their own directions they would like to take the series in. Villains are resurrected and killed over and over again, multiple dimensions and universes are utilized, and rules put in place by other authors are broken. In the end, you have a mess of a story that can really only be good if taken in parts.
There is one element in particular that makes manga incredibly appealing from a storytelling perspective: the diversity in subject. While it is possible for American comics to diverge in topic, the mainstream American comic can be easily described by the buzzword ‘superheroes’. While that isn’t necessarily bad in and of itself, there gets to be a feeling of sameness in the entire art form with so little variation in the base topic.
Manga, on the other hand, has a great amount of diversity even amongst some of the most popular series. While Akame ga Kill! may be about assassins trying to take down an evil empire, A Silent Voice tells the story of a deaf girl being bullied and the bully’s path to redemption. My Little Monster is a comedic story about an honors student learning to embrace the emotional side of human interactions through a relationship with a delinquent, but Barakamon tells the tale of a calligrapher who is forceably moved to the rural country and learns about enjoying the small parts of life. All of the series I listed above have one thing in common: they are all manga series that have had a volume released in English within the past month. The fact that such a large variety exists in such a short timespan is the biggest reason why manga appeals to me so much: the variety just feels so much more fresh than other mediums.
I would like to clear up one misunderstanding you might have about me after reading this: I do not dislike American comics. In fact, I greatly enjoy some series, from Uncanny X-Men to Spiderman 2099. However, I feel that as a whole, manga is a more approachable and well-handled art form because of a variety of factors ranging from the general cost and length as well as the writing and topical variety of its most popular series. I’ve enjoyed my time reading manga series more than American comics because I feel that it is easier to get engrossed in a story that isn’t so twisted and long running that even experts have a hard time explaining certain aspects. Now, if you don’t mind me I’ll be eagerly awaiting Captain America: Civil War and the dub of Parasyte -the Maxim-.
Interested in manga or light novels? Be sure to check out Taykobon, the manga/light novel enthusiast blog on kinja for timely reviews of newly-released volumes.
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*Special thanks to Maelwys for the header image and both Exile and Krakken_Unleashed for providing excellent feedback on this article.
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