Friday, July 6, 2012

The temporal matter of ongoing series


Bakuman, a Japanese manga from the group that did the deeply influential Death Note has finished. Now, if you’re not familiar with what I’m talking about, please refer to the notes listed below.

If you don’t know what a manga is, start at note 1.

If you don’t know what Death Note is, start at note 2.

If you don’t know what Bakuman us, start at note 3.

If you know all of the above, skip the notes.

Note 1

Manga is the Japanese term for ‘comic book’. Only in Western cultures are manga considered a genre into and of themselves. Manga are an integral part of Japanese society, much the way reality television and compromising one’s morals for money is an integral part of Western culture anymore. Manga cover just about every aspect of Japanese life: there are manga aimed at kids, young men and women, and adults. Topics cover everything – every genre is represented, and it is not uncommon to read a manga about sports, or school, or even something as mundane as going to the store. The majority of manga that is imported is translated into English, but the original format of the book is maintained (it reads from right to left, as opposed to the Western format – left to right), and it does take a little getting used to.

Note 2

Death Note was a series that was originally published in weekly  format from 2003 to 2006. Death Note told the story of a Shingami (a Japanese Death Spirit) who leaves his book of reaping (the Death Note) in the land of humans. A young man by the name of Light Yagami finds the book and discovers that by writing a name in the book and visualizing the person who is named in the book will cause them to die. Filled with a sense of purpose, Light, who contacts the media under the nickname ‘Kira’ (Japanese for ‘killer’) sets out to recreate society by killing off all of the criminal elements in the world. As the police are completely baffled by Kira’s crimes, they call in a world famous detective only known as ‘L’. As the story progresses, it is revealed that L is a young man, around Light’s age, who is intent on catching Kira, and asks Light to help apprehend the villain. What happens from there is one of the most insane games of cat and mouse I have ever personally read. It’s a fantastic series, but definitely for older audiences. Death Note has spawned two live action movies, several video games, and two novels. All twelve books (collecting individual issues) have been released in America, along with a thirteenth book that acts as a reader’s guide. Both novels have been translated into English and can often be found next to the tankōbons (collected arcs – the equivalent of a trade paper back).

Note 3

Bakuman was the second series that Tsugumi Ohba and Takeshi Obata worked on together. In it, they chose to tell the story of two kids who made it their life’s desire to become famous mangaka (comics creators). Moritaka Mashiro and fellow classmate Akito Takagi set out to do manga together. Early on, Mashiro reveals that he has a crush on another classmate, a young girl by the name of Miho Azuki. Takagi talks Mashiro into confessing his love for her, and the two agree that they will marry once he is a famous mangaka whose story has been made into an anime (television adaptation) and she is the voice of the female protagonist. The most fascinating thing I found about this series (at least early on) was the amount of focus that was placed on the technical aspect of publishing a weekly manga (and the fact that even though these guys put in close to 80 hours a week, they barely make anything). Bakuman just recently finished its final story arc. However, it has not been completely released in America yet.


Now that we’re up to speed, I just wanted to say that I was very thankful and relived that Bakuman ended when it did. The story line had come to it’s natural conclusion (both in the fictional story Mashiro and Takagi had written) and in the series itself – there was no last minute rush to insert a new wrinkle in the story, nor was there any need to. The story had run its course, the protagonists had faced their obstacles and come out the better for it, and everyone was happy.

Unfortunately, not all stories work that way – both in Japan and America. In Japan, two of the most popular series of all time are Naruto and One Piece. Both are action based manga with male protagonists who are constantly facing impossible odds. Both have the attitude of “I’ll become the best (insert career) the world has ever seen”, and both have a cast of supporting characters that are beloved by fans the world over. The other thing they have in common is the fact that both series are formulaic, and have been running continually for over ten years straight.

That’s right – the same basic premise running from story arc to story arc, for ten. years. Ten freakin’ years! It gets a little old after a while.

Now America is not innocent of this fact either – Superman, Batman, X-men, Captain America, all of these titles have been running for many decades (Superman started in the 40s!), and without fail for the majority of that time, it’s the same formula over and over again. Sure, Marvel and DC try to shake things up by occasionally killing off the character, or having the mantle shift to another player for a while, but in the end, it’s still the same damn story.

I understand the driving force behind it – the company has to make money. If something works, why try and fix it? New fans are always coming into the fold, and if the stories got too far-fetched, these new readers would be completely alienated. But seriously – this is why I don’t follow the monthlies anymore. In the majority of stories, the main character faces off against a bad guy, flexes his (or her) muscles, throws down, suffers a set-back of some sort, and ultimately defeats the villain. Yes, this is a gross oversimplification, and I’m well aware of Joseph Campbell’s ‘Hero’s Journey’ aspect of these stories, but far too often, it feels as though the characters are being cut and pasted from one situation to the next, while the villains are being introduced through a revolving door of issues.

Disembodied voice: “Now serving number 78, number 78.”

Villain of the week: "Oh goodie! It’s only been six issues since I last faced off against Captain Amazing Pants! Thank god my insurance covered my jaw being reconstructed!”

Perhaps I’m just cynical, maybe I’m too hung up on the 80s and 90s aspects of storytelling. I don’t know, but this is one of the main reasons I stick with self-contained graphic novels. The possibility of the same damn thing happening over and over again is kept to a minimum.

Am I wrong about recycled story lines? Has this become just a Eastern issue? Let me know in the comments.

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