In this episode, Rob and Don are joined by comic book creator and founder of Antarctic Press, Ben Dunn. The three of them sit and chat about Ben’s long career in comics, how Antarctic Press came to be, and the ups and downs of running a comic book company. Along the way, Ben gives great advice about succeeding as an artist both in and outside the comics field and discusses the secrets to AP’s longevity and success. All this and a heaping helping of Ninja High School can be found in this, the 31st episode of The Department of Nerdly Affairs.
The manga Bakuman is about two young manga artists (Takagi the writer, Mashiro the artist) who work their way up through the manga industry at it’s top selling publication- Weekly Shonen Jump. Written by two veteran manga creators, it’s a masterpiece on many levels, and at its core it’s both a critque of the industry and a how-to for those who want to become future manga artists. Another way to describe it is if Scott McCloud made his incredible Understanding Comics as a story about a young pair of creators working their way up through the ladder at Marvel Comics instead of in textbook form.
In chapter 8 of Bakuman (“Carrot and Stick”) there is a scene where the two young heroes first meet their editor Akira Hattori, and he tells them that there are two types of manga creators- “the Genius type” and “the Calculating type”. The Genius is the natural creator who draws comics they love and because of their natural talent and passion for their subject matter is able to come up with a hit manga that blows the audience away. The Calculator, on the other hand, looks at it from the audience’s point of view and tries to make something that will appeal to the greatest number of people regardless of their actual feelings about the subject matter.
In a lot of ways, through Hattori the creators are talking about classic writer dichotomy – the Pantser who makes it up as they go along and the Plotter who plans it all out – just taken to an extreme. And, of course, in reality just like that classic writer dichotomy, it’s rare for any writer to be a Genius/Pantser or Calculator/Plotter alone as almost all creators are some mix of the two extremes. Even a Panster will usually at least think about what will appeal to their audience, and a Plotter will generally pick subject matter they’re naturally attracted to and passionate about to some degree. (Few people are good at writing things they honestly hate or dislike, especially if they have any choice.)
As a result, it’s uncommon that you can look at any work and say “that was created by a Genius” or “that was created by a Calculator,” because after all, any work is normally a mix of the two and it’s hard to tell how much of each is involved. There are, however, exceptions to this, and one of those exceptions is something I came across on Netflix a few weeks back when I was looking for something to watch which I exercised- an anime called HUNTER X HUNTER (2011).
Hunter x Hunter is a manga/anime about a stubborn 12 year old boy named Gon who leaves his home village to become a Hunter- a person who travels the world seeking whatever it is they’ve chosen to seek. In his pseudo-modern fantasy world, there are Treasure Hunters, Monster Hunters, Bounty Hunters, Delicacy Hunters, and many other kinds, who brave dangers to find their targets. All of them, however, much first pass the Hunter Exam, which is where the story starts, and get a Hunter License that gives them free access to the world and status as members of the elite. Gon’s (missing) father was one of these great men, and through following his footsteps, Gon hopes to find him and experience the world himself.
Hunter x Hunter (2011, because it’s the second attempt to animate the Hunter x Hunter manga), which can also be read as “Hunter Hunter,” is perhaps the most calculated anime/manga I have ever seen in 20+ years of anime fandom. It started in 1998, and it’s like someone took all the popular elements of the hit manga of the previous two decades, disected them, and then based on extremely careful analysis produced the most planned piece of storytelling I’ve ever seen. I’m not just talking characters and plot elements, I’m talking story, pacing, backgrounds- you name it, there is not a single original element in this story- none. It’s like they had a computer analyze the history of manga and this was the end product.
Yet, and this goes to the skill of the creator Yoshihiro Togashi (creator of the also hit anime/manga YuYu Hakusho back in the 1980’s) I don’t mean that it’s unoriginal in a bad way. In fact, for what it is, it’s actually very well done, and in fact is almost perfect in a textbook sort of way. Whereas most manga are a rough exercise in creative serial pantsing, with the creators only thinking a few chapters ahead, Hunter x Hunter is extremely well plotted and thought out. Everything happens at a carefully measured pace, everything is introduced at exactly the right time in the right way. The humor is in the right spots, the chapters all end on cliffhangers of sorts, and there’s no sense of it being rushed, it’s a piece of art without a line or comma out of place.
Well, calling it a piece of “art” might be pushing it, it’s really a machine designed for maximum appeal and marketing potential. And, like any machine, there’s a certain cold, mechanical nature to it that keeps it from being in the same class as stories like Naurto, One Piece, and even Bleach, which are also top series from the same era. The creator definitely reaches to those levels, but he doesn’t quite make it because of the calculated nature of it all. It’s like Hattori says in that Bakuman chapter- the Calculator has the greatest potential for a hit and long-term success, but they don’t have the same potential as the Genius has for creating a true smash hit story that excites the audience.
In any case, I’d definitely recommend Hunter x Hunter (2011) as a watch, whether just to enjoy it as a well-told story, or to take it apart as a creator and see how the whole thing was so well put together. Either way, it’s time well spent.
As I have mentioned before, I am fan of the Japanese manga Liar Game, which is a psychological thriller comic about a group of people playing through a series of seemingly simple social strategy games with their futures hanging in the balance. The basic concept is cleverly played out, and the actual games themselves are fascinating to watch unfold. So much so that the Japanese turned it into two drama series and two movies, and now the Koreans have also made a drama version which puts some nice twists on the original Japanese story.
However, at the same time, the Koreans have also taken things a step further- they’ve produced a reality tv/gameshow version of the concept with real contestants called The Genius. Of course, unlike the manga/drama, the reality tv version isn’t quite so life-and-death, but it makes up for it in cleverness and variety. You see, the Liar Game story has a small flaw, which is the ending is almost always the same for each event, with a few small twists. Once you’ve seen two or three games play out, you can pretty much guess how each round is going to end because there is a clear theme and story happening. Not so for The Genius, where there is no hero, only really smart people trying to outwit each other in a series of elimination rounds, with one person leaving every episode.
And that’s where The Genius shines. It is perhaps the smartest TV contest that I have ever seen. It’s the polar opposite of most reality tv- where the contestants are idiots fumbling and scheming their way through the challenges. In The Genius, the contestants have to be smart in areas like mathematics and psychology, and each has their own specialties they bring to the game. This isn’t a show where your knowledge of useless trivia is going to win you millions, or where you just need to be smarter than a 5th grader, you need to beat people like a career politician at networking or a math wiz at playing the odds.
Now, considering that most reality tv game shows are based on the idea of even the dumbest person in the room being able to play along, you’d think this concept would be dead in the water and never go anywhere. However, The Genius has already finished it’s third season and is currently one of the top rated things on Korean TV. It’s a huge success, and you only need to watch it to see why- it challenges its audience instead of pacifies them, but it’s based on basic social skills and situations that most people can understand with a bit of thought.
If you have the chance, give it a look (with English subtitles, click “watch online” to bring up the video player). The episodes run around 90 minutes each, and once you get into it, it’s addictive as hell! (And I’m someone who generally watches neither game shows or reality TV because they bore me too much.)
A new chapter of Shotarou Ishinomori’s Robot Keiji (Robot Detective) came out yesterday over on Mangafox. I have to say I like this manga quite a bit, although I’m not sure why. There is a dark, serious tone to the story, but it’s so well balanced with the slightly cartoony art style that it keeps it from getting too overwhelming. I’ve seen a lot of Robot+Detective cop shows over the years (there’s at least one per decade since the 70’s) but this story seems to have a different angle and works much better than they do.
Also yesterday, I discovered someone has been translating (slowly) Ishinomori’s Kamen Rider Black manga, which is very different than the awesome TV show it’s named for, but still pretty neat. It’s pretty dark, like Robot Keiji, and I love the cinematic art style it uses.
Ken Akamatsu, creator of Love Hina and Negima! has just released a new manga called UQ Holder! which is basically Negima!: The Next Generation. It takes place in the Negima! setting about 10 years after the world became aware of the existence of magic and centers around Negi’s grandson who has been living a sheltered country life and must now go out into the real (future) world.
Having read the first 80-page “chapter” of the story, I have to say that I don’t actually like it that much. It’s really typical, and while I thought I’d like the tie-ins with Negima! (which I liked overall) I found they weighed the story down more than boosted it. Negima! had a very whimsical and organic feel to it, but this story feels very forced and like Akamatsu is trying too hard to harness both the Negima! setting and fan base and start something new at the same time. It’s hard to explain without spoiling it, so you’ll just have to check it out and make your own decisions.
I will say that it was very clear during Negima! that Akamatsu was a guy doing a romantic comedy/harem book that desperately wanted to be doing a fantasy-action book instead. At least this time he’s doing what he wants, but ironically, not having the character-driven romantic-comedy story as a base might turn out to be this story’s downfall. He just doesn’t seem to be very good at doing “real” shonen-type battle stories without them devolving into clichés.
As a side-note, Negima! ends without us knowing who Negi finally marries (likely the editors wouldn’t let him pick since it might hurt future collection sales), but to those paying attention this story now more or less tells us the answer with a 50% chance of being correct. (Which might not seem certain, but when you consider the odds were formally about 1 in 30, that’s a pretty big jump!)
One of the great things about the Internet is that many things which aren’t considered considered commercially viable are distributed online by people who have a passion for them. This can be people sharing recipes, fansubbing their favorite TV shows from other countries, or fan-translations of Manga.
There are a couple Manga that I really enjoy which don’t have a strong enough English fanbase to actually publish for profit, but which fans have translated for fun. All of these titles can be around on sites like Mangafox or Manga Reader.
Black Joke- An action manga about the enforcers who work for a Casino in the future, and the dirty jobs they have to do. I wasn’t sure about this one at first, since it’s a bit odd and gory, but the more I read it the more attached to it I became. Now it’s one of my favorites, although it is definitely not for everyone! (Rated Hard R)
One-Punch Man– A superhero-action-comedy about a Superman-level superhero who can literally defeat any opponent in one punch, and how incredibly boring this makes his life. It’s a Japanese take on American superheroes, kind’ve like The Tick, but with more gore and nice art. (The whole thing seems to be an art experiment by the creator.) It’s gaining quite a following in American fan circles.
Gamble Fish– Tomu Shirasagi is a young gambler who travels to the ShishiDo Academy (Japan’s most elite prep school) with the stated goal of making $100 million through gambling and betting with the school’s students. But the school and Tomu both have dark secrets, and these spiral out of control in a series of ever-escalating “games” based around a combination of wits, bravery and deception. It starts serious, gets more than a little over-the-top and silly, but is always fun an interesting.
Killer Stall– In this action Korean Manhua, Choo is an elite killer for an organized crime outfit who decides to start a new life because he falls in love. You can probably guess how well that works out. A well told tale of gangsters and assassins.
Liar Game- A young woman is drawn into a game of deception called the Liar Game. Similar to the manga Death Note, but based around psychological warfare and deception. It was on a break for a while, but new ones have come out recently. Not a breezy read, but worth the effort to follow.
Robot Keiji– Oldschool (like 1970’s oldschool) manga about an old police detective who is assigned a new partner- a robot. Surprisingly serious and dark, it has an edge to it that newer manga tend to lack. The characters are a little cartoony, but the story and presentation really draw you in. I didn’t think I’d like it and read it on a whim, now I really want to read more!
Heroes of the Spring and Autumn– In this Chinese Manhua (comic), a Chinese prince is attacked by a group of mysterious martial artists and receives a head injury that leaves him with amnesia. However, that’s just the core story of an epic conspiracy surrounding the end of the Qin dynasty. Not a great comic, but nice art and a very different approach to storytelling.
I buy very few manga these days, in fact, I can count the number I do buy on one hand without using all the fingers.
But if I had to pick just one manga from that very short list, that manga would be Bakuman.
How do I describe Bakuman to someone who hasn’t read it? Well, I guess the simplest description would be it’s about two Japanese teenagers who want to draw manga (comics).
But, like most things, that simple definition doesn’t even begin to cover what it really is. You see, Bakuman is funny, witty, and charming, but it’s also an in-depth exploration of the creative process, the Japanese manga industry, and even the philosophical underpinnings of what it means to be a manga artist. It manages to critique the industry and the art form itself while at the same time making us fall in love with a sometimes kooky, lovable and weird cast of misfits who inhabit that industry and live in the pressure-cooker environment that it produces.
And, it’s those characters that keep me coming back each time a new volume comes out (I refuse to read it online), because it’s like getting together with old friends with each new release. You become a part of their world, invested in their successes and failures and in them as people.
You also learn from them. Volume 10 just came out this week, and it reminded me of one of the most important things to remember as an artist- failure is good.
Not blind failure, but learning from everything you do even if you fail or if your work doesn’t measure up. The audience will never see the pile of failures that each successful story is built on, but they’re what make an artist’s craft what it is.
It’s so easy to forget that as a writer, and only want to do projects that you think you can do 100% or not do anything at all. But, those risky projects, those experimental projects, and those failures are what will make you that successful artist you want to be.
Bakuman reminded me of this, this week, and helped get me back on the right writing path. So I want to give it thanks.
If you’re curious, some fans did what they call a “visual comic” (a comic with voiceovers, music and sound effects) of the first couple of stories of Bakuman, here’s the first one-
There is also a Bakuman anime, which I’m told is quite good and popular, but I’m enjoying the manga too much to switch over.
For those who love thrillers with a psychological bent, Liar Game is a unique story along the lines of the manga Death Note. It’s a story about trust, deceit and human nature filled with mind games and twists and turns. I highly recommend checking it out if you have the chance, the creator took a 1.5 year break for his health and has just returned to it, so now is a great time to catch up!
At the start of the manga, the lead protagonist – a scrupulously honest college student named Nao Kanzaki – receives a package containing 100 million yen (about 1 million dollars) and a note that she is now a contestant in the Liar Game Tournament. In this fictional tournament, contestants are encouraged to cheat and lie to obtain other contestants’ money; those who lose have to bear a 100-million-yen debt. When Nao’s first opponent – a trusted friend and teacher – steals her money, she seeks assistance from a con man named Shin’ichi Akiyama. Though they manage to defeat the teacher, Nao and Akiyama decide to buy out his debt and advance through different rounds of the Liar Game Tournament against merciless contestants, while at the same time attempting to free their opponents from debt and to defeat the Liar Game organization from within.
Apparently someone had decided to do a Live-Action Ranma 1/2 show in Japan, probably out of a mix of nostalgia and lack of ideas. I used to be a big Ranma 1/2 fan once upon a time, until it turned into an endless boring repetition of the same jokes and ideas, but it does have a great cast and fun core premise, so I look forward to seeing what they do with this. The actors look great for their roles, and I will definitely give this a look!
When many people think about manga (Japanese comic books) they they tend to think in terms of cliches– big eyes, hyperdrama, weird over-the-top sex and violence, and so forth. Of course, what they tend to forget is that ascribing those things to “manga” is a little like saying that all TV is stupid and vapid crap. Yes, it may have some general truth, but in fact there’s a lot of good stuff there that isn’t like that at all you’re mixing together with the crap. Manga is a medium, like TV, or Novels, or Podcasts, it’s not a genre or type of literature. It is neither good nor bad, and covers a huge amount of territory in it’s breadth and depth.
Today I’d like to discuss Historical Manga, or stories that are set in different historical periods than our own. This is a genre of manga that gets very little attention, but which is actually producing some really high quality works that people are really missing out on. Especially since almost all Japanese manga historians (people who do historical manga) tend to be consummate researchers about their periods and topics of choice, and can really bring those times alive in ways that pure text rarely does. I myself had an interest in various historical periods, but reading some of the manga I’m going to list here today has actually changed my perspective on how dry and boring history could be and made me see it as something much more exciting than we tend to portray it as.
So with that in mind, let’s look at some of the best I’ve found:
(Note, that because of the realist nature of these stories, take it for granted they are Mature stories and meant for adult audiences. As such expect realistic and sometimes graphic displays of sex and violence.)
Vinland Saga– An amazing story of a norseman named Thorfinn living through the events of early 11th century England that covers this period in a way I’d never imaged before. It’s foremost an action-adventure-war story, and extremely violent, but the story and art really captures the times and bring them to life in a way that’s more about capturing the times and less about trying to impose some modern filter on history. My regret is that there’s no official translation of if so I can’t buy collections for my bookshelf. (One note, the very first story has a totally unrealistic weird little character in it (you’ll know him when you see him) which is the only time that style of character appears in the otherwise almost hyper-real story so don’t let that put you off.)
Historie– The story of Eumenes, a man who would later become the secretary to Alexander the Great, and his journeys around the ancient world of the Mediterranean in the 3rd century BC (or ACE, for you young folks). The art here is simple, but the story is clear and straightfoward.
The Ravages of Time– A “re-interpretation” of the story known in English as the Romance of the Three Kingdoms, an epic set in 2nd and 3rd century China during it’s warring states period. This puts a new spin, and a much more human face on the epic war story, bringing the battles of hundreds of thousands of men down to the personalities of the different generals and their retinues. Great art, and a well-told story make it another one I wish someone would officially translate so I could have a bound set.
Vagabond– This one is another re-interpretation of history, but this is in many ways a more realistic version of the story of Miyamoto Musashi than the Eiji Yoshikawa novels it draws from. The artwork here is very lavish, detailed and realistic, and the events are very well told. This one is available here in North America and is a suggested buy if you enjoy it.
Ceasare– Set in Italy, it’s story of a young man and his student life with Ceasare Borgia, one of the most important figures in Italian history. A little bit romantic for my tastes, but an interesting period piece.
Mercenary Pierre– This one is the story of Joan of Arc as told from the point of view of a mercenary in her holy army.
Sidooh– Similar to Vagabond in tone and art style, but about two young brothers trying to become Samurai during the end of the Edo period. Again, real setting, but fictional characters.