Adventures in Manga

My experiences with Japanese anime and manga (comics) have happened in distinct stages. I remember watching Akira with friends (ok, geeky friends into Dungeons and Dragons, but Chad was there too) and enjoying the artwork and bizarre fixation on mutation (perhaps what a culture fixates on when it has faced the atomic bomb – it enters into the cultural un/consciousness, to be sure – just ask Godzilla). I even remember playing a drinking game, where you had to drink anytime someone said “Tetsuo,” the main character’s name. (That was that game that led Chad and I to kiss for the first time! How romantic!)

With a few exceptions along the way, largely based on Chad bringing home the occasional rental tape, Akira stayed a unique experience. I categorized it more with the postmodern/cyberpunk texts I was studying in graduate school than with anime or manga. Though that same group of friends boasted of Ghost in the Shell and Vampire Hunter D and some were reading the manga that had been translated and was available in the States, I wasn’t really into it. Like D&D, I enjoyed that kind of thing for the social aspects, because it brought with it a fun group of pals to keep me connected to the world while I was taking a long break from dating (and heartbreak) and working on my dissertation. And eventually it brought Chad.

A few years ago, another text brought me back to Japanese anime and manga: Inuyasha. I loved the creatively conceived demons (Yura, the hair demon! Naraku, the megademon consolidated from the broken body of one man and thousands of minor demons! Sesshomaru, the dog demon of elfin good looks and icy but engaging demeanor!) and the incredible cuteness of the drawings. The Japanese fascination with schoolgirls in micromini skirts left me cold, but the show as a whole was fun, and Chad liked it too, so we began watching it regularly on Adult Swim, then found ourselves renting and eventually buying whole seasons. We now own the first four seasons in boxed set plus the four feature films, in Japanese editions. We watch the show in Japanese with English subtitles, preferring the Japanese voices. (It’s also led us to begin, on our own, studying basic Japanese over the past few weeks – fun and challenging!)

When I saw the original manga that inspired the television series of Inuyasha, I was daunted by the ridiculous number of ongoing issues there were. Back then, I did not realize the series was practically interminable (I honestly don’t know whether it’s still in production or not, but we’re waiting for the season five box set of the show, which I know will come out sometime soon). Each comic (the shape and thickness of a paperback but a bit larger) was $9.99 at the time, and I scoffed at the ultimate cost of all those books for a show I was enjoying well enough on TV. I looked at other titles, but I did not know the quality or interest level (for me) of one from another, and the whole concept of manga just did not interest me. (I’m not a fan of American comics either, though I have enjoyed a few over time, including a specific year or two of Animal Man – around the Coyote Gospel and deus-ex-machina issues … can’t remember the artist’s name). And I like some (classic) graphic novels very much, such as Maus and Watchmen. Then there was a bout with Gloom Cookie and more recently Death Jr., but those were short-lived and catch-as-catch can experiences, and I like the omnibus or collected issues not single magazines (too short and too expensive and require me to keep up with when they’re published – hate that and lose interest fast).

But now we come to the present day. Though we don’t play D&D anymore and I don’t spend any time at comic book stores, Chad still does (plays Warhammer – little painted men and dice rolling -- at a local comics store). One afternoon, I was hanging out there for a bit (which is all I can handle) and watching the boys play (Chad and Lane and a bunch of happy geeks), and I discovered the store’s sale bins. I rummaged through the “everything for $1” boxes and came across something called From Eroica With Love, a very unusual manga (to me anyway) with a very campy gay man on the cover. I flipped through it briefly, bought it for a buck, and put it on a shelf at home. I did not read it for about a year.

When I did read it, I was astonished. Written by a woman (as is Inuyasha) in the 1970s (though only translated from the Japanese since 2000), it was full of effeminate beautiful men and decadent intrigue. It made me smile and I loved the very-70s art style, with super-slim men and disco fashions. The plots weren’t even bad (after the first story, full of supporting characters that were quickly abandoned), in a spoof of James Bond adventure in the world of art thievery and NATO. I hopped onto Amazon and bought books 2-4. An intense love-hate relationship was building between the main character (Earl Dorian Red, Lord Gloria – aka Eroica the art thief) and his ramrod of a nemesis and adored object of desire (Major Klaus Heinz von dem Eberbach, aka Iron Klaus). Of course, Klaus is as pretty as Dorian in the way he’s drawn, if nowhere near as florid, and their relationship is ripe with sexual tension in deliciously camp fashion. I’ve now read 1-8, am waiting for 9-11 to arrive in the mail, and 12 will soon be translated and available for purchase.

Meanwhile, it occurred to me that there must be fan fiction on this series. I’m an old fan of slash fiction, in which media fans take characters they love who should have been intimate but never were (especially male-male pairings) and write stories where they have opportunity to consummate the connection (via every thing from amnesia or date drugs to hurt-comfort scenarios like torture or isolation). I was especially a fan of K/S (or Kirk/Spock stories), where I came to find it impossible to watch old Trek episodes without assuming Kirk and Spock were getting it on in supply cabinets and on shore leave. (Slash stories are the most popular kind of fan fiction on Trek there was/is, I might add, and almost exclusively written by white, middle-class, heterosexual women!) Before the internet, these stories came out in plastic spiral bound xerox packets, costing $20 or more, and I have a few of these treasures stored away. Now, the internet is full of fan fiction of all sorts, from the G and PG variety to the NC-17 type, on megasites, such as fanfiction.net, and those specifically geared to individual fandoms, like fried-potatoes.com (an all-Eroica site named for Iron Klaus’ favorite food). What fun to find free access to texts that mean one never has to get over one’s obsession with a specific manga or TV show or film, even though the writing quality may vary and stories aren’t the same as comics or other visual media, with their “a picture paints a thousand words” approach.

The fun I’ve had reading Eroica has since led me to seek new titles I might enjoy. Contemporary artistic standards for manga have definitely come a ways since Eroica (though I do love the stylized 70s excess and do not critique its simplicity vs. other manga I’ve seen more recently – it’s certainly not the only manga to date to put wit and plot and character above high artistic standards). Recently, and from bookstores like Barnes and Noble and a local Hastings (because manga is not just for comic book stores anymore!), Chad and I have bought such titles as Korean-produced Chunchu (a violent tale of warlords, twins, and demonic possession with a goth/cyberpunk aesthetic for its young lanky main characters) and From Far Away (doe-eyed icky bimbo schoolgirl protected by total-babe warrior in another world where her coming will somehow bring forth some sky demon to help one warring tribe to take over the world!). I’m not drawn to the non-fantasy texts, and there are plenty of high school romance titles (thank you Tokyo Pop) and straight action-adventure. But I like the other-world, fantasy feudal era stuff best, especially with a healthy dose of romantic tension.

Did I say best? No, let’s save the best for last! Eroica has characters that are, in the manga world, called “bishonen,” meaning, basically, “pretty boy.” And I absolutely love those lush images in manga, particularly the ones that are very androgynous and of an unearthly beauty. I know everyone has their type, but that David Bowie-style attractiveness has always drawn me. (Several of my boyfriends in college were tall, lanky, and dark-haired, with long bangs and short cuts in the back. Several dumped me, and the others eventually discovered they were gay.) I was surprised to find out, through a bit of internet research, that many characters in “straight” manga are considered bishonen, including some of the less provocative texts, such as Naruto (my son loves it and so do some teen girl family friends of ours). I guess I just prefer adult fiction, and that takes me to the manga genre I’ve just discovered that is blowing me away. Drawn/written mostly by women and very adult (in that NC-17 way), there is a genre called “yaoi” that is gay male erotic manga, and some of the artists are amazingly talented at invoking the god/dess of Desire.

I’ve only read a few of these, and the intimacy they depict is softcore to be sure (though there is also a hardcore genre, I understand, called “hentai” – a dirty word in Japanese but meaning more just hardcore sex manga in English). (You can google this stuff yourself, of course.) I just finished the omnibus edition of Saihôshi, which actually has a solid beginning, middle, and endpoint and simply has the most gorgeous bishonen dudes I’ve ever seen in a tale as lurid as the best romance novel and as creative as the best pulp fantasy. It’s drawn by Kôsen, the penname of two Spanish women (Aurora Garcia and Diana Fernandez) who, for my money, have cornered the market on depicting the irresistibility of beautiful adult male youth. As a woman with whom I went to graduate school once noted (and I regret now that I cannot remember her name!): a beautiful man is more beautiful than any beautiful woman because it is not expected of men and they capitalize culturally on both feminine desirability and male power. Kôsen definitely pounce on this and play it for all it’s worth. I can just imagine them thinking about what outfits to put their creations in, how best to milk every ounce of tension and release out of the plots. I think of them sitting at the drawing table, laughing with each other about what will turn on their largely (hetero, married) female audience—though Chad found Saihôshi in the gay/lesbian literature section of the store! It’s all a fascinating phenomenon, a complex part of what determines desire and desirability in our culture, straight women’s fascination with fantasies of gay men, and youth obsession. My relationship with it is a complex one too: a delicious pastime and subject of critical scrutiny simultaneously. I guess that’s my favorite flavor.