An otaku lost in superhero territory
"The Unwritten," by Mike Carey and Peter Gross, is a Western comic book with manga reader appeal.
April 10th, 2012
12:09 PM ET

An otaku lost in superhero territory

Where do I begin to read an American comic series? Do I have to start at the very beginning?

These are thoughts that run amok in my brain as I stand in the comic store, a place I love to go because of its naturally nerdy trappings. I've been going since I was about 14, actually. You'd think by now I'd be well-versed in what comic book series I like, but in fact, I'm not.

Every time I go, I wander the shelves looking at titles people tell me are good, but still feeling not quite right about making the investment and walking home with a book in hand.

A few years after I started wandering into comic shops, I discovered anime and manga and felt that I'd found my calling.

Manga is not afraid to take pause. It's alright with long silences and time spent to contemplate, just like most of Japanese media is (Haruki Murakami's work is a good comparison). While manga looks cute and innocuous, it still has a courage that I believe Western comics once lacked. It invites readers to form long relationships with the story's characters, to look deeply into them and look into ourselves in the process.

Before discovering manga, I thoroughly searched my comic book store for inspiration. Although I liked the iconography of American superhero comics, I wasn't compelled to read them. I tried "X-Men" and "Excalibur," but neither ignited my passion in a way that made me want to go back and read more.

That didn't happen until I discovered "Sandman," one of the few comic series I faithfully read from the first issue to the last. I was drawn in by the Dave McKean covers first, unlike any art I'd seen before. But Neil Gaiman told stories the way that no other comic book did - he forayed into fantasy worlds, speaking a language that made perfect sense to me.

So I knew that the Western comics I could love as a manga devotee were out there. But I still felt lost about how to discover them.

Last week, we asked the question: Why do readers of American comics often ignore Japanese manga?

My CNN Geek Out! colleague Christian Sager is a comic book expert who immersed himself in manga, to better understand the culture that spawns it and explore the aspects that make it different from the American medium.

For my turn at the plate, I read stacks of titles from DC, Vertigo and more, (DC and Vertigo, like CNN, are owned by parent company TimeWarner,) losing myself in titles such as "The Unwritten" and "Batman: The Dark Knight," and even revisiting "Sandman" almost 20 years after my first reading.

American comics seem powered by superhero titles in the eyes of the uninitiated. Even though companies like Vertigo offer far deeper fare than the stereotype, I was still affected by the overwhelming presence of billowing capes and men in tights in the comic stores I frequent.

Sager said the potential of superheroes to represent power fantasies and escapism entertainment is key to ongoing fan fascination with the genre, but there's more there. Longtime superhero title readers are otherwise rewarded by their dedication to the characters.

"Fans may have relationships with these characters that started in their childhood but have continued as they matured. This may explain the “alliance” to particular characters," Sager explained.

"Readers who used to solely follow Marvel superheroes were dubbed “Marvel zombies” because of their specific fandom. This isn’t that different from the loyalty fans show to sports teams or late night talk show hosts though."

On the whole, American comics keep a pace that suits action - and that's completely different from the manga I'm used to. Whereas Japanese comics spend long periods of time focusing strongly on emotional reactions or inner dialogue, American comics offer a litany of physical events.

Sometimes I caught myself missing the time spent on these emotional explorations. But I quickly learned that while Western comics are built for rock-em, sock-em action, following long story lines across dozens of issues provides an emotional reward. Essentially, the reader gets a longer period of time to know their characters. In the end, although approach was different, American storytellers also took their time - sometimes even more so than Japanese manga authors!

Sager said one reason U.S. comic companies deliver those continuous narratives is to keep characters relevant for potential development in other forms of media. As a manga fan, I know I will watch any form of media featuring characters from a favorite show, and in American comics, it appears to be much of the same.

"I also think that because the core audience are adult fans who have followed these characters since their childhood, they’re invested in the continuity and shared universes those characters exist in. There’s often discussion and negotiation between fans and creators about whether or not a story 'matters' in the grander ongoing narrative," Sager said.

The manga fan in me found a universe of interest in comic books that explore darker universes and more mature settings.

While titles like "Y:The Last Man" offer plenty of action, a marked amount of panels in modern comic books are devoted to character thought and feeling. Dialogue is written in a way that makes you pause and think after reading panel. Often during this investigation, there were narrative pauses that left me lost in thought.

"This style of storytelling grew popular because as fans of comics matured, they wanted the narratives they read to grow with them. It also engaged new readers who liked fantasy and science fiction, but weren’t interested in the superhero genre’s stereotypes."

After darker series like "Sandman" gained popularity, these darker themes started to show influence in superhero titles. Sager explained that current DC titles like “Animal Man,” “I, Vampire,” “Swamp Thing” and “Justice League Dark” are examples of trying to bring Vertigo's characters and themes to DC's superhero continuity.

While Sager noticed that masculinity was a strong theme in manga, I found a surprising deviation away from the theme in American comics - not at all what I expected from a format known for its superheroes!

It seems contemporary comic book authors choose to portray their characters in a wide variety of ways. Unlike the well-known tropes of the manga world, the behavior and feelings of many Western comics characters were unpredictable. I enjoyed turning the page and having no idea what to expect next.

I expected to enjoy some of what I read in the American comic world, but I was pleasantly surprised to find I wanted to keep up with some of the books. "Y:The Last Man," "The Unwritten," and "I,Vampire" are good titles for manga fans to use as guides to the world of Western comics. "Watchmen" also lives up to its pop culture hype, and is worth an otaku glance.

Now, what to read next? Will you recommend me some more comics to cut my teeth on?

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soundoff (9 Responses)
  1. DarthBobTarkas

    In the article, the writer says American comics get right down to the action, whereas the opposite happens in Manga. That's absolute BS. She must have read something out of order!
    There's something called plot point one, an event which changes the course of the story, and puts a character into a different situation. Preceding plot point one, there's the first act, which establishes the current situation of the character. In modern manga, plot point one comes really quickly, and act one is given very few pages, whereas in modern comicbooks, act one is given much more importance, sometimes whole issues are just devoted to act one with the plot point serving as cliffhanger!
    So stuff actually happens the OTHER WAY ROUND.

    May 4, 2012 at 1:01 pm |
  2. toonah

    Sandman wouldn't have been possible without Swamp Thing. It was the first DC Comics book to toy with then-current convention. It appealed to a mature audience, embracing the thematic elements and maturity that you're touting. Its success paved the way for other tangential books like Hellblazer, Sandman, etc. under the DC Vertigo brand.

    Swamp Thing also established the trend of importing British talent to the American comics market, a process continued in many of the aforementioned books, Sandman included.

    April 12, 2012 at 11:00 am |
  3. adamsorkin

    All excellent suggestions – Ex Machina was a standout for me (particularly when read the whole way through). I also enjoyed Y, the Last Man – a completed series by the same author (Brian K. Vaughan) and artist Pia Guerra – for the story of the only man left in a world of 3 Billion women coping with sudden the loss of half its population.

    Powers, an ongoing series by Brian Bendis and Mike Oeming is a pulpy take on police procedurals in a world with very human superheroes and villains. The beginning arc, "Who Killed Retro Girl?" is a great place to start.

    Fables, by Bill Willingham, is an ongoing series about fairytale and nursery rhyme characters who have escaped a mysterious "Adversary" and his encroaching empire to modern New York. Similar themes to the recent Once upon a time TV series (haven't seen it yet, can't say how they compare) – following Snow White, a newly human Big Bad Wolf and many others living in the mundane world while eventually hoping to retake their lost homelands.

    April 12, 2012 at 10:35 am |
    • adamsorkin

      Next time, I'll read all the way down, first. By way of apology – if you're at all interested in revisiting more traditional Superheroey fare – Invincible, by Robert Kirkman (of The Walking Dead) – has been fun for me. Somehow manages to occasionally satirize a lot of superhero tropes while telling a genuine Superhero story.

      April 12, 2012 at 10:42 am |
  4. Jerry A. Taylor

    I would recommend that you pick up the following:

    100 Bullets written by Brian Azzarello and illustrated by Eduardo Risso, for a very interesting tale of the consequences of revenge.

    Ex Machina by Brian K. Vaughan and Tony Harris, for the story of a super hero that leaves adventuring to become the mayor of NYC after a 9/11 event in which he saves one of the World Trade Center Towers.

    No Hero, Black Summer and Supergod, written by Warren Ellis that totally deconstruct the superhero mythos with real world consequences of the actions of the vastly powered. His The Authority series is a series that shows what woudl really happen if super-powered individuals were to battle it out in the streets of cities around the world.

    The Boys, written by Garth Ennis, which is a tale of superheroes who are corrupted by their celebrity status and endanger and harm innocents by their actions.

    Sleeper, written by Ed Brubaker, mentioned by Justin in a comment above, is another tale of a covert agent placed as a sleeper agent in a villainous organization, who comes to question who are the real evil-doers.

    April 11, 2012 at 9:19 pm |
  5. GalleryBound

    I say definitely pick up a copy of All Star Superman and maybe give The Mice Templar series a go too!

    April 11, 2012 at 4:19 pm |
  6. Pete

    Unemployed Man (unemployedman dot com) first you laugh, then you cry, then you laugh a little, then you cry a lot ;)

    April 11, 2012 at 3:17 pm |
  7. Justo (Justin)

    In the superhero genre, Ed Brubaker's run on Captain America is seminal, if you ask me. It transcends the gimmick of killing him and tells a profound–and rewarding–long story about two heroes who are out of place in a modern world. I've also enjoyed Darwyn Cooke's stories; particularly New Frontier and his Batman work. Grant Morrison's All Star Superman is also a rewarding read.

    April 11, 2012 at 12:20 pm |
    • Seraphim0

      I would agree. The winter solider storyline is also quite good for captain america. And, to be truthful, the art kind of fits a more 'noir' book and pulls away from the bright, flashy colors of mainstream superheroes.

      April 11, 2012 at 2:12 pm |