MMF: Straw Hats, Assemble!

December 2, 2010

I often cite the Riverdale crowd as my entry point into comics, and it’s perfectly true. The first comics I remember reading with any regularity are from the Archie family, and I spent many pleasurable hours with that crowd. But the comics that turned me into a fan, the ones that turned an activity into an enduring hobby, were undeniably those that featured Marvel’s Avengers. It even reached a point where I couldn’t bring myself to enjoy The Fantastic Four, because each issue promised “The World’s Greatest Comic Magazine!” and that was clearly a lie.

In retrospect, the thing that drew me to the Avengers and, to a lesser extent the Defenders and the X-Men, was the notion of the family of choice – people without much in common, people who at times ostensibly disliked each other, coming together because of a shared philosophy. The Avengers came together because they wanted to accomplish something – fighting substantial threats that were too much for individual heroes – while maintaining individual goals, whether that was redemption for past misdeeds, finding a place in a world where you don’t fit, or just enjoying the comfort of like-minded comrades.

The other quality at the core of the Avengers’ appeal to me was the sheer variety of characters, from the enormously powerful to the enormously skilled. Some members were unvarnished in terms of virtue while others had decidedly dodgy pasts and complex motivations. They didn’t always get along, but the bickering was one of the spices in the stew. Gods and carnies, soldiers and freaks, robots and knights could join forces, and each could be better than they were individually simply by virtue of their loosely shared identity as Avengers.

So it’s perhaps not surprising that, as I enjoy Eiichiro Oda’s One Piece, I find similarities between the Straw Hat Pirates and Earth’s Mightiest Heroes. If anything, the Straw Hats are a distillation of everything I like best about the Avengers minus of a lot of things I didn’t. The moments that rankled in Avengers comics were the ones over which the writers didn’t have any control – the comings and goings of characters that were franchises in their own right, like Captain America, Thor, and Iron Man. Every Straw Hat belongs to One Piece lock, stock and grog-filled barrel. Everything that matters (or at all) happens to them in this comic, and I know they won’t be yanked away from me due to the machinations of anyone but Oda himself.

Even the dissimilarities between the two teams end up being similarities. While the Avengers became notorious as a sort of rehab center for the formerly villainous (the Scarlet Witch, Hawkeye, the Black Widow, Swordsman, and so on), the Straw Hats function as a kind of mirror opposite. Characters who previously lived relatively blameless lives (bounty hunter Zolo, small-town oddity Usopp, reindeer physician Chopper) decide that blamelessness isn’t all it’s cracked up to be in the face of the lure seafaring adventure and Luffy’s bizarrely charismatic, seemingly unfounded certainty. (Some would argue, me among them, that the Straw Hats aren’t really all that adept at villainy, as they barely ever do any actual pillaging, but let’s just stick with the foundational premise that pirates are, by definition, outlaws. And really, unless defending yourself against attack counts for full marks as heroic, the Avengers don’t always live up to their mission either.)

For me, the dissimilarities just reinforce the idea that the Straw Hats, like the Avengers, are something larger than individuals. They can accomplish more collectively than they can individually, no matter how skilled or strong they are. And the Straw Hats’ roles are stated in ways that aren’t made explicit in the Avengers: Luffy is the Captain, Usopp is the Marksman, Nami is the Navigator, and so on. (The current Avengers writer recently took a big meta stab at each member’s iconic function, but that trick almost never works. Grant Morrison couldn’t pull it off with his JLA “pantheon,” either.)

And if the Straw Hats’ stated intent isn’t to fight evil and injustice, they do so with a proactive vigor that the Avengers should envy. How many One Piece arcs are driven by the Straw Hats discovering that something isn’t right and taking steps to rectify it for the benefit of the innocent or oppressed, no matter what the cost might be to them personally? These acts of altruism may just as often be a result of the crew’s thirst for adventure, but they inevitably come from a desire to do the right thing, at least insofar as they view matters of right and wrong. Half of the time, the Avengers’ adventures are driven by an assault from someone with a grudge, often the same person with the same grudge. If the Straw Hats run into an old opponent, the dynamic has often changed based on past events, which opens new and interesting possibilities.

There are also resonant individual parallels. Nami can be reasonably compared to the Wasp in that she’s a charming boy-magnet who is much more formidable than she initially appears. Of course, Nami’s primary function isn’t romantic, so she has a leg up on the Wasp in that regard. (Over time, the Wasp managed to transcend that set albatross herself, but I think she’s dead now, so Nami still wins.)

Everyone gets to be a little bit of a Hawkeye. Usopp gets to overcome his inferiority complex with skill and dedication. Sanji gets the hopeless crushes, the fruitless flirting, and the inclination to bicker with the alpha male. Zolo gets to be the badass by virtue of rigorous training. (Zolo is a bit greedy in that he also gets bits of Captain America’s stoicism and Iron Man’s glamour.) I could theoretically credit Sanji with a little bit of Jarvis, at least on the culinary front, but Sanji has none of the butler’s fastidiousness or fatherly virtues.

Nico Robin gets to be all of the Avengers’ various shady ladies in one glorious package. Like the Scarlet Witch, she’s tarred with the brush of her heritage. Like the Black Widow, it’s not unreasonable to question Robin’s motives, at least initially. Like Mantis, Robin is allowed to be her best self through the support and friendship of her comrades.

Sweet Chopper gets bits of some of my favorites, too. He’s like the Vision, fully experiencing the world for the first time in the company of friends. He’s also like the Beast, reliably delivering comic relief while maintaining a core of sadness and even a tinge of potential menace. Franky has the foe-to-friend aspect of characters like Swordsman or Wonder Man, without being as pathetic as either of those mopes. It’s a little early to tell what, if any, assembler will draw parallels to Brook.

And Luffy seems conceived to redeem qualities of the Avengers who mattered least to me. Like Captain America, he’s a natural leader, but Luffy is even more of a natural leader in that he rarely needs to assert his authority. Like Thor, Luffy is ridiculously powerful, but unlike Thor, he seldom feels the need to speechify on the subject. Like the Hulk, Luffy is at times random in his behaviors and choices, and he’s most answerable to his appetites, but the randomness and the appetite are glorious and funny instead of being obstructions. They’re part of Luffy’s rhythms, and his crewmates know how to roll with them in ways the Avengers never did with the Hulk. (Luffy is emblematic of Oda’s ability to show rather than tell. Oda allows readers to sense all of these things about Luffy, to realize the truth of them, without anyone having to stand around and discuss them.)

Another quality that I loved about the Avengers is noticeably absent from One Piece, that being the romantic subplots that proved to be such a substantial part of the narrative. This isn’t really problematic, in my opinion. I’ve talked with people about how One Piece seems to defy romantic fan fiction because romance is simply not among Oda’s narrative concerns. He simply doesn’t poke that ‘shipper reflex in the way that many other shônen manga-ka do. He doesn’t do anything to demean that impulse, but he does nothing to encourage it either.

And the things Oda does nail are the subplots about personal growth. He executes these both obliquely and explicitly. Readers can watch Luffy’s qualities evolve out of the corner of their eyes while seeing a more direct address of Usopp’s insecurity among people who overpower him in so many ways but match him in heart. Watching Robin re-learn how to hope and trust is lovely in some of the same ways it was to watch the Scarlet Witch become a formidable, independent heroine. And it’s all woven in so nicely with the goofy bombast that it might surprise you that you’re being moved as you’re being entertained. Better still, there’s nothing resembling Hank Pym’s decades-long struggle to decide just what kind of creepy loser he wants to be.

So, yes, One Piece is routinely what Avengers was to me at its very best. It’s about the family that you make because you trust people and respect them. It’s about big, crazy battles that seem lost from the start, until teamwork and individual courage come into play. And it’s about a seemingly incongruous group of equals becoming better and stronger in each others’ company.

(For a look at One Piece‘s resemblance to another super-hero franchise, please swing by Sam Kusek’s A Life in Panels. You’ll see why.)

Guest review: A Drunken Dream and Other Stories

December 2, 2010

By Erica (Okazu) Friedman

A Drunken Dream and Other Stories
Written and illustrated by Moto Hagio

Every genre, whether it is based on content (horror, romance, action) or age and gender, (shoujo, shounen) develops tropes. Tropes do not develop overnight. They are created by the creators – who use their training, their inspiration and the input of mentors, peers and editors to inform their work. Tropes are also driven by tension from the marketplace. Fans get used to certain things, or those who do the buying require certain conventions. Tropes that are successful are measured by sales – if Book A sells a lot of copies and it has Vampires, you can be sure that Book B and C will have Vampires too (or Zombies, or whatever the hot meme of the day is.) And publishers create tropes, when costs allow or don’t allow for certain things. If the market is doing well, then you might see extras packaged with a title. After three volumes of that title with extras, you can be sure that fans will start to expect extras with that next volume.

One of the fascinating qualities of fandom is that when fans have been around a long time, and still love a genre to death, they become dismissive of the tropes and start looking – in that same genre – for something more. I’m guilty of this myself and have created a nickname for stories that fit neatly within the boundaries of the most typical tropes of Yuri. I call those stories “Story A,” and yes, I absolutely mean it dismissively.

So, when people who have read a million shoujo stories look at the genre, they tend to be very offhand about it. “Spunky young heroine who makes friends easily. Hot older guy she falls instantly in love with. Sullen and withdrawn guy her own age who she’s clearly going to end up with in the end. And of course a tragic past full of secrets. But again, shoujo is not where you go for originality.” (With apologies to Sean Gaffney who is not at all dismissive of these things – in fact, he embraces them with fervor.)

What this means is that anyone who does NOT read the genre, is likely to read all these jaded, dismissive accounts of the genre (often by people for whom the genre is not intended) and assume that that’s just the way it is. Couple this with the natural tendency of the “critic” to pretend their condescension is in some way objective and …yes, I’m going to say it…the unrelenting, aggressively clueless sexism of about 80% of the men involved in the comics industry and their less creative, but no less vociferous male counterparts in comics criticism…you get a world of upturned noses and sniffiness at anything created by, or worse – for – females.

Shoujo manga is aimed at girls. Young girls are casteless in the world of entertainment. Basically no one gives a crap about them. The color pink is regurgitated at them endlessly as if being 9 and female means that one is essentially color blind to any other color. And heaven forefend that anyone, anywhere, that makes books for girls should EVER be taken seriously.

Except Moto Hagio. Her work, we are told sniffily, is NOT LIKE those other, pinker, sparkle-pony-er kinds of shoujo. This is *serious art,* that we are meant to take very seriously. You can tell it’s serious and important, because male critics deign to look at it at all.

Humility, thy name is shoujo manga.

Moto Hagio is a woman who drew manga for girls. Young girls – girls of the age where it is perfectly acceptable for many people to eroticize them, but not to take them seriously as people, with their own requirements, fantasies and interests. She took them seriously. No surprise, as she had been one herself. As hard as this is to believe I also was a young girl once. Moto Hagio’s works talked *directly* to the young girl I had once been.

I began this review noting that fans have a tendency to dismiss what they are already familiar with. The first story of this collection, “Bianca,” is exactly that kind of story. It’s been done, we say with a handwave, many times. True. But never have I seen it done this well. In 12 pages, Moto Hagio tells me a story I’ve read any number of times before – and tells it to me in a way that makes my heart feel like it’s so *full* of something that it might explode. Art, I’m told, should evoke a reaction. Is gripping my chest and taking heaving breaths enough of a reaction to call this ‘Art?’ Or is my reaction supposed to be more objective? Then… It called to mind the reaction I had when first encountering Stonehenge and realizing that I was in the presence of something masterful, precisely because it was not meant to be so when it was created. (I have always thought that Stonehenge was a Public Works Project – meant to keep people productive and busy so they felt like they earned their food at the end of the day.)

This collection may, in fact, not be the best way to encounter Moto Hagio’s work. Collections have an agenda, and fans are not typically subtle thinkers. I’ve seen a number of reviews that fall prey to the belief that the stories in this collection beat the same drum over and over. There are certainly themes that repeat, some more than others; Being Different; Perception; Family

Family is something that is addressed repeatedly in Moto Hagio’s work. She talks frankly about the tension between her and her parents, especially her mother. This is a theme she explores from many different angles – family as the obstacle to a life, rather than a support; family that you create for yourself being as powerful, even more powerful than blood relatives. Call me typical, but as a girl, something like “Iguana Girl” would have rendered me into a sobbing heap of sympathy. Of course I understood *exactly* what Rika was feeling! No one I know wouldn’t. We’re all Outsiders, we’re all Different. For those young readers who might be LGBT, can you imagine the power of this story? Different? You don’t know that half of it….! And for those readers, the idea that Family is something you create for yourself will still resonate as a powerful message.

Perception of self is another unavoidable theme in this collection and I think it’s probably fair to say in her body of work as a whole. What characters see themselves as, what others see and what “reality” is are three entirely distinct things. In most stories, the lines between these are blurred enough that the reader might not be able to clearly differentiate which they are perceiving at any moment. “A Drunken Dream” is titled well. We have no “reality” to hang on to, no idea if any portion of the story is real or not. In “Autumn Journey” the truth of Johann’s “reality” completely changes the Luise’s life and we’re left not really knowing how things will turn out for either of them (albeit, we’re left hopeful that it will all turn out well.) “Hanshin Half-God” and “Iguana Girl” are clearly the vanguard in this theme, with altered perceptions presented as both real and false at the same time. And in the “Child Who Came Home,” the reality we’re presented is nothing more than a desperate delusion. Through all the stories, there is a very strong emphasis on individual perception being at odds with the consensus perception of the people around them – something that would have resonated deeply – or jarred horribly – for the Japanese audience. “Girl on Porch With Puppy” is an object lesson of what happens to people who fail to conform in a society that values the group over the individual.

Shoujo manga is (often dismissively) summed up as stories of the heart. But shoujo manga is not just about romance – it is about emotional interplay. Where shounen heroes gain physical power, shoujo heroines gain emotional power. Shounen heroes beat their enemies to make them their friends – shoujo heroines love their enemies until they love them back. Th characters here are lovable – which is a risk we take with these stories. We’re not sure that the heroine will be plucky or that everyone will love them back. But like most contemporary shoujo, A Drunken Dream contains stories of emotional interaction, and emotional growth that comes from communication.

Moto Hagio is, like all other “classic” writers, doomed to be over-thought by adults, when if you just handed the average teen her work without making an assignment out of it, it would probably go over well. (Better yet, make is slightly forbidden, like Death Note.) Fantagraphics has done a lovely job with the book and in doing so has all but guaranteed the separation of Moto Hagio from her *actual audience* – teen girls.

I think there’s a real risk, though, in over-analyzing this volume. Moto Hagio’s stories are, as I said at the beginning, masterful largely because she did not set out to be so. She wrote from the heart, stories that girls could understand, enjoy, identify with. She was the Stephanie Meyer of her time and only now, when we look back on a body of literature that spans decades, we see that it’s a little silly to dismiss it (or glorify it) because it’s shoujo manga. What A Drunken Dream offers is as much or as little as we want to see. If we stare too hard past the cute girl looking back at us in the mirror, we might in fact see the deathly crone behind her…but why would we want to do that? Can’t we just take the cute girl at face value? Isn’t she “important” enough on her own?

Moto Hagio is a woman, who draws stories for girls. She is a Master of her Craft. She is a groundbreaker in her field. None of these statements are contradictory.

A Drunken Dream is a must-read for any serious student of manga. While you’re getting a copy, buy one for a niece or friend – and don’t tell them it’s “important.” This way they’ll be free to just enjoy it, tropes and all.

One Piece MMF: Day Four Links

December 2, 2010

It’s not related to the Manga Moveable Feast, but I wanted to point to this One Piece sales milestone reported at Anime News Network.

Evan (Ani-Gamers) Minto jumps into the fray with “MMF: One Piece – A Love Story in Two Acts.”

ABCBTom heads up in the air for “Skypiea and 4th Generation Warfare… in the Sky!”

Sam (A Life in Panels) Kusek enlists Franky and Brook in the Lantern Corps, but which part of the spectrum will they represent?

And I take a goofy, alphabetical approach to the series.