Japanese culture has so thoroughly melted into American culture that we can't always tell where one ends and the other begins. Speed Racer, Godzilla, Voltron, and Tranzor Z are nostalgic for millions of Americans, almost a part of "Americana." Weightlifters train by eating sushi. The Matrix seamlessly blends Japanese martial arts and Eastern philosophy into Western cyberpunk and American car chases. Japan makes our cars, our computer parts.
Nowhere does the Japanese voice speak more clearly than in the true avant-garde, the avant-garde of comics, the Web, and especially of webcomics.
For that is where today's avant-garde is. "Avant-garde" means in the front, on the cutting edge, leading the forward charge of popular culture and thought. Popular culture and thought no longer take their cues from deconstructionist poets or abstract expressionists. It's debatable whether they ever did. But now that today's comics are tomorrow's motion pictures and the design aesthetic of the Web has conquered CNN, webcomics are a key place to look for the future of American and global zeitgeist.
That particular future already shows signs of a heavy Japanese influenceâ€¦ from the schoolgirl romance Avalon to the anime-centric Megatokyo, from the "fighting game" moment in Sluggy Freelance to the occasional giant robot. Not to mention straight-up "webmanga" like Eversummer Eve, Tsunami Channel, Ghost Hunters and Tokyo High. The influence shows itself in things as small as borrowed words and in things as large as series concepts.
Is that influence good for us, or bad? Predictably, it's both, but the current mangamania obscures some of the downside.
Much has been written about the upside by such thoroughgoing researchers as Frederik L. Schodt and Scott McCloud. Japanese comics (and their animated counterparts) have shown more variety, more emotion, more energy and more complex plotting than their American counterparts, hampered far less in their history by censorship or narrow audience appeal. Cartoonists on and off the Web are doing well by looking to Japan for inspiration.
But what feels new and strange about Japanese entertainment now includes the clichÃ©s of tomorrow, which the mainstream will only recognize after a few more years of slavish American imitations. And some frequently imported aspects of Japanese comics don't necessarily translate, while other, deeper lessons that Japan has to teach us are set aside and ignored.
Few main characters in manga actually look Japanese â€“ they look American or European, their eyes wide and childlike. When Jason Waltrip and I designed the character of "Rumy" for FANS, she was meant to have "stepped out of manga." In her first and second renditions, her eyes and face were rendered in the Japanese tradition, clashing subtly with the more Americanized cartoon stylings of the other characters. (The difference really became clear when we saw Rumy's sketchbook renditions of those other characters.)
By her second appearance, however, Rumy's eyes were steadily losing their "anime width" and settling into a more usual range of expression, with the smaller eyes more typical of an Asian eighteen-year-old. Jason's instincts were sound. He was right to change it and I was wrong to encourage him otherwise. Rumy's slightly more realistic face has allowed us to give her a greater range of emotion than would be possible were she "the one with the manga-style child-face."
Still, Americans drawing manga usually go for this "big-eye art," a frequent staple of Japanese cartooning, without understanding that it's only one tool in an overall Japanese approach, one more emotionalistic than ours. This is a culture where characters can look somber in one panel and, in the next, cry comical tears that gush like a geyser. Lustful characters only leer slyly in American comics; in manga they drip blood at the nose. Anime characters usually act more like stage actors than film actors, with grand, sweeping gestures and dialogue so loud, it's almost shouted.
Megatokyo touches on another troubling aspect of Japanese imports â€“ their tendency to encourage their American audiences (many of them college-age and older males) to lust after girls high-school-age or younger. The word "nubile" is often misused to describe this type. Nubile actually means "marriageable, ready to be married" and these girls are rarely emotionally mature enough for that. That this only adds to their appeal has led to some accusations of pedophilia, even directed at relatively harmless fare like Ranma 1/2, a manga with sexual tension galore but no actual sex.
Of course, sex is a part of young people's lives. There is certainly a dishonesty about worlds like the one in most Archie Comics, with its dating-obsessed but curiously asexual teens. Still, online cartoonists looking for bigger and bigger audiences will have to steer a steady ship to avoid the conventions of Japanese porn comics, or "hentai." Some webcomics advertisers are already embracing them.
More benign Japanese conventions also run the risk of overexposure. How many guys in webcomics have attracted eager wannabe girlfriends with no visible effort? A short list would include Sluggy Freelance's Torg (pursued by Oasis), PVP's Brent (pursued by Jade in their early days), CRFH's Dave (pursued by Blue), GPF's Nick (pursued by Ki, Trudy AND Trish) and RPG World's hero (mooned over by Cherry). As in most Japanese romantic manga, these guys' studliness is not immediately apparent to the reader. They appear either awkward or socially oblivious. Yet studly they must be, because the women mount epic-length campaigns to win their hearts, no matter how ignorant or resistant to the idea the guys happen to be. Those poor devils. (Oasis has the excuse of being brainwashed, but falls into the general pattern.)
But the women characters of webcomics are in for frustrations aplenty themselves, because many guys apparently can't hear the little signals that say "I love you" unless they are transmitted via microphone and loudspeakers… or just from someone other than the women in question. Among the impervious: GPF's Nick, RPG World's Hero, CRFH's Mike (to April) and Megatokyo's Piro, who even points out this tradition in the manga he reads while he breaks an appointment with his secret admirer.
I personally consider all of the strips cited in the last two paragraphs to be good or even excellent webcomics, and they shouldn't be faulted for reflecting an overall trend. The challenge is to break with a trend before it becomes clichÃ©. And that is the larger challenge faced by anyone who looks outside their own head for ideas. How to learn from Jack Kirby without becoming a KirbyClone? How to go baroque without falling into rococo? How, in short, to be inspired without falling into a rigid repetition?
Answering this is more than a challenge, it's a duty for anyone who is going to lead our world into the future… any member, in other words, of the avant-garde. The traditional American approach to comics has been direct and pragmatic: "find what works and stick with it," which is why our comics so often ossify into clichÃ© and constrained genres. A bit of Japanese thought can inform a solution to this problem, but only if we take the trouble to look beyond the comics and into the deeper thoughts that inspired them:
There is no gate on the way of life that refuses entrance to those who want to pass through. If you want to go somewhere, take any way because there are thousands of ways. If, luckily, you succeed in your goal, the way will disappear and you will become the way. There is no 'way' for your life. Your mind is the way.
–Zen Buddhist saying