Comics, Manga

Equivalent Exchange

The Box-set cover

Volume 15 of Fullmetal Alchemist gut-punched me good. Told completely as flashbacks, this volume has gruesome scenes of war and its effect on ordinary human beings, one in which characters established as “good” so far show the extent of blood on their hands from events past. This makes the motivations of a different character – known so far as a mass murderer who nearly killed the Elric kids – appear far more noble than we think, and make us examine the motivations of all the characters introduced so far in a different light.

Genocide, political intrigue, and dismemberment – hardly one’s choice of topics for a genre of storytelling marketed at children.It is not strange how Hiromu Arakawa balances the dark themes in Fullmetal Alchemist – there is slapstick humor aplenty. This could be one of the reasons why something that is marketed as an adult comic in the USA cannot compete with shonen manga in terms of the themes explored. With all its doom-and-gloom, there is the inherent fun that comes with reading shonen – chibi faces galore, lots of running gags – about lead protagonist Edward Elric’s short stature and temper, about Alphonse Elric’s armored body used as a receptacle to smuggle girls and cats (!!!), about the idiosyncrasies of supporting characters. I am not sure if scanlation consumers got their share of the short gags that appears at the end of every volume, with zany interpretations of the story events and alternate realities involving the characters, but it’s so so hard to not burst out laughing at them.

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These guys….

…are also these guys.

I do not intend to go into spoiler-land or even into brief-description land. The best description of FMA is Jason Thompson’s House of 1000 Manga review (and it made me very happy that he happened to write it when I was reading it). If you don’t want to do that either, read the Wikipedia summary – well, not the full article, which gives away everything. But chances are high that if you are reading this, you already know about Fullmetal Alchemist, at least in anime form. There are two anime series, the first one developed in parallel with the manga and therefore with divergent story-lines from the comic from the midpoint of the series, and with completely different Big Bad Villains. The second anime series Brotherhood is apparently a straight-up adaptation of the manga, and that may be the one I get around to watching (eventually, love, eventually). While the story is primarily about the Elric brothers,  they transform from the adventures of the two brothers on the road to the methodical unraveling of a plot that involves multiple nations and centuries of planning. At times, the brothers’ concerns become secondary to that of the supporting members of the cast. With a little bit of tinkering, it wouldn’t be surprising if this series was called Flame Alchemist, or May and her Panda, or even Homonculus Prince. (I am a Housewife? ) But yes, this is a shonen manga, and the brothers are the central characters, so it’s not surprising to see them develop as characters, learning the ways of the world from their peers, elders or – the old-fashioned way – the mistakes they make.

I am reminded of Joe Hill’s words in Locke and Key, another of my favorite fantasy series involving children caught up in frightening events beyond their control.

Scary.

I have posted this before.

It feels utterly refreshing to read a story that gives you so many payoffs in course of a 27-volume run. In most series, the early issues form the setup, the author using them as throwaway episodes to establish characterization and milieu. And that is what I thought about Fullmetal Alchemist too, but it is surprising how much the stories loop back, and how minor characters and actions in previous arcs seem to have effects on the lead characters’ actions towards the end of the series.

Most of my friends are a little annoyed at my constant sniping at mainstream American comics being published currently. Reading FMA just reinforces my belief even more – that it is possible to create all-ages comics that make you laugh and cry and cheer with and for the characters; where a character meets his end without it feeling pointless or gratuitous; where, when the stakes pile up against the protagonists and their friends, you actually begin to worry for their well-being. Where civilian casualties actually mean something. FMA goes through its story-line without being repetitive (parts of Ranma 1/2 feel that way to me) and the story is not about increasing power-levels across successive boss-fights. And you have characters with ironic lines like this:

Politics 101

 

If you are among those who has read this series already, accept a belated squee and a high-five from me. If you aren’t, you aren’t even reading this. Good-bye.

(And now I started reading Detroit Metal City10 volumes in all, should be done in the next day or two.)

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Comics, Manga, Reviews

Great Teacher Onizuka: A Review

This was originally published in Rolling Stone India, November 2009. Dusted and put up here because I plan to do a mega-reread of the series in the next few days.

Writer/Artist: Tohru Fujisawa
Publisher: Tokyopop
Rating: Four and a half stars

Meet Eikichi Onizuka, a bottom-rung university graduate (barely), whose primary interests are peering up girls’ skirts at local malls and getting into trouble – not mutually exclusive activities, those two. But fate has different plans in store for virginity-challenged young Eikichi – circumstance makes him leave his delinquence behind him and opt for a new career, that of an educator. Eikichi Onizuka, 22 years old, sets out to become Great Teacher Onizuka, the greatest sensei in Japan. His mission: to make school fun again. His secondary mission – getting to fourth base with someone. Anyone.

That is the premise behind this beloved shonen manga series, that traces Onizuka’s explosive – and often ludicrous – adventures in teaching. At first glance, it seems humanly impossible for a man of his calibre to really do much with his career choice. He cheated his way through his own academic career, seemingly has an IQ of 50, and the only legitimate qualification on his misspelled resume is that he has secured a second dan black belt in karate. He is perverted, being more than a little obsessed with young girls and their underwear. And he lets his fists do the talking most of the time. The first arc of the series establishes how Onizuka, beating all these odds, manages to get through a teacher training course at a public school and becomes a temporary teacher in the Holy Forest Academy, a prestigious private institute. He is put in charge of Class 3-4, whose students have terrorized the previous three home-room teachers into ending their careers – one committed suicide, another developed an eating disorder. It would take a very foolhardy, or a very determined educator to take up the responsibility of cleaning the school’s Augean stables.

But determination is what Onizuka has in spades. “You are a cockroach”, one of his students shrieks at him with disgust, right after the would-be teacher pops up where he wasn’t really supposed to. This analogy echoes throughout the series. Like a cockroach, Onizuka wiggles himself into his students’ lives even as they hurl expletives at him and threaten (and often perpetrate) violence against his self. Just as a cockroach skitters away from all attempts to stomp it out, our hero manages to best all the traps his devilish students cook up – from publishing morphed porno pictures of Onizuka to having him framed for embezzling money from student funds. And slowly, one by one, our hero wins them over using a combination of his perversely inappropriate world-view and his incredible physical prowess.

All long-running series by single creators run into similar teething issues – an initial rush of heady ideas that slowly slides into a predictable graph of highs and lows, where the creator struggles not only to find the voice, but to etch out a character’s life-story in a way that builds on its premise, instead of stagnating into repetitive cliche. Maintaining the momentum of a series, without over-stretching a story-line is a tough call. It would have been very easy for writer/artist Tohru Fujisawa to stumble. The second arc, that of the students being set straight by the teacher, resolutely avoids falling into the trap. Sure, it is long, but there are two aspects in which Fujisawa scores top of the manga-ka class (if you will pardon the school-based metaphor) – the delineation of the individual characters that make up the Onizukaverse. Every student in the class has a unique personality, a standalone voice which makes the reader identify with them. Partly because they are there in every classroom in any school in the world – the quiet, shy video-game-playing geek who is bullied at every turn; the computer whiz who knows more than he lets on; the headstrong yet confused loud-mouth who takes offence at minor quips; a girl whose parents are influential bureaucrats, a fact that she uses to her advantage; another with a dark secret involving a previous teacher. Sure, they are all genre archetypes, but it is Fujisawa’s genius that breathes new, fresh life into them.

The second thing that elevates the series to greatness is the sheer unpredictability of the central character. Eikichi Onizuka is a man of hidden surprises, whose heart of gold is matched only by his complete irreverence and lack of respect for authority. Early on in his career, Onizuka figures out that he really loves teaching, and he takes it on himself to be the kind of teacher that his generation did not have. At the crux of every decision Onizuka makes, however frivolous and played-for-laughs it seems to be, there is an important life-lesson that he imparts to his students. But Onizuka being the way he is, any attempt to take him seriously usually backfires, with hilarious results.

In addition to changing the way his students feel towards school, Onizuka also takes on the strict authoritarians that make up the faculty of Holy Forest Academy. His primary whipping-dog being the perennially grumpy Vice-Principal Uchiyamada – a running gag involves the Vice-Principal’s Toyota Cresta. The third arc of the series, in particular, involves a final stand against a new Principal who ousts the support of Chairman Sakurai, whose tacit approval had made a large part of Onizuka’s brushes with authority seem minor in the past.

Great Teacher Onizuka made me laugh, it had me gasping with incredulity, it made me come up with excuses to avoid work just so I could tear through the twenty-five volumes as soon as I could. It is not without its faults – a great deal of fan-service persists throughout the story, and let’s face it – if you have seen To Sir With Love and Munnabhai MBBS, you realize that the premise of GTO is hardly original. But even with all its over-the-top antics, it’s not just a fine comedy series, but also a drama that’s an indictment of the pettiness that afflicts today’s education system. It’s a scathing denouncement of self-serving, vainglorious modern-day teachers for whom teaching is nothing more than a way to make money, rather than the life-altering position it is meant to be. Hey, it made me want to go back to school, and that’s quite something!

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Comics, Manga

A few thoughts on a manga I am reading

I am just one volume in, and Twentieth Century Boys reminds me of Stephen King’s It.

I am a huge fan of Naoki Urasawa and consider him among the greatest contemporary manga creators out there. That’s right – not just a writer or an artist, a creator. He writes and draws, and it’s tough for me to say what he does better. The first Urasawa creation I read was a series called Monster, a psychological thriller set in Western Europe, an 18 volume joyride that I blazed through in one weekend. Early this year, I picked up the full run of Pluto, Urasawa’s homage to one of the most beloved Astro Boy story lines that Osamu Tezuka ever created.

In terms of technique, Urasawa is as much removed from the style one comes to expect from a traditional manga artist as Satyajit Ray is removed from, say, Subhash Ghai. When I see his line-work, I am reminded of European masters – his figures in motion carry a bit of Herge, the inking brings to mind the polished assurance of Moebius; the Japanese influences on his style is reminiscent of Katsuhiro Otomo and Jiro Taniguchi, both of whom, not surprisingly, have been influenced by Moebius.
Urasawa’s work therefore becomes a perfect gateway work to people who ‘mistrust’ manga. I use the term ‘mistrust’ because that seems to be the perfect term to describe the reactions that general comicbook fans have whenever manga comes under discussion – Naruto and Bleach seem to be the eye-roll-inducing standards against which all manga is judged, there are references to bug eyes and fetishization of prepubescent females, and of course, the eternal ‘you have to read it the wrong way’. Except for the last, which is something akin to insulting a language just because it does not sound like yours, Urasawa’s work defies conventional classification. No, it’s not art-house, highbrow literature that tries to batter you with it’s own sense of self-importance nor is it commercial franchise-building content.

Monster had its moments of storytelling naïveté, but it was a thriller comic done right, told exactly the way its creator wanted to. I made the mistake of slotting Pluto, when I first heard of it, as fan- fiction that would only make complete sense if I had the sense of nostalgia attached to the original Tezuka story as its intended audience. I was wrong. Sure, the second reading of Pluto, after I tracked down Astro Boy  vol 3 and read the 149-page ‘greatest robot on earth’ kind of helped me appreciate the choices that Urasawa’s homage made in course of its 8 volumes, the artistic licenses. It actually helped me take in the level of audacity of this fan, this guy who dared to remake something that had resonated in his childhood into something that unmakes nostalgia. I do not want to think of how much he must have internalized the original story to come up with something like this.
Why did it take me so long to get to 20th Century Boys, then? Because as is expected of output that maintains a high level of quality, there is only so much of it out there. Well, there is early Urasawa, such as Pineapple Express, published in every other language but English, but scanlations are not encouraging. His early work reminds me more of Toriyama, more cartoony than I would expect. I am not aware of what he’s doing right now, but there are only 22 volumes of Urasawa-output available for me to read, and I sure as hell did not want to squander those the weekend after I finished Pluto.
But it’s time now, and I’ve just finished the first volume, as the train that takes me back to Los Angeles passes through the Pacific coast. I pause from time to time and stare out of the window, taking in the sunshine that streams through. It’s a lovely day. As Urasawa jumps between 1969 and 1997, and I see childhood dreams and idealism flip to middle-aged resignation and ennui, I realize that I was only 10 years away from being a twentieth century boy myself.

(written on Saturday, on a train)

 

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