Saturday, May 18, 2013

Reading Western Comics (A Literal "Journey into Mystery")

The entire point of this blog is to banish ignorance.

I should clarify that I mean my own ignorance.  Living in the internet age as we do, and being a fan of comic book TV shows, video games, and movies, it should be easy to learn more about the source material, right?  We have blogs, forums, encyclopedias...  All the answers are right at our fingertips!  More often than not, however, I find myself somewhat alienated by comic book veterans.  It usually goes something like this...

Me: Black Widow and Hawkeye seem to have a budding relationship in "The Avengers."  Does anyone know if that's canon in the comics?

Anonymous: Of course it is you fuck-twit.  In issue ______ of ______ they totally _________ and then __________.  How could you not know that you stupid asshole scum?!

Me: I'm... I'm sorry...?  Thank you for telling me?


Me: I'm really sorry, calm down!  I just haven't had a chance!


Me: [commits ritualistic seppuku]

That kind of offensive attitude online isn't exactly conducive to learning.  I always feel like I'll "never know enough" even if I do try to read the comics, or else I fear becoming an asshole snob like the ones who do.

Nonetheless, this raises the question, "if I liked comic book-based media before, why am I only just picking up comic books now?"  Honestly, it has nothing to do with the holier-than-thou attitude of comic book readers online (though it's certainly not helping), and more to do with the stigma towards Western comic books that I grew up with.


I grew up with a father who really enjoyed comic books as a child and saw nothing wrong with them, but was no longer reading them and didn't have any in the house.  Thus, I had little exposure to the "source material" of the shows and movies I was enjoying.  By the time I was eleven or so, all my male friends had moved on and I was learning how to befriend girls who absolutely hated comic book media.  I was also attending a school with an enormous Asian population, so most of my "comic" exposure was in the form of manga (of which I was a casual reader at best).  In college, I became a Japanese major, so most of my friends were strictly manga readers.  For the last few years I've been living in Japan, where Western comic books are fairly unknown (until recently, but that's a whole other topic I'll write about later).


Because  of the world I grew up in and the people I knew, there were certain stigmas about Western comic books that I ran into over and over again.  Because most of the boys I played X-Men action figures with drifted out of my life as a child, I was left with the feeling that "girls shouldn't read comic books."  Comic books were for boys, right?  That was reaffirmed by the fact that the girls I started to hang out with all thought that stuff was "weird" and probably covered in cooties.  I went through a pretty extensive tomboy phase, and I felt like the only way to start fitting in was to put all that stuff behind me, no matter how many times Batman Beyond made this face at me:


My little elementary school brain found it very interesting, however, that while Western comic books were seen as "manly," Japanese comic books weren't... if you knew which ones to read.  For awhile I resisted, since I didn't want to be seen as a "nerd" (I was such a fool), but I was slowly drawn into reading manga after awhile.  Despite my personal preferences (not girly), many of my friends were fully immersed in shōjo (girl's manga).  Of course, it seemed a lot of them were in it just for the art.  The difference between Western comic books and Japanese comic books, you see, is that manga is "pretty" and Western comics are "ugly."  And how could I disagree?  We've all seen what vintage comic books look like.

I mean, how can you compare this:

*cue a choir of singing angels*

 With this:

Uh... what.

That kind of old-fashioned comic book style was the only thing I could picture when people talked about "American comics."  Hard, rigid lines with dull, uniform colors.  Simplistic animation and awkward angles.  Maybe shōjo manga's content made me want to vomit, but I sure knew which art form I'd rather look at.

Which brings me to the next stigma: content.  On top of being "prettier" and "more artistic" than the childish animation of Western comics, it was drilled into my head over and over that Japanese comics had better stories.  With plenty of notable exceptions, Western comic books, as far as I knew, were always simple hero vs. villain stories.  Guy gets super powers, fights other guy who has super powers, guy gets girl, villain returns to commit evil because he hates Mondays.

But manga?  Oh, no, manga is all about stuff, man!  So much stuff!  Crazy stories with love trapezoids and world wars and vampires and half-demons with cat ears and robots and "omigawd, this one is such a mindfuck you have to read it."  To my child-self, this seemed to be true.  Manga didn't follow that hero vs. villain formula.  Manga heroes were just as likely to be conflicted as the bad guys, and the villains were just as likely to be sympathetic like the hero.  Moreover, it wasn't uncommon for the hero and the villain to be - gasp - siblings!  Or estranged lovers!  Or the only two remaining kin of a lost world!  Some manga didn't even have a hero or villain story line at all!  What madness!  Such absurdity!  Manga's where it's at, man!

But with age comes wisdom and, slowly, manga began to seem just as formulaic and boring to me as the Western comics the people around me scorned.  The same patterns and story lines kept reappearing so many times that I could predict every plot twist in my sleep.  Furthermore, manga wasn't really that pretty.  The big eyes and gangly limbs started to seem alien and even horrific to me at times.  Even while living in Japan, I just stopped reading manga all together.  I just couldn't get into it.

So the conclusion I reached was that both Western comics and Japanese comics (with notable exceptions) were garbage.  And then I went back to watching "Kick-Ass" in a dark room by myself where no one could see my shame.  

While I was still in Japan avoiding all forms of comics, Marvel was doing its freaky little tap dance around the movie industry and mainstreaming B-level comic book characters into stars.  In between my first year in Japan and the two years that followed, I spent a year in the U.S. and fell completely in love with Marvel's Phase 1 movies.  I remember watching "Iron Man" and "Thor" and thinking, "wow, I guess the only way to make Western comic book movies awesome is to make them not at all like the comic books they're based on.  Go team!"  After all, unlike the comics, the movies were pretty and multidimensional and interesting.  What a novel idea!

It was after "The Avengers" that I decided I really wanted to give comics a try.  At that point, I decided the movies didn't just appear in a vacuum.  They had to come from something, even if that something was no more two-dimensional than roadkill.  There had to be an inkling of that movie glory in the source material, right?

Well, thanks to Nolan's "Batman" trilogy and the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Western comic books have finally taken off in Japan (I would dare say it's becoming a fad)!  That means I finally have access to imported comic books in English (because fuck dealing with kanji, seriously).  While browsing Kinokuniya, I picked up a few issues from the Western comic book selection and glanced at the covers.  My eyes nearly bugged out of my head.  I was expecting that Superman orgy up above, but instead, I was seeing shit like this:

Did you hear that?  That was the choir of angels dropping dead from the beauty of it all.

For a moment I thought I'd been duped.  I mean, these couldn't possibly be Western comic books, could they?  So I decided it was just the covers that were pretty, because how else do you get people to buy them?  Not with Superman orgies, that's for sure.  The comics were wrapped in plastic, however, so I couldn't be sure what mysteries lay within.  I'd bought manga in the past that looked pretty on the cover and looked like Picasso took a shit on the inside, so I was prepared for the worst.

Willing to give Western comic books the benefit of the doubt, I decided to buy the above Journey into Mystery: Fear Itself as well as Journey into Mystery: Fear Itself Fallout.  Why those two?  Well, the "young Loki" saga had been recommended to me many times as an "Avengers" fan, and because I really enjoy the "Thor" cast.  I have a bit of a soft spot for fantasy, and an even bigger soft spot for villains.  If there was a degree in villaintology, I would've become a villaintologist in college instead of a Japanese major (or, if I wasn't a fucking moron, I would've gotten a degree that could help me become a writer, but Captain Hindsight needs to go away before I punch his face off).  Having been a huge fan of Tom Hiddleston's portrayal of Loki in "The Avengers," I was curious to see the primordial ooze his character sprang from.


Alright, so I get home, and pull open Journey into Mystery: Fear Itself

My expectations: dull colors, gawky proportions, stiff artwork, cheesy dialogue, predictable story lines, black and white heroism, and excessive rolling-on-the-floor laughter on my part.  Basically, what I expected was this:

Face... palm...

I'm not saying there's anything wrong with the above comic, of course.  Back in the 1960's, that kind of material was perfectly fine.  Printing and coloring was far more difficult and limited, and there were no computers, either.  The target audience was also far younger, so the stories were simpler and more straightforward.  That's fine, but things have changed.  People demand more complex stories with more natural dialogue these days.

The problem was that I didn't think Western comic books had kept up with the times enough to change.

So imagine my shock when I opened up Journey Into Mystery volume 622 (good lord...) and saw... a beautifully painted, poetic and philosophical journey of seven magpies through the Nine Realms of Norse Mythology?

Wait, what?

I closed the book and checked the cover.  Yup, it's Journey into Mystery alright, there's the little MARVEL sticker at the bottom.  The hell's goin' on?  I returned to the story, strangely enthralled and enchanted by this lovely little tale of seven magpies and how they each perished on the glorious quest that they, themselves, did not understand.  How... delightfully charming and unexpected.  That is, until the seventh magpie reached Loki, said half a word and exploded.

Not only was I sitting there stunned by the beautiful artwork and poetic narration, I was also dying with laughter as Loki, splattered with blood, shouted, "gross!"  That... was not what I expected.  First of all, the beautiful artwork of the cover was maintained on every page of the comic book.  The story was charming, well-written, and actually funny at times!  Not funny as in, "haha, this book is so bad that I'm laughing," but funny as in "haha, this running joke is still hilarious twenty pages later."

So I read on, my eyes widening with pleasant disbelief at every page.  The story was fascinating.  There was action, drama, emotional complexity, interesting characters, humor, sadness...  In all these years, I'd never realized Western comic books could be so... intriguing.  I thought the movies were just sorta made up on the fly based off some old panels that had been thrown together, but that wasn't the case at all.  This was where it all began, right here in the pages of a comic book.

One of the things that surprised me most of all was that the things I considered "girly" in manga confidently appeared in the comic.  The protago-antagonist (seriously, I don't know what to call him) is a young Loki, and along with his youth are the fears and sorrows of any lost child.  Tom Hiddleston's Loki is known to cry a lot, but I figured this was acceptable artistic license because the movies have more emotional depth than the comics.  Imagine my surprise when I found several scenes in Journey into Mystery in which young Loki also cried for perfectly acceptable reasons.  I didn't expect Western comic books to really, well... deal with emotions, to be perfectly honest.  I thought that was a "manga" thing, but clearly, I was wrong.  The comic book I was reading had complex characters with complicated hopes and dreams, just like the characters found in Japanese comics.  Seeing Loki's teary face painted into a comic panel made me realize just how ignorant I'd been about such a popular and prevalent form of literature in my home country.  I realized I had a lot to learn.

As soon as I was done with the first book, I hungrily ate up the second.  It ended on an extremely bittersweet note that made me desperately wish I had access to the next issue.  I think I might pay for the Marvel Unlimited database so I can digitally view more comic books without paying outrageous prices.

I can safely say that, prior to actually opening a comic book, I never thought I'd be willing to pay money to see more.  So far, the artwork I'm finding in these comics is even prettier than the artwork I've found in manga (with the exception of Angel Sanctuary (天使禁猟区 ), which I'm pretty sure was drawn with the tears of newborn angels), and has a story just as complex, unique, and interesting.  Young Loki's story has no true heroes or villains, and it relies just as much on intelligence and puzzle-solving as it does on action sequences.  I never expected that in a million years.

And now I'm just left wondering why I didn't read Western comic books sooner.  I've missed out on so much.

So now that I've opened the door, I'm going to walk right on in and have myself an awesome time.  I'm going to continue reading comic books and writing "articles" on this blog about the interesting things I discover on my journey into becoming less of a n00b.  I hope it'll be a fascinating experience! 

Any thoughts or opinions on my "Journey into Mystery?"  Similar experiences or interesting information to add?  Feel free to say whatever you'd like in the comments!  Comments are always welcome!

As a final bonus, here's my dog being vanquished by Thor's hammer:

He was a good sport :-)  Special thanks to my dad for getting the dog to lay still.

See y'all next time!

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