Superhero Fans Are from Mars, Venus, Krypton, and Everywhere Else

It’s the 4th of July, so here I am to discuss my ever-changing relationship with American superhero comics fandom.

I’ve been an avid comics reader since childhood, and having interacted with many fellow fans over the years, there’s one truth I’m often reminded of: there’s no one type of fan. It’s not just that Fan A might like Spider-Man and Fan B might be into Jimmy Corrigan, either. How people approach the very act of experiencing comics can be so fundamentally different that calling them both “comics fans” ends up being a gross simplification, and failing to understand that can stifle one’s own understanding of the power of comics.

I recall a conversation with someone who’s a big fan of the Batman franchise. The topic of spoilers came up, and they basically replied, “Oh, I don’t care about that”—not so much because knowing in advance what happens didn’t bother them, but because the actual story isn’t the biggest priority for them and their fandom experience. Rather, it’s the characters themselves (Bruce Wayne, Dick Grayson, Tim Drake, etc.) and the values and traits they embody in and of themselves. It’s what allows these characters to be placed into alternate-universe fanfics. It’s also what allows them to be protected, in the eyes of such fans, from bad writers and plotlines. If Batman is written to be a racist, they can remember the perfect version of him instead. Japanese manga scholar Ito Go calls this kyara: the capacity for a character to be removed from their context and still exude a sense of identity, and superheroes certainly are iconic.

I’ve noticed more and more fans like this, and I believe their passion is real and wonderful. At the same time, this is not the type of fan I grew up with, and their interactions with both one another and with their comics are not the kind I cut my teeth on. Instead, I’ve generally been more accustomed to textual analyses, plot speculation, and the classic “who would win in a fight?” I caught up with an old friend at New York Comic Con 2019 two years ago, and their explanation of the ambitious nature of Marvel’s House of X and Powers of X stood in stark relief from the Batman fan’s way.

In his book Comics and Narration, French comics scholar Thierry Groensteen writes about a generation gap he feels with younger comics fans:

“For readers of my age…comics has always meant being exposed to a certain type of fiction, divided into genres and series, and being hooked on adventure stories. It went without saying for us that comics…was a “narrative type within the narrative genre.” Of course, we have to acknowledge that comics…arouses among certain groups of younger readers different expectations…. [O]ne needs only to consider the phenomenon of “cosplay”…to realize that these young people who dress up as their favorite hero have little interest in the story—what they are seeking…is the hero or heroine with whom they identify. The emphasis is on the characters themselves, their costumes, their attributes, possibly the values that they incarnate, but not at all the context in which they appear or the adventures that they have had. The phenomenon of identification is difficult for readers of my generation to understand…[W]hat mattered to us was how they gained hero status through their actions and how they swept us up in the excitement of their adventures.”

Unlike Groensteen, I feel I can relate to both his perspective and the “cosplayers” he finds inherently difficult to connect with. Still, I myself have noticed that when I talk with people from different groups about comics, the gears in my head turn in ways to accommodate the type of fan I’m talking to. Understanding their priorities also means understanding the kinds of questions that will bear fruitful responses. I don’t mean that I am constantly making intensely conscious decisions as to what to say or ask, but that talking with the Batman fan and the HoXPoX fan almost requires a different frame of mind.

While we all have our own ways and preferences, I think failing (or refusing) to acknowledge these differences creates tension among comics fans. People can even like the same comic but have very different ways of deriving their enjoyment. Trying to reconcile them (in the sense of trying to judge then with the same parameters) may be a fool’s errand. Recognizing that perspectives can be incongruous but appreciating them all the same lends strength to comics fandom as a whole, and all its possibilities.

The Text in the Word Bubble

I’ve been thinking about word bubbles lately, specifically the conventions behind how words are organized in them across Japanese and English.

Basically, if you ever look at a word bubble from an English comic, be that a translated manga or something originally created in English, the words tend to follow the shape of bubble to an extent, such that the top and/or bottom lines of text are shortest and the middle bulges out. In contrast, if you look at manga in Japanese, the text is usually in the shape of a square block, though it might be more accurate to say that the text is “top-justified,” where the top of each line is flat (remember that Japanese text in bubbles is generally written from top to bottom and from right to left), and the length of the final line can vary from being the shortest to being the longest. They don’t necessarily have to be this way, as is evidenced when an English-language bubble in a Japanese manga ends up having the text un-centered, but these seem to be the “rules.” When we defy them, something looks “off.”

What I’m wondering is, how much of this is the result of the written languages themselves, and how much of it has to do with the conventions laid before us by decades of comics? Could it be that a stable top is more important in either case, but that the top line in an English text is always flat due to the horizontal nature of English writing, whereas Japanese has to make an effort at it? Is it simply efficiency, or the result of past limitations which have seeped into the very nature of how we perceive word bubbles? What about other languages, notably Hebrew or Arabic which are horizontal and written right to left? How do their translations/comics fare?

Ogiue Maniax on the Webcomic Beacon Podcast

I was a guest on the Webcomic Beacon, a podcast dedicated to (you guess it) podcasts. As a follow-up to my post Explaining Decompression in Comics, we discuss the concepts of compression and decompression in comics, what they mean and how they’re used, and how you could potentially use it in your own work. Have a listen and leave a comment, either here or there.

Webcomic Beacon #208: Decompression vs. Compression in Comics

Vistas: What Is That Funny S-Shape?

I’ve got another post up that the Vistas Asiascape blog. This time it’s about comics and literacy. Well, sort of.

See it now.

Somewhat Less Perilous: MD Geist the Comic

Rarely do I get review requests for Ogiue Maniax, but when I was told to review MD Geist, I knew I had to take on the challenge.

MD Geist is somewhat of an anomaly in anime. Largely ignored in Japan, this OVA found success in the United States in the 80s and 90s and helped to define “anime” as something more adult (or at least indicative of hormonal teenagers). With the titular character eventually becoming the “face” of anime through his role as mascot and “spokesmecha” for the anime company Central Park Media, you will find that a certain generation of anime fans feels a close connection to the title. Years later Central Park Media would fund a sequel.

But wait, this isn’t actually a review of the MD Geist OVAs, but of the American-produced comic adaptation by artist and VOTOMS expert Tim Eldred. And through the lens of Mr. Eldred, interesting things happen.

Before I get into the comic though, I have to state what is a commonly-held truth in anime, restated time and again over the past few decades: MD Geist is bad. Its designs are unsuited for animation, its story is paper-thin, its action scenes are only really enjoyable on a surface level, and its characters are poorly realized. At the same time however, it is an enjoyable sort of bad. In many ways it represents a generation of mediocre straight-to-VHS anime.

But it’s difficult to recapture that sort of accidental magic. Tim Eldred understood this well, I assume, as he doesn’t try to bottle magic. Instead, he takes the patches strewn across the floor in disarray and attempts to sew them together into a complete quilt. He adds a back story, he adds character motives, he turns MD Geist into a “real” story rather than an incongruous facsimile of one.

The MD Geist comic is divided into two parts: an origin story for MD Geist and a retelling of the first OVA, with the intent to flesh out Geist’s character. Not only was he a “Most Dangerous Soldier,” but you learn why exactly he was imprisoned and about the woman who first assisted/controlled him. Through this, you get the same impression as one would reading fanfiction. I do not mean that negatively. One of the great strengths of fanfiction is that fans of a series can take the odds and ends of their favorite series and then speculate until their brainstorming session has gone far beyond the original source.

On its own, the MD Geist comic is decent. The only issue with that is that it comes at the expense of the extreme amounts of ridiculousness which pervade the source material to the extent that the original creators cannot even remember why they made any of their creative decisions (check the director’s commentary track on the DVD). Reading the comic over seeing the anime will get you a better story, but it won’t necessarily get you MD Geist.

If Your Mother Knew You Didn’t Like Giant Robots, It Would KILL Her!

Over a year ago I explored the difficulties in recommending anime and manga to people, whether they were entirely new to the world of Japanese animation and comics or they were already in the fandom but looking for more. Since that time I’ve gotten a little better at the whole recommendation thing, but it’s still far from one of my strengths. Still, the dynamics of introducing new shows and series to people is a fascinating topic to explore, and seeing others’ recommendations posts as of late has revealed to me more and more of the tricky dynamics of suggesting shows.

Tim Maughan recently had a bunch of guest writers for his blog to provide content during his trip to Thailand, and among the articles was one by the Otaku Diaries creators the Reverse Thieves where they created a guide to introducing giant robot shows to people who are into anime but aren’t sure if they like mecha, or who avoid it entirely without knowing the variety of stories giant robot shows have to tell.

As if inevitable however, they received complaints that their list was not good because it did not contain enough of the classics, the things that brought people into giant robots over the decades. At that point, the problem became about the identity of the mecha fan. Shouldn’t someone who gets into giant robot anime like giant robots? But if they already like giant robots, then half the work is already done! The guide was clearly made for the people who don’t necessarily have that inherent potential to enjoy robot shows, the people whose interest in the genre has to be slowly cultivated over time. The classics are classics for good reasons, but they’re not beginner’s shows necessarily.

Over at comics blog Mightygodking, a more fundamental question was asked: “How do I start reading comics?” In his response, Mightygodking explains that, more often than not, comics fans go about it incorrectly, and make the same mistakes that many of those who questioned the Reverse Thieves’ guide did. He even lays out some criteria for recommending comics for newcomers, and though I don’t agree that a beginner comic has to be “fucking great,” I think he makes a very good point when he says:

…they’ll recommend something safe, like “you should read Sandman.” Or Watchmen, or Transmetropolitan, or [insert critically acclaimed comic by the Usual Suspects here]. Now, sure. These are great comics. But I’m not going to say “this is how you should get started with comics.” Watchmen should be nobody’s first comics read. Sandman has an impenetrable first volume. And Transmet is a commitment – not that Spider Jerusalem isn’t worth the ride, but I’m not going to introduce somebody to comics with it.

Even more than giant robot anime, COMICS!! can be such a gargantuan and daunting subject that even gaining the will to approach it can be an arduous task, and as such the problems with recommending the GREATEST gets magnified. And of course, this is in no way helped when the fans who are already there berate the potential new fans for not enjoying what they are “supposed” to enjoy.

I fully understand where people are coming from when they say the best place to start is with the classics. I have in the past recommended the ORIGINAL Mobile Suit Gundam when someone wanted to know where to start with the massive franchise. I have also lamented the fact that many newer fans in anime are unable to appreciate older shows because they cannot get past the older styles. But I also know that it is nearly impossible to attract people into a fandom or gain new enthusiasts by appearing obtuse and impenetrable. It’s one thing to have very firm ideas of what makes shows good or not, and to defend those ideas, but retreating into the folds of the existing insular fandom isn’t going to do anything but make it even more exclusive. It all comes down to how much you’re willing to not simply throw out suggestions from on-high, but to guide people, even if you can’t personalize it too much because you’re making broad recommendations.

In a way, I feel like recommending arguably difficult classics to beginners is not unlike being parents living vicariously through their children, like a soccer mom pushing her kids to the brink of competition.

“I never had it this good when I was getting into giant robots! I’ve boiled it down to everything you REALLY need to see!”

“But dad, I’m not sure I like giant robots!”

“How DARE you! I did not suffer through Magnos the Robot so that you could say you don’t like giant robots!”

But each generation is new, and casts off the bounds set by their predecessors, like a man with blue hair and stylish shades living in an underground village.