When I think of comics, I think Japan. Comics are everywhere in Japan, it's a part of everyday life. It's like eating rice or watching TV but better. It's not a hobby or a 'collectable,' rather it's a part of Japan itself, like how sushi is a part of Japan. When riding the subway or busses, there are people of all ages and sizes reading comics. People stop in bookstores on their way home from school and work to read them.
Even if one is not an avid comics reader, there are some form of comics in almost every major magazine. Rather than specialized comic book stores, every bookstore has a comic book section that takes up at least 20% of their shelf space. There are comics everywhere from the school library to ramen noodle shops. If you go to the doctor's office, there are comics there instead of Newsweek. By the time I was in the third grade, I learned about love, betrayal, sex, World War II, and Helen Keller, all from comics.
There are comics for everybody in Japan, there are so many categories to choose from. There are comics for kids, girls, boys, teenagers, ladies, men, housewives, businessmen, emporers, and much more. I hate to categorize, because I know plenty of grandmas who read kids' comics and women who read men's comics, but the stereotypes as to who reads what hold a lot of truth.
For the two months while I procrastinated writing this article, I've been thinking about how it all starts. How do comics start to play a part in a Japanese person's everyday life? For me it started in the dentist's office waiting room. I was a frequent visitor, and there were rows and rows of comics on the shelf with the safest, most comforting elevator music playing in the background. Being the television, allowance and snack deprived child that I was, comics became my favorite distraction from life. I used to go to the dentist an hour before my appointment just to read comics, but I know it didn't start like that for everyone.
I've thought long and hard, and this is my conclusion: television. Most kids start reading comics at an early age because of TV. As soon as they become literate, they start reading the comic book versions of the cartoons they love. For me it was the opposite: I read comics so I could catch up with TV. Whichever starts first, comics and television split off and the young chipper reader discover that comics have a world and culture all their own. What's interesting is that in Japan, one's life journey with comics differs widely according to their sex.
In elementary school, kids buy these two-inch thick, newsprint bi-monthly comics which are different for boys and girls. They usually consist of about fifteen different 'to be continued' stories that include paper toys. The girls' comics are stories about princesses, love and jealousy -- pretty innocent entertainment. I used to read my neighbor's old issues -- always a month behind. I don't know what the boys' comics were about, maybe soccer champions or something.
When I was in the sixth grade, I found the comic that changed my life. It was a story spanning four years of a teenage girl's destructive existence. At the time, it blew my mind. It delivered to me what no comics had done before. The confusion and emotion portrayed in the story is full-blown teenagerism. The girl lived with her widowed mom and met a boy in a motorcycle gang (which is what rebellious kids in Japan did ten years ago), ran away, confused (Who was my real father? Why is my boyfriend weird?), angry (Why is my mom dating that dweeb?), and then detailed her difficult relationship with this boy as it changes over time (he eventually gets into an accident and is paralyzed). It was four years of conflicts, realizations, and insight. I know it doesn't sound too exciting, but this comic was amazing to me. The author, Taku Izumi, was so good at depicting feeling, and everything was so cleverly illustrated that the characters were actually alive (in my little head). I could feel time, weather, fear and sadness. I've read it over thirty times, and every time it's made me cry real, salty tears. Now I would make fun of or blow it off, but there's no denying how much it moved my twelve-year-old heart.
There are tons of these bi-monthlies. Most comic artists start out by having strips published in such compilation magazines. If the artist gains popularity, his/her comic gets published on its own. The story lines geared toward female readers extend from fairly innocent to ones that are a little more intense in content (affairs, sex, suicide, etc.). 'Ladies' comics are mostly illustrated erotica and are read by women of all ages (including some adolescents as I did). These comics also usually have nude photographs of women in the glossy front pages. The rest is elaborate sexual fantasies and stories, written mostly by women. It's interesting that the majority of sex comics readers are women.
Male readers also have bi-monthly serials read by all age-groups. One comic magazine, Jump, was popular in the '80s (still is). I often saw high-school boys and businessmen reading it. Many comics became famous by premiering in Jump. The stories vary from funny comics (including pornographic stuff) to political comics, depending on the featured artist, and they are definitely less emotional than women's comics.
There is another magazine like Jump simply titled Magazine. According to my friend Al (who lives in Tokyo), it publishes a strip called "GTO" that is sweeping the little island nation off its feet. It's a witty political comic depicting current Japanese pop culture. It received so much attention that the major Tokyo newspaper wrote a big article about it. I am very fond of these off-humored comics that have come out in the last five years. They aren't really mainstream because the humor is very strange, seemingly pointless, but smart. My favorite is "Utsurun-desu" by Sensha Yoshida. His humor is very strange and leaves a weird aftertaste, and makes sense on a level I don't quite understand myself.
I really wish that all these comics could be translated into other languages. I guess they could be, but they would lose so much in the translation. The Japanese language is perfect for comics; there are word/symbols for every sound. With English, it doesn't expand much further than "splash!", "ping!", or "bang!". In Japanese, there are sounds for blinking (fast, slow), breathing (shallow, heavy coughing), puking, sweating, swallowing, light, hair blowing in the wind, a finger picking a nose... the list goes on forever. These vivid sounds can be written, which adds a lot to the life of the comic, but makes them impossible to translate.
I don't know why the quality of comics and animation is so good there. Al says, "As soon as Japanese people find something they're good at, they expand on it and strive their hardest to make something better. America found its outlet in Hollywood, where Japan basically stopped at Godzilla. Though there are good movies out of Japan, animation and comics is our entertainment outlet."
I don't think Japan is with comics like it is with cars, but comics are a comfortable medium for communication that people accept and relate to. It's just like any other art. It feeds people's basic needs, just like a good book would: a little world to slip into every now and then.
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