Tuesday, August 16, 2005

Decompression and Battle Royale

I've dipped my foot in the manga pool, and found it quite inviting. Both Battle Royale and Yotsuba&! are wonderful books, in very different ways, and are among the highlights of my return to comics (especially Yotsuba&!). Manga was just working it's way into comic stores when I was last collecting, and though I meant to try some, I never got around to it. Fellow prodigal comics blogger Kurt Addams has posted some excellent observations about manga in America (check them out here, here, and here), and it's a fascinating topic as we see manga make the mainstream penetration that eluded Marvel/DC for so long.

Now that I've read a manga or two, isn't it time for some sweeping overgeneralizations? I think that the manga/comics war is predicated on a somewhat arbitrary distinction, as it's all just sequential art. It's like arguing that one nation's books or movies are inherently better than another. That said, it can't be denied that manga is coming from a different tradition that places emphasis on things you don't see in the American flavor of comics. It's certainly not a question of "better" or "worse", it's really just a question of style.

The thing that struck me the most about the first volume of Battle Royale is that this is decompression of the highest order. In this mad "Survivor meets Lord Of The Flies" story, 200 pages barely gets us started. We are quickly introduced to the characters, and then spend the bulk of the collection in a harrowing classroom session that provides the rules of the game. The characters are released to start the game in the last chapter or two, but don't get far. This makes the scripting that's currently attacked in the American mainstream look positively rushed. Marvel is often accused of "writing for trade", where storylines are padded out to fill a trade collection - in Battle Royale, just the introduction to the story arc fills a trade itself.

Why, then, do I feel so .... satisfied? Although only a tiny bit of plot has been exposed, I felt like the whole book was dense and rewarding. Compared to it's American cousins, this decompression works, and it works for one reason: emotion. What's happening here has little to do with action, and everything to do with the emotional lives of the characters. The book paces itself slowly as it builds character and investment through reaction shots, and those reaction shots are full of operatic emotion. It takes a bit of getting used to, as it often feels overwrought to an eye raised on American naturalism, but it's that Shakespearean emotion that fills the story while the plot gets parceled out.

Much like the first episode of Battle Royale, the second issue of House Of M is a quick introduction to a cast of characters though a series of short vignettes. Bendis is famous for his use of decompression, and this issue of Marvel's summer event was a textbook example of 22 pages of nothing much happening. While it's parceling out as much plot as the first issue of Battle Royale, it's not telling the emotional story that makes manga such a dense read. The emotional lives of the characters in House Of M are hidden by the art, while it's the primary focus of Battle Royale. It's not that there's anything wrong with Copiel's art in this sequence, it's just coming from a different tradition. Apart from a few notable exceptions like Kevin Maguire, American comic artists take much of their cues from the often emotionless faces found in Hollywood film. It's a naturalist tradition that usually calls for underplaying the emotion while the director is using other tricks (editing, music, camera motion) to provide the emotional content. Mainstream American comics art emphasizes composition, dynamism, and storytelling but gives short shrift to any emotions outside the heat of combat. It's not necessarily the poorer for it, anymore than Death Of A Salesman is poorer than Hamlet. It's just coming from different traditions, and uses different techniques to get at an artistic truth.

What's happening in American decompression (and why the stories often feel so empty) is that creators from the Big Two have aped the form and structure of decompression without understanding the true content. They are copying the concept of visual-driven stories that allow the plot "breathing" room, but miss that fact the plot isn't the story that's being told. The story in Battle Royale isn't found in who did what to whom, but in the reactions of the victims and the perpetrators. While American comics readers often deride the "big eye" style of art found in manga, it's emotionally expressive and uniquely adapted to tell a story of heightened emotion in a way that art of the Swan/Kirby/Ditko school can't. And it is just that heightened emotion that makes decompression work so well in Battle Royale, and why House Of M feels so empty.



zilla said...

great post mark. i'm thinking i need to pick up battle royale for sure now... i've been resisting manga (mostly due the art) but i'm more and more interested these days. i also have to say i agree wholeheartedly w/ your thoughts on "decompression" in the big 2... you hit the nail on the head there my friend.

Mark Fossen said...

So far, I'm really enjoying my manga reading. The art is different from what we're used to in the West, but it's so expresive. Ayways, aren't you Humberto Ramos #1 fan? If you like Ramos, I would think you'd like manga.

Kurt said...

So are the big two failing at decompression because of the art or the writing? Both?

Sticking strictly to Bendis, I think his writing has taken a step backward in his recent work. I can't quite put my finger on it but it seems like he's cramming a lot more in than in the past, in terms of action and dialogue (House of M aside) without really developing the characters or tying the character’s internal motivations to the plot at hand. It just feels sloppy to me and makes me wonder if he’s working on too many books.

Your point about American comic book artists taking their cue from film production is interesting. The first thing nearly every manga fan wants to point out is how manga is more "cinematic" and yet I'm still not seeing that – although my reading so far is mostly limited to some older stuff.

Mark Fossen said...

" So are the big two failing at decompression because of the art or the writing? Both? "

I think both. American mainstream writers focuses more on plot than emotional life, and even if emotions became a concern I don't know the Big Two have the artists to handle it. There are exceptions, but I just think that decompression relies on things that don't play to the strengths of the creators currently in the American mainstream.

Bendis' decompression worked well in Ultimate Spider-Man because that combination was there: Bendis focused on the emotional life of Peter, and Bagley is one of the few artists that is expressive enough to get it on the page. But his current work seems to keep the stretched-out plotting without any emotional depth to sustain interest.

I don't see manga as cinematic in the least, unless the cinema you're referring to is anime, and that's a chicken-n-egg situation. Mainstream film has always been (and will always be) somewhat realistic, and the predominant acting style is American Method. It's naturalistic and underplayed and doesn't have the emotional volume that supports the manga style.

Kurt said...

The cinema reference isn't mine. But it came up in about a half dozen other places in response to my manga posts as other blogger's threads wandered off into the default “why manga is better than other comic books” mode. Like I said, I don’t see, it but my exposure is limited.

Greg said...

Wow, that's a good post. See - this is why I should shut up about comics and let other people write, because I can never do as articulately as others.

Anonymous said...

"it's emotionally expressive and uniquely adapted to tell a story of heightened emotion in a way that art of the Swan/Kirby/Ditko school can't."

I could be wrong, but I don't think it's an element of the Kirby/Ditko school. The art you show from 'House of M' is much less emotive, and more cinematic, than Kirby's style.

If anything, this cinematic style that is in vogue today (which probably reaches its peak in the heavily photo-referenced art) has toned down the emotion from the golden age American comics.

I think American comics have tried to make their art more 'mature', but at the expense of reducing emotive depiction compared to earlier eras of comics, because that kind of art can look childish (for want of a better term.)

Mark Fossen said...

Kurt -
Sorry ... I know that wasn't your analogy. I was using the universal "you" ... or the rhetorical "you" ... or the royal "you" ... or something like that.

Anonymous -
You're right. I think I used that phrase because I was sick of using the "American Comics" or "Western Comics" phrase. Though I still think Ditklo, Swan, Kirby, et. al. were very representational in their art. Though Kirby has emotion, the consistency of character design was paramnount ... manga seems to allow for the fact that the character doesn't need to be exactly the same from panel to panel as the emotions change.

Though after reading Uzumaki, I'm realizing my manga thoughts are a massive overgeneralization.

Jon Silpayamanant said...

No need to thank me for my comments, Mark (at postmodern barney). I'm probbly going to be going off on a wild tangent of some of the things you said here as I'm very interested in the reception of Manga here in the States--and how the types of statemenst/judgements made about the whole "genre" reflect very much what Said called a "structure of attitude and reference."