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.