Manga Bookshelf’s Melinda Beasi Talks Japanese Comics
There’s little doubt for anyone familiar with these pages that Osmosis Online is a big fan of sequential art (or, said less snootily, comic book storytelling).
But one glaring hole in our coverage — and much of the U.S.-based, comics-focused media — concerns manga, the comic storytelling from Japan. Manga’s difficult to cover for several reasons, the most prominent of which are:
 The culture gap. From the fact that manga is read right to left to the art style, subject matter, and different conventions, it’s something a U.S. audience generally will need to work a little harder to understand; and
 Dude, there’s just a lot of it. A ton. Of every subject/genre/whatever you can imagine. Comics about chefs; comics about fighting; comics about robots; comics about magical books with the power of life and death; comics about school girls; comics about erotic boy-on-boy relationships; comics about . . . well, as our guest mentions, stray cats. You name it, they’ve done it, and it’s probably been volumes and volumes worth. The greater point is writing about just a couple of series, you’re missing a huge chunk of the context, not to mention the output, that manga has to offer.
So, that brings us back to our guest, Melinda Beasi. Melinda writes about “manga, manhwa, and other East Asian-influenced comics” on her site, Manga Bookshelf (mangabookshelf.com), as well as other places all over the net. She talked to us about her experience in covering manga and related comics; ways for a U.S. audience to approach manga; and her life as a reviewer of such.
Osmosis Online: Is there a manga genre or book (or both) that you think is a particularly good “gateway drug” for non-comics enthusiasts?
Melinda Beasi: That’s a tough question, because “manga” is so huge and provides so many choices, even just considering what’s been translated into English. The most effective “gateway drug” really depends on the person. Because manga covers as many genres as just about any type of western media (books, films, television) I would choose a manga based on an individual’s taste in one of those mediums. Romance, mystery, action, sports–you name the genre, manga’s got it.
That said, I think there are some specific traits that can make manga more accessible to first-timers. If the person in question is not used to reading comics at all, for instance, it can be a strain for them to learn just how to deal with following a story panel-to-panel, let alone following it right-to-left. In that case, I’d probably recommend something that’s been “flipped” like some of the Tezuka that’s been published by Vertical (Buddha, Apollo’s Song, Ode to Kirihito) or maybe something like A Distant Neighborhood from Fanfare/Ponent Mon. Actually, Vertical just released the first volume of Konami Kanata’s Chi’s Sweet Home. It’s flipped, in full color, and possibly the cutest thing to ever hit the printed page. Actually, I think that’s my answer. Give them Chi. I mean, it’s about a stray kitten, for heaven’s sake. Who can resist that?
Now, if you asked what I’d recommend for comics fans who don’t read manga, that would be a different matter.
OO: Really? Please go ahead — the floor is yours!
MB: For fans of American comics who don’t read manga, this gets a bit easier. Since these readers are already used to visual storytelling, the main hurdles are learning to read right-to-left and becoming accustomed to some of the visual language unique to Japanese comics. I’d like to think the latter can be learned in-context by even a moderately patient reader, so we’ll just tackle the first.
To begin, I’d recommend some of the “flipped” comics mentioned above, like Tezuka’s Ode to Kirihito (published in the U.S. by Vertical, Inc.), though ambitious fans of superhero comics may want to skip straight to something closer to their genre. For them, I’d recommend some of the best shonen (boys’) series available in English, like Fullmetal Alchemist or One Piece, or super-popular battle manga like Bleach (all from Viz Media). On the darker side, perhaps Claymore (also Viz) or Pandora Hearts (Yen Press), or even Pluto, which is a seinen (men’s) series from the Viz Signature line.
For fans of indie comics, once they’ve had their fill of Tezuka, it’s seinen and josei (women’s) manga all the way. For them, I’d recommend nearly anything from the Viz Signature imprint (some of which can be previewed at the VizIKKI website), some of the newer series coming out from Vertical, like Twin Spica or (for the strong-stomached) Peepo Choo, or perhaps Mushishi from Del Rey Manga for those interested in something with a folklore-like feel.
Female readers, especially, will want to check out mangaka like Fumi Yoshinaga, Natsume Ono, and CLAMP, though it’s worth mentioning that a few of the shonen and seinen series I’ve already mentioned (Fullmetal Alchemist, Pandora Hearts, Mushishi) are from female creators as well. There are incredible female mangaka writing for every demographic in Japan (many cater to multiple genres/demographics), to an extent American comics publishers can’t come close to. For female (or male) readers interested in comics for girls in their late teens or early twenties, I’d recommend series like We Were There, Sand Chronicles, or NANA from Viz, or Paradise Kiss (by the author of NANA) from Tokyopop. I have a lot of recommendations for classic series as well, but those are usually best received by readers already well-versed in the medium.
OO: What was your first exposure to manga? What made you a true fan? And what ultimately made you a critic?
MB: It’s actually kind of hilarious that I ended up getting into manga, because just weeks before I became a fan, I’d made this big proclamation in my blog at the time about why I could never get into comics or animation. Then a friend finally convinced me to try a shonen manga called Hikaru no Go. I went crazy for it, and that was that. There was a sort of pure optimism regarding the nature of humanity permeating the entire story which really appealed to me at the time. It’s a quality I now associate with a specific genre of manga, but in the moment, I found it very refreshing. After that, I was hooked.
In 2007, I started a blog specifically for talking about manga, which I figured would just be a place to squee in the company of family and friends. Then a year or so later, Kate Dacey invited me to be a manga reviewer at PopCultureShock, where she was Senior Manga Editor at the time. I thought she was nuts. My blog was filled with personalized essays and various ramblings about manga, but I wasn’t a critic by any means. I didn’t have the first clue about how to write a proper review. Fortunately, I found great mentors in Kate and in Michelle Smith, who took over for her when she left the site. I’ve been a critic ever since.
OO: When a hobby becomes a livelihood (or part of one), it can change how you practice that hobby and how you consume media in general. Have you had such experiences? If so, what’s changed?
MB: Probably the biggest thing that has changed for me is that I have less time to read manga purely for pleasure. Most of my reading time now is occupied with review copies from publishers or manga chosen specifically for a particular feature or roundtable discussion. Everything is meticulously scheduled and planned out. It’s become a real treat for me to be able to sit down with a volume I’m reading simply for my own enjoyment. I actually think I enjoy those books now more than ever, which isn’t a bad thing by any means. Every once in a while I end up transforming one of my off-the-clock reads into a writing opportunity (For instance, a recent “Off the Shelf” feature where I ended up discussing Natsume Ono’s Ristorante Paradiso, which I’d initially picked up just for pleasure) but most of the time, I just give those to myself as obligation-free gifts.
OO: Scanalation sites have been huge in the news lately, with a multi-publisher team-up to crack down on illegal sharing of Japanese and other comics. What did you take from this? What do you think are the repercussions (good, bad, otherwise) with fandom?
MB: Oh, we’re jumping right in to the controversial topics are we? Well, okay! This one is both really complicated for me and also extremely simple. On one hand, I came into manga through scanlations (after all, I read Hikaru no Go in its *entirety* back then) so I’m aware of the ways in which they can have a positive impact. On the other hand, I feel really strongly that those huge scanlation aggregators (which is who the publishers are really targeting) have ruined things for the rest of fandom. In my day, the first rule of fandom was *don’t talk about fandom*. Whether it’s fanfiction or file sharing, most publishers and creators have been content to ignore what’s kept under the radar.
But these aggregator sites have put themselves right in the publishers’ face–and everyone else’s for that matter. They’re for-profit. They are the first result in a Google search for nearly any popular title. They’re blatantly profiting from the work of manga creators and even the scanlation groups whose handiwork they distribute. They’re basically giving the finger to publishers on both sides of the Pacific, forcing them to make a move. I don’t know what the long-term repercussions for fandom might be, but it seems clear to me who started the fight.
OO: So, if you had to give an overall pitch about what you love so much regarding manga . . .?
MB: The greatest draw for me to manga is that nearly all series are character-driven stories from a single creator (or team). The result is an entire medium made up of finite stories (InuYasha notwithstanding) with a clear beginning, middle, and end, created out of a single, focused vision. If that appeals to you as a reader, definitely check out some manga.
For more of Melinda’s considered opinions on the wonderful mystery that is Manga and more, please check out Manga Bookshelf (mangabookshelf.com), and see the “about” page for more places you can read her critiques/reviews.