Okay, so full disclosure: We’re starting off with a wordy one. This article is almost entirely taken from a piece I wrote as part of a university course. Needless to say, I own none of the characters or images within this article.
There will be spoilers here for a few manga titles (nothing terrifically damaging, but if you’re just getting started on One Piece, you’re taking a few risks here.) Some spoilers will also occur for recent superhero comics, though nothing specific and nothing which hasn’t been long since established/advertised. :
As part of full disclosure I should also add that I’m as much a fan of Western comic books as manga, but that I’m trying to put away my love for the Dark Knight and just assess these two series based on their merits as storytelling.If you’re worried at any point that you might be about to venture into spoiler-rich territory, you can skip ahead to Part vi for my final (spoiler-free) thoughts on the subject. Thank you, I hope you enjoy:
What Manga Is
“Why One Piece is a Better Story than Batman”
This article is an intro to manga for anyone who might be more familiar with Western media. If readers are totally familiar with manga and anime, you should be able to scroll down to Part iii without losing too much information. Otherwise, you might be in this for the long haul.
To begin with, I’ll be defining some common terms within manga and its sister medium, anime, and identifying some of the most common misconceptions westerners often have of manga. I’ll contrast many of the tropes of manga and Japanese storytelling with the tropes and trends of Western comic books. I’ll then examine the popular manga series, One Piece as a piece of storytelling in contrast with one of Western comic books’ biggest franchises, Batman.
Part i- Intro to Manga- Misconceptions
Manga is a style of comic book native to Japan, usually published weekly. ‘Manga’ is also often used incorrectly as the term for Japanese animation which has a similar style of illustration and often adapts its stories directly from manga books. However, the correct term for this animation is ‘anime’, while ‘manga’ refers exclusively to the style of comic book. When discussing anime or manga, there are certain preconceptions surrounding both which exist in Western culture.
Firstly, and regrettably, there is the notion that all anime is hentai. ‘Hentai’ is the Japanese word for pervert and refers to heavily pornographic depictions of manga/anime style characters. Given that more extreme examples of the unfamiliar tend to stick out more in people’s minds, many people will think of that strange picture they saw online of the pointy-eared woman being assaulted by tentacles rather than Astro Boy or Pokémon when they hear ‘manga’ or ‘anime’. Arriving at this point of reference is enough for many westerners to decide that they want nothing more whatsoever to do with disgusting Japanese fetish drawings. What they have failed to grasp is that this interaction is equivalent to someone typing “American video” into a search engine and, after some time, arriving upon a pornographic website only to conclude that all instances of American movies and television shows are poorly-written trash about sorority sisters playing a game of truth or dare that ends up mostly being just one repetitive dare.
Anime and manga are as varied as any other form of media, though of course with their own tropes and styles within genres. These tropes are again typically dismissed as the entirety that manga has to offer by those unfamiliar with its depths. People will rail against manga’s wide-eyed cartoonish exaggeration associated with moments of particularly strong emotion as being simplistic and spoon-feeding the audience while overlooking the laugh tracks and unrealistic sound effects of many Western sitcoms. The common trope of characters escalating in power to extremes in order to defeat a never-ending stream of adversaries is seen as predictable and unimaginative by many. These same people may then overlook Hollywood’s production of any number of romantic-comedies where the main character’s best friend is revealed to be her true love at the very end or action movies where a stern-faced bodybuilder walks slowly away, paying no regard to shrapnel as the building/helicopter/dinosaur behind him explodes.
If perhaps the reader feels that these examples of television are overly simplified as representations of the entire spectrum of media available from the Western world, then you have successfully come to the intended conclusion. Like American media, manga is much, much more than the sum of its stereotypes.
Part ii- Intro to Manga – Types of Manga
Manga exists in as many different forms as there are stories and it’s typically categorised according to the demographics that it’s aimed at. Most popular among these are Shonen, Shoujo and Seinen. Shonen and Shoujo, which are typically set anywhere from modern, realistic society to outer space or in magical kingdoms, are aimed at readers between the ages of 10 and 17 and differ on the basis of gender. Shonen, aimed at young boys, is typically associated with adventure, action and humour. Shoujo, written for a target audience of younger girls, typically has more of a focus on human relationships and emotionally driven storylines. It’s worth noting that while “Shonen” translates to ‘young person’ and “Shoujo” means ‘little girl’, these originally-observed demographics have become blurred as both have become popular with male and female readers alike. Shonen, in particular, has become the most popular form of manga in the world. Seinen manga, aimed at men from 17 to 40 years old, tends to feature darker storylines and typically contains a sexual element, known as “ecchi”, without falling into the hardcore category of hentai.
Part iii – East Vs West
Shonen manga is the form which is typically adapted into anime which reach English-speaking audiences. From Pokémon to One Piece, from Naruto to Dragon Ball, the anime or manga which the Western layperson might recognise are bound to fall under the Shonen category. It’s also, aside from the hentai example given earlier, where most people derive their exaggerated assumptions about what manga is about. Shonen manga is often focused on some manner of quest, with a protagonist or group thereof travelling and growing in order to reach some great, seemingly unattainable goal. These types of manga will often run for several hundred issues, divided into story arcs, but nonetheless moving towards a single, unchanging goal or principle.In Pokémon, the main character’s goal is typically to catch all the Pokémon and become the World Champion. In One Piece, the main character, Luffy’s goal is to become the king of all the pirates, while each member of his crew has their own dream to achieve. In Naruto, the title character wishes to become the leader of his ninja-village in order to prove to himself that he has the acceptance and love of the people around him and in Dragon Ball, the protagonist wants to become the strongest fighter in the universe in order to protect his friends and family. This is contrasted by superhero comics, the predominant Western equivalent to Shonen, where storylines are typically divided into six or seven issues and in which, following their origin stories, characters usually have little more motivation to fight than ‘it’s the right thing to do’.
Batman, for example, a character who currently stars in no fewer than five of DC comics’ titles, has his ongoing motivation for being a bat-themed vigilante as the murder of his parents. There’s no goal that will ever truly signify his success and the repeated returns of his enemies mean that each of his victories are fleeting at best. There’s nothing wrong with this form of storytelling, in small doses. Manga’s focus is on the long-term, with smaller story arcs usually, if not exclusively, forming milestones of a much grander saga. The typical Western comic book format is that artists and writers change titles after one or two story arcs while the creators of manga titles will typically write the ongoing narrative and oversee the art, ensuring that, even if the style develops and changes over several years, it nonetheless remains consistent with the original designs for characters. The focus for most manga titles is on substance with a unique style developed over time. This is something which is lost in American comic books as many characters and their motivations can change between titles and writers. This is something which is beginning to change within the American comic book industry with lesser known titles. Robert Kirkman, in particular, the creator of successful comic series’ The Walking Dead and Invincible, focuses on consistency. While both of these series continue under other writers, it is Kirkman who dictates the overarching plots. Image Comics, of which Kirkman is one of the main writers and owners, is a comic book company dedicated to keeping characters safely in the hands of their creators, giving them and only them the power to choose the storylines for their creations. This approach to storytelling is far from the norm for American comic books as larger companies seem more interested in turning their characters’ lives upside down and sending their loved ones to and from the grave, always with the promise that this issue changes everything! With these comics, the emphasis seems heavily placed on promoting each issue and storyline as a life-changing, unpredictable rollercoaster, though sadly, any drastic changes made to a character’s lives are often temporary.
While manga is often guilty of needless escalation, it generally applies to characters’ strengths and abilities rather than with twists and revelations akin to a stereotypical soap opera. Twice in comics, Spider-man’s aunt has died. The first time it was revealed years later to have been a surgically-altered actress portraying her death in order to break Spider-man’s heart. The second time she died, Spider-man made a deal with a demon and reversed her death, also returning him to an earlier time and revamping his comic book series. For over a year, one of Spider-man’s greatest enemies, Doctor Octopus, took over his body and led a much more successful and darker version of his life, only to be thwarted in the build-up to the latest Spider-man movie. Even Batman himself was killed in his own comic series, a death which was then paralleled in a multi-title crossover with all of DC’s other superheroes. After some months, it was revealed that Batman had actually been sent back in time (his dead body having belonged to a version of Batman from another dimension), being forced to live through significant events of his ancestors. Eventually, some of his superhero comrades managed to find him and bring him back home, whereupon he set about foiling muggers and serial killers once more. This illustrates another problem of American comic books which has never been an issue with manga: continuity and credibility. It poses no small problem that readers were supposed to accept that the man who donned a dark cowl to face down murderers simply took a trip through time before returning to business as usual. What’s more, the fact that several of his comrades and best friends boast the abilities to fly, travel faster than sound or crack a mountain in half with a thought, and petty crime is still a regular problem across the globe, is ludicrous. The co-existence of these different beings in a unified continuity is supposed to make their world richer and more developed but the fact is, in a world comprised largely of elements of magical fantasy and futuristic science-fiction, there’s no reasonable need for a mortal in a cape.
Part iv – Worlds apart
Superhero comics are typically set in a world not unlike our own and, in order to remain relevant to readers, continue to exist in a world entirely similar to ours despite the existence of super powered demi-gods, time travel and a great many people who seemingly stumble onto the ability to make fuel-efficient flying cars in between beating up bad guys. Manga typically takes the opposite tactic, creating entirely new worlds for each series and doing extensive world building on each one, shaping the people and their customs as much as the main characters and the plot. For instance, in Naruto, the main character grows up as a member of the Hidden Leaf village, with many citizens dedicated to training as ninjas. Many ninja techniques, or ‘jutsu’ as they are known, enable the users to perform super-human feats such as running on water, controlling shadows or summoning monsters to their side. Appropriately enough, given the scale of these abilities, ninjas are the sign of a country’s military strength and politics enter into strategy as much as powers or abilities. In Toriko, a more recent manga series, the world is entirely obsessed with great gourmet foods and, more than money, fine ingredients have become the true currency. Science is devoted to the genetic development of more delicious creatures and plants, while Gourmet Hunters, powerful individuals willing to brave the wilderness in search of rare and dangerous delicacies, are the focus of the manga. American comics try to tell tales of an ordinary world that gives birth to something incredible, though these changes rarely spill out any further than the main characters themselves and character or world development is generally quite temporary.
In shonen manga, the world, or at least the premise, of the series is shown to be something fantastic or out of the ordinary and the focus from there is generally to show how characters develop and grow within this world or based upon the remarkable premise. In Death Note, currently the world’s most popular manga, the setting is a realistic version of earth as we know it. The premise comes from outside earth, with the idea that angels of death (Shinigami) exist and have notebooks which can bring about the death of anyone whose name is written inside it. Bored one day, a shinigami drops his notebook into the human world where it is found by a boy who immediately begins using the book to kill criminals. When the series ends, several years of plot have passed and the alias the boy uses in the media, Kira, is worshipped and feared by many. People post the names of criminals on the internet to bring about their deaths and in general, the world is much more peaceful than before. None of this has much of an impact on the main story, which by this point has become a cat and mouse tale between Kira and an elite police force. It is an important feature of manga that the question “How does this change the world” has clearly been asked at some point during the writing of Death Note. When criminals die without warning or apparent cause, crime becomes less attractive and grinds to an absolute halt. Why then, in American comics, when criminals know they can’t escape Superman or outwit Batman, and when even super-powered criminals are defeated with stunning regularity, why on earth would so many people still choose a life of crime doomed to failure?
The answer is simple: because DC and Marvel comics need their characters to stop crimes or they won’t have a story anymore. Crime-fighting is the means and the end in American comics. In Death Note, stopping crime is a small part of the premise and the main plot is of the repercussions of this supernatural presence in the world. Why would every criminal in the world not be investigating the identity of Superman or Batman? Why wouldn’t the government or the police? How far would criminals be willing to go to stop superheroes? What about terrorism or war? The majority of Western comic books will shy away from questions of this nature while the majority of manga would focus on them as a key part of the story because, for most manga, the story is about progression and change while in comic books, where changes rarely last, creating real change for a character is a form of taboo,. This is likely drawn from the tradition of having writers come and go quite regularly on a title. There is quite commonly a feeling that the character is and always will be bigger than any individual writer. With characters like Superman and Batman who have existed for over seventy years, it’s easy to see how these kinds of sentiments can develop but the result is an industry which is terrified to write something new for their characters. Both characters have died once and to great publicity. Each death was treated with dignity and reverence by the writers, only for both of them to be revealed later to have been canonically fake deaths. Superman was apparently in a very deep, death-like trance of healing while Batman was of course, plummeting through different times against his will. To say that these are extreme examples of lazy writing and backtracking is quite true, but they are far from the worst that DC or Marvel comics has done, even in recent years. Both companies, in the last three years, have ‘retconned’ and ‘revamped’ their own universes, erasing much of the plot which had become too cumbersome or difficult to manage. After decades of very gradually aging, the majority of DC superheroes have been rejuvenated to somewhere around their mid twenties and have been operating in their world for only a handful of years. All of this is an effort to draw in new readers and to prevent older readers from feeling like the comics are stagnating. Similarly, Marvel NOW!, Marvel’s response to DC’s revamp, was more varied, opting instead to simply push characters’ lives and story arcs in new, unrecognisable directions. The earlier mentioned case of Spider-man being replaced by Doctor Octopus is one such example of the radical, if very definitely temporary, changes to face Marvel’s characters.
What is most pressing and tragic about these gigantic revamps of America’s two largest comic book producers is that they felt the need to justify making dramatic changes to their character’s lives. Comic book readers have come to expect that Superman can occasionally outrace the speed of light, but if Clark Kent started wearing a fake beard instead of glasses, there would be uproar and disgust. Over decades of living religiously by its own tropes, the American comic book industry has trained its readers to expect things to be bigger and better while staying completely recognisable as the comics they read as children. To make any change at all to their worlds, comic books need to justify or apologise for changes with dramatic event titles like Zero Hour, Infinite Crisis or Civil War, events which are promoted and hyped for months in advance.
Where comic books seem to make a spectacle or a rarity of change, or “plot” to use another term, manga treats it as the norm. Characters beating the bloody hell out of each other or travelling across the land in search of treasure are all well and good, but for the standard manga title, this is nothing more than a jumping off point.
Part v – One Piece Vs Batman
One Piece, created by Eiichiro Oda, is focused on Monkey D. “Straw-hat” Luffy, a courageous and resilient young man, focused on becoming the Pirate King. The setting for One Piece is a world covered in vast ocean whose people are currently in the Great Age of Pirates. Pirates as a rule are villainous bullies, barely kept in check by the World Government. Luffy, being a kind, good-hearted man, sets out to be an entirely different type of pirate and therefore makes himself a lot of enemies on both sides of the law. In order to bring a greater element of imagination to the plot, the world of One Piece contains many “Devil Fruits”, which, if eaten, will grant marvellous powers but will forever make their eater unable to swim. Luffy accidentally ate one as a child, gaining the ability to stretch and bounce like rubber, making him a capable fighter but an incredibly vulnerable sailor. As Luffy travels the world, gathering allies to his cause and assembling his dream pirate crew, he grows in strength, becoming more capable and powerful in his abilities. Where the true story lies however, is in the lives changed around Luffy. Luffy’s determination and kind heart affect great change in those he encounters, encouraging the timid to fight for their dreams and encouraging the honest and virtuous to reshape the unjust world they find themselves in. Luffy’s crew consists of several incredibly talented and mismatched characters, none of whom initially agreed to be a part of his dream to rule all the pirates.
When he originally set out to be a pirate, Luffy claimed that around ten companions would make up his ideal crew and, in over seven hundred issues, he has not yet gathered his entire crew. This was not a throwaway comment or unimportant reference from the character. Rather, it was Eiichiro Oda’s foreshadowing of what was to come in the tale. One of Luffy’s crewmembers, Usopp the Liar, is well known for telling outlandish and ridiculous lies. In his first encounter with the Straw-hat Pirates, Usopp is seen telling several tall tales to a sick girl, by way of cheering her up. Some of his lies included a giant goldfish whose excrement was mistaken for islands, battles between himself and a dragon and having a bounty of thirty million beli (the currency for this world). To date, each of these lies and several others, have come true as significant parts of plots written several years later. It’s never acknowledged by characters that several of Usopp’s lies have proven to be prophetic, it’s simply a small nod to any readers that have been paying attention across the years. This is the beauty of manga in general and One Piece in particular. Eiichiro Oda is building up a mythology, an ongoing saga that takes readers from humble beginnings to whatever the end of the tale might be. The characters may be somewhat stereotypical from the goofy, illogical but courageous protagonist to the clichéd angry female, the lecherous snob and the stoic warrior, to name a few, but what astounds is that readers get to see each of them grow and develop beyond these tropes as the years move on. Characters have their own desires and dreams other than being accessories to the plot or their captain. Each character is rooted to an ideal, a principle which shapes their goals and their personal growth. Usopp, for example, has one of the most humble principals and goals. Not wanting to be the best or the first to achieve some heroic feat, he simply wants to become a strong warrior like his father. He wants to become a man his father would be proud of. At the beginning of the series, his cowardice and his vanity make that seem ridiculous, but, just slowly enough that it feels organic, Usopp has learned to take a stand when it comes to matters that he holds dear. Alfred the butler is always going to be Batman’s stern servant, just because that’s what he is. Robin will, more often than not, be the young boy allowed to face down gun-wielding maniacs simply because Batman needs someone to keep his series from becoming too dark and grounded. The character of Robin was in fact killed some time earlier this year, though DC comics have for months been promoting the upcoming even known as “Robin Rises”, during which they have explicitly guaranteed that Robin will be coming back as Batman’s full-time partner.
Part vi – Ants
American comic books take a realistic setting and insert something amazing, something fantastic, whether it’s a billionaire who fights crime at night or a Greek demi-goddess who dresses in an American flag. These comics whisper to us “Look, look at this amazing thing. Wouldn’t it be marvellous if the world was like this?” and after years and years of reading, the stories have become less and less like stories and much more like instances of “Oh! You know what else would be cool?” with no regard to the tale being shaped across the characters’ or readers’ worlds.
Manga does something altogether different. Manga takes a world, sometimes as bland and mundane as any Tuesday afternoon and sometimes overflowing with amazing creatures and physics we can barely grasp. It shows us a vast landscape and legends and wondrous powers. Then manga leans in close and whispers “Yeah yeah, this world is great, but what I really want to show you is this.” Manga parts the clouds and draws your attention towards an ant scuttling along the ground. It tells you the ant’s hopes and dreams and that the ant really wants to see the other side of the world all of those miles away. Manga invites you to sit and patiently watch as the ant stumbles and falls and grows. Manga makes you care about the ant’s struggle until it has become your struggle too.
Western comics will pick up an ant and tell you that it’s flying through the sky. They will try to tell you that an ant is a giant and all the great things that such a giant can do.Manga will try to tell you the ant’s story, the story of being just one little guy in a world of mountains and puddles and spiders and millions of other ants. One of these stories is better when you want a tale that will make you laugh and smile for ten minutes. The other is better when you want to laugh and cry and pray and sigh across the lifetime of one little insect.