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Monday, December 13, 2010

Crossover Hit?

A Flipped conversation about Bleach with John Jakala

John Jakala is one of the main reasons I started reading manga. I saw scans of Sgt. Frog on his blog, Grotesque Anatomy, and a new addict was born. Beyond a shared fondness for invading amphibians, John and I have fairly similar comics tastes (and distastes). He’s contributed to Ed Cunard’s The Low Road and now has his own new blog, Sporadic Sequential.

For ages, he’s been recommending Bleach (Viz – Shonen Jump) to me. Finally, with the debut of the Bleach anime on Cartoon Network, I decided to take him up on his advice. What follows is a bit of back-and-forth between two recovering spandex nerds who have found sanctuary in Tite Kubo’s engaging adventure series.

DW: Now, you have a theory about Bleach. Would you care to share it with the class?

JJ: Sure; it's my contention that Bleach is the best superhero comic currently being published. Which probably sounds odd to superhero fans and mangaphiles alike, since Viz doesn't advertise Bleach as a superhero book, and, looking at the covers for the various volumes, there isn't any spandex in sight. I'm not saying that creator Tite Kubo intended Bleach to be a superhero series, but I think it maps well to the superhero model, regardless of authorial intent. Consider some of the familiar conventions that play a part in Bleach: superpowers; secret identities; origin stories; and the battle between good and evil.

As for why I think Bleach is the best superhero book out there right now, it's largely because Tite Kubo focuses on telling a fun, engaging, energetic ( wow, is it energetic) story without any of the infinite continuity or uncivil weariness that bogs down most American superhero comics at the moment. Bleach is unapologetic, straight-ahead superheroics -- even though it doesn't advertise itself as such -- and it's a blast.

DW: It really is, and it's so thematically familiar to a recovering spandex junkie like me. It's got the notion of power conferring responsibility (Spider-Man), a public that might not necessarily be grateful for the services you provide (the X-Men), inheriting a heroic legacy from a group of supernatural cops (Green Lantern), inadvertently dragging your friends along for the ride and releasing their own unique abilities (the Fantastic Four), and protecting your loved ones from the fallout of your secret life (um... all of them, really).

Beyond the resemblances you mentioned, it's like a distillation of all of the key super-heroic themes all in one place, but without any of the clutter that's built up over the years.

”I stole this pose straight from Ditko.”

JJ: Yeah, I think Bleach is another one of those manga that has a lot of potential for crossover appeal. I doubt hardcore fanboys would like it (it's in black-and-white and backwards, after all), but I think others who are dissatisfied with Marvel and DC's current output but still have a soft spot for superheroes would really respond to it. As you said, it really hits all those familiar buttons.

And I'm glad you mentioned the Spider-Man parallel. That was actually the first superhero comic that came to mind when I read Bleach, and on a second readthrough of the early volumes I was struck by how well Peter Paker's familiar mantra of "With great power comes great responsibility" applies to Ichigo Kurosaki, the main character of Bleach, only with a slight twist. Both characters are initially motivated to perform heroic actions due to dangers that befall their families; however, whereas Peter Parker feels guilty because he had power and did nothing, thus resulting in the death of his beloved Uncle Ben, Ichigo feels guilty because his power causes the threat to his family -- his latent mystical abilities serve as a beacon for evil spirits. So, for Spider-Man, "With great power comes great responsibility" translates to "I have great power, so I should take on greater responsibility"; but for Ichigo the maxim becomes "My great power made me responsible for my family suffering harm."

Once you start to look at Bleach as a superhero comic, it is fun to see how many "resonances" (I hesitate to call them "homages" because I doubt Kubo was intentionally referencing American superhero comics) you can find. I also see elements of Dr. Strange (the whole "protecting Earth from mystical threats" angle, obviously, plus leaving your physical body behind when you go off to fight on the astral plane); Daredevil (Ichigo's training with Kisuke in preparation for entering Soul Society reminds me of DD's tutelage under Stick); and Men in Black (or Identity Crisis, with Rukia's whole mindwiping thing whenever someone witnesses Ichigo in Soul Reaper mode).

DW: Ack, please no Identity Crisis parallels, I beg you! Let's just say it's like Men in Black and leave it at that.

One way it diverts, and this is important for me, is that Ichigo and his mentor, Rukia, the soul reaper who granted Ichigo his powers, are proactive. In a lot of super-heroic serial fiction, it turns into this ongoing grudge match. The protagonists battle essentially because their opponents have come to hate them. With Bleach, Ichigo and Rukia have a job to do, and while trouble does come to them, they seek it out. They hunt for hollows, the twisted spirits that feed on innocent souls and cause all kinds of mayhem. It's more rewarding somehow.

I've got nothing against grudge matches, mind you, but it's nice to see a variation on that.

JJ: If I'm remembering correctly, there's still an unresolved plot point that could lead to a grudge match of sorts. [POSSIBLE SPOILERS FOR THOSE NEW TO BLEACH!] Back in volume 3, we learned that when Ichigo was young, his mother died protecting him from the hollow known as Grand Fisher. Years later, Ichigo has become a Soul Reaper and battles Grand Fisher, but Grand Fisher escapes before Ichigo can finish him off. Later we see Grand Fisher being "repaired" by shadowy figures as he vows to track Ichigo down and kill him. So perhaps Grand Fisher will serve as Ichigo's very own arch-enemy, to return again and again whenever Tite Kubo runs out of ideas!

But you're right: In general, Ichigo, Rukia, and the rest of their gang all seem to be more proactive in their approach. They attack rather than wait to be attacked. And perhaps this is related, but there's a difference in attitude that I've noticed as well: Generally, Ichigo seems pretty gung-ho about his duties. When trouble appears, he jumps in headlong, without all the griping and groaning and self-pity that you might get from other heroes. I suppose that makes sense: Even if the end result is often the same (Ichigo takes just as much abuse as Spider-Man or other traditionally battered heroes ever did), it probably feels more empowering to be on the offensive than it does to never know when you're going to be ambushed next.

DW: I think that's part of the fun. In most senses, Ichigo's kind of a loafer. He's not really bothered by the time soul reaping takes away from his normal life. At the same time, he seems to make the connection that fighting these evil spirits helps him sustain his normal life -- it protects the people he cares about, either directly or indirectly. There isn't that disconnect that you find with, say, Batman, where his crusade prevents him from connecting with anyone in a healthy way.

Bleach doesn't seem to go too far into "martyr to destiny" territory. (Again, I've only read the first six volumes so far, so things might change.) As much as I loved Buffy the Vampire Slayer, I found myself wanting to shake her when she'd go into a brown study about how hard it was to have these responsibilities and how nobody understood her and so on. It was true, sure, but it was also kind of dull. Ichigo's got a full plate, but he's either too busy or too oblivious to let it turn him into a moper.

JJ: I think it's when Ichigo realizes that he can use his powers to protect others from ever experiencing the loss he did that he really comes around to the idea of being a Soul Reaper. Watching the evolution of Ichigo's motivation as a hero in the early volumes is interesting: At first he's only doing it to protect his immediate family. Then, after Rukia shows Ichigo a hollow about to attack some random individual and Ichigo intervenes, Ichigo states he'll help if it's convenient but he's not going to actively seek out trouble. Finally, after he learns that Grand Fisher was responsible for his mother's death, Ichigo is in 100% hero mode, stating "I want to become I can protect people from hollows" It was at this point that I realized Ichigo probably shared more in common with the superheroes I'd grown up with than most of the shonen protagonists I was familiar with: Instead of having the typical shonen aspiration of wanting to be "the best X there is in the whole wide world!" Ichigo has the familiar superhero goal of wanting to protect the helpless. And he actually seems to derive satisfaction from carrying out this mission instead of being burdened by it.

Below: The Evolution of a Superhero Ethos.

Step 1: "Sorry, pal! That's your job! From now on I just look out for number one! And, uh, my family."

Step 2: Look pensive so others think you're struggling internally with your selfish and supererogatory drives.

Step 3: "I want to be the best superhero in the world!!"

Step 4: Whenever possible, remind people how a personal tragedy from your past inspires your mission today.

And your point about Ichigo being a bit of a slacker reminds me of a pattern I've started seeing in shonen manga: the hero often starts out as something of a delinquent --- getting in fights, causing trouble at school, etc. Ichigo, Hikaru, and Naruto all seem to fit this model. But with American superheroes, it seems as though the characters were nerds (Peter Parker, Matt Murdock, Bruce Banner) before they gained their powers. I wonder if this indicates something about the differences between American and Japanese culture in terms of who each perceives as an outsider? In the U.S., you're seen as abnormal if you care too much about your grades; but in Japan, it's unusual not to be studious.

DW: I really like that Ichigo has an outwardly focused goal; he's not obsessed with improving himself in comparison with anyone, though he does want to be better at the soul reaping business because he'll be better able to protect the people around him. It's a nice distinction. Much as I love the be-the-best crowd, their adventures can get a bit repetitive.

And it is odd, the contrast between the western nerd heroes and the Japanese slacker protagonists. But I think in both cases, it's a certain type of character transcending the low expectations of the society around him or her. There's something a little more compelling about the manga model -- you can ignore societal expectations and norms and still excel at something -- than the nerd-takes-magical-serum version. And Ichigo doesn't really dwell on the fact that people don't think he's likely to amount to much. He has his own set of values, and he's fairly secure in them.

JJ: One thing that's difficult for me to fit in the superhero paradigm with Bleach is the artwork. Tite Kubo's art definitely has more in common with other manga series than it does with your standard superhero fare. Whereas the art in many Western superhero comics is static to the point of being little more than rigid pin-up after rigid pin-up, Bleach has an almost crazy sense of energy and dynamism in the drawings. The fight scenes in Bleach are simply amazing; reading them, I often forget that I'm looking at still images. Kubo paces his fight scenes so that the reader gets caught up in the movement of the characters, the power of the blows, and the speed of the activity. (Click here and here for two large, two-page spread examples.) Reading Bleach, I get a rush similar to that charge you get from watching a really good Hong Kong action flick, and I really can't think of any American comics that can match the hyperkinetic pace of Kubo's storytelling.

DW: I think one of the things that makes the kineticism work so well is that Kubo is also good at rendering stillness. If it were all motion and action, it would be exhausting. But Kubo is very careful to work in those moments when you can see what's going on in the characters' heads. There's plenty of comedy, too.

And Bleach has such a great cast. I love Ichigo's bizarre family and their dynamic, and I think his schoolmates are great, too. Everyone's interesting in their own right; they don't just act as reflections for Ichigo, and they don't sit around obsessing over his every move. And I'm crazy about Rukia. In some shonen manga, the girl is just that -- she wrings her hands and moons and worries, but Rukia has a lot more going on. She's Ichigo's partner. She's tough and smart and weird, and Ichigo really couldn't survive without her. Even powerless, she's an equal.

JJ: Completely agreed with you on the richness of Bleach's supporting cast. Almost every character is interesting enough to support his or her own series. (And in the epic "Soul Society" saga that kicks off in volume 8 and still hasn't wrapped up yet, all of the characters get enough screen time to shine individually.) Some of my favorites:
Rukia Kuchiki - As you said, she's just a great, tough character. I probably shouldn't admit this in public, but I think I have a bit of a crush on her.
Yasutora "Chad" Sado - A great take on the standard "silent strong guy" character. I love the way he can take almost any beating without changing his expression, even before his own superpowers kick in.
Uryû Ishida - A wonderful ally / adversary for Ichigo, Uryû is a Quincy, a human who hunts hollows but hates Soul Reapers due to some bad blood between the two groups in the past. I also love the visuals of Uryû's power -- it's a great variation on the long-range attack you'd want on any team.
Orihime Inoue - Even this "girly-girl" female classmate of Ichigo's has been revealed to be a strong character. At first I was worried Orihime was included simply to up the fanservice quotient, but she's quickly progressed from ditzy to dangerous, proving herself as a solid member of Ichigo's team.

Look familiar?

It's Chad and Rukia's version of the Fastball Special.

Probably the only character I don't care for is Ichigo's dad, whose antics strike me as annoying rather than amusing. Thankfully, he's pushed to the sidelines early on.

DW: Oh, I was actually fond of crazy old Dad. But he does run towards superfluous comic relief.

As for the rest of them, it's really nice to see how they can be distinct and well developed while still filling standard action-manga functions. You've got the hero (Ichigo), the mentor (Rukia), the rival (Uryû), the muscle (Chad... such a great muscle name), and the girl (Orihime), and all of them fill those functions admirably, but as you say, none of them just "fit the suit." I guess I'm just a sucker for a creator who can execute a formula but make it fresh and exciting at the same time.

The other advantage of the large, well-drawn cast is that it gives different kinds of readers a bunch of different characters who can act as their gateway. (I think that's one of the strengths of Fruits Basket too. So many different dysfunctions to choose from!) And I think that will translate to the anime as well, maybe even more depending on the voice work.

JJ: Well, maybe I was a bit harsh on good ol' Dad. Now that I think about it, the relationship between Ichigo and his father is very reminiscent of the dynamic between Inspector Clouseau and his manservant Cato. may have just convinced me to reevaluate my stance on Ichigo's father.

Kubo is great about executing a familiar formula so that it still seems fresh and exciting. This is especially important in later volumes when Ichigo and his band of friends are fighting their way through the levels of Soul Society. If Kubo wasn't able to come up with ways to enliven the same basic set-up (Ichigo meets and fights an opponent who hopelessly outclasses him; Ichigo appears to be losing, but suddenly he learns about some new facet of his ability, powers up, and defeats the challenger; repeat for subsequent levels and even more powerful bosses), the book could quickly become as boring as a bad video game.

I'm really curious to watch the anime to see how it compares to the manga. I downloaded a couple fansub episodes but haven't watched any of them yet, partly because I don't want to get hooked on the anime and then watch too much of it, thereby spoiling what's going to happen in the manga. I do love that opening sequence, though. That theme song is hypnotic.

DW: That it is. It's not going to replace the themes from Paranoia Agent or Cowboy Bebop on the list of songs that I cannot drive from my head, but it's catchy.

I do wonder why Cartoon Network put Bleach in its Adult Swim line-up instead of Toonami. They've already got a pretty solid Shonen Jump line-up there. It makes me wonder if Viz will get the kind of bump with Bleach that it did with Naruto, since it's kind of buried in the wee hours of the morning. (Naruto airs at 9 p.m. on Saturdays, which strikes me as prime viewing time for its potential manga audience. Bleach is on at 12:30 a.m. on Sundays.) Of course, everyone but me has some kind of digital video recorder, so it might not be an issue.

JJ: Hey, you're talking to someone who doesn't even have cable, so I probably won't watch Bleach until it comes out on DVD.

It should be interesting to see what kind of impact the Bleach anime has on sales of the manga. Several volumes have already made it on Bookscan's top ten graphic novels list , and that's before the anime even debuted. Even if sales don't jump that much, it'd be nice to see the manga get more exposure. I'm surprised there isn't more discussion about it in the blogosphere, to be honest. Perhaps the "Shonen Jump" label leads people to think the material is for kids? Personally, I'm surprised that Bleach wasn't moved over to the "Shonen Jump Advanced" line once that was formed. The battles in Bleach are pretty bloody, even if it's only ectoplasmic blood that's being spilled. (I imagine the nearly omnipresent swordfights and attendant "graphic cartoon violence" are what led to Bleach's later timeslot.)

DW: It would be a nice fit with some of the books in the Advanced line, though I'm glad it isn't, because $7.95 is a really attractive price point. (And I'm only halfway through the volumes that have been released so far.)

It would also be nice if the Cartoon Network exposure gave it a bump, because it's really entertaining, and because it would break the Naruto monotony for people who follow sales. It should be interesting to see, because the manga is in the same position as Naruto was when the anime debuted, with several volumes already on the shelves, but it doesn't have that high-profile time slot. But Bleach is airing in roughly the same period as the Fullmetal Alchemist anime. And since the FMA manga debuted at roughly the same time as the anime (I think), that book gets strong sales when a new volume comes out, but it doesn't have the kind of sustained presence on graphic novel bestseller lists as Naruto, or the consistent interest in older volumes. Maybe Bleach will perform somewhere in between.

And now I'm getting entirely too nerdy, so we should probably wrap things up. Any final thoughts for the group?

JJ: I'd highly encourage everyone to check out Bleach. Even if you disagree with my thesis that it fits the major criteria of the superhero genre, Bleach remains an incredible action series no matter how you categorize it. And as we touched on above, there's a real upbeat energy in the book. To borrow a phrase from Dave Campbell, Bleach has at least a half-dozen "F*@% Yeah!" moments per volume. Although it could seem formulaic if you stopped to analyze it, the scenes where Ichigo digs deep within himself to find the strength to overcome what seemed like certain defeat always gets me. After getting burned out on superhero comics where the heroes always seemed pessimistic and gloomy, it's refreshing to read a series with such unabashed enthusiasm and optimism.

Plus, that price point is such a bargain. For less than the price of three Marvel or DC comics you get over three times as many pages of slam-bang mystical action. So not only is Bleach the best superhero comic out there, but it also gives you the best bang for your buck!
DW: Thanks, John!

(Viz provided complimentary copies of some of the volumes I used to write my portion of this column.)

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