April 25, 2011

, , ,   |  

Takahashi Manga Movable Feast: Why Rumiko Takahashi?

Welcome to day 1 of the Rumiko Takahashi Manga Movable Feast! I'm Rob McMonigal, your host for this week's festivities. I'm excited to start off the discussion by talking about why Rumiko Takahashi deserves a spotlight, but first a little history of the Manga Movable Feast, for anyone who is new to the idea.

The Manga Movable Feast (or MMF for short) is a chance for those of us who hang out on Twitter to all write about the same series and to invite others to join us in the discussion, improving online dialog and gaining new friends online with which to share our love of comics. The idea is to rhetorically toast a particular manga/manhwa series as though we were all gathering in the same spot. Not everyone would always participate in every discussion, of course, but the theory was that in the end, we'd all get a chance to shine a little extra blogging light on comics that were important to us.

Conceived a little over a year ago, it started with David (the Manga Curmudgeon) hosting a discussion of Sexy Voice and Robo. Over the past year and change, we've looked at books that are popular (such as One Piece, Emma, and Yotsuba&!), books from defunct publishers (After School Nightmare), books that are great that might have needed a little love (Karakuri Odette, Aria), a rather polarizing series (The Color of...), and even got very serious with Barefoot Gen.

It's been a lovely opportunity for me to sample some works I might not have tried otherwise. I'm sure other participants in the Feastings have similar feelings. I'm honored to have a seat at the table, and I've even more honored to extend chairs to anyone and everyone, just like all the great hosts before me.

As I raise my glass of iced tea and get ready to start the festivities, however, I feel it's important to note that with this Feast, we are going a slightly different route: Rather than look at a particular title, today we start a week long look at a creator, Rumiko Takahashi. Instead of following past tradition and selecting one work, this week is a celebration of all that she has done in over thirty years of being an active comic creator.

The question I pose to answer with this lead-off post is: Why Celebrate Rumiko Takahashi?

It's sometimes hard to believe that we once lived in a world where manga was republished in the United States in single-issue form, just like superhero comics. When this manga was collected, it often was "flipped" into a left to right format, making it more palatable to English-speaking audiences. That was the standard, and that was what people expected.

I don't know a lot about that time period, but I do know that one creator's works kept getting translated and produced at that time: Rumiko Takahashi.

Early on in the Viz canon, Takahashi's series were a crucial part of their publishing schedule, with Ranma 1/2 being a breakout hit for them. It's not an exaggeration to say that without Rumiko Takahashi, the beginnings of the manga revolution in America might have looked very different than they do today. For many people, myself included, Rumiko Takahashi was one of the first manga creators I encountered, building a love of the genre that has only grown over time.

As Jason Yadao put it, "Rumiko Takahashi's works carried the manga banner in the U.S. for a long time, leading a manga revolution before Tokyopop ever thought to coin the phrase."

So from a historical perspective, it's only natural that the Manga Movable Feast chose Takahashi to be a feature in and of herself. But I think it's more than just being a (however unintentional) pioneer in the world of translated manga. Takahashi certainly wasn't the only creator Viz brought over to English, nor was Viz the only company putting out manga in single issue form, before the graphic novel format took over. There has to be something more. Don't drain your glasses just yet. There's more to say.

Part of Takahashi's appeal, I think, is in her longevity as a creator. Her career dates back to 1978, and she has been consistently providing the world with entertainment in the comic field ever since. She's had multiple long-running titles and several shorter projects, winning awards along the way. Her style reflects groundings in the older manga masters, and she went to a school founded by the man behind Lone Wolf and Cub. Takahashi's work has appeared in both shonen and seinen settings, giving her a wide ranging age appeal. One could make an argument for the importance of her legacy for just Ranma 1/2 or Inuyasha or Maison Ikkoku, but when you are the creative mind behind all three over the past thirty years and counting, it's easy to see why people are still talking and writing about Rumiko Takahashi.

But keep your glass at the ready, because I'm not done yet! Another reason why I think we manga bloggers have gathered to celebrate Rumiko Takahashi is because she is that rare creature, a well known and celebrated female comics creator here in the English-speaking world. While I know this is not true in Japan, here in America, comics are a male-dominated genre. I fear that part of the glee at manga's potential demise in the English-speaking world is because it means that the good old boys can kick the girls out of the clubhouse again. Rumiko Takahashi is a name even casual comics fans might recognize, something I don't think can be said for any Western female comics creators. (Gail Simone might be an exception here, but I am thinking more along the lines of writer-artists working on creator-owned projects. No offense meant, Ms. Simone.)

While there are plenty of great female comics creators working today (Faith Erin Hicks, Kate Beaton, and Raina Telgemeier just to name three off the top of my head), they seem to have to work within the shadow of the larger, male-dominated comics world. I doubt if very many people can name older female cartoonists, because I actively seek them out and *I* can barely do it without really thinking hard. Carol Tyler, Aline Crumb, Ramona Fraden, Marie Severin, and then...who? My mind draws a blank. While I hope that female comics creators will get their due, it's clear that Western comics are still a male-dominated field.

That makes the fact that Rumiko Takahashi can be spoken in the same breath as Osamu Tezuka as being one of the pillars of the translated manga world all the more interesting to me. It was a female cartoonist who was selling single issues for Viz, right next to Superman, Wolverine, and the rest of the capes crowd.

Takahashi's ability to stand out in a market that was (and continues to be) male-dominated would give her a valid place here at the Feast. However, there's one last reason. It's not historically significant or barrier breaking, but I want to mention it all the same: Rumiko Takahashi's comics are just plain fun to read.

I won't speak for anyone else in the MMF, but I read comics for a lot of different reasons. There are comics of social importance, such as How To Understand Israel in 60 Days or Less or Barefoot Gen. There are comics of historical importance, such as The Spirit or To Terra. There are comics that deal with life on a personal level, such as those of Jeffrey Brown or series such as Nana. There are some that I read just to marvel at the creative talent of the artist, such as Aria or just about anything by CLAMP or George Perez. But at the heart of my love of comics is the fact that I've found no other form of media that can quite capture the element of fun that comics do for me.

I've been reading comics for almost thirty years now. Time and again, the comics I return to the most are those that are enjoyable reads that can pick me up anytime I'm feeling down. They may not be classics of literature, they may not get articles in The Comics Journal or end up revered by the New York Times, but they're the kind of comics I can share with others and know they'll enjoy them, too.

Of all the manga creators I've read, no one brings as much of a sense of fun to their work as does Rumiko Takahashi. Whether it's the absurd world of Ranma, where gender-swapping doesn't even get a second glance or the idea of a demon on a leash or a grown-up boxer hoarding rice cakes under a bridge, Takahashi creates a sense of fun in everything she draws. Even darker stories such as Mermaid Saga have a sense of entertainment about them. Tom DeFalco, former Marvel Comics Editor in Chief, calls this idea "hoo-ha!" There is something to be said for just writing a comic to entertain people, without trying for higher understanding or meaning. You can certainly find higher concepts in Rumiko Takahashi, but it's all secondary to her primary purpose: Making sure that over the course of thirty plus years, her characters are still just as entertaining and interesting to the reader as they were from the beginning.

Has Rumiko Takahashi always succeeded? Nah, but who has? The thing that matters to me is that she tries. Like a favorite dish at your local restaurant, every serving of Rumiko Takahashi will feel familiar and taste just like you expect it. (Though if you must *eat* your manga, I'd recommend the paper versions instead of online editions.)

I think sometimes we try to defend comics, whether Western or Eastern, by giving them weight they don't need, so that their gravitas will match the painting in an art museum or the literary canon of Shakespeare, Hawthorne, Mailer, and the rest. What we tend to forget is that while history might note a classic figure like Joyce, who wrote to the boundaries of the genre, it's the popular writers like Dickens and Twain who have the longest enduring legacy. They were the ones writing for fun and a popular audience--and they are the creators still being read today on a widespread scale!

So let us now toast Rumiko Takahashi, who is many things to many people, but is best of all, fun to read! Join me and my friends as we celebrate that fun over the course of this week! Cheers!