Monday, February 5

Mail Order Ninja


Volume 1
Written by Joshua Elder
Illustrated by Erich Owen
Tokyopop 2006

I'm going to be up front about this so you can read this post through whatever prism you prefer: I don't get Japanese manga, or manga-style comics, or anime.

I say this at my own peril as I have come face-to-face with people who would have extracted a pound of my flesh for even daring criticize manga comics. I say this knowing that manga is a billion dollar industry and, as we all know from living in a capitalist republic, billions of dollars cannot be wrong.

That said, I still venture into the worlds of anime and manga with great hope that I have yet to discover gold, that I just haven't found the proper vehicle to awaken my senses, that I have just been plain wrong in my thinking for a very long time.

I also venture into the world of manga because I have two girls in the house, ages 8 and 10, who are discovering the joys of the graphic novel as a nice supplement to their steady reading diet. Please note, that the mention of graphic novels in the previous sentence should not be construed to mean that I beleive or accept manga as graphic novels. I don't. Graphic novels and manga are as different to one another as soap operas are to theatre; just because they use the same dramatic language does not mean they are interchangeable. My use of the term graphic novel to describe my girls' current reading trend is a shortcut meaning "graphically sequential story-telling media". A bit long winded, doncha think?

I checked out Mail Order Ninja because I was searching for something suitable for my third grade girl that wasn't merely comic strip adventures, something a little more substantive than the Babymouse books (which she gobbled in a single sitting, all of them) but not quite The Baby-Sitter's Club or Time Warp Trio or even Goosebumps. (And why these particular adaptations from publishers? Is there really little else out there to adapt at this age level?) I had come across a review of Mail Order Ninja over at Big A little a a while back and was curious. More than curious, really, as Kelly's review spoke of a level of humor and adventure my girls have been craving of late (James Bond and Indiana Jones movies in particular). Bullies and ninja and stuck-up rich girls and everything. Sounded swell.

First I had to get over my gag reflex. It's a visceral thing that happens when I see the big-headed kids with supersized eyes that is the manga style. This angularity of style has never sat well with me, and has never felt either "random" or "whimsical" as the literal translation of the word manga. That done, I settled in and read about Timmy MacAllister and his mail order ninja. After the obligatory opening action scene with black and white ninjas (very subtle: the roles of good and evil are reversed in color!) we meet Timmy, his soccer mom, distracted dad and conniving evil little sister. Just as quickly it's off to school where the local bully and his underlings have set up a toll booth for extracting and tormenting their prey. After a brief exchange where Timmy's sister sells him out for a cut of the profits it's on to school where we meet Felicity Huntington, the aforementioned stuck-up rich girl with her suck-up minions and fashionista name-dropping of Armani and Versacci and...

That's when I had to stop. Not for good, just to take a gut check. If this were a regular book with ninja and extreme bullies and stuck-up rich kids all made out of cardboard would I continue reading? Certainly if I was reading straight text I doubt the all the characters would be described as having large, adorable heads, with glassy eyes and (for the girls) model thin bodies with model perfect wardrobes to match. This for me is the first problem with graphic storytelling, the idealized forms that send shorthand messages about body image to young readers. This is much easier to get around with anthropomorphic images because no one is going to hold their image of a house pet or farm animal up to the images of a comic drawing. But with young minds already bombarded with television and magazine images of what is popular, cool and "ideal" I don't know if we can just gloss over the representations as "just a comic book" any more than we'd overlook stereotypes in traditional fiction because it's supposed to be humorous.

Text offers the reader an opportunity to put themselves into the book, into the minds of characters and settings. With graphic storytelling the viewer or reader is always on the outside. Even in POV representations there's always the sense of just visiting and never the problem of getting lost in the story or the emotion. The lack of realism within the drawings doesn't allow you to forget that you're looking at drawings. Even the most fantastic CGI effects in a movie, equally man made in every respect, has the ability to mimic reality to the point where grown adults can't tell the difference. That really can't be said with graphic novels, even less so with manga.

I soldiered on, trying to put the rest of the story into context with what I would have wanted to read as a fifth grader and with what I would want my girls to read. I tried to reconcile my discomfort with these manga kids seeking their nerd revenge through martial arts and the fact that my own girls don't see anything like this level of bullying or fashion consciousness in their daily lives. Reading Mail Order Ninja my girls aren't any more likely to understand Armani than they do the sexual innuendos of Bond films, so why am I more hesitant to let them read this lightweight book than I am to cave to their movie hunger?

In the end, yes, it's because I do hold books to a higher standard. Not that a book can't entertain or be lightweight in subject, because I certainly don't feel like everything one reads should be Literature with a capital L. But if we're looking at the current phenomenon of the graphic novel -- and all the comic books, manga and strip collections that are lumped into the same category these days -- and we're going to legitimize them with awards for younger readers then I think we need to slow down, learn the language of graphic storytelling, and not give books a pass because they amuse us to the extent that we don't notice how substandard they may be as literature.

Yak yak yak. I sound like a cranky old man. I'm going to leave Mail Order Ninja out on the kitchen table and see if either of my girls pick it up and read it. And if they read it I'll see if they like it enough to seek out part two.

And I'd be surprised if they do, on either count.
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