Shaenon K. Garrity (shaenon) wrote,
Shaenon K. Garrity

New Smithson!

That's right: it's another page of The Number One Superhero Comic on the Internet©!

Smithson's been having technical difficulties this week, so please be patient if you can't get to the archives.

Meanwhile, Andrew's posted another thrilling installment of William Bazillion, also The Number One Superhero Comic on the Internet©. Mine has more superheroes. This week, anyway.

By the way, if you're planning to vote in the Web Cartoonists' Choice Awards and you haven't received a ballot yet, I suggest you email and ask for one. They seem to have lost some in the mail.

What else? Oh, right. Overlooked Manga Festival!

Way back when, in a previous Overlooked Manga Festival, I posted a list of the ten all-time most popular manga in Japan, according to a 1998 poll in Comic Link magazine. Because female fans turned out in droves for that poll, a lot of the top Comic Link manga are classic shojo (girls') manga, and most of them haven't been published in English yet. As it happens, the #1 manga in the poll is available in translation, and has been for many years, but no one here pays much attention to it. Maybe no one knows what to make of it. There's nothing else exactly like it.

Viz has been publishing Banana Fish in one form or another since the dawn of time (okay, 1999), but is only now reaching the end: Volume 18 of the 19-volume series just came out. It was a feature in the late, lamented PULP, Viz's magazine for alternative and "adult" manga. But Banana Fish is neither alternative nor aimed at adults. It's a shojo manga, and during its original run in the late '80s and early '90s it was wildly popular with scores of teenage girls.

Because if there's one thing teenage girls like, it's gritty 1980s inner-city gang warfare.

Ash Lynx is a teen gang leader in New York City trying to get out from under the thumb of crimelord "Papa" Dino Golzine. He's also secretly caring for his older brother, who has been catatonic ever since he cracked in 'Nam and blew away most of his platoon. But a chance meeting with a dying man clues him in to a connection between his brother and something--a person, an organization, a drug--called "Banana Fish." Yes, English majors, like the Salinger story.

To understand why this story hit it big with girls, it might help to know that Ash is physically modeled after River Phoenix.

In another previous Overlooked Manga Festival, I noted the talent many manga artists possess for coming up with unintentionally hilarious Causasian character names, like "Leopard Solid." You may think that "Ash Lynx" falls into the same category. What you don't realize is that Ash's name is just a pseudonym. He has a down-to-earth, honest-to-goodness real name, okay?



While the aforementioned shit is going down, two guileless Japanese reporters embed themselves in Ash's gang and get tangled up in the whole mess.

The younger reporter, Eiji, connects with Ash in a deep and unexpected way, and readers of shojo manga know what that means. Not that anything happens, per se. There's just subtext. Very, very generous subtext. Actually, the development of their relationship is gradual, subtle and unusually touching.

But in Banana Fish, unlike in 99.99% of shojo manga, not all of the gay sex is titillating good fun. Much of the plot hinges on Ash's past as the sex toy and personal pet of Dino Golzine, who has a taste for young boys. Eiji has fallen into a hard, cold world, as all the other characters are happy to explain to him.

Aside from the homosexuality, Banana Fish barely resembles a shojo manga. Or any manga at all, for that matter. I'm going to go out on a limb and declare that no other shojo manga in the history of shojo manga has ever featured dialogue like this:

Hell, it's possible that no other shojo manga has so much as included the line, "He's got a grenade launcher!"

You don't see that in Fruits Basket. I'm sorry, you just don't.

But Banana Fish isn't much like any manga, shojo or otherwise. It's densely plotted, dialogue-heavy, focused on gritty, earthy action: an American comic book channeling an American TV cop drama. The first volume is on the clunky side, and the early artwork is, frankly, pretty bad. But it picks up steam quickly, and soon the characters and their grim, pulpy world become absorbing. The plot builds slowly but pays off huge in the later volumes. I think about Banana Fish after I've read it, much more than I usually think about a manga.

The Viz edition is helped immensely in the early volumes by the script rewrites of editor Carl Horn. Carl works for Dark Horse now, and he's an auteur among manga editors; he leaves an unmistakable stamp on his work, whether it's Neon Genesis Evangelion, Flowers and Bees, or Golgo 13. In Banana Fish, he clearly gets a kick out of punching up the 1980s street-smart dialogue:

Yes, that's Akimi Yoshida's idea of Harlem (and, I'm afraid, some of the less insulting drawings of black people you're likely to see in manga). She also thinks the oyster bar in Grand Central Station has white tablecloths and tuxedoed waiters. And that this is a New York street gang:

But the America of Banana Fish is hardly meant to be a real place, anyway. It's a fantasy world of violence and lawlessness, Never-Never Land crossed with the Wild West. A place where boys can be men, girls can wallow vicariously in testosterone, and sexually ambiguous Japanese youths can play with handguns they'd never even get to see in Japan.

Like Nausicaa of the Valley of Wind (no, really), Banana Fish is one of the great milestones of manga, yet so totally idiosyncratic that it almost doesn't resemble manga at all. It's second to nothing.

Previous Overlooked Manga Festivities:
Please Save My Earth
From Eroica with Love
Even a Monkey Can Draw Manga
Dr. Slump
Your and My Secret
Wild Act
Knights of the Zodiac
The Drifting Classroom
OMF Special Event: Manga Editors Recommend Manga, Part 1
OMF Special Event: Manga Editors Recommend Manga, Part 2
OMF Special Event: Manga Editors Recommend Manga, Part 3
OMF Special Event: Great Moments in Manga Baking
Shout Out Loud
Warren Buffett: An Illustrated Biography of the World's Most Successful Investor
Sexy Voice and Robo
OMF Special Event: 2006 Overlooked Manga Update
The Four Immigrants Manga
Gerard and Jacques
Ode To Kirihito
Bringing Home the Sushi

Tags: overlooked manga festival, smithson

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