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What I Need (from Manga and Other Fiction)

A few weeks back, I bought Ouran High School Host Club vol. 10 and the first few volumes of The Wallflower. As usual, Ouran filled me with glee and warm fuzzies, but Wallflower soon left me cold (I tried - I read through vol. 5). And I began to wonder why. They're both screwball high school romantic comedies, involving an odd girl (boyish, downright Haruhi in Ouran, über-goth Sunako in Wallflower) who ends up interacting with a group of guys (the manga male harem trope) because she has to: Haruhi has to pay the Host Club back for the pricey antique vase she broke; Sunako's aunt is letting the guys stay rent-free at her house if they make Sunako into a "lady."

I think I've decided that the key is the way each girl interacts with her harem, and the way the boys interact with each other. Sunako is an object to the guys, at least at first (and seemed to be staying that way for most of them, even at vol. 5) - she's the Project. And she doesn't feel any more warmly toward them: they're irritants, antithetical to what she enjoys. She lumps them all together as "Creatures of Light." Haruhi, on the other hand, has a variety of interactions with the boys in the Host Club: Tamaki has a crush he tries to deny, Kyoya sees her as a club asset, the twins find her amusing (at first), Hunny simply likes her, and Mori feels protective toward her. In fact, they all make attempts, at various times, to take care of her. And she soon begins to treat them all more or less as a pack of older brothers: often annoying, sometimes amusing, dependable in a pinch, and worthy of affection.

Similarly, the interactions among the guys themselves differs sharply in both series. The guys in Wallflower don't seem to care about each other beyond the sort of facile comrades-in-arms loyalty that classmates tend to have toward each other, whether they actually like each other or not. The guys in Ouran, on the other hand, are at the very least team mates, and often friends. They know each other's family problems, and even those that are too cool to express concern about each other (Kyoya, the twins) show by their actions that they care. Even the fact that they often torment each other is part of this: they often act like brothers to each other, as well as to Haruhi.

So - close camaraderie between the principals is very important to my enjoyment of a story. And I began to wonder what other aspects of a story are really important to me. I think I've come up with four really important areas: camaraderie, emotional engagement, ideas, and humor. Not every story needs to have all four, but the more bases are covered, the better. And humor by itself is just not enough.

So, here's the list. And I'm going to use examples from a wide range of fiction and manga.

Camaraderie: It can be siblings (Scout and Jem in To Kill a Mockingbird), buddies (Ryo and Dee in Fake; Goth and the Captain in The Witches of Karres), a circle of friends (the guys in Ouran), comrades-in-arms (Kyo's band of companions in Samurai Deeper Kyo; the 11th Division in Bleach), mentor and pupil (Shoka and Taizu in The Paladin), or any combination thereof (the Sanzo ikkou in Saiyuki, for example, fall into several categories). Because this is a big feature of shounen manga, I tend to like this type of series. Romance could be involved, but usually isn't.

Emotional Engagement: I like characters who care. They must have passion. I don't necessarily mean romance, now. They can care about Being The Best (Onime-no-Kyo of SDK and dozens of other shounen heroes), about overthrowing the current regime (Sanada Yukimura in SDK, Taizu in Paladin), about finding out what's going on (Gingko in Mushishi, Shadow in American Gods, Inspector Pibble in One Foot in the Grave), about their friends (Yukimura again; the Host Club boys in Ouran; the Sanzo ikkou), about their families (Isshin in Bleach; Atticus in Mockingbird), about justice and goodness and freedom (Atticus again; the Captain in Karres), and so on. I don't have any use for the cool-headed and completely cynical, or the nihilistic.

Ideas: Tell me something interesting! This can cover plot twists, weird science, convoluted family trees, strange politics, unusual creatures, world building, mythology, and so on. I'd include beautiful descriptions under this as well. If a book has lots of this and not so much on the emotional front, I might describe it as "an affair of the head, not the heart." Examples are Kurosagi Corpse Delivery Service and American Gods.

Humor: Make me smile - or laugh out loud. This can be wry and dry (Mockingbird, Peter Dickinson's mysteries), black (Kurosagi Corpse Delivery Service), slapstick (Bleach), snarky (Saiyuki), or whatever. But humor's the weakest thing on this list: it's rare that humor alone is enough to carry a story for me.

So - there we have it. Wallflower fails for me because as far as I can tell, humor is the only thing it has going for me. (OK, Sunako cares about her gothy stuff. But no one else much cares about anything.)

Now, it's quite possible for a story to have all of this and still fail for me. It may have negative factors that the positives can't overcome. I don't think I'm going to try to get into a negative factors list, though. Ugh. With the presidential campaign going on, there's already enough negativity ... .

So ... talk to me about this. Are these big factors for you, too? If you've been reading my reviews, do you think I've left anything out? Do you have different factors that are important for you?

 

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( 36 comments — Leave a comment )
avierra
Apr. 23rd, 2008 09:15 pm (UTC)
Mmmm.

Well, for me, there are four main components.

The most important aspect for me is the ideas category. I like stuff that makes me think; philosophy especially gets me going. Storytelling to me is pretty equal with that. I like to know the background and the world of the manga. If the manga-ka or novelist starts in media res, s/he needs to draw me in by making the world interesting somehow. I suspect this is in part because I am a table-top gamer/GM and I dig world-building and story-telling a lot.

I tend to like shounen manga, but I have been known to dip my toe into shoujo,(Fushigi Yugi, which I stopped watching halfway through; Pretear; and Fushigi Yugi: Genbu Kaiden, which is still ongoing, and which is vastly superior to Fushigi Yugi).

Character development is very important to me. I think that's what I love about Saiyuki... the characters grow and evolve through the journey west, they don't just stay the same. And you get to see them at their best and their worst, and the manga-ka isn't sparing of showing them that way. I think it makes them a lot more sympathetic, especially Sanzo, who has a horrible personality. I like to see how the characters work together (or not) as well, so I suppose for me that character engagement is an aspect of this category.

Humor is important for me also. I am rather partial to black humor (Saiyuki), but just general fun is good too sometimes, as a relief from the angst.

Lastly for me, in manga, drawing style/quality. It really detracts from the story for me if I don't like or enjoy the drawing style, and I usually don't stick with it.

chomiji
Apr. 24th, 2008 02:22 pm (UTC)

It's interesting about the art issue. I have always been on the fringes of artsiness - I did well enough at it to get into the state-sponsored Maryland Center for the Arts summer camp (which is now part of this program, I think) as a teen, and I follow children's book illustration in a casual sort of way, and can recognize the work of my favorite artists. But somehow in manga, the story seems to take precedence. Minekura's art is gorgeous in its way - especially her color work - but she's not as much of an artist's artist as, say Takehiko Inoue (Vagabond), Hiroaki Samura (Blade of the Immortal), or Park Joong-Ki (Shaman Warrior). (Curiously, those are all very violent shounen manga!) And Akamine Kamijyo's work (Samurai Deeper Kyo) is usually just "pretty," at best. But Saiyuki and SDK remain my top series, for the character interactions and story and so on.

The only series I've read where I had an overwhelmingly negative reaction to the art was Hoshin Engi, which struck me as having a goofy, overly busy style. The story is also taking a long time to get into the usual shounen band-of-buddies thing, but I've been assured that it will, so I'm persisting with it. Gravitation's art is pretty weak (messy is the word that comes to mind), but what killed it for me more was the story: it had, fairly early on, some serious, passionate, angsty bits that I enjoyed, and then it cartwheeled into free-floating zaniness. It was like cotton candy in goofy flavors and neon colors - I couldn't take it after the first few bites!

For me, humor, like mushy romance, is ever so much better with a setting of angst or even tragedy to lend it depth. Laughs and snuggles should earned! (That sounds a bit severe, doesn't it? I feel like Westley in Princess Bride: "Life is pain, Highness!")

Fushigi Yugi Genbu Kaiden is pretty good! I was glad to see another volume out recently, but I could have done without that sorta warped Ceres excerpt at the back.

(You're a gamer too? So'm I ... I even used to write supplements/scenarios for pay (like these ... under my maiden name) ... I love world building but it's sterile without tasty character inetractions.)

meganbmoore
Apr. 24th, 2008 03:52 pm (UTC)
*perks*

Shaman Warrior? You have read some now? Opinion?

*still pondering main subject of post*
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smillaraaq
May. 1st, 2008 08:06 am (UTC)
Heh, now, the increasing crackiness of Gravitation actually helped make it a little more readable for me, in an odd sort of way; in the first few volumes I was really having trouble taking the Yuki/Shuichi relationship seriously because it moved so fast and didn't really feel at first like there was any real emotional connection there. But somewhere around the point where Ryuichi and a friend where running around an amusement park in bear costumes, I was able to just sort of switch mental gears and tell myself "it's pure comedy crack, it doesn't have to make sense", and it became much more enjoyable. ;)

Curiously, those are all very violent shounen manga!

I don't really know Vagabond or SW yet, but from what little I've seen of BotI it seems to be very much in an artistic vein that I would trace back to Kazuo Koike's influential seinen manga of the 1970s -- chanbara series like Lone Wolf and Cub, Samurai Executioner and Lady Snowblood, and perhaps to a lesser extent his modern-setting late-80s series Crying Freeman. He worked with a few different artists, but the stories were all fairly dark and extremely violent, relatively realistic -- no monsters or serious supernatural elements -- and the artists in turn used styles that were realistic rather than stylized or cartoony.
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smillaraaq
May. 1st, 2008 08:44 am (UTC)
Forgot to add...
Oh, speaking of Gravi -- have you folks read any of the spinoff "light novel" translations? I've got one that I picked up on BookMooch, it was an amusing enough little time-killer to read on the train but definitely not anything I'd reread; but if you (or more likely, the YL) want to take a gander at it, you're welcome to borrow it before I throw it back in the pond...
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chomiji
Apr. 24th, 2008 03:04 pm (UTC)

I hear you. That makes me think about what someone once said about the distinguishing feature of the better episodes of the original Star Trek: the best stories are the ones where the protagonist(s) have to make a choice or a decision. Both tension between characters and the need for a decision by a character mean that there will be change and evolution as those things are resolved, so the story is more interesting.

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bad_mushroom
Apr. 24th, 2008 08:26 pm (UTC)
I completely agree about the camaraderie bit. That pretty much always seals the deal for me on whether I like something or not. A big cast is also kind of important to me (haha, a la Ranma 1/2 I guess), but that may be because I'm the kind of person who loves having like six or seven really close friends that feel like family (which, of course, may be an extension of coming from a large family...it goes on and on).
chomiji
Apr. 25th, 2008 03:36 am (UTC)

Well, if a big cast does it for you and you feel like digging into some shounen, you could try SDK ... this pic (one of the covers) shows only about half the main cast ... . I'm joking a little, because I know you're more of a shoujo fan. But you might like it .,. stranger things have happened. meganbmoore did a series of posts highlighting good scenes from it - here's one, from vol. 12. It's a fan scanslation, so the wording is slightly different from the Tokyopop version.

I actually had quite a small family - just me and my sister and our folks - but we usually vacationed and had holiday meals and things with my parents' old friends from NYC and their kids, and my husband and I are following much the same pattern with various family friends.

bad_mushroom
Apr. 25th, 2008 06:25 pm (UTC)
I actually don't mind shounen at all, I just tend to read my manga for sheer instant gratification, so shoujo suits my cravings better XD

Well yeah, my immediate family isn't too huge, but I do have four parents, and my mum's family is giant.
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b3nitora
Apr. 26th, 2008 06:29 am (UTC)
I LOVE WALLFLOWER!!! Keep reading on, its fabulous!
chomiji
Apr. 28th, 2008 04:51 pm (UTC)

Mmmm ... well, preferences in manga and stuff can't really be argued. I mean, either you liike something or you don't. The Young Lady picked up a few more volumes at Katsucon and I guess I could look at them ... right now, though, Shaman Warrior seems to be calling my name a lot more loudly!



Edited at 2008-04-28 04:51 pm (UTC)
smillaraaq
May. 1st, 2008 08:24 am (UTC)
Hrm, I'm not sure if I could even narrow things down to such an extent for my own reading -- I don't really focus on a single genre, my tastes are rather ridiculously broad, and for every tendency I can think of there are numerous examples of books I love that contradict it. I love comedy and happy endings...except when I'm in the mood for utterly bleak tragedies. I like strong female characters, particularly ones who defy gender stereotyping in some way...but often have no problem whatsoever falling into something where the cast is almost entirely male. I like to have main characters who are sympathetic and likeable...but there are some authors like Martin Amis who can produce absolutely ghastly, horrid human beings who are just compelling to watch in a train-wrecky sort of way. I like things that touch my heart...but then there are some writers that I adore mainly for the beauty of their language, and other great favorites like Stanislaw Lem that are more intellectual passions, where I just love the sparkling play of ideas.

For manga and comics, at least, I'm with avierra in that art is a big factor. It doesn't necessarily have to be *pretty*, and again my tastes are broad enough to go for a wide range of stuff from the most cartoony to lush-and-stylized to gritty-and realistic, and various points in between; but if I don't like the art, or at least don't DISlike it, it's very hard for me to get into a visual medium, no matter how strong the characters or story are. (On the flip side, if the art is something I find deeply appealing, I find it much much easier to forgive lapses in storytelling or characterization. Frank Miller has some serious Issues as a writer, for instance, but I can forgive him a lot for the stark beauty of his black-and-white work; or Joseph Michael Linsner, his storytelling and characterization are all sort of vague, but his paintings are just incredibly lush.) It's probably no accident that for Western comics, I tend to go more for the creator-owned indies that either have the same person writing and drawing, or else the writer works consistently with the same artist or a very small pool of artists; I tend to get annoyed by the really drastic changes in style on the longer-running big mainstream titles.
chomiji
May. 2nd, 2008 03:09 am (UTC)

But these guidelines go for any genre! They have nothing to do with concepts like male vs. female characters, happy vs. sad endings, and so on. I was hoping I'd made that point by using things as disparate as To Kill a Mockingbird and SDK as examples.

Writing style is something I didn't cover in this either, any more than manga art quality. I have a feeling that again, it's not a make-or-break issue for me, even though I can appreciate it. For example, Patricia McKillip is a superb stylist - she's written some of the most beautiful fictional prose I've ever encountered - but I haven't been in love with any of her books since the Riddlemaster trilogy finished up. She left behind the passion and camraderie of those books and started going for mystery and beauty exclusively, and I just can't love any of her later books. Just. Can't.

That's an interesting point, about comics. I haven't been liking U.S. comics in general, and JT (our GM, who loaned me his precious Sandman issues when I was first reading them) has had plenty of them around for me to check out, so it's not like I haven't seen a bunch of different ones. Sandman has been the onl thing I liked (well, that and the introductory Books of Magic.) I don't know what it is about the art I find off-putting. It may be something as basic as childhood trauma - my over-active imagination did me a disservice at about the age of 10 with a Green Lantern story arc involving a villain who had released a killer virus. I was terrified. My father let me know that he was very displeased with the comic book for scaring his kid, and I have a vivid memory of him tearing it up and stuffing it into the kitchen garbage with the gronky eggshells and coffee grounds.

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