Quick and the Dead

Two OEL manga digests

Original English Language (OEL) manga seems to inspire a range of responses before you even pick up a digest. Is it really manga? Does the appropriation of stylistic and narrative techniques put it on equal footing with the material that inspired it, or is it just a wannabe genre? This begs the question of just what counts as authentic manga. Looking at the number of best-selling translated titles that have been created by manga-ka who started out in the realm of self-published fan art, is there really a distinction? Aren’t OEL artists just following the same path as the creators whose work is flying off the bookstore shelves?

It’s a mine field of a topic, demanding impossible generalizations and skipping dangerously close to the kind of issues that can leave the participants seething and sour. Ponder the authenticity issue and you’re forced to wonder if you’re indulging in unfair ethnocentricity. Consider the stylistic comparisons at your peril, because even the most prevalent techniques aren’t applied universally in Japanese comics and are sprinkled throughout western comics anyway.

The safest approach, I think, is to take OEL on a case-by-case basis. Are the individual titles in the burgeoning OEL market any good, whether they “feel like manga” or not? As with comics from Japan, the answer is, “It depends.”

M. Alice LeGrow’s Bizenghast (Tokyopop) includes a note issuing a stern warning to cosplayers: get LeGrow’s characters right, or just stay home. According to LeGrow, this was an audacious and unfortunate invention by a Tokyopop editor that doesn’t reflect her sensibilities at all.

It’s particularly unfortunate because the evocation of cosplay – capturing the cosmetic qualities of something without really conveying its substance – is a bit too appropriate. Bizhengast works very hard to look like manga (it’s even got fan art in the back, some of it by other Tokyopop OEL creators), but there’s something missing at the core.

It’s not for want of ambition. I think dream logic is one of the hardest states to convey in fiction, and LeGrow seems to be aiming for a state of unsettling, mercurial dread not unlike that of the work of Junji Ito (Uzumaki, Tomie). But while Ito creates the chillingly coherent illogic of nightmare, LeGrow’s efforts never really come together.

Tragedy has left her protagonist, Dinah Wherever, prey to pernicious supernatural forces that have infected a small Massachusetts town. Her parents have died in a suspicious car accident, and she’s been shipped off to Bizenghast to live with her aunt. Bizenghast is one of those small towns, quaint on the outside but dead at the core. It’s riddled with angry ghosts that only Dinah can see, and her aunt and doctor think the teen-aged girl is insane.

Her only comfort comes in the form of her friend Vincent, who believes her tales of restless spirits. Unable to attend school, she seems to spend most of her time cobbling together a stylishly pseudo-Victorian wardrobe and wandering the countryside with Vincent. On one of these outings, they stumble across a mysterious mausoleum and graveyard. Dinah’s invasion of the sacred space binds her to it, and its demonic guardians inform her she’ll need to release the angry spirits or be killed.

The set-up is sound, but the execution is repetitive and confusing. Dinah and Vincent wander from ghost-scape to ghost-scape without any clear idea of what they’re doing or any concrete sense of the grievances of the spirits they encounter. Despite their guesswork approach, things seem to work out. Dinah whines and cringes, Vincent tumbles head first into peril, and, by chapter’s end, things have come to an apparently satisfying conclusion in that Dinah lives to exorcise another day. How they manage these feats remains vague; maybe the ghosts just don’t enjoy Dinah’s company any more than she values theirs.

LeGrow has a fine visual sense for the various supernatural realms she creates. Some of the monstrous spirits are appealingly creepy. (Towards the end of the volume they encounter a helpful familiar who looks amusingly like a piece of disturbing Sailor Moon fan art.) But the character design for her protagonists is dull, vintage threads aside. They have big, cat-like eyes, but they’re strangely vacant, whether in states of outrage, terror, or confusion. They look like paper dress-up dolls.

Ultimately, Bizenghast seems like a cosplay of a horror manga. It’s got a handle on the cosmetics, but central elements of story and character are vague and underdeveloped.

If LeGrow fails in appropriating an Ito-esque sense of horror, Jen Lee Quick comes closer to investing familiar material with a distinct style and sensibility. Her title, Off*Beat (Tokyopop), gives Hitchcock’s Rear Window a shonen-ai spin with very promising results.

Tory Blake is a bright, antisocial kid who lives with his mom in Queens. He’s left to his own devices a lot, and he fills his hours observing other people, taking copious notes and looking for patterns to their behavior. It isn’t a particularly healthy pastime, but it’s an outlet for his cynical intelligence.

His hobbyish surveillance of strangers reaches another level when new neighbors arrive in the dead of night. Something about Colin, the new kid on the block, draws and holds Tory’s curiosity, and Tory sets about learning everything he can about the newcomer. Even Tory doesn’t seem to understand his level of interest in Colin, but it manifests itself in some extreme ways.

Tory convinces his mother to transfer him to the private school Colin attends, citing his need for greater academic challenges. Far from being a joiner, Tory contrives a peer tutoring program at his new school, knowing that Colin’s frequent absences have left the sickly teen at the bottom of his class. He bribes an upstairs neighbor, geeky college student Paul, into tracing information on Colin’s guardian’s license plate.

Wonder of wonders, Tory finds that there might actually be something genuinely mysterious about Colin. By this point, though, his intrusive observations have gone beyond the usual nosy diversion and into something personal. It’s a new experience for Tory, and it’s complicated by the fact that Colin simply wants to be left alone.

In shonen-ai style, Off*Beat is driven more by character than events. Unlike much of that genre, Quick chooses to render her characters as real kids rather than impossibly beautiful boys. Colin and Tory look gawky and young, which suits them. She reserves her stylized flourishes for character design, putting cartoonish but realistic people in front of well-rendered backdrops. It’s an effective way of drawing the reader into their emotional states; the characters pop visually, but they’re credible.

One of the characters is another shonen-ai standard, the pretty, popular girl who takes the potential lovebirds under her wing. In this case, it’s classmate and student-council officer Mandy, who has a soft spot for geeks. She’s a soothingly normal and outgoing presence, and Quick makes good use of her in bringing the boys closer together.

The pacing of the first volume isn’t exactly breakneck, but it’s very assured. Quick knows how to play out her beats and build emotional moments, and she ends things on a suitably intriguing note. She carefully builds to the concluding twist and leaves me wanting to know what happens next.

Speaking of wanting to know what happens next, Off*Beat also contains some preview pages of Svetlana Chmakova’s Dramacon, which looks very funny and accomplished. Her visuals are sleek and fluid, and her characters make an immediate impression. When does it come out?