The Merits of Manga in our Formative Years: “Why years spent on the comic store floor were not a waste”
I remember the first time I walked into Alakazam Comic Store with my dad and big brother. I also remember the first time they had to drag me out of the store crying. From that early age I’ve been infatuated with the Japanese graphic novel. I hadn’t yet understood the intrinsic value of manga beyond mere action and entertainment, and certainly wasn’t capable of communicating that value to my parents. But at some level I knew that I was drawn into these fictional worlds not because of the muscles, the blood, and the screams, but by something deeper behind the actions and speeches of protagonists whom I followed like a disciple.
It wasn’t until years later in college, countless volumes deeper into my obsession, that my philosophical education helped open my eyes to the deeper values of these fictional heroes. The serialized Japanese graphic novel exposes readers to profound philosophies adopted by both individuals and groups. Furthermore, we get to see these beliefs tested again and again, as the best serial manga take us through a character’s childhood, adolescence, and adulthood (Naruto, Dragon Ball, &c).
In comparison to western comic books like Superman or X-Men, these coming-of-age stories are far more emotionally and psychologically elaborate. Western comic books typically polarize good vs evil and dark vs light, while manga tends to embrace far more holistic and eastern ideologies of balance and the middle path. Batman is the western comic’s famed dark and deeply psychological character, but we the readers are never allowed to share the vital development of Bruce Wayne’s philosophies. Western “origin stories” pale in comparison to manga’s “coming of age” serializations. The “started from the bottom” trope humanizes protagonists and humbles them, like we feel humbled as children and adolescents, and they rise and struggle to conquer their dreams, like we hope to do as adults.
What manga offers, unlike most western hero comics, is the trial of life itself. In world renown serialized manga like Naruto and Dragon Ball Z, we see protagonist scream his philosophies from the mountain tops, yes. But we also get to see these beliefs tested, his heart broken, and his faith tried and tried and tried. We even see the maturation of protagonists who change their beliefs (think about Itachi’s speech to Naruto about what the Hokage really is). Instead of thrilling but repetitious patterns of “the villain appears, our hero defeats him,” we see friends become foes, enemies become best friends, and the darker sides of our deep psyche revealed for our own salvation (hint hint, Kyubi reference). The depth of psychological grit necessary to hold fast to your beliefs and stand the test of time is reflected in the drawn tears of our favorite manga action heroes, and the life lessons and timeless wisdom we gained form them are what remain.
Of course, it wasn’t until I “came of age” myself that I came to understand that importance of manga — the myriad philosophies to which we were exposed, how our lives test those philosophies, and how we incorporate them into our own without demonizing “the other.” If I had been able to put that into words back on the floor of Alakazam, my dad just might have let me stay “five more minutes.”