Hey gang. Fair warning to you that this article is a little bit out of date as it has been sitting on my desk at school for a week. However it’s something I feel really strongly about and my thoughts still stand.
Those who know me know that among my many passions in life one that rates more highly than my interest in Japanese culture is my interest in comics. Specifically my interest in super-hero comics. So I was very excited recently when not only one of my favourite comic authors (Grant Morrison) but one of my favourite artists (Cliff Chiang) debuted mash-ups between western super-hero archetypes the Justice League and Japanese culture.
And I feel it necessary to talk about them and judge, as someone who kniows both a fair bit about Japan and Super-heroes, how successful they were.
Firstly let’s look at Grant Morrison’s efforts. Morrison, for those unfamiliar with comics, is one of my favourite writers. He is generally famed for his big concept ideas, use of philosophy and bleeding edge physics in otherwise straightforward super-hero work and a sort of joyous surrealism. He is presently writing an enormous story for DC Comics called Final Crisis; a cross-over event story that ties up a lot of plot developments in the D.C. Universe over the last 5 – 10 years. Morrison has invented 2 super-hero teams for Japan that he has retroactively added into the continuity. By continuity I mean the general storyline of the D.C. Universe. So for example, whilst neither of these teams existed until a few weeks ago everyone in the D.C. Universe is pretending they’ve been around since the 1970’s. Wakarimasu ka?
Anyway, nicked from Scans Daily, who in turn nicked them from the Final Crisis Sketchbook here they are.
First lets start with the “original” Japanese super-team i.e. the JLA spliced with some of the bigger and more famous manga genres.
First up we have the team itself known as “Big Science Action.” An attempt at Engrish which isn’t hugely convincing but it works for me.
So far so good. Here we have Super-man crossed with Ultraman. This works perfectly fine for me since Ultraman, bar possibly Astro Boy, is the most super-heroic of all the Japanese Super Sentai (basically their version of super-heroes) mostly due to his secret identity, costume and the fact that his name ends in man.
Morrison also has this to say about Ultimon.
Together in the ruins of Tokyo, young Dai Yokohama and his master fought the three COLONIZERS (all the monsters we see him fight look like “real” versions of POKEMON creatures, as if nature had actually created Pokemon horrors to run around causing real devastation):
SCARRBA the PROTECTOR leads the charge — a multi-headed Hydra thing spitting a different death ray from each head. Eyes of one head fire lasers. Mouth of another shoots fire. Horns on the third launch electrical bolts, etc. KRY-TORR the BURROWER digs up the streets, and the rubble of fallen buildings flies from his hellish, centipedal multi-legs. LORLOXX the LAYER squats and releases fuming glass eggs from rows of pipes in its sides, all filled with squirming monstrosities.
Making him fight monsters also works since a) this is what Ultraman does and b) you can’t do a Japanese pop-culture pastiche without having some kaiju in there. They may not be the most popular thing in Japan but they’re emblematic of Japanese pop-culture to the west. Although Pokemon as real monsters is very, very Grant Morrison-ish I think it works. It sends up the differences in style between Western and Asian comics, that there is a greater tradition of cartooning here whereas in America art has gotten progressively more realistic. Oh and there’s a King Ghidorah pastiche in there too which I approve of because King Ghidorah is my favourite Kaiju.
Not a brilliant name (but oh my god is there worse to come) but not a bad mash-up either. Silver Surfer with Atom/Astro Boy. Morrison says Silver Surfer with Pinocchio but considering Atom Boy was/is basically Pinocchio if Pinocchio was an atomic robot in underpants it’s Astro Boy. The problem with that mash-up is that Atom Boy was already in part a mash-up of East and West, with Tezuka openly borrowing from many famous western sources such as Pinocchio, Superman and Walt Disney.
I’m not a huge fan of the design either which is a little bit too much silver surfer, except with roller skating instead of surfing. As far as I can detect there’s nothing overtly Japanese in this design. At least nothing that isn’t already largely incorporated into Western comics.
Akira plus the Human Torch plus Ghost Rider. Again like with Ultraman or Kaiju Akira is such a visible example of the history of manga that you would be silly to pass it up. Kaneda (the hero of Akira) maps so perfectly onto the human torch (plus the borrowed visual from ghost rider because, let’s be honest flaming heads on bikes look awesome) too. Both are young impetuous hot headed heroes but with their hearts in the right place. In fact the elements Morrison has chosen to join together here gel so well that it doesn’t feel like a pastiche, I can actually see Boss Bosozuku working as a legitimate character. He does have a rubbish name but I love the nuclear warning symbol motorbike jacket.
I like the “spunky young girl” creating a giant robot. What’s actually working here is less of an East/West pastiche and more of a combination of Japanese elements. So we have the spunky school girl from Magical Girl Manga with the small boy has big robot friend stuff from Gigantor or Giant Robo. The design is appalling though. Morrison sights Gundam and Gigantor but this doesn’t look anything like either of those. Gundam suits look blocky and militaristic (or like fish and windmills) and Gigantor looks like clean 1950’s sci-fi. Nor does it look like any modern mecha series which have all followed the Evangelion template of organic mecha. It basically doesn’t look like any mecha series I’m familiar with. What it looks like is a mid-90’s Iron Man villain crossed with an X-box. The concept is fine but the suit needs work.
Spot on basically. Junior Waveman is Aquaman crossed with the classic Sentai super-team (think Science Ninja Team Gatchaman or Power Rangers). Sentai teams are characterized by matching outfits/powers and the notion of a junior member. His costume is a bit lifeless though although his name works quite well.
Those are our heroes that we’re meant to take seriously “Big Science Action Team.” Now I’d complain about the name but considering my favourite Japanese super-hero team is called “Science Ninja Team Gatchaman” I think it’s largely appropriate. Especially since these are meant to be a 1970’s style team both in the Justice League members they ape and the Japanese characters chosen and the 70’s were really the era for the silly/badly translated names.
The next set are all summarized from the opening text in Morrison’s introduction. These are wannabes. Mindless and inane fashion drones with no real desire for heroism but rather are emblematic of the inane/superficial/random elements of Japanese culture (i.e. the bits I love so much).
For starters we have “Most Excellent Super-bat.” Now this may be the finest name I have ever heard for a super-hero ever. Just try saying it to yourself, most excellent super-bat, most excellent super-bat. Does it or does it not just make the day seem that much brighter? Most Excellent Super-Bat is Batman and Superman blitzed together with bright colours, cute accessories and the post-apocalyptic/nihilist psychedelic/mass-consumerist philosophy of Shibuya denizens. He is meant to be utterly bizarre and stupid beyond all possible words and he is masterfully successful in it. Morrison gets this one right, there are guys exactly like this on TV in Japan already, except less super-heroey.
The problem is Morrison kind of makes his point with Most Excellent Super-Bat and then has nothing left to say. Most of the other characters in the Super Young Team (which isn’t Engrish enough to sound fun like Big Action Team and is too stupid to work as something a Japanese teenager would actually call themselves) are just the same joke again, take a Justice League member and re-arrange them plus add in some bright colours and mad fashion accessories to point out the inane superficiality of some Japanese teens. Big Atomic Lantern Boy is a fine example of the problem. There isn’t much pastiche here or thought going into it, it’s a ridiculous looking guy with a silly name and some Green Lantern elements nicked from a proper super-hero. He doesn’t map onto a Japanese fashion or sub-culture nor does he directly reference any manga or anime he’s just a goofy looking idiot with a silly name.
Shy Crazy Lolita Canary would work a bit better because she actually maps onto a Japanese sub-culture, Gothic Lolita. Except she doesn’t because Morrison gets every single element of her character wrong. For starters if she’s a Lolita canary why is she in a school girl outfit and not a Gothic Lolita costume? Secondly why does she shout sumimasen? Sumimasen means sorry in Japanese and although they’re not exactly the crowd I move with Gothic Lolita aren’t known for yelling sorry very loudly. I think that what Morrison wants her to be saying is “Irrashaimasen” since he mentions shop girls and shop girls in Japan say this. It means welcome and shop keepers yell it at you when they see you in their shop. HwoevEr again, why is a Gothic Lolita yelling irrashaimasen? Unless Morrison is thinking of maid cafes because maid costume is quite similar to Gothic Lolita fashion but again why isn’t she in a maid/Lolita outfit? And why is she shy crazy Lolita canary? Lolita are amongst the most extroverted Japanese people around, unless that’s why she’s yelling sorry (but then there’s something weirdly inverted about yelling sorry, not really a shy action). I’ll give him making a black canary analogue winged is quite a nice touch considering the fetish-isation of angelic imagery in this country but generally shy crazy Lolita canary doesn’t work at all.
Shiny Happy Aquazon is a bit better again. We’ve reverted from trying to say anything about Japanese subculture and have gone back to fusing manga characters with super-heroes. In this case we’ve got Aquaman, Wonder Woman (an amazon) and the sort of happy bright but dumb and clumsy characters that populate a wide swathe of manga (i.e. Sailor Moon, Lum, belldandy). Her outfit is quite nice too, very super-hero but still looking like something Lum would wear. Her name is rubbish though, mostly because shiny happy sounds less like engrish than it does an R.E.M. song. Engrish works when you have two words that we don’t regularly combine in colloquial English (science ninja being a good example of words that would never meet each other in normal English) but we’re all used to hearing shiny and happy next to each other so it doesn’t work as Engrish and just sounds dumb as a standard super-hero name.
Well Spoken Sonic Lightning Flash
Well spoken? What? Okay so the description is sonic the hedgehog meets Impulse. So for those that don’t know Impulse was a super-fast scatter brained teenager raised inside a virtual reality computer game like world whereas sonic the hedgehog is a….super fast scatter brained hedgehog that actually is a computer game character. Yeah, that’s less sonic meets Impulse than Impulse meets the character that inspired Impulse in the first place. Oh but it’s okay because he has a ridiculous top heavy anime inspired design….y’know, like Impulse. Oh and he’s living for the now…a bit like Impulse and.
Basically the problem with Well Spoken Lightning Flash is that he’s EXACTLY the same character as Impulse but with a more ridiculous design and a name that I cannot begin to fathom the joke behind.
I realise that the whole point behind the Super Young Team is that we’re meant to dislike them as shallow poseurs and they contrast with the heroic and noble Big Action Team. I get the point Morrison is trying to make and I love the joke behind Most Excellent Super-bat but none of the other characters work in the slightest bit. Shy Crazy Lolita Canary and Well Spoken Sonic Lightning Flash in particular entirely fail as jokes or pastiches because they don’t reflect anything Japanese, either in real life or in manga.
So ultimately I think Morrison ahs failed here. Potentially Big Action Team could work as a real comic with some tweaking but Super Young Team fail entirely as jokes and were never meant to be real characters.
However, Cliff Chiang also recently showed off some Super-hero manga mash-ups, although he created his nearly 10 years ago. Chiang’s gone for a more direct pastiche approach, simply taking one character and re-imagining them in the form of an existing Japanese manga. These are all specific homages but some of them work excellently and really draw parallels between the western characters and the eastern characters.
To start with we have science ninja hero Batman and his partner Robin. Robin’s costume is a little bit too on the nose and looks exactly like a Gatchaman costume only re-coloured. I’m a big fan of Batman’s Gatchaman inspired look though. It’s still recognizably a bat but with the clean lines associated with 1960’s Japanese sci-fi. Visual Kei joker is fun too, observe this photo of Gackt…
…and now look at the Joker. And yet it’s still recognisably the Joker, and it works better for a Japanese joker since it incorporates the androgyny and attractiveness that Japan likes to instill its villains with.
Superman as Gigantor is hilarious. He really is a man of steel. The Super-man robot looks like an anime super-robot (actually a genre of anime) and the shorts wearing kid who commands it with a signal watch is spot on. Unfortunately it wouldn’t quite let you translate stories as easily as the science ninja batman would. Batchaman would still fight super-villains and could still have the same origin but Super-Robot would have a vastly different origin without all the Christ/immigrant imagery in the original character.
Aquaman as a Kanren runner/Ultraman type is just genius though. Kanren Runner or Ultraman are the most obviously super-heroic of any Japanese super-heroes and Kanren Runners design works well for an alien being that lives in the sea. And having him grow to enormous size to fight sea monsters (Kaiju actually does translate as sea monster) is a spot of brilliance. I would happily read the adventures of a king of the seas protecting his civilization and the surface world from marauding giant monsters. It would be an infinitely better character than Aquaman.
Flash Go Go Go is just speed racer with a red car. The homage is spot on but there isn’t much to say about it. Green Lantern I sadly cannot place and Wonder Woman as Princess Luda from Starblazers doesn’t work too well because the character is no longer recognizably Wonder Woman. The homage is fine since both are princesses but the design needs a little work to bring out the super-hero sides more.
Overall then I vastly prefer Chiang’s mash-ups but sadly there isn’t as much to say about them.
And finally let’s take a look at what happens when it occurs in the other direction and Japan does the mashing. Well you end up with this.
That was the Japanese Spider-man show from the 1970’s (Supaidaman). You may have noticed, as I did, that there is a giant robot. Moreso there is a giant robot that Spider-man summons by yelling “change me lepardomon!” Why spider-man has a giant robot is an easy mystery to figure out.
Japanese Scriptwriter: Well boss you know how you bought the rights to that American super-hero Spider-man?
Japanese TV Exec: I did, well what about it?
JS: Well I worked out a story concept for you.
JTVE: Oh cool,. So what does this supaidaman do?
JS: Well he shoots webs, climbs walls, does flips and martial arts and beats up bad guys.
JTVE: Hmm, sounds good. Kind like Gatchaman but with a spider instead of birds.
JS: Right boss.
JTVE: So how does he fight giant monsters?
JTVE: How does he fight giant monsters?
JS: Um….. he doesn’t?
JTVE: Well that’s no good. You’ve gotta have giant monsters so you can sell toys. Tell you what why doesn’t he have a giant robot?
JS: Genius sir.
Why he has A LEOPARD ROBOT rather than say a spider one is a mystery that may never be unsolved.
And I have it on good authority that in a later episode he gains a car with machine gun lamps.
Catchy theme tune though.