The Negative Zone: Stir-Fried Manga
In "Playing Around with Food," the final story in Fish, Sushi & Sashimi—the fourth volume in Viz Media’s Oishinbo À la Carte series—Yamaoka and Kurita are busy considering dishes to be served at the banquet for their upcoming wedding. In "The Breath of Spring," collected in Vegetables, the series's fifth volume, a photographer for the Tozai News confides to Yamaoka his anguish over the fact that he's in love with Kurita, who, he believes, wants to marry Yamaoka. The latter's response to this is that it only seems that way since the two of them work together so closely and, besides, he plans never to marry. Finally, "The Taste of Chicken, The Taste of Carrots," the story which closes Vegetables, opens in the apartment shared by the now-married Yamaoka and Kurita.
This mildly confusing and increasingly perturbing narrative scatter-shot is a result of the "À la Carte" portion of the series's title, which is the clever-ish name for Viz Media's scheme to introduce the long-running culinary manga to American readers in "bite-sized chunks of story arranged by subject that add up to a full-course manga meal."
Clearly Oishinbo isn't Naruto and it's attraction to readers has far less to do with narrative continuity than it does to the interesting and engaging way that it presents Japanese cuisine. And yet, it is also not simply an illustrated recipe book. The relationships between the reasonably well-drawn characters and the drama created by the interplay between the Tozai News staff and those associated with the Teito Times's "Supreme Menu" have a lot to do with why the series transcends its culinary focus.
Oishinbo has been around for more than 25 years and its run in Japan now totals over 100 volumes. It's not difficult, then, to see why Viz may have been reluctant to take on the project of importing the book comprehensively. The issue, however, goes well beyond Oishinbo, which, at the end of the day, is still a very good series and one that I imagine I will continue to read. What is really at stake here is the lack of respect for comics as a form at a cultural and academic level that allows such editorial violence to be done to a unique series.
On a message board for one of my classes a student and I got into a discussion about the ramifications of academicization of art. Clearly, the danger inherent to this process is that in the process of theorization, the increase in understanding and definition comes at the price of wonder. At the same time, the benefits of responsible academic study of art forms, which range from the defining of formal constraints to the establishment of shared vocabulary and context for the serious discussion and appreciation of particular media, outweigh the potential risks. Indeed, with academic and culture legitimization of comics as a form alongside novels or poetry or films, there would likely be an increase in public demand for interesting and truly thought-provoking comics for which there is at present only a limited market. Even more important, such concerns such as respect for the text, without which publishers feel free to dice up and serve comics in whatever arrangement they want, will become part of the conversation as editorial decisions are made.
As this issue is effecting comics that are being published in this country today, so has it had serious implications for the publication of other literary works in the past. Jan Potocki's brilliantly ahead-of-its-time novel The Manuscript Found in Saragossa suffered from a similar lack of editorial respect throughout it's publication history. Potocki's novel, which is an extraordinarily complex frame narrative of the Decameron/Tales of the Thousand Nights and One Night variety, was for years available only in editions that published selections of the interior tales and dispensed with the larger frame narrative. While I've little doubt that such publications proved to be wonderfully diverting story collections, they deny the tremendous complexity of Potocki's novel in its entirety. Only by reading the whole of the novel from beginning to end can a reader appreciate Potocki's astounding accomplishment and fortunately, thanks to Ian Maclean's translation published by Penguin, readers now have that opportunity.
Viz Media cannot be blamed for what was a business decision dictated by the exigencies of the marketplace and made possible by the lack of a proper academic framework for the study and analysis of comics as a form. Be that as it may, it is long past time for artists, readers and budding scholars to begin the hard work of establishing the theoretical and critical framework that comics deserve. Motion pictures were barely around for half a century before critics started taking them seriously alongside poetry and painting and music and there can be little doubt that this has had an overwhelmingly positive impact on movies as an artform. As admirable as the efforts of Will Eisner and Scott McCloud are, they are simply not enough. It is time for comics to take their rightful place as the ninth art, if only so we can witness the wedding of Yamaoka and Kurita.