No, this isn’t the newest superhero, but a story that asks the reader to consider what would happen if the world of manga and American comics clashed? So we get the story of Ryoko, a manga character that, through some mish-mash of military science experiment gone awry, ends up in the western comics scene. He retains every quality he had in the manga world, from his svelte contour line design, to the familiar exterior sweat beads and speed lines of a manga. Dr. Louis Capellti, the scientist meant to get Ryoko out of this mess and temporary care-giver, suggests that Ryoko might spend his free time attending school. Exited with the prospect of experiencing this brand new world, Ryoko agrees to take up the challenge. Of course, in manga and in American comics, high school is no picnic. Ryoko has to cope with the culture clash, and dealing with the popular kids that can’t stand him as he catches the eye of the most sought-after girl in school, Marissa.
It’s hard to pin down the audience for this comic. Not necessarily in age, but in interest. Ryoko is a infectiously earnest character, and the love story between him and Marissa is cute, but doesn’t seem to be the main point of the comic. Manga Man’s real strengths lay in the different comics tropes that it exploits. Ryoko is a manga character in the “Real World” so if he runs fast those speed lines manifest in a 3-D form, and soon need to be cleaned up. Same goes for manga gems like daydreaming in a cloud above your head. For Ryoko, those private fantasies are visible to every classmate. Manga aficionados will be delighted because these are tropes that are just part of the language of manga. Items that are supposed to be in the background are now the centerpiece of jokes, and some of them are quite clever.
Then again, fans of manga may not be able to get past the artwork to see the uniqueness of the premise here. Colleen Doran is an accomplished artist, some of the work in Manga Man makes you catch your breath, but Ryoko is not as well-rendered as the rest of the setting and characters. Manga Man faces the challenge of having to unite two distinctly different styles and still have them read well. It manages this to a point, but Ryoko’s design leaves something to be desired. Not much more than a line drawing, Ryoko looks like what an American artist would think of a manga character, and not a recent one either. Carrying the look of a bishonen from closer to the nineties than the modern age, Ryoko is a design that many modern manga fans wouldn’t recognize. Since he is the main thrust of the story, a lot of its success depends on him.
Hopefully, the premise will be enough to pull the reader past appearances and continue with the story. Again, the real treasure of the book is it’s examination of the art of comics. The plot of the comic, and the craft that is shared, is an interwoven message delivered by Marissa learning more about Ryoko and her own comic world. Since the story seems preoccupied with different artistic asides, it isn’t a very convincing romance, or teen drama. It has a few bumps but ultimately, the blend it tries to achieve by featuring substantial techniques from both spectrums of comics is a singular comic experiment.
by Barry Lyga
Art by Colleen Doran
Houghton Mifflin Books for Children, 2011