There’s a brief-but-interesting Q&A at Playthings with Liza Coppola, Viz Media‘s senior vice president of marketing, in which she talks about promoting popular manga like Fullmetal Alchemist, Death Note, Naruto and Rurouni Kenshin. That’s pretty standard territory, of course, for the person in charge of marketing.
But Coppola’s first response, to a question about what fuels the popularity of those titles, made me reconsider something about American superhero comics:
I believe [these] properties are very popular due to [their] rich storylines. They are stories that have rich, complex main characters that all have a vision—whether it’s becoming the ultimate ninja, discovering the master alchemy formula or being suddenly given the power of life and death. They’re ordinary characters that have some form of a “gift” that they’ve discovered within themselves and they must learn to live with all the complexities that come with that talent or power.
I think those aspects are every kid’s aspirational dreams—to wake up and suddenly become something you weren’t before, but your essence remains the same. You are still the same nervous, geeky kid but now you have discovered a hidden talent. With manga, the storylines are deeper and more involved. Characters have motives that are slowly revealed as the story progresses and they have secondary characters that are just as rich and fleshed out as the main characters.”
It’s not the “rich, complex characters” part; while that’s often cited as one of the reasons for manga’s popularity, particularly among young readers, it’s ambiguous. Are the Elric brothers in Fullmetal Alchemist any richer or more complex than, say, the orphans in Runaways? I enjoy both series, for different reasons, but I can’t objectively say whether one character is richer or more complex than the other. After a point, those words hold about as much meaning and worth as “cool” or “edgy.”
No, what made me pause is the part after that, in which Coppola says those characters “all have a vision — whether it’s becoming the ultimate ninja, discovering the master alchemy formula or being suddenly given the power of life and death.”
And they do. All of those protagonists want something, something tangible. But I’m having trouble thinking of main characters from superhero comics whose motivation is equally concrete.
Spider-Man, Superman, Wonder Woman, Batman, the X-Men — they’re all after a vague concept: justice (or, in the X-Men’s case, maybe acceptance through justice). Their goals, while lofty and altruistic, are unattainable, which makes them difficult to relate to. It’s sort of like the beauty-pageant contestant who wishes for world peace.
But the characters in Naruto and Fullmetal Alchemist and Death Note want something more selfish, more personal (and, at least within their fictional universes, more readily attainable). And we can identify with that selfishness: We all want to be the fastest swimmer on the team. We all want to meet the sales quota so we’ll earn that bonus. We all want to help our parents so we’ll earn their praise. We all … want – and not necessarily for everybody else.
Maybe this is something everyone but me realized long ago; I can be slow on the uptake. But I can’t immediately think of a superhero who has that personal (selfish?) vision.