On Death Note and the State of American Comics

Just a little bit of time before running out for a day of meetings (and driving from one to the other.)

Last night, Tony and I headed out to the Burbank AMC for the “Fathom Events” two nights only screening of the live action Death Note movie. I don’t want to give too much of a review, but, essentially, it leads me to the topic I’ve been itching to discuss.

Death Note, as a manga, is probably one of the best works of modern fiction we’ve seen thus far this century. It’s certainly the best piece of graphic fiction. For thirteen 200+ page volumes, the story of two guys trying to out think each other is one of the most riveting, emotional, and action packed books on the shelf. That being said… it really only works in two formats. Manga and Anime. This story works because of it’s sprawl. By taking the time to show every move and counter move, every nuanced thought and line of inquiry, we get to know these characters better than you ever could hope to. Plus, in this world of heightened realism, mixed with ten foot tall demons walking amongst them just doesn’t play on the screen with live action.

The live action movie is part 1 of what is essentially a trilogy, and despite being two and a half hours long, still fails to capture 1/10th of the power and drama of the manga. The fact that Viz decided to do these screenings with a dubbed version, that managed to also leave off subs for the copious amount of text throughout the movie certainly didn’t help. But, technical complaints aside, the fact is that the movie fails where the books succeed. Again, despite all of the hooplah involving copycat murders and teenagers in trouble, this is a book about two extremely smart men playing a game of morality tinged Chess.

It’s very much a product of it’s medium. This style of long form story telling doesn’t exist in many other mediums. While certainly the television serial gives you the length to tell the story, it doesn’t allow for the pacing nor the subtlety of the graphic form. While American comics, especially, say, a Vertigo series allows for this sort of high end detailed story-telling, I think that the general idea of the book is so far outside of the world experience of most American comics industry ‘execs’ that it wouldn’t get made. Death Note is a creation wholly unto itself. Without the ‘farm system’ of the weekly anthologies of Japan, daring and different work would not exist. I think you see that in our own comics. Of course there’s always the independent publishers, but, face the facts, the idea of cranking out a 2600 page story from an Independent publisher in this day and age is a rarity at best. Plus, as mentioned, this isn’t a movie. Certainly, there IS a movie, but, the movie exists because of the vast popularity of the comic and anime, which is counter to how American independent comics function. Indies need to have that movie hook in order to make the whole thing financially viable. Japan, on the other hand, has the distribution and audience that the comic itself is it’s own commodity.

I say all of this, and, for sake of time, want to keep away from the sheer number of teenagers who were there, in costume, talking about the differences between the books, the anime, and the movie (while it was playing, which is a whole other story about me hating to go out in public.)

So, look, all this really just comes down to me being both inspired and somewhat disappointed by our medium. While it’s obvious that we truly can accomplish amazing things with just some pictures on a page, it seems like us Westerners may have finally been left completely and utterly behind. There needs to be radical change in our industry in order to save us from obscurity. Until we embrace not just the style (I’m looking at you, Marvel Mangaverse), but the ethos of these far more successful (and in many ways far superior) comics, I fear that there might not be much of an American comics industry left in a few years.

Here’s to trying to change that.

Death Note will be playing again across the country tonight. More info here.

2 thoughts on “On Death Note and the State of American Comics

  1. I don’t know if the situation is as dire as you say (not much of an American comic industry left in a few years?), but I very much agree with everything else.

    I’m typically overwhelmed by the sheer volume of manga out there, and just never get around to trying anything. So, thank you for convincing me to buy the first Death Note collection.

  2. I haven’t read much manga, but just enough to be dangerous. I need to check out Death Note. And I would agree with your assessment of our industry.

    The weekly comics anthology needs to hit big in the U.S. but adapted to our own sensibilities. Maybe borrowing from television, you could have “a season” and take off during the slower half of the year. Every week for six months, a thirty-two page comic, three stories, installments of 10 pages each, two pages of ads in between. That means each creative team would need to produce 260 pages a year. Give creators a decent head start, and then go. The less popular stories rotate off at the end of the season. The more popular stories get a compiled in TPB format.

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