11/15/2007

MegaTokyo Wars

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Let loose the 500 pound gorillas.

In case you've been in a coma for the last seven years, the name of the game today is Megatokyo, a stunningly popular webcomic that's been published in manga form both stateside and, very soon, abroad in Japan as well.

It's pretty much the only example I can think of reverse importation in the anime/manga genre, where a foreign-made product based on an originally Japanese concept manages to make its way back overseas, (Not to be confused with foreign releases of Japanese products getting reverse imported) and for that Megatokyo and its creator Fred Gallagher deserve at least a few accolades for creating such a smash hit, at least in the American manga scene.

But Megatokyo has also recieved probably as much criticism as praise, and from the feel of things seems like a popular target for more 'discerning' anime/manga people to bash. Like the recent hate-fest for Shana II this comes from many groups, whether it be the newcomer who doesn't understand the hype, or the longtime fan who feels the show has jumped the shark. The reasons are varied, from the largely derived-from-anime-culture feel of the comic and the slow pace to the wish-fulfillment factor and the tangled storyline. No doubt readers are already lining up at their keyboards to complain that I have not mentioned co-creator Rodney Caston in the last paragraph.

Perhaps some of these complaints are valid, perhaps some are just the usual 'it's cool to hate popular things', and perhaps some are from people who aren't exactly the target audience of Megatokyo (i.e. the less geekily informed). But likewise, one can picture the amount of exclamation marks, 'kawaii's, and ^_^ emoticons that equally uninformed fanpeoples have thrown on top of the Megatokyo hype pile.

Like most things, Megatokyo has some excellent aspects and some painful aspects to it, and undoubtedly the million dollar question is which one outweighs the other, but I think if I were to boil it down to one succinct, controversial statement, it would be this:

Megatokyo should not be a webcomic.

Those who can read between the lines can already tell where this is going, and that is not to blast Megatokyo into the depths of hell but rather to contemplate whether it would be better suited for a different medium.

Quite simply Megatokyo is already different from the vast majority of webcomics out there, or at least it has become in its 'second era', and to keep it in it's current form is just clunky. It may be tacky to say that it's restricting its true potential, but somehow I feel I would enjoy Megatokyo more as a solely manga release.

Most webcomics are pretty simple, based mostly on geek in-jokes or simple humor. And that's fine; there have been plenty of enjoyable and successful comics in that regard. Megatokyo, however, stands apart as one of the few that tries to weave a coherent plot with continuity and character development. (The only other one I can think of is Order of the Stick, and that's closer to the tabletop gaming than the anime side of things.)

It's an admirable thing to do as I love a good story almost as much as I love wisecracks about Mario Theft Halo IV but somehow I'm left feeling that it doesn't work on a day-to-day basis, or at least not with a story with a scope like Megatokyo's.

Now I, like many others who will argue on this topic, will claim to be 'a longtime fan of Megatokyo', and I do make an effort to read the comics within a day of release, but still...I don't really get it.

If you told me to summarize what would happen recently, I'd have a very tough time of it. Yes, Piro is busy alternating between angsty and GAR, Largo is busy alternating between geeky, Erika, and GAR, Kimiko wants to get in on the GAR fest as well, while Yuki is busy being a Magical Japanese Schoolgirl and Ping is busy Ping SMASHing things, but the intricacies of the plot are something that's completely and utterly lost on me.

Megatokyo by any standards is a story that qualifies as 'huge', with an amazing amount of characters that make periodid appearances in addition to the main cast. And given the plot style of 'do stuff now, explain later' combined with a couple hundred alternate plot lines, it's hard to follow Megatokyo for what I feel it's truly meant to be: a dramatic work.

It's nice and all reading the comic every day and laughing at the one-liners that frequently show up at the end, but somehow I feel like I should be actually able to understand the plot without having to resort to a scorecard, and having it released in volume format, large chunks at a time, would be more digestible.

This is especially so given the what can only be called 'loose' time schedule of Megatokyo, which frequently misses deadlines, skips days, and posts up random fanart. It's not something that really pains me to the extent that it may others, given that these non-canon comics can still be amusing, but it makes following the main plot just that little bit more confusing.

Maybe block release schedule would be a little too loosely defined for someone as off-schedule as Fred (the old tax return adage of "everything's done on the last night anyway, no matter when it is"), but I enjoy getting things, and that's just not something that Megatokyo is doing a spectacular job at.

Perhaps this is also a fault of the grand scale of Megatokyo. With a heavy emphasis on both action, romance, and the corresponding emotional baggage (plus a dash of geek reference), MT is like a wet dream of Japanese culture at times with the amount of otaku cliches that it uses and abuses. I say 'abuses' because MT isn't just a straight-up control-C/control-V mixture of Kanon, ninja shows, and whatnot. It does enjoy bending the cliches, and it keeps the material fresh enough that it's not the main issue here. (Either that, or I still lap this stuff up.)

It's just that, well, MT tries to do so much, and at the glacial pace at which it moves at times, it's just hard to stick with it. As mentioned above, there are so many plotlines and open threads to follow upon that one has to wonder whether this is brilliant writing / foreshadowing, or just the comic's equivalent of MT's infamous "i'll get to these when I feel like it" pages.

Because after a while trying to juggle all the characters, their crushes, and their magical powers, one has to pray that things are either going to get unified or resolved soon, or else the universe might collapse under the collective weight of all the theories out there.

Megatokyo has opened a lot of interesting elements for sure, but I just wonder if most of us will be alive to see them concluded.

Touching on one of the perhaps more hotly-discussed parts of Megatokyo, the content itself: yes, it's wish fulfillment. But what isn't?

The harem show with one guy and many girls. The action show with giant robots and explosions. The sports show with the little underdog that could. The fanservice show with breasts, breasts, and breasts. They all pander, if not just a little bit, to a different demographic. That's really part of why people watch anime, or view any form of fiction, by definition - to be entertained. Some work on a baser level than others, and some are more subtle, but in the end, we want to see something that interests us.

And for Megatokyo, the slightly fantastical elements, of action, of romance, of magic, are the draw. Yeah, it's a bit blunt at times with mad schoolgirl crushes on foreign guys and chance 'oh look you fell in love with a wildly popular girl who happens to like you' meetings, but remember: Piro is not the whole show. Part of the flip side of being such a huge universe is that there's plenty of storylines, plenty of characters to choose from in Megatokyo, and odds are is that one of them, in either action or story, will be interesting.

Yes, it seems a bit sadistic to say "well, focus on the characters you like and ignore the ones you don't," but in such a tale produced by one "amateur" artist, you can't expect perfection. Megatokyo instead pulls off "very good" a lot at times. Melodrama is left and right, true, and sometimes the "let's blow up Tokyo" elements can even top Clamp's best tower-destroying efforts, but there are quite a few intense scenes that can convey some strong emotions of the characters. The mindgames between the characters, major and minor, are quite interesting at times as Megatokyo does a good job of creating dramatic tension while mixing elements of reality and fantasy.

Although, sometimes I wish said mindgames didn't involve so much raw attitude of the "I'm not listening to you at all so stop messing with my head and tell me where the girl/money/goods are already."

It's likely I am overdramatizing MT's story a bit as quite a bit of it flips between 'gee well I have a stupid crush a girl but I'm really too shy to realize that she likes me too' and 'rar I am macho and impulsive and stupid and will destroy things in the name of love', but if you put a lesser focus on the silly romantic elements (not to be confused with the 'good' romance elements) that makes Megatokyo so popular with the teenage male crowd and take a look at the bigger picture, MT isn't horrible.

It's not entirely memorable in the long term as a lot of the story doesn't stick due to it's raw complexity, but if Megatokyo were taken on its own, in manga form at the bookstore, without all the bias that being an English publication based largely on Japanese material garners, it wouldn't get so hated upon.

Part of the issue is that it's cast largely in that webcomic mold of 'must be funny', and so the drama of it isn't recieved nor works quite as well in its online, once/twice/thrice-a-week form.

The other part is because Megatokyo has undergone such a radical change since the beginning of the series, having originally fit into the 'funny' mold in it's four-panel days before slowly morphing into something completely different. There will be the retro fans who will always see Megatokyo in its old form as something meant for quick laughs, and for them the new style will never work.

So, Megatokyo. Something that may quickly be becoming a whispered name in anime circles as sort of a taboo, low-level read that symbolizes all that is to be hated in overly Japanified anime fans in America. But, really, although I can't call it a shining piece of writing, it's something that I imagine should be enjoyed by more, if only sporadically as some sort of bulk release.

But perhaps I'm viewing things through the rose-colored glasses of anime fandom already...

-CCY

8 comments:

You know what, I don't really get it either.

The problem is taking a webcomic and then trying to make it fit into a manga story line while simultaneously keeping the webcomic fans entertained = ultimate failure.

I think I agree with you. I've been reading MT not long after it started (2000) and while I think the earlier parts when it started shifting into a full-blown drama were often quite good and even emotionally affecting at times, I think it's lost its sense of balance in recent years. MT continued to be interesting because it had slightly more emotional realism than your average romance manga, but now it's just too convoluted and too angsty for its own good. I think the story really needs a definite ending to head toward.

I think you're quite right --- and I think Fred Gallagher realizes it, too. I read an interview with him a while back where he said that the next project he's hopes to do is a webcomic, but a straight graphic novel.

For quite a while now the series has been paced for its graphic novel form. I follow the webcomic quite closely, but have come to eagerly anticipate the published books because it helps to read a huge chunk of the series at one time. He still manages to provoke a smile, sometimes a belly-laugh, on each page of the web-comic, but it's really told as a continuous story now.

It's not a webcomic - it's a manga which has releases to the web FIRST, which then get collected; sorta like if you were reading your weekly or monthly manga magazine's stories, a page at a time, every two or three days.

Penny Arcade is a webcomic - the storylines are fairly self-contained, when they exist, and the joke or the payoff comes through pretty quickly.

Megatokyo's story, on the other hand, progresses in chapters; you can't just jump into the middle of the storyline and 'get it', any more than you could probably jump into AMG or some other manga mid-chapter and be able to follow the plot, and outside of enjoying the art... well, you'd have to go back to the beginning of the chapter to at least follow along with what's happening, and only really enjoy it by having followed the series for a few volumes, by which point you know the characters, how things got to the way they are, and why Keiichi can't ever seem to get past the hand-holding stage.

I enjoy Megatokyo - I have since the beginning (starting about a week after it first got posted), and have been collecting the books since his first publishing attempt through Iron Cat, then through Dark Horse, and now through CPM. It's very much in the mode of a manga, which means it's pretty inaccessible to a new reader unless they start from the beginning of that chapter, or maybe the first hundred or so strips.

I originally tried reading Megatokyo a few years ago and found it impenetrable, for a variety of reasons, but I revisited it a couple of months ago and spent the next few days merrily reading through the past several years of archived comics until I was current. I realize this is something of an unpopular opinion with a number of blogosphere commentators, but I really like the comic, even with its glacial pace... which, admittedly, wasn't as much of a problem when reading through seven years' worth of accumulated storyline. Having caught up to current, however, the dribble of page-at-a-time, once-or-twice-a-week story advancement is problematic.

All of which is basically a long-winded way of saying that I agree with you, CCY.

I'm still reading Megatokyo but not focusing quite as much on it as before. It's definitely become something to me where I can't read it a page at a time, though there are still people who can and do while passionately discussing it. I don't think it's a failure like Hinano does, but I do think it's a fine balance, and many times, it feels like Fred shouldn't release one strip at a time. Certainly when I read a chunk of them at once, everything makes sense, though you could consider each single strip as a one-shot that ties into everything else. But pacing chunk-wise compared to single-pages differs in this case, and I'm not sure it's a good thing.

Otherwise, I still find it an enjoyable read and a good one, but not a great one. And there is progress, unlike other stuff out there. :P

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