Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Japanese Heroes with Grant Morrison

Right. I've just finished looking at some pages from the Final Crisis Sketchbook by Grant Morrison and J. G. Jones that had been posted at scans_daily concerning a number of Japanese superheroes Morrison dreamed up for his upcoming crossover. I'm a sucker for intersections between Japanese and American pop culture due to my abiding interest in both, so I thought I'd share my thoughts on the subject.

You'll want to look at the pages yourself right here before going on first for sake of reference. I've quoted the text of the pages below, interspersed with my own commentary.

Let's begin, shall we?

Japan has embraced every aspect of the superhero culture, chewed it up, spliced it together and incorporated the result into its own hyper-accelerated pop media landscape.

A hero is a role to play, a franchise, a pop star whose cult status might last for a week on the streets of Shibuya before a drastic change of fashion. Anyone can fill the role of hero as long as they're cute enough. Real heroes go unnoticed in favor of gorgeous wannabes. Teams come and go in the blink of an eye, like in Image comics stores. Western motifs are chopped up, collided and spliced with manga fetish wear, Sailor Moon meets Batman, Mecha-Wonder-Woman, Lolita Undertaker Zatanna girls.

I have to say this is setting off warning bells. While that kind of superficiality is pervasive in modern Japanese culture, I have qualms about using it as Japan's defining trait in this story. Of course, it may play out differently, but I'm still concerned.

Before we meet some of these characters who will play a part in our story, let's see the milieu out of which they grew and take a look at the original Japanese superhero team...

These guys were Japan's JLA back in the day, with a ring or halo-shaped base hovering above Mount Fuji -- and let's be vague about when that day was -- and these heroes reflect many different Japanese "super-hero" types with an appropriately "retro" design. The aim with design is to make us feel that we've known these characters all our lives, somehow.

Ultraman type Giant Monster killer/young Japanese man indoctrinated into the Ultimon -- a secret society of Ultimate Monster Killers -- the last survivors of the Monster Wars which devastated old Japan. The Ultimon are super-samurai with technology and weapons we can barely imagine.

Okay, so Japan's greatest superhero is a pastiche of Ultraman. I can go for that.

Together in the ruins of Tokyo, young Dai Yokohama and his master fought the three COLONIZERS (all the monsters we see him fight look like "real" versions of POKEMON creatures, as if nature had actually created Pokemon horrors to run around causing real devastation):

SCARRBA the PROTECTOR leads the charge -- a multi-headed Hydra thing spitting a different death ray from each head. Eyes of one head fire lasers. Mouth of another shoots fire. Horns on the third launch electrical bolts, etc.

Right out the gate we have a King Ghidorah homage. I've gotta give him points for that.

KRY-TORR the BURROWER digs up the streets, and the rubble of fallen buildings flies from his hellish, centipedal multi-legs.

I'm getting a Baragon-meets-Onix vibe here: Equal parts Pokemon and kaiju.

LORLOXX the LAYER squats and releases fuming glass eggs from rows of pipes in its sides, all filled with squirming monstrosities.

The most clearly Pokemon-themed monster from what I can tell, though it still has Morrison's name writ large all over.

Then his master died. The last of the Ultimon fell before teaching his young apprentice his final secrets. But at that moment all his master's power flowed into the boy. Yokohama killed Scarrba.

Then the others rose against him and, in an incredible baptism of fire, he defeated them too. Then, through the apocalyptic smoke and ruin, came an army of monsters -- seizing their moment, seeking revenge for their defeat in the Monster Wars.

As the new Ultimon prepared to die in performance of his duty, in defense of Tokyo, the sun rose... and out of the sun came Japan's defenders to his aid. Never before had they teamed together, but that day demanded a miracle.

Cosmo Racer, Hammersuit Zero-X, Goraiko, Sunfire and Rising Sun.

Together, they hurled the Monster Army back into the Outer Darkness, together they built a new Tokyo and set their incredible watch station in place, like a halo above the haze where Mount Fuji rises.

BIG SCIENCE ACTION was born, and the classic lineup soon emerged...

I have to say, of all the characters previewed here, Ultimon is my favorite, simply because he has the best-detailed backstory. He feels the most genuine. I think that he alone would be capable of sustaining his own solo series, and I would buy it.

The name "Big Science Action" is a little too weird for my tastes, though. It gets worse for the other team, but we'll cross that bridge when we come to it.

Cosmo Racer
This living robot kid from space is a cross between Silver Surfer and Pinocchio -- partly amnesiac, he is trying to get home to his beloved maker somewhere far in space but has wound up on Earth unable to find the crystals he needs to power up his roller boots for interstellar trave. He can still race along on his blades at speeds up to that of sound.

What only we know is that his "Maker" is a monstrous space tyrant who has sent his little herald out to identify and pacify target planets.

Cosmo Racer's a gritty little "grrrr" guy who never lets you down and ALWAYS finds a way...

Another interesting character, even though his backstory and appearance are explicitly Silver Surfer-meets-Astro Boy, with a touch of Megaman.

I wonder why he has the same insignia on his chest as Kimiyo Hoshi AKA Doctor Light from Crisis on Infinite Earths and Justice League International.

Boss Bosozuko
Boss Bosozuko is a young, hotheaded, nuclear Human Torch. He has a cool-as-hel nuclear-powered future motorcycle with radioactive galactic spiral wheels. He's passionate, angry, tender, emotional, always yelling and acting out, always emoting, like the boys in AKIRA.

Again, his origin is made explicit: Akira. He seems less "serious" than Tetsuo or Kaneda, though, and reminds me of Kamina from Tengen Toppa Gurren Lagann and a host of other older shounen heroes.

Hammersuit Zero-X
Gundam meets Gigantor with huge steam-hammer hands -- spunky young girl scientist schoolgirl has created this giant robot suit to run around and right wrongs in.

The design looks closer to something from Neon Genesis Evangelion to me: Gundam machines look more like blocky military hardware. Again, I think it's a tad too Morrisonistic.

Junior Waveman
Junior Waveman is just that, the youngest member of the Wavemen -- a group of rough, tough men and women who live a self-sufficient life in international waters -- 4 guys, 4 women and the teenaged super-genuis daughter of the Wavemen's leader, Senior Waveman Otomo.

Spoiled young Riki Kimura was swept from the deck of his incredibly rich parents' yacht when a terrifying sea creature (one of the Monster Army repelled by Big Science Action on their maiden mission) descended upon them.

The Wavemen arrived to fight off the beast, but Riki's parents were dead. To make things worse, Senior Waveman Otomo also died in the battle against the monster but not before saving the boy's life. The Wavemen took the sickly, ungrateful boy into their care where he learned to grow strong an appreciate life.

Very strong sentai vibe here. I'm admittedly not that familiar with the genre beyond a couple episodes of Power Rangers, but Morrison seems to have hit most of its common tropes: Team of brave men and women, probably multinational (but with a Japanese leader, naturally), standardized costumes/powers, fighting monsters, etc.

He also reminds me superficially of Sosuke Sagara from Full Metal Panic!, but only a little.

And now for the other guys.

This group of flamboyant new teenaged heroes derives from Japan's willingness to co-opt and mash together Western music and fashions to create bizarre pop hybrids. Here they've used the same cultural mix-and-match approach to generate a team of colorful youngsters in day-glo outfits.

Warning bells again.

For those of you without the frankly rather pathetic ability to remember such tiny details (*hangs head in shame*), the Super Young Team were first mentioned off-hand two years ago in 52 #6, where a couple members of the Great Ten (that Chinese superteam that Morrison also created) refer to them as "flamboyant fools" or some such, though no details were given.

Most Excellent Superbat
Self-styled leader of the team -- a vivid and garish combination of Superman and Batman motifs. He's the superhero as dandy, as fashion cult, as psychedelic Couture icon. Everything about superhero costuming refined into pure style as worn for the catwalk. Polished, sleek and shiny, super-colorful. Cheekbones like Johnny Depp.

He has his own TV show and legions of fans who swoon over his every inane utterance.

I hate this guy already.

From what I understand, according to an interview at Newsarama, Most Excellent Superbat was created when the writing team from 52 got drunk and started calling out random ideas or something. I don't remember if it was Morrison or Geoff Johns who blurted out the fateful name "Most Excellent Superbat" (probably Morrison), but the fact that he's the result of a drunken stupor shows.

I'm immediately reminded of that scene from the Bill Murray film Lost in Translation where Murray's character winds up on a show with a totally inane guy (who really exists) who pretty much summed up every stereotype about how disgustingly superficial Japanese television is, and the Superbat seems to be that man in a superhero costume.

The thing that bothers me most about him is that he's just a wacky Japanese Superman/Batman wannabe without the others' pedigree in an existing genre.

And if you think his name is bad, just you wait...

Big Atomic Lantern Boy
A big guy wearing a steel vest with a round porthole in the chest -- behind the porthole we see an eerie X-ray image of his ribs and lungs. He fires destructive blue beams from the plate window in his chest. The whole contraption is bright green.

He's a big, shrug and "so what?" kind of guy. Fatalistic. He's the guy who drops deadpan, acid one-liners at perfectly inappropriate moments. He's Superbat's faithful right-hand man.

Another character that screams "Grant Morrison made this!" just a little too loudly. At least he has a personality, though.

Bad names? The worst is yet to come...

Shy Crazy Lolita Canary
A tiny winged girl in a manga schoolgirl outfit. She's the size of a canary and has a shatteringly loud voice, which sounds like many, many voices all mashed together. It's the sound of the shopgirls in every Tokyo store screaming SUMMMIMMMMMASSENNNNN!!! as loud as they can, at the highest pitch possible and en masse. A totally air-headed teenaged girl with a good heart.

What. The. Fuck?

Okay, first of all, she seems to be the token magical girl, though she comes across as more of a shounen/seinen fetish character like Lum or Belldandy than a shoujo audience surrogate like Sailor Moon.

Secondly, the "sumimasen" ("sorry!" or "excuse me!") seems to be a dig at the dojikko/clumsy girl moe archetype that a lot of anime fans seem to dig, but which does not appeal to me whatsoever.

The loose socks are a nice touch, though.

Shiny Happy Aquazon
Giggly, shy, annnoyingly cute but fiercely brave denizen of the deep. She's the amphibious, defiant offspring of Junior Waveman Kimura and uses special underwater machines to fight alongside her teammates. She's not very good at what she does, but everyone likes her and nobody wants to say anything.

She seems to be the embodiment of the sexy and physically powerful but emotionally juvenile character type -- I'm reminded of a more infantile version of Youko Ritona from Tengen Toppa Gurren Lagann or Shana from Shakugan no Shana. I think that this was another subtle dig on Morrison's part but she doesn't come off as an appealing character.

Well-Spoken Sonic Lightning Flash
Basically, Sonic the Hedgehog meets Impulse. A precocious speedster kid with a huge round helmet and giant running shoes who can reach speeds up to 500 mph. He knows he'll wind up a salaryman in a few years, so he intends to have the time of his life while he still can.

Another character whose origins are clear: He's a video game character come to life, with a bit of the young shounen protagonist thrown in for measure. He's probably the Super Young Team member who least offends my sensibilities, though his name is the pits.


And that's it. I have to say that I seriously hate the Super Young team, mainly because they're blatant knockoffs of the Justice League. I get that that's the reaction Morrison is trying to evoke, but I think he could have done so with more original characters.

And what are up with their names? The Superbat and Lantern Boy are bad enough, but "Shy Crazy Lolita Canary?" "Shiny Happy Aquazon?" "Well-Spoken Sonic Lightning Flash?" I'm reminded of that other Asian team Morrison created, with names like "Accomplished Perfect Physician" and "Socialist Red Guardsman." Grant Morrison seems to think that the best way to make a character seem "Asian" is to give them a stupid idiosyncratic name.

On the other hand, I rather like Big Science Action, name notwithstanding. These guys come off as actual heroes, not media diva poseurs. They appropriate Japanese culture in weird and stereotypical ways, yet they still manage to feel strangely genuine. I'd like to see more of them.

All told, I think the thing that bothers me most is the casual racism involved in, as I mentioned, defining the whole culture by one trait: Superficiality. I'm one of the people who's still offended by Mother of Champions, and while these guys aren't half as offensive as some of the Great Ten or Egg Fu, I still feel like Morrison hasn't learned his lesson. He's from an overwhelmingly Caucasian country, I realize, so he probably has a rather one-sided view of race and ethnicity (see also anything Mark Millar has written at Marvel), but you'd hope somewhere along the line an editor would look at it and say "Chotto matte, kudasai..." I appreciate that Morrison is willing to go to great lengths for "The Concept," but when he sacrifices taste to do so, I have to shake my head and groan...

Of course, this all comes with an important proviso: Wait and see. There's a big possibility that these characters will only appear in a handful of shots and/or get killed shortly after they appear (a sad reality of modern comics), so all this hand-wringing on my part may be unnecessary.

And that's all I have to say for now. Ja, mata ne!


Dex said...

I think Morrsion meant Sunburst not Sunfire. Sunfire is a Marvel character. Since Ultimon's backstory didnt include Dr. Light. I assume his back story takes place before Crisis on Infinite Earths.

Will Staples said...

I reckon you're right. I knew who he meant, anyway, given that Sunburst appeared in an issue of his Doom Patrol back in the '80s (in which he played up the "Look how wacky and superficial the Japanese are!" angle even worse).

Paul van Haaren said...

The biggest mistake made in the text is that it refers to "Japan" in such general terms. It gives the impression that these two teams really are supposed to represent an entire nation, which is impossible. Because as representatives of mere aspects of Japanese culture in the DCU, rather than the entirity of it, they work fine, I think.

Big Science Action seems to be Japan's JLA, in that they represent a variety of specific hero archetypes. They're decidely Japanese archetypes, as you pointed out, but I can easily see Japan developing entirely different types of superheroes from America. I mean, that's what they did in the real world, basically. They do follow the format of American superhero teams, but those are the conventions of the genre at work.

Super Young Team is interesting as a concept, I think. They contrast directly with Big Science Action. Superhero costumes as fashion statements. Super-pop culture. They're not really JLA knock-offs, they simply take elements from famous superhero costumes and incorporate them into their own outfits to be fashionable. Atomic Lantern Kid doesn't look like he actually has Green Lantern powers, he just uses Green Lantern's symbols because they look cool. The only one who doesn't really fit in in that sense is Lolita Canary, since she has Black Canary's powers but no aspects of her (or any other superhero's) look. She's really the odd one out, and the only one that doesn't work. In any case, they're wannabe-hip teenagers, maybe not mean or stupid, but ignorant and shallow. But they're supposed to be. It's an aspect of superhero culture that I'd like to see explored more.

Actually, have you read Peter Milligan and Mike Allred's run on X-Force and its follow-up X-Statix? They did a similar thing there to what SYT appears to be doing, treating the superhero team as a group of celebrities, and although the characters were kind of jerks, they were also three-dimensional and very interesting to read about.

The names I agree with you on, though. Those are just dumb. I don't know if they're supposed to be translated from Japanese or some weird attempt at Engrish, but it doesn't work.

Ultimately, as you said, we should take the wait and see approach. These are just character concepts, after all, so we haven't seen how they're actually going to be written. Maybe they get killed off instantly, but who knows, maybe Morrison will write Most Excellent Superbat as a compelling, threedimensional character.

Ranald said...

"Real heroes go unnoticed in favor of gorgeous wannabes."

I think that passage indicates that we're supposed to treat Big Science Action with respect, while Super Young Team are bunch of dilletantes and posers. The latter team is the one with the most ridiculous names, too. Though as an occasional follower of puroresu, bizarre combinations of English are sometimes used in Japanese popular culture. The wrestling move called the 'Miracle Ecstasy Bomb' is probably my favourite.

Anonymous said...

This is even more problematic when one takes note of how often Morrison uses Zen Buddhist and other Asian traditional concepts to give his white characters depth, and or to show their "countercultural" wisdom.

It's a pattern, and one found throughout Morrison's work. Asian religious and philosophical concepts frequently employed to show the depth of white characters, Asian characters frequently stereotyped and shallow.

*This holds not only for Zen, but Vajrayana... And Morrison On The Tantra? Oh...

Will Staples said...

I think that passage indicates that we're supposed to treat Big Science Action with respect, while Super Young Team are bunch of dilletantes and posers.

I understand that, and that's one more reason I find them so unappealing. I suppose I'd just rather every hero I read about in the DCU have some measure of staying power to stay afloat, which the Super Young Team lacks. They feel like a one-note plot element for a single story, and that totally fails to engage me, and as long as they remain weird mirrors of the JLA they'll remain that way.

Plus their entire existence can be summed up in three words: "Those wacky Japanese!" Given how genuine Big Science Action feels I understand Morrison doesn't completely subscribe to that idea, but it's still an idea I'm tired of. Like I said, I realize that fast-paced superficiality is an element of modern Japan, but it's a veneer that not enough Westerners bother to look past.

On the other hand, like Paul said, at this point we can only wait and see. I don't want to seem like an overly PC loon, and Morrison may surprise me.

It's a pattern, and one found throughout Morrison's work. Asian religious and philosophical concepts frequently employed to show the depth of white characters, Asian characters frequently stereotyped and shallow.

I've noticed that as well. I found the Great Ten tedious in 52, with the exception of the Accomplished Perfect Physician, who appeared in the Dibny storyline written (I believe) by Mark Waid; all the others came off as high-concept ciphers. I only started liking any of the others when Greg Rucka started using them in Checkmate.

Though Morrison also wrote Vimanarama, which had an East Indian character as the hero (though he was born and raised in Britain), and that turned out fairly well. He also created the new Atom, whom I ended up liking very much, though that could just as easily be because of Gail Simone's efforts, not his, and again Ryan Choi was rather Westernized.

Paul van Haaren said...

Actually, if the article here: accurate, then Morrison himself wrote that scene with Accomplished Perfect Physician, which I can believe. The dialogue did sound a little more Morrisony than Waidy to me when I first read it. Which is why I still have faith that Morrison can make these concepts work, as he's shown that he can do respectful characterization. Of course, if it's officially stated somewhere that Waid wrote those scenes, please ignore what I said.

The rest of the Great Ten did feel like cyphers in 52. They barely ever got room to breathe as characters, as most of the time when we saw them they were fighting or bickering with each other. Greg Rucka has used them well, and even Mother of Champions got a nice bit of characterization in the most recent issue of Nightwing, but I would like to see these characters be able to stand on their own. Weren't they supposed to get a miniseries or something after 52 ended?

Regarding what anonymous said, I'm not sure if there's enough of that in Morrison's comics to constitute calling it a pattern. King Mob from The Invisibles adhered to the "white guy is enlightened by Asian philosophy and religion" thing, but he wasn't a very admirable person in the first half or so of the comic in the first place. I can't really recall any of Morrison's writing that has that type of character otherwise, but please correct me if I'm forgetting something.

Beatitude Sputnik said...

"He's from an overwhelmingly Caucasian country, I realize, so he probably has a rather one-sided view of race and ethnicity"

Staggeringly hypocritical.

Will Staples said...

What I meant to imply was that having been raised in a different country may have given him a different view of race than what's common in the U.S.

But you're right, it was a foolish, prejudiced thing of me to say and most likely wrong anyway, and I regret saying it. I'm sorry.

Beatitude Sputnik said...

Consider me mollified, for one.

Chad Walters said...

Personally, I don't really see a problem with the names. I think they're just supposed to be a parody of the crazy names Japanese works can often have. Take a look:

1. All Purpose Cultural Cat Girl Nuku Nuku
2. Bow-wow Celebrity Poodle Let's Go! Tetsunoshin (which isn't even about a poodle)
3. Dancougar - Super Beast Machine God
4. Magical Shopping Arcade Abenobashi
5. Science Ninja Team Gatchaman
6. Yawara! A Fashionable Judo Girl
7. I My Me! Strawberry Eggs

I don't see the names Morrison created as any different than "Super Robot Monkey Team Hyperforce Go!", an American cartoon with Japanese influences.

Lanus said...

Well, my grandmother is japanese and i've been to japan and i find this heroes and concepts completely true to SOME aspects of japanese pop and idol culture. Not ofensive at all. You've got a team of real heroes with real powers and a team of super posers. That happens, it's there. There are also a lot of japanese folk that its tired of it. If i ere morrison, i'll make a third team of plain clothed, gritty and superpowered japanses heroes, to trow a bone to the intolerance intolerants

Anonymous said...

It's pretty hilarious how angry you are about characters who hadn't made any real appearance at the time you had written this and really still haven't made any significant appearance

Will Staples said...

I wasn't angry, just frustrated that Morrison was regurgitating a number of tired stereotypes that I'm not overly fond of. You'll note that I was fairly intrigued by Big Science Action, and to date my biggest gripe is that they haven't made any appearances. I've warmed up on Super Young Team now that it's apparent they're a modern take on the Forever People, but the "Japan is weird!" vibe still bugs me.

And please, if you're going to comment on my blog, I'd appreciate it if it's not just to give me grief. Especially on a six-month-old post. Just a request.

Dandridge said...

You'd think that in the 21st century, comic writers would understand how to better depict Japanese. Not cardboard superficiality that Morrison, Claremont, etc. have done in the past. A better look on Japanese heroes would be to look at Casshern, Gatchaman, Guyver, etc. But no, comic book writers still cling to the idea of picking up on casual observation on the overhyped animu that weaboos import here. Those titles are usually read by kids as in 12 and under in Japan.

Will Staples said...

I thought that Morrison actually made a decent cross-section of Japanese pop-culture heroes - as I mentioned in the text, Big Science Action had characters based on Ultraman, Astro Boy, Gundam, and Super Sentai, among others. But they were straight pastiches - casual observations, as you said - and they appeared on only one splash page. The rest of FC was given over to the Super Young Team, whose defining trait was their weird foreignness.

And, well, I'm a bit of an anime enthusiast myself, albeit not of the Naruto/Dragonball type, so I take a wee bit of exception to the weeaboo remark. ;) (j/k - I don't wanna make you feel unwelcome)

Dandridge said...

I read DC and Marvel, and they both come up very short on accuracy when depicting Asian-based characters. Japanese in particular. Look at Chris Claremont's 1982 Wolverine title. Ninjas and samurai in modern Japan? Castles everywhere? Seriously, Claremont should have actually visited Japan or researched a little. Not rehash James Clavell's Shogun and make a Mighty Whitey theme in Japan. But then again, movies like The Last Samurai were made, trivializing the context and participants of the Boshin Wars. I mean, in Western comics, the defining theme for a non-American hero is their nationality and/or ethnic background. Morrison's Big Hero 6 is more akin to the outrageous that was found in 1960's anime and manga than today's style.
And btw, the "wacky" naming structure that Japanese do are at best, the closest English translations to the nuances of the Japanese language. And their intent is to give description to persons or a title in accordance to the syntax of the Japanese language. Big Science Action and Super Young Team are as "modern" as Captain Video and his Video Rangers or Buck Rogers in the 25th century.
Anyone remember when Betsy Braddock, a British girl got transplanted into a Japanese woman's body? Now the Japanese woman could have been anyone. A doctor, a cop, a scientist, etc. What did they portray her as? A ninja. Typical.
Also, Marvel needs to get actual Japanese speakers. The names they give are downright atrocious and even made-up. Yashida? Kenuichio? Leyu? None of these are even remotely Japanese names. The writers in their laziness chose Japanese-sounding names to which the readers of course wouldn't spot the inaccuracies.
Marvel's Japan is an outdated stereotype relating to the "mysterious Orient" motif, regardless of how little it has to do with the real world. Marvel's Japan is filled with mobsters who dress as samurai and talk about "honor", castles and temples everywhere, and cherry trees in bloom year-round. Because non-Asians can't picture Asians without their shallow perspective based on second-hand info (which is largely inaccurate and misconstrued).

Will Staples said...

Preaching to the choir, dude. Not much I can add - you're spot on.

(Personally, my favorite "fake" Japanese name is Bushido from the Teen Titans - Ryuko Orsono. Yikes.)

Big Hero 6 was created by Steven T. Seagle, tho', not Morrison. Just nitpicking.

Will Staples said...


Because it's been almost a year since I first wrote this but am still getting people coming out of the woodwork to either insult me or write freaking essays that only barely address my post (seriously, guys, get your own blogs), I'm freezing comments on this post.

Thanks for the discussion, folks. Now, on to other stuff...