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What It Means To Be A Hero: American Superhero Comics v. Japanese Shonen Manga | Rajsi Rajora

The human mind is conditioned to ubiquitously perceive the concept of happiness as something meticulously interlinked with the constructs of virtue. In popular fiction, which is commonly conceived with this consideration, the moral integrity of a character typically determines his or her role and ideological relevance within the framework of a plot. The classic conflict between the abstract extremes of good and evil thus becomes intrinsic to the fabric of stories. However, there are some striking differences in the way different cultures, depending on the historical orientations and sociological phenomenon of their settings, interpret elements relating to the depictions of positive and negative characters and the plot structure of narratives. This contrast is especially fascinating when comparing works that were originally formulated in the East and the West respectively. When aspects like world-­building, symbolism, and frequency of updates are important determinants of a composition’s popular appeal, they portray the social values of its context quite effectively.

The study of cultural production can thus give valuable insight into the streams of cognition associated with creative expression (Morling & Lamoreaux, 2008) and graphic literature, a genre made up of sequenced pictorial panels, can provide the perfect arena to analyse cultural reflections. The study of graphic art is very insightful because, unlike the isolated images depicted in individual pictures and drawings, comic panels are meant to be comprehended in a specifically organized sequence, serving as a literal point of view on the unfolding events. By considering modern American superhero comics and Japanese Shonen manga (both mediums traditionally intended for young boys) as the subject matter of this article and by contrasting their features on specific fronts, we can seek to understand the reflected psychological inclinations of the people they cater to within the limitations of the art form.

The countries of America and Japan have mutually distinct ideals that govern their gestalt recognition of themes like identity, purpose, and aspiration respectively (Fiske et al, 2010). In the field of cross-­cultural psychology, the dimensions of individualism and collectivism, which have great scholarly merit (Cohen, 2009), explain how some societies, largely non­-Western ones, focus on the collective nature of social obligation, while the others, typically Western ones, focus on the primacy of the individual. (Markus & Kitayama, 1990). While it’s true that things like imperialism, wars, globalisation, and media, can cause elements of both societies to interact and intermingle in complex ways, the traditional understructure of values still holds a strong psychological grasp on the mindset of individuals and impacts generic preferences. Before proceeding with the article, it must be clarified that manga and comics are stylistically as diverse as any other art form and it would be unfair to the artists if their works are treated as merely representative of the societies in which they are imagined. The aim here is not to establish a dichotomy between two highly developed kinds of sequential art, but rather to extrapolate on the perceivable reflections of certain culturally influential attributes often observed in their illustrations.

For understanding the essence of fictional representations, the prototype theory, proposed by Eleanor Rorsch (1999), is integral in defining the process of cognitive social categorizations. This theory claims that it is context that determines the meaning of a word, and thus what conditions are in place at a particular moment primarily define a given idea (Fox, 2011). The qualities of a concept are interpreted as being incidental, rather than inherent, and this permits difference without the elimination of similarity. Hence, a study of prevailing archetypes is logically the best way to continue with this comparison due to its flexible nature and theoretical foundation. According to a study conducted in the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology (Hong, Morris, Chiu, & Benet­ Martínez, 2000) there are certain dynamics through which specific pieces of cultural knowledge become operative in guiding the construction of meaning from a stimulus. Whether a construct comes to the fore in a perceiver’s mind depends on the extent to which the construct is highly accessible. Thus, the archetypes that individualist and collectivist societies perpetuate are vastly dependent on the external, cultural elements the people internalize and become accustomed to. Deriving a correlation between the two thus has some validity from an analytical perspective. With that in mind, we can now seek to deconstruct the key features of both manga and superhero comics with relevant historical details and psychological research.

The archetype of the Hero has been predominantly masculine in both Western and Eastern media, mostly due to the insidious nature of patriarchal norms that rule social dynamics universally. In conceptualising superhumans, the most fundamental notions of what constitutes greatness by the masses is acutely translated. The very basis of the construction of these beings is an innate superiority over the weak personality of the actual man. The sub-­genre of superheroes, which primarily deals with the creation of characters like these, is thus brimming with intricate romanticization of human virtue strongly filtered through cultural biases.

The Western version of the hero archetype evolved alongside the revolutionary development of democracies and the sweeping away of traditional social arrangements. Where the rubric of hero was once largely limited to warrior princes, righteous priests, and Olympic athletes, the heroic pantheon slowly opened up to the personality of any person who could distinguish himself strikingly from the rest (Kendrick, 2010). The focus was now on the natural potential of a person to rise above all odds and achieve triumph over his own “destiny”. This capitalistic conviction paved the way for highly idealistic, almighty heroes like Superman, an invincible alien in a cape with the genetic capacity to do virtually everything that common man desired to do, but couldn’t due to physical limitations. However, alongside the democratisation of the heroic ideal, there was also the demonization of the same archetype due to totalitarian movements like Fascism and Bolshevism rising around the world. The tradition of the anti­-hero consequently came into existence, countering the original beliefs of what a hero must be. It celebrated slackers, survivors, indeed any character who conveyed how mundane, inglorious options like tending your own gardens, keeping your head down, and trying to stay alive were actions worthier of valour than martyrdom. Comic book characters like Deadpool and Wolverine, who subvert numerous tropes simply by existing, are relevant examples of this phenomenon. The post-­war versions of the more traditional superheroes were also structured along these lines due to the sardonic and whimsical tastes of the millennial audiences.There are many other tropes that can be observed within the premises of western beliefs: the hero is frequently an explorer, an outcast, a vigilante, a survivor, a rogue, or just a weird entity. However, what is particularly notable is that he is nearly always independent, even in arcs pertaining to personal themes like self discovery and existentialism, and beyond the realms of common society. The element of a mild­-mannered alter ego that conceals his superpowers and conforms to the satirically dull depictions of “normal life” provides a consistently amusing foil for the awesome reality of the hero in the plot. A number of different back stories, assigned to both villains and heroes almost in the likeness of folklore and mythology, give them an epic and tragic dimension, rendering a new mould to the classic Greek heroes of the past. Alexis De Tocqueville (1805­-1859) defines individualism as “a calm and considered feeling which disposes each citizen to isolate himself from the mass of his fellows”. The charismatic, competent, self­righteous, aggressively stoic, and “above the law” persona of the Western hero thus stands iconic and vastly interpreted in confirmation of this proposition.

The antagonists, or the “super villains” in superhero comics are often posed as arch enemies of the hero and represent the counter­force for the positive ideological solidarity the hero essentially stands for. They commit evil for goals like anarchy, vengeance, indiscriminate power, and frequently resort to their own dastardly talents, high tech weaponry, and swarms of simple­minded minions to achieve their destructive ends. They often have complex motivations, psychological depth, and grey tonalities that establish them as characters as significant as the heroes. Robert A. Heinlein (1982) insightfully notes that for every superhero to be relevant, there must be a supervillain to give him purpose. With that philosophy of paradoxical co-dependence, the conflicts in comic books transcend a simple plot narrative, and represent much bigger, more convoluted conflicts between good and evil.

In contrast, the Japanese value system idealises a hero dedicated to “getting better” and reaching his goals through determination, rather than because of pure natural strength. “Yamato­damashii” is a term that loosely translates into “the spirit of Japan”, and defines the core of Japan’s ethics and psychological predispositions. It was abused quite intensively in World War 2 propaganda, for inspiring men to fight and die for their nation in the name of honourable self-­sacrifice and undaunted loyalty (Yamakuse, 2016). Japanese culture is rooted deeply in a clan hierarchy where every person has a rank within their family, community, organisation, and class. By following the means prescribed by Yamato­damashii, any person can increase their potential (and thus status), climbing to a higher rank in society with the invaluable help of their comrades. There is great emphasis on honour, purity of intent, and a firm groundwork of morality in the personality of the perfect individual. In fiction, it shows itself as a plethora of virtues that can be coherently organized into three key traits: persistence (always trying harder), insight (something worth dying for), and talent (innate ability).

In long running shonen works of the modern age, like Naruto, Bleach, and One Piece, the most competent characters demonstrate some of these characteristics, but the heroes are the ones who eventually reach the epitome of their strength in a plot that is structured around a constant increase in power and stakes, both for the adversaries and the main characters, that manifest as elaborate obstacles and battle sequences. The war of the hero is traditionally with the irrationality of overwhelming evil and chaos. This is why most antagonists in shonen seem unbeatable at first and “humble” the overconfident hero into a self­aware and tenacious pursuit of competence. Rivals and villains are lacking in at least one virtue in comparison to the hero, and ultimately wind up defeated when this flaw is discovered and tackled. Over the various arcs within the structure of a shonen manga, there are numerous antagonists with increasing levels of power who challenge the hero and often represent the inner conflicts he must overcome at each “stage”. The construction of the plot around the phenomenon of war, either in a historical or fantastical setting (Perper and Cornog, 2011), conveniently caters to this ‘power up’ format.

It is important to note how the superpowered position of a character is considerably more regimented and organized within the society in Japanese fiction, rather than established above it. The world of One Punch Man and Boku No Hero Academia involves an agreeable control of the government over superhumans, while comic series like Batman and X­men constantly question the validity of institutions to regulate superpowers Further, in shonen manga, the interpersonal equations that characters have with their superiors and friends are deeply empathetic, relevant, and often plot­driving motives behind critical actions. The hero derives considerable fortitude from his relationships and overcomes insurmountable odds with the aid of his trusted friends, thus confirming many key values of collectivism. Unlike most comics, the role of the supporting cast is emphasized, and side characters often get their own arcs and subplots under the umbrella of grander narrative and the ‘lone wolf’ trope is much less common in Japanese superhero fiction. American comics, on the other hand, have a tradition of integrating the occasional sidekick in a story to support the hero, or assembling teams in crossover stories, but more often than not, the main junctures are about the hero as the core entity.

Origin stories are an integral element of both American comics and Japanese manga. Transcending the dimension of superhuman abilities, they matter because they focus on the integrity of heroism itself, and chronicle the conscious pursuit of altruism by self righteous characters, even over the temptations of wealth and power. They humanize heroes, while simultaneously providing models for coping with adversity, finding meaning in loss and trauma, and discovering strengths for doing good. Whether due to stress­-induced growth, the force of destiny, or by sheer accident, a hero is only as fathomable as his origins. In comics, due to numerous reboots and interpretations, the identities of the heroes are very flexible and sensitive, evolving with the times and oscillating on a spectrum of darkness based on the whims of the audience and the writers. For instance, the origins of many superheroes are revised and improved to suit new trends. Thor was originally born a mortal doctor who fatefully came across a divine hammer but his story was updated and he became the god of thunder himself, reigning from the alien planet of Asgard. On the other hand, since manga does not follow the multiverse format that comics have (where the hero exists in different versions of the world with varying personalities) but rather adheres to a linear storyline that grows over time through weekly or monthly updates, it is far more comprehensive and plot centric with only one canon version of the hero.

Physically speaking, the Western superhero often derives his credibility and status not just from the existence of some superhuman ability, but also a recognizable costume that creates a persona to interest an audience and to establish uniformity in the various interpretations of the character (Phantom, with his odd apparel, is after all a mere ordinary human being who is in peak physical fitness and in possession of excellent reflexes). Capes, underpants worn over skin­tight suits, and identity concealing masks are common features of a typical superhero costume and contribute to the setting up of a larger than life spectacle. The shonen hero, in comparison, has characters who either have some remarkable physical feature (brightly coloured hair and eyes) or a specific identifiable element in their attire (Naruto’s orange tracksuit, Monkey Luffy’s straw hat etc.) implying that the focus here is not glamorized recognition, but rather a more genuine, amicable familiarization.

Thematically, it is interesting to observe that Manga superheroes likely exist in an alternate, magic centric universe with its own laws governing it while American ones are usually grounded on earth itself, gaining power out of some scientific breakthrough or mishap rather than a magical premise. While the world­building in manga is a lot more elaborate, immersive and fantastical, it is very urban, extrapolative, realistic, and science fiction oriented in superhero comics. The structural difference is dominated by the necessity of comics to maintain status quo, accommodate the latest giant crossover event, and bow to the latest editorial mandate, while the pacing of a manga exists as a luxury that comics cannot afford. The manga industry is full of freedom to develop long­term plans without having to worry about wrapping up smaller arcs.

In conclusion, we can observe an odd reflection of individualistic and collectivist values in American comics and shonen manga respectively. Although overlapping at times, their existence is unique and dynamic.



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Rajsi Rajora is a student of English (Hons.) at St. Xavier’s College, Mumbai.

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