Like the Epic revival and the various "Call of Duty" mini-series, the "Marvel Mangaverse" is somewhat doomed to go down in history as one of conceptually interesting, yet poorly implemented experiments of the Bill Jemas years. Unlike Ryoichi Ikegami's Spider-Man manga which was a genuine attempt at remaking the classic character for a Japanese audience, the Mangaverse consisted of American talents like Kaare Andrews, Brian Smithe, and most famously Ben Dunn. Dunn is a rather odd figure in the history of American comics. The founder of Antarctic Press and creator of Ninja High School, Dunn is something of a pioneer as he gradually carved out a tiny niche market for Manga-inspired comics in time when few American readers had ever heard of the word "Manga." Alas despite surviving both the black & white glut of the late 80s and the market crash of the 90s it appears Dunn will not go down in history as one of the truly beloved indy figures in comics history. Even after Ninja High School began to delve into more serious stories, it has continued to hold a reputation of being a fluff book filled with cliquish in-jokes, weak continuity and gratuitous fan service. Perhaps unfairly because of this a somewhat negative perception has formed in Manga fandom of Antartic Press and American Manga creators in general.
So when Dunn and his fellow Ameri-manga (or OEL Manga as it's sometimes called) creators were given the task turning familiar Marvel properties into something that could marketed to the growing crowd of anime and manga fans readers were treated to... wait for it... cliquish in-jokes, weak continuity, and gratuitous fan service. The books essentially consisted of stereotypical manga- inspired revisions of Marvel characters running through parodies of whatever Japanese pop culture the writers had seen. Not did some of these influences have very little to do with Manga, (Hulk was presented as a parody of Godzilla for instance) some of the Anime series parodied had not even received wide- spread American release in 2002. The end result was mildly amusing at best, and utterly bewildering at worst. Just what did the Dunn expect a reader who had never seen Giant Robo to think of the ending of Marvel Mangaverse: Eternity Twilight? It was like handing a 20 year old issue of Mad Magazine to a fight grader and expecting him to understand the parodies.
Despite having a handful of likeable characters and concepts the Mangaverse alas had a doubly negative impact on the comics market. Some manga fans who found the Mangaverse series shallow were skeptical of future Marvel titles. Conversely some superhero comics fans who found this to be their first taste of manga were now uneasy about trying the real thing. The ugly shadow of the Mangaverse alas ultimately stood over other Marvel titles aimed at similar demographics, perhaps hurting sales of far superior books like Mary Jane, Sentinel, and Araña.
Still back in 2002 the first Mangaverse trade sold like gang-busters, drawing in Ultimate Spider-Man like numbers in bookstores. Perhaps this is because in the early days of the manga boom people were curious enough to try just about anything with the word "manga" on it. Because of this Marvel tried several more Magaverse mini-series before putting the brand on the shelf.
Still considering the impressive sales of the original trade, it must have been hard for Marvel to give up on the concept. Which is precisely why we've now got a New Mangaverse mini-series in 2006, appropriately enough entitled "New Mangaverse" written by writer/editor C.B. Cebulski along with Japanese artist Tommy Ohtsuka whose credits include Shinobu Spirit and most famously multiple manga adaptations of the popular Slayers franchise. So can this New Mangaverse succeed where the new one failed? Lets see Spider-Fans.
Our first issue opens up with Dr. Strange meditating in his Sanctum Sanctorum when suddenly a trio of ninjas armed with magical rings jump in and slay him and his familiar Tigra without breaking a sweat. Strange is burned instantly to ashes, while Tigra gets frozen into a block of ice and chopped to pieces off camera. SEE WHAT HAPPENS WHEN YOU DISCUSS PHYSICS ON NEWSARAMA!. A rather depressing opening as these were two of the more likeable characters in the original Mangaverse.
We fade away to a two page splash to see Mary Jane swinging around in a costume that appears to combine elements of Jessica Drew and Mangaverse Spidey's wardrobes. She also appears to have uh... er... developed quite a bit as a character in a healthy bouncy way. Spidey swings up behind her begging her not to be so reckless. Spidey reminds her of how Doom killed Captain America and that now Superheroes have been driven into hiding sort of like Watchmen or The Incredibles. Now please excuse me while I scream at the top of my lungs for mentioning this comic in the same sentence as Watchmen or the Incredibles.
Suddenly without warning both Spider-Man and Spider-Chan are attacked by two more red ninjas. Team Spider holds their own quite well until the ninjas break out their magic rings. While Spidey is dodging fireballs the Ninja MJ is facing decides to show off by creating a whirlwind and throwing some throwing stars in it. The stars nick Spider-Chan's shoulder spilling some of that black- colored rated-A blood before slamming the girl into the wall. Just before the ninja can make the fatal blow, Black Cat runs in from behind and makes the save. Spotting Spider-Chan unconscious with a shuriken in her neck Felicia decides the best course of action is to administer mouth-to-mouth resuscitation. Within one panel our raiting jumps up from an all-ages "A" to an older teens "T+." Perhaps the creative team thought they were doing a sequel to "Phoenix: Legacy of Fire." [http://daveslongbox.blogspot.com/2005/09/x-men-phoenix-legacy-of-fire- marvel.html]
"Eww... yck... I'm gonna get Hairballs!" a rattled MJ says.
As luck would have it the first ninja with the IMPACT BEAM (Plot Point!) Black Cat swipes the VORTEX RING (Plot-Point!) off of the unconscious ninja taking off his finger with it. The trio of heroes swing off to find Black Cat's employer. Along the way they see the Fantastic Four setting off a flame beacon. Spider-Man wants to come to their aid, but Felicia insists there is no time. They arrive at the island lair of Toni Stark the Iron Girl who died at the end of the first Mangaverse series where both Spiders are surprised to see that it's in working order. We cut away to see a hologram of Sharon Carter conversing with a shadowy figure in a wheelchair. Multiple television screens are displaying scenes of absolute chaos. Daredevil appears to on his last legs! The Fantastic Four are getting slaughtered! The cute little Captain Marvel guy is laying dead in his mother's arms! Superboy Prime just massacred Titans East! Phantom Lady has been impaled with a sword! A giant toxic blob of lime green gelatin has belly-flopped the city of Bludhaven out of existence! It's horrible! It's horrible!
Sorry, I had this book confused with Infinite Crisis for a moment. Anyway the mysterious figure wants S.H.I.E.L.D to do something about this, but Sharon Carter's hands are tied because the plot says so. Peter and the gang walk in only to the group's shock discover that the figure in the chair is in fact Toni "Iron Girl" Stark's long lost brother Tony. Or at least the disembodied head of Tony attached to an iron lung with wheels on it. Poor guy.
We learn that someone is sending ninjas not just to attack the superheroes of New York, but they're striking at super humans all over the earth, possibly as a larger power play. Meanwhile in the background on the television we also learn that The Thing and Mr. Fantastic are now dead. Really dead. We're talking Bucky Dead... er... Jason Todd dead er... ah dammit. Nevermind.
Tony explains he was able to get to Felicia Hardy first due to her mercenary nature and that he was able to deduce Peter and MJ's secret identities. He also thankfully has Peter's Aunt and Mary Jane's mother under protection. Spider-Man tries to comfort a upset MJ by wrapping an arm around her shoulders forgetting she took a shuriken there earlier. Oops! Stark helpfully leads our heroes to his med lab, where a big glass tube filled with glowing yellow liquid contains the living unconscious body of one of the X-Men. Guess which one? C'mon guess!
Yeah... it's Wolverine.
In General: Every so often I stumble onto a comic for which I have no actual idea who it's aimed at. It defies classification. This is sort of like that book.
It seems to assume that reader must have some degree of familiarity with the original Mangaverse but treats numerous characters in it as disposable. How are new readers supposed to react to these characters getting wiped out just as soon as they're introduced to them? Is it aimed at fans who enjoyed the original Mangaverse series or at least parts of it? If so why kill so many characters? Are fans who disliked the original Mangaverse line supposed to be excited to see the heroes from it being annihilated? I'm confused. Although to be quite honest this recent trend of using character deaths as selling points in superhero in general comics baffles me.
Art wise this new series looks a lot better than the original Mangaverse and little details like the posture and the body language shine. The use of speed- lines during the action scenes are thrilling. That said while manga can be used to express countless tones, I find the juxtaposition of the art and the apocalyptic story jarring. Even though the violence is mostly bloodless and off camera it feels like picking up an issue of "Teen Titans Go!" only to see Dr. Light killing Aqualad.
Story wise things are much more coherent than the original Mangaverse, thankfully ditching the parody sequences for a much more straight forward action-adventure plot. That said it's not completely my cup of tea. (Really Toni Stark's got a long lost severed head for a brother?) I'll be watching curiously if things get better or worse.
I'll be a little generous for the first issue. Just because Mary Jane looks so darn adorable in her ninja Spider-Woman costume.
Who lives? Who dies? Just who is behind all this? And who is comic aimed at anyway? Find out next time true-believers.