Grotesque Anatomy
Tuesday, November 04, 2003
  Self-Loathing Theatre
Augie De Blieck Jr. reviews two manga in this week's Pipeline.  I haven't read any Lupin III, but I have read the first two volumes of Iron Wok Jan.  I'm not sure what Augie meant by referring to this series as his "personal comics find of the year":  I've always understood the expression "personal find" as signifying the unassisted discovery of something no one else knows about.  But Iron Wok Jan has been recommended by a number of reviewers:  Randy Lander, Greg McElhatton, Peter Siegel, Tony Isabella, Bill Sherman, and probably others I'm overlooking.  Perhaps all Augie meant to say was that Iron Wok Jan is something he just got around to reading, and boy is he enjoying it so far.  It just seems strange not to mention the critical buzz surrounding this book, which appears to be one of those manga (along with Uzumaki) that even self-proclaimed non-manga devotees universally enjoy. 

Personally, I've always been surprised that Iron Wok Jan enjoys such critical acclaim.  Although the book stands out for its efforts to make cooking exciting, Iron Wok Jan also relies heavily on the formulas of many shonen (young boy) manga, most notably the single-minded determination to become the best X there is (where X = ninja, card game player, cook, shaman, fighter, pirate, etc.), usually driven by some half-acknowledged desire to live up to a family member's demands or expectations.  This isn't to say that Iron Wok Jan isn't fun, but I am surprised that more attention isn't given to how formulaic the series can be.

I suppose part of it depends on how familiar one is with a given formula, and I don't know how familiar various reviewers are with manga conventions.  Bill Sherman, who's pretty up-front with the fact that he's just beginning to explore manga, does point out how Iron Wok Jan fits the mold of another genre he's familiar with:  "In a way, the chapters of Iron Wok Jan! are structured like an old Silver Age superhero comic: we have a problem and our cooking hero solves it, then explains how s/he solved it to the other chefs and the reader."  And Augie points out how Iron Wok Jan subverts the expectations of romantic comedies:  "As you can imagine, two opposing personalities like that are bound to explode when pushed together. Thankfully, this isn't MOONLIGHTING. This isn't romantic tension. They sidestep that thorny and clichéd issue all together in this book. Jan and Kiriko are heated rivals, and that's the end of it. There are some stories that present one or the other finding new things to respect in their opposite number, but there is no sense that a romance is a fait accompli."  (Bill doesn't sound convinced that Iron Wok Jan will be able to avoid the Moonlighting/Cheers effect, writing "At one point, the two trade so many one word barbs that you just know romance is inevitable.") 

Now that I think about it, I'm not even sure how qualified I am to pontificate on the conventions of shonen manga, since my exposure to that genre is basically limited to what I've read from one source--Shonen Jump.  Perhaps my perspective on the matter is skewed by the material Viz has chosen to carry in the anthology.  And I haven't even bothered to discuss the ways in which Iron Wok Jan deviates from the formulaic structure I think I see in other shonen manga.  (For one thing, Jan, the protagonist, is characterized as irritating and unlikeable, which is a change from other shonen manga where the lead is portrayed as kind and sympathetic.)

So what was my point again?  I think all I've really done in this rambling entry is expose myself as one of those annoying commentators who's read just enough about something (in this case, manga) to act like an expert when he thinks others are getting it wrong.  Which is especially ironic/annoying/hypocritical because less than a year ago I was begging readers' forgiveness for my lack of knowledge regarding manga as I set out to review manga for Anime News Network.

So today's lesson?  Man, I suck.
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Iron Fist

by John Jakala

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