Dramacon vol. 1
Mike Toole rates it:
Author/Artist: Svetlana Chmakova
“Ameri-manga.” Even the label sounds ridiculous. I’ve been staying away from American comics with obvious manga influences for years, and I think I can attribute that to one single problem: Ninja High School. NHS was a particularly audacious ripoff of Urusei Yatsura that hit the American comics scene way back in the late 80s, western anime fandom’s Mesozoic Era; it was (still is, I’m fairly sure) a semi-regular pamphlet that’s limped along for well over a decade on the strength of its passing resemblance to Japanese comics. Sure, it was rarely very good or clever, but fans made do with it for generations, because hey, it kind of resembled manga! Wow! The trouble is, the series– or what I was willing to absorb of it– sucked! It was dull, derivative, and drawn pretty lamely. Even bad manga, the stuff from Japan, was better than this trash. Thus, I kept my distance from American comics that took stylistic cues from manga for a very, very long time, choosing to file American comics and manga into two very different places in my brain and comics collection.
Well, I can happily tell you that there’s no reason to do this anymore. These days, there are North American comics out there that bravely swipe visual and storytelling tics from manga but steer clear of lame stereotypes and pandering in favor of fresh, original storytelling– and as far as I’m concerned, there’s no better example of this than Dramacon, a new series about conventions, that hoary, all-consuming Jabberwock of anime fandom.
Christie is a teenaged girl at her first anime convention. She’s a little overwhelmed by it all– the colorful costumes, the huge crowds, the bizarre behavior by her college-age chaperones Brett and Opal, and most of all, the shameless, brazen display of flirting put on by her boyfriend, Derek. But Christie is a shy high school girl at her first convention, stuck in her first serious relationship, so she has trouble dealing with Derek’s indiscretions without making a scene. Enter Matt, a handsome, laconic older boy hiding behind a slick costume and a pair of shades. When Christie literally bumps into him on the convention floor, he’s able to help her articulate her frustrations with Derek– and in doing so, he sparks her interest in him. With a love triangle like that, drama is clearly in the cards.
First of all, yes, Dramacon cops the big eyes, stylized hair, and weird costumes from the ol’ Anime/Manga Playbook. What keeps this from seeming contrived is that Dramacon is actually about anime fandom, so it’s awfully easy to disregard the cat ears and spiky hair and let it rightfully blend into the background noise that characterizes any convention. The artist occasionally gets lazy about filling in some detail and backgrounds (gotta love entire pages that may well be taking place in the horrific dystopian world of THX-1138), but she’s got a real gift for caricature– the characters exhibit typical crap like giant sweatdrops, but artist/writer Svetlana Chmakova is great at conveying emotional responses like cowering, pulling a double-take, and the usual shock n’ anger.
On the writing side, what really impresses me about Dramacon is how quickly and easily Chmakova sets up a tableau of what makes conventions so addictive to fans– throngs of people with shared interests, instant rapports with colorful strangers, the crazed emotional rollercoaster that happens when you’re stuck in the closed loop of a convention space with misbehaving friends (I particularly liked the fact that Opal is always seen in costume, a trait of all good obsessive cosplayers) and attractive strangers, and the odd encounter with a cherished (and remarkably laid-back) hero artist or writer. Dramacon genuinely captures the giddy fun of anime conventions, pocky (or in this case “pawky”) and all.
I’ll even risk angering a whole bunch of people by pointing out that Dramacon is quite a bit like Megatokyo, only it’s… uh, good. (I’ve frequently been tempted to review the tepid Megatokyo books on this site, but I’ve held off because I knew that it would just generate hate mail, and I– hey wait a minute, that sounds like a great idea! I’ll get cracking on that review right away!) It’s a comic that’s sly and indulgent to anime fans, but still accessible, attractive, and wickedly funny. It’s going to be interesting to see how Chmakova handles her story’s pace (Christie and Matt, it seems, are destined to only meet at the convention, one weekend per year) in future volumes. I’m looking forward to them!
Added: Monday, November 28, 2005
Related Link: TOKYOPOP