Pretty Maniacs vols. 1-2
Chad Clayton rates it:
Author/Artist: Shinsuke Kurihashi
Price: $9.95 each
I’ve noticed over the years that comics about fans or fandom tend to be very self-limiting in nature. The limitations don’t come from the subject matter itself so much as the approach the subject matter seems to demand. You see, most comics about fandom are written for fans by fans, primarily because the only people who really give a rip about fandom are the people involved in it and/or seek to profit from it. And so, most fandom comics tend to be very indulgent towards fandom’s love of gratuitous in-jokes and masturbatory self-celebration. After all, what is a pro-fandom comic other than a subculture’s love letter to itself?
Of course, there are a handful of comics that dare to break the mold and portray the fandom in a realistic and interesting light. Shimoku Kio’s Genshiken produced one of the most realistic, vital portrayals of anime fandom ever; one that was affectionate yet damning, humorous yet sad. Svetlana Chmakova’s Dramacon was more openly indulgent towards fans, but it still provided some wickedly funny insight into the con environment and why it appeals to young people. Both comics had something to say and the courage to say it, and neither flinched when it came time to expose some of fandom’s darker elements for what they were. Unfortunately, they are more the exceptions than the rule. The “rule” of fandom comics is closer to Pretty Maniacs, a goofy slapstick comedy about fandom that betrays a little too much affection towards its subject matter to be terribly funny or interesting.
Shinano is your basic gung-ho genki girl (read: total spaz) who’s been bitten by the otaku bug – hard. The manga follows her adventures in trying to put together a manga club in her high school. Once the club’s been put together, however, the manga begins wandering off into a bunch of episodic little stories about fandom. I don’t know if it’s all leading up to something or not – the first volume established a corrupt, antagonistic art teacher as a potential villain, but as I recall, he’s absent in the second volume. I don’t know if it’s a dropped plot thread, or if he’s just being saved for later.
Without exception, the best fandom comics I’ve ever read were the ones that focused on the human side of fandom: the ones that established strong, true-to-life characters, and never let the focus stray far from them. Pretty Maniacs, however, places its focus on the concept of fandom. It’s more concerned with what fans do than who fans are. It makes motions towards showing some of the activities and supposed mentalities of Japanese fans, but the material is often covered in a very superficial manner, and what might have been the most potentially funny or enlightening parts are glossed over or skipped entirely. Instead of getting some warm, funny anecdotes about staying up late putting a doujin together, Pretty Maniacs seems to think that the idea of three girls spending all night folding paper while dressed as the principal cast of Cat’s Eye would be the most amusing scene possible. Thrilling.
The portrayal of fandom aside, Pretty Maniacs doesn’t really have much else to merit much commendation. Its character designs are appealing, if not very distinctive. Its characters are engaging enough, but it’s not as though these characters couldn’t appear – or haven’t appeared – in countless other manga. There’s plenty of room for humor and insight, but Pretty Maniacs falls into the fandom-comic trap of being too nice to be funny or meaningful. It’s very quick to extol the virtues of fandom (real, imagined, or invented), but it goes out of its way to avoid confronting any issues of real consequence surrounding the subculture. The bulk of the humor comes from overused slapstick, archetypal “manga humor” like explosive nosebleeds, and situational-humor gags, and references to other series that are less about being funny than giving the readers an opportunity to “get” the reference. To its credit, though, the manga could have been much worse. Asides from a very few “Shinano’s a pervert” gags and the like, Pretty Maniacs is a mostly harmless, inoffensive affair that tries to make up for its lack of ingenuity with enthusiasm, so it’s a little hard to be too down on it.
But even so, I can’t conclude that Pretty Maniacs has much more to offer than a pat on the back to the fandom that inspired it. It occasionally takes the format of a primer (or apologetic) towards Japanese fandom, but there’s little here that isn’t common sense or something that can’t be learned with a few minutes’ worth of Internet research. It makes some appeals to initiated members of fandom, but it’s a celebration of fandom as it exists – and could only exist – within a manga. In my jaundiced point of view, it often comes off as an attempt to turn people on to fandom through the fetishization of the “otaku as cute anime girl” concept, but several of its references would be pretty esoteric to anyone but a seasoned fan. Whatever interpretation you choose to accept, the whole of Pretty Maniacs is reflective of its primary character: it’s energetic, overly earnest, and head-over-heels in love with itself. It succeeds on that level, but I can’t imagine anyone but a relative newbie to manga finding it very fulfilling reading.
Added: Monday, March 13, 2006
Related Link: DrMaster Books