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Ratman – Manga Mondays

Posted on: November 30, 2009

Nananana-nananana-nananana-nananana RATMAAAAAAN!

This week’s Manga Monday is from an artist very near and dear to my heart: Inui Sekihiko, who made his professional debut drawing the excellent Comic Party manga. His latest work, Ratman, is both a love song to and a critique of the superhero genre, be it the Japanese tokusatsu hero or the American comic book superhero. It’s one of my current favorite manga, combining great art with a story and theme I can relate to from both an American and Japanese standpoint.

Ratman is the story of Katsuragi Shuuto, a hot-blooded high school student with dreams of becoming a superhero. In most other stories, that would just be a pipe dream; in the world of Ratman, it’s possible, but is only available to the priviliged few. The superhero creation process is prohibitively expensive, so in most cases, superheroes have corporate sponsors and are treated like celebrities. Shuuto is short and not very photogenic, so his aspirations don’t seem very likely in a world where marketing is just as important as superpowers.

Shuuto’s passion and sense of justice don’t bring him any endorsement deals, but they do attract the attention of his classmate Mirea, who is a member of a villainous group known as Jackal. She and her sister trick him into becoming their first guinea pig, a “dark hero” known as Ratman. The Jackal group, which harbors an enigmatic grudge against the superhero community at large, forces Shuuto headfirst into the world of superheroes, where he finds out that being a hero isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. The more heroes he meets and clashes with, the more he becomes disillusioned by the cynical and mercenary world of professional heroism and the more he wishes to mimic the heroes of his youth: idealistic, virtuous, and proud.

So far, the story has been very personal to Shuuto and hasn’t strayed very far from him, tempting as it might be to go on a tangent and give the absolutely fascinating supporting cast some more face time. We’ve followed every step of his growth: from powerless and indignant weakling, to confused newbie in the superhero world, to disillusioned and angry teenager, to his current status of talented and determined hero-in-training. It’s been a great ride so far, with plenty of comedy, melodramatic identity crises, and romance – all integral parts of the basic superhero tableau, and all given their due in the pages of the book.

One of my favorite elements of Ratman is how Inui manages to critique the worst parts of the modern superhero while never giving in to pure cynicism and remaining loyal to the core ideals of the genre. Seeing the world from the eyes of an unwilling “villain” lets you see both the good and the bad in the world as heroes of all walks of life come gunning for Ratman, and Inui makes sure that there are no one-dimensional characters. Shuuto’s experience in the world is very balanced – when he sees the underappreciated supporting cast of a supergroup turning on their glory-hogging leader, he also sees the fundamental heroic urge that led them to becoming a team in the first place. He meets the rich and the poor, the dangerously reckless and the kind-hearted, and he learns a little about himself from all of them.

In a particularly memorable sequence of scenes, Ratman meets his idol Ankaiser, one of the most popular heroes in the business. After a brief comic interlude where the starstruck Shuuto asks for Ankaiser’s autograph, he gets his face beaten in by the media golden boy, who laughs and calls heroism “just a job.” When next they meet, Ankaiser has started a fire at a hotel, simply to make his imminent victory over Ratman more dramatic. Shuuto, enraged at Ankaiser’s willing endangerment of hundreds of people for personal gain, proceeds to thrash Ankaiser so badly that he spends the next few weeks unconscious. But the story doesn’t end there: Shuuto later meets Ankaiser in his civilian identity, where he trains prospective boxers and provides them with hope for the future. The way Inui gives every character an extra dimension makes Ratman a lot of legs on re-readings, as you see the characters in a new light the second time around.

Image from chapter 16

Oh yeah, and the art's really good too.

Not every character is developed so deeply, of course, but the amount of life Inui breathes into his cast is amazing. Even Jackal’s ubiquitous henchmen, the Jackies, manage to ooze personality without ever saying a word or removing their skull masks – they’re a testament to Inui’s ability to portray physical comedy with dynamic layouts and paneling, and they’re absolutely hilarious.

The Ratman manga has been licensed by TokyoPop, and when it comes out next year I’ll be sure to let you know. The manga is very accessible to Western audiences due to its American comic book sensibilities, and I’ve been looking forward to its American debut since I first talked to Inui about it at Fanime 2007.

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2 Responses to "Ratman – Manga Mondays"

This does look really interesting, I really like the idea of the concept. Thanks for talking about this, I would have missed it otherwise!

Can’t wait to hear when it’s out. Also, always was interesting in Comic Party, so I’ll be picking it up soon, with your blessing.

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