Back when I was studying in Japan, I thought it was mega-cool how comic books were a way of life in that country. Store shelves were often jammed with huge volumes. Each volume was filled with tons of different stories. It blew me away how you could literally create your own collection of favorites and get pure satisfaction from whatever your urge for story was.

For the last few years, I’ve noticed that the big chain bookstores have been carrying huge collections of manga volumes. That is, comic books collected into trade paperbacks of a size that’s easily transported in a purse or bookbag. The manga collections easily outstrip the graphic novel section in size and scope, both of mainstream Marvel/DC has-beens and independent trade paperbacks combined.

K and I decided to finally start getting involved, so we sat down and selected some titles. I kept getting the feeling that there’s “energy” here, and that what’s happening in comics is where the manga is. The other stuff is just the artifacts of an old road that’s rapidly aging itself into obsolesence.

Manga are usually rated by age, from 13-18, and/or by genre (comedy, fantasy, etc.). I would place a lot of what I saw in the bookstore as “teen” overall, with an attitude directed towards the teen mindset. But, I found these books to be amazingly addictive and engaging for the adult mindset, and that’s no mean feat.

There’s supposedly a line between the “teen” subset and the “mature” subset, but I didn’t find myself attracted to anything “mature”, as it reeked too much of the phony sex and violence of mainstream comics. If there’s a particular strength in these “teen” manga, it is the focus on relationships and conflict. These make for good stories, so even if you don’t get the Japanese cultural references or like the attention to cuteness, very often there’s a core that keeps you reading, and reading.

What gets me is that this is a new thing I haven’t seen in mainstream (and many independent) comics. You have a defined baseline outlook that unifies the entire “teen” manga setup, and you have a vast diversity of premises that means you can find satisfaction if you look. There’s a reward for getting involved I just don’t see in western comics.

And judging by the shelf space and the amount of young people crowding me out, there’s a huge demand here. Well, duh! Young people are reading comics who have never heard of Captain America or the X-men or Superman or Crumb’s Mister Natural, and have never known the tangled history behind mainstream comics.

That makes me happy. Go, young people! Instead of the same old young turks kicking old farts off the block to claim a share, this is a new subculture that doesn’t owe us comic dweebs a damn thing. It’s like back in the day, when I picked up a Richie Rich comic and nobody took it seriously, but it was my interest and I found my own world power in it. That special feeling has been born anew in another time and another place, and who knows what mighty powers these youngsters might be developing.

Would it even be powers? Maybe it’s a whole new kind of culture and civilization that delves into something the superheroes and neurotic loner stories of the past lost touch with. The oldsters can’t go back, but maybe they’ll be redeemed by the struggles of the next generation. Because right now, the comic wasteland suffers without the dream.