Comics Are Trying to Break Your Heart #17 by Drew Barth
The Shonen Problem
Everyone loves a good Shonen series. They’re fast-paced, filled to bursting with action, typically include an expansive cast of characters for anyone to grow attached to, and are fairly fun with that right balance of drama to keep a reader interested. In many ways, Shonen manga and anime are quite similar to monthly superhero comics. And while tastes and styles are different, audiences come to each genre for the same thing: story, characters, and action.
Shonen Jump began as a weekly magazine in Japan roughly fifty years ago and has gone on to become iconic in its status as both the best-selling manga magazine as well as the starting place for many of the most well-known manga in the world. Nearly every major manga series to become popular in the states originated in Shonen Jump—One Piece, Dragon Ball, Naruto, Fist of the North Star, etc.
The most popular, beloved series to come out of Shonen Jump is Dragon Ball. Created by Akira Toriyama in 1984, Dragon Ball is to Shonen what Batman is to superhero comics. Dragon Ball as a series has been ubiquitous in popular culture from recent fighting games to Patti Smith (thatPatti Smith) sitting down and enjoying the latest Dragon Ball film. Or perhaps you would prefer this fine fashion from Forever 21? But as a result of Dragon Ball’s ubiquity and popularity, its flaws have also influenced many other popular Shonen series as well.
If you have read Dragon Ball Z or watched the anime when they were younger, then you know the Shonen formula: There’s a bad guy. How do we handle the bad guy? We hit him real hard. That didn’t work. We hit him even harder. That sort of worked, but now the bad guy is also hitting harder. We almost lose and the bad guy is calling us pathetic. Now we’re going to scream and think about our friends/family until we can hit the bad guy SO MUCH HARDERand then we win. We celebrate.
But now there’s another bad guy who hits hard enough to blow up a planet. Guess we got to train/scream/charge up/etc. until we can also hit the new bad guy even harder.
From Dragon Ball Z’s Saiyan Saga onward, that’s more or less how stories unfold. Of course there were more nice character moments, some smaller villains, a bit of comedy, and an android marriage, but the beats perpetually returned to that same cycle.
Many other series ended up falling into this pattern as well. Naruto, One Piece, and Bleach were, and still are, among the other most popular series released by Shonen Jumpbut they still fall into these simplified drama trappings.
As long as the main characters can power up through training or sheer force of will, they will always win in the end. Whether it be in the form of a character going Super Saiyan God Super Saiyan, utilizing the final techniques of the Sage Art, opening their final Bankai, or going into Gear Four, there’s always another level for all of these main characters to power up to defeat the nextbad guy in a long line of bad guys.
When many of these series have hundreds of chapters and have been going on for over twenty years in some cases, the constant powering up and fights become repetitiously, repeatedly, redundantly tiresome.
However, this narrative weakness reminds me of a broader problem with Shonen and other manga genres: many manga chapters are published in various weekly magazines, be it Shonen Jump, Big Comic, etc., and many series chapters are anywhere from ten to eighteen pages. That is sixty to a hundred panels of penciled, inked, finished, and lettered manga in a single week, not including the labor for the mangaka to actually write the story and dialogue. The crunch time for a manga chapter sounds terrible, and with only the mangaka and maybe a couple assistants if they can afford them, I can understand why so many of the most popular Shonen series fall into the above tropes.
At the same time, the tropes are partly why people love Shonen. Reading through chapter #645 of Naruto likely has the same effect as reading Detective Comics #1002. For readers, there is a familiarity with the characters, the setting, and the action that is likely comforting. Shonen manga provides a slightly different use of character since a series is typically a single creative mind working toward an end goal with all the character growth and development that comes with the years of a series being published. But, like with Superhero comics, there is that tendency to fall into the above tropes since there is only so far a creator can take the one or two characters a series is focused on. It makes me wonder: are there are any Shonen series that are roughly thirty years old that don’t have the typical Shonen issues?
Get excited. Next week is a Bizarre Adventure.
Drew Barth (Episode 331) is a writer residing in Winter Park, FL. He received his MFA from the University of Central Florida. Right now, he’s worrying about his cat.