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June 28, 2012

Comics I Read In Series Form In The 1980s: Mai, The Psychic Girl


I'm not up on my translated-manga history, so I don't know where Mai, The Psychic Girl stands in terms of bringing that material to US audiences or why that project was selected by Viz and Eclipse for their foray into doing those kinds of series. I suspect it's an important early, sustained effort, particularly for "non prestige" material, but for all I know maybe people don't count Mai because it was flipped for this version. That's a tough world, one I don't always understand. I think Mai was a good choice, though. Mai featured the artwork of Ryiochi Ikegami; you couldn't grow a more idealized version of what North American action comics fans hoped that these manga artists were like if you had a futuristic laboratory with comics artist ingredients clearly labeled on the shelves. Everyone in Ikegami's work is super-appealing looking, a full commitment to being gorgeous that American superhero comics only ever embraced in oblique, occasional fashion. He's also one of those guys that can seemingly draw anything in his style, which is something that you'd only reserve for about 10 North American veterans even if a gig allowed them to do so. Throw a fine set of action-depiction chops and Ikegami was a perfect initial delivery system for the kind of studied, storytelling hooks manga offered after years of a wider appeal to their audiences than North American comics ever had to have: 1940s comic-strip pleasures, 1960s Disney Studio crowd-pleasing acumen. North American audiences were doomed.

The comic book series version of Mai was also attractively designed -- it stood out against an increasingly dreary cover landscape, at least -- and came out with military precision that you didn't see except in comics in which a lot of fans my age were losing interest at a noticeable rate. The story of a nice, ridiculously adorable girl's development of massive psychic abilities, the evil suits that seek to control her, and the scruffy, attractive and/or noble people that try to protect her, Mai or echoes of Mai can be seen in different stories or films about once a year. I have no idea if that's because Mai was influential or if it was drawing from a pretty standard pool of plot device and narrative approaches; my guess is both, favoring column B. As far as Mai starring a girl rather than a guy, I had no problem staring at the character for issue after issue, to the point I wonder if that's really a thing for comics audiences as is claimed for it. When it comes to Mai being a harbinger of asian pop culture chic... well, maybe. I can't really connect it to the appeal that manga later had because that seemed to start again from a zero point, but reading Mai and the other books out there at the time did seem to have some sort of continuity to watching Japanese cartoons, particularly the promise that there was all this slightly better stuff over there just waiting to be accessed. Reading Mai also wasn't that different in a way than watching the first wave of Asian action cinema that hit North American art houses like Chicago's The Music Box two, three years later -- that also seemed to favor material that did North American genres in a slightly grander, more ruthlessly effective way, art reflective of broadly mainstream taste that you could still feel exclusive taking in.

Dragging movies into this discussion seems appropriate because I also remember Mai as one of the first comics I read where there seemed to be fevered, near-irrational interest in seeing a film version, almost like it didn't exist as perfectly enjoyable comics but needed to find its way onto screen in order to justify itself. This was still the case some years later when Ikegami appeared in San Diego and received a barrage of questions to which his response was mostly the same: "I don't know anything about a movie version; I just drew the thing." I imagine Mai looks hoary and square to a lot of readers now, particularly manga readers, but that's only a hunch. I do remember I made it all the way through from beginning to end, and that this was a solid contributor to the pleasure I derived visiting the comics shop in the late 1980s. It did the job.
posted 5:01 am PST | Permalink

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