Fly Like An 'Eagle;' Looking Back On the Political Manga Series

[Eagle Book 1]U.S. Politics in recent years have played out more like an afternoon soap opera than anything else. Infidelity, murder investigations, accusations of voter fraud. We've seen all that and then some. As a result, public interest in politics has grown in two ways -- for those who want to follow just the scandals and for those who are interested in learning more about the political machine.

The U.S. television network NBC was able to take advantage of this rising interest in politics with their hit television program "The West Wing," which follows the staff of a fictional U.S. President. Recently the show wrapped its third season, leaving fans only with repeats to hold them over through the summer until the show returns later this year. Fans of that program, and politics in general, may find themselves presenting certain withdrawal symptoms without any immediate political drama for them to follow, but if Viz Publications has their way, they hope you'll pick-up a book or two of their political Manga series "Eagle" by Japanese creator Kaiji Kawaguchi.

Kawaguchi's "Eagle" recently finished its English publication collected in five books totaling over 2000 pages in length. An epic graphic novel, "Eagle" takes a look at the American Political system through the eyes of a Japanese reporter, Takashi Jo. The story tells the campaign of an Asian-American candidate for the Democratic Nomination for President, New York Senator Kenneth Yamaoka. Starting with his announced run for the party nomination and concluding with the presidential campaign of Yamaoka, the complex and richly-detailed story takes you on a behind the scenes tour of a fictional campaign with all the twists and turns you'd expect, inspired by actual political campaigns. "Eagle" has been lauded by critics in both the comics press and mainstream media and has garnered four Eisner nominations including a nomination in this years awards for Best U.S. Edition of Foreign Material. CBR News caught up with Viz editor Carl Horn to learn more about "Eagle's" creator and find out how the book did in the states compared to it's original publication in Japan.

"Kaiji Kawaguchi went to the elite Meiji University, and made his professional debut as a manga artist in 1968, while still in school -- he was 20 at the time," Horn told CBR News. "His experiences as a student of that generation inspired one of his many stories, the eight-volume mid-'90s manga 'Medusa,' in which lovers from a famous real-life incident, the 1970 student siege of Tokyo University, reunite twenty-five years later; the woman still an underground radical, the man a rising government official."

"The title that first made Kawaguchi a superstar was 'The Silent Service' (1988-1996). It's three times the length of 'Eagle' and has sold well in excess of twenty-five million copies as a graphic novel. You could say that it takes such inspirations as 'The Hunt For Red October' and 'The Mouse That Roared.'" Like 'Eagle,' 'The Silent Service' is also inspired by real people including now U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell and former CNN news anchor Bernard Shaw and is also reflective of the rapidly changing world events that occurred during its run. Currently Kawaguchi is working on "Zipang," which runs in the weekly magazine "Morning" back in Japan. "Zipang" is Kawaguchi's first story that contains science-fiction elements.

[Eagle Book 2]With the incredible popularity that shows like "The West Wing" have enjoyed you might think "Eagle" would reap some of those benefits. Despite this seemingly natural tie-in and the critical success of the book, it made no difference in overall sales.

"It is unfortunate that sales of 'Eagle' were very low throughout almost its entire run; neither the events of the 2000 election, nor mention in the national press, nor four Eisner nominations ever seemed to help," said Horn. "And to this day, I'm not entirely sure why. It would be one thing if 'Eagle' were the sort of avant-garde title which it's hard for the reader to get a grip on, but I feel that Kawaguchi is a real storyteller with a narrative drive and strong, realistic artwork.

"However, 'Eagle' was never advertised or promoted outside the direct comics market, and it is my hope that now, with the series collected in five volumes, it can reach an audience of people interested in politics who don't ordinarily read comics. I'd be very happy if only one out of a hundred of the people who follow 'The West Wing' got into 'Eagle.' Although it is set in 2000, it could be just as much a story about the next election as the last one."

And while "Eagle" may not have been as big a success in Japan as "The Silent Service" was, compared to circulation numbers of top U.S. comic books "Eagle" did extremely well.

"'Eagle' was a modest success in Japan, although not on the level of 'The Silent Service.' Graphic novel sales totaled several hundred thousand. As a side note, the Japanese editor requested I send back a package of souvenirs of the 2000 Presidential campaign. I went to the Bush office in San Mateo and the Gore office in Alameda, and got buttons, signs, bumper stickers, T-shirts, etc. These were then given away in a drawing to the Japanese readers of 'Eagle.'"

[Eagle Book 3]Kawaguchi may not be a household name in the states, but in his native Japan the man's a literary superstar.

"At this stage in his career Kawaguchi is as much a name as Tom Clancy or Stephen King; Japanese readers buy each new work just based on the fact that he did it, confident it's going to be worth their while."

For "Eagle," Kawaguchi sought out a great deal of reference to form his story and visited the United States personally to get a feel for the people and the country. Horn pointed CBR News to an interview Kawaguchi conducted with the Los Angeles Times in October of 2000 where he discussed this further.

"...I have visited Washington D.C., New York City, and Honolulu, for about a week at each location," Kawaguchi told the LA Times. "I have also spent a few days each in Boston, Manchester, New Haven, Chicago, Seattle, Houston, Dallas, and San Antonio. All these visits occurred after I had conceived of and began writing this story. I was impressed with the multicultural variety of New York City and with the physical size of Texas (also, by the large portions of food). Something else that left an impression on me were the superhighways; in Japan, freeways usually only have two lanes. Overall, I received an impression of America having a strong social foundation and being today an energetic and lively nation. There is a great difference between what you know and what you actually experience. This is particularly true for me as a manga artist. It was only when I actually stood 'on location' for 'Eagle' that the story came welling up..."

For the story Kawaguchi constantly searched Japanese media for information on the 2000 Presidential Campaign and the American Presidency in general. He was advised by members of NHK-TV television in Japan as well as a scholar of American Politics who's a professor at Waseda University in Japan.

[Eagle Book 4]"As for architecture and geography," continued Kawaguchi with the Times, "when I visited 'Eagle's' locations, I took what eventually amounted to 50 photo albums' worth of pictures and used them as my reference while drawing. In addition, while I was gathering material in various parts of America, I also met with a variety of people. For example, I met with the Japanese-American Association in Seattle, where I heard many accounts of their experiences during the Second World War. In Dallas I was allowed to observe a city council meeting. I tried to gather as much raw material as I could. And even now, various people that I met in America are still sending information to me. I am very grateful to them."

The inspiration for "Eagle" came to Kawaguchi after watching an American political documentary.

"...I first became interested in using the American presidential election as subject matter after watching the documentary 'The War Room' [note: the Japanese title of this film is 'The Man Who Made Clinton President']," Kawaguchi told the LA Times, "which followed the activities of the campaign consultant, James Carville. I recall being amazed and feeling sweaty-palmed excitement at 'The War Room's' depiction of a kind of comprehensive and high-quality media strategy which is unheard of in Japanese politics.

"As for 'Eagle' the manga, I thought: the idea of how this man, the President of the United States, is selected - this man who will have a tremendous effect on the world, the spectacle of the world's most involved political contest - now that's an interesting setting for a story!

[Eagle Book 5]"Although I have never directly been involved in the film industry, I have always had a strong interest in film...There are certain areas in 'Eagle' where I have been conscious of filmic methods-with the movement of the characters, the use of space, and particularly with 'camera angles.'"

As a side note, Horn tells CBR News that Kawaguchi has expressed interest in having Hollywood adapt his work for film or television. Currently there are no plans to do so.

The job of translating and adapting "Eagle" for an American audience posed a number of challenges for Horn and crew, not only with language, but also layout and finally packaging to give it an appropriate American feel.

"'Eagle' was translated by Yuji Oniki, an extremely cultured translator, journalist, and indie musician (his album 'Orange' received many favorable reviews in the trade press) who teaches Japanese literature at Berkeley," said Horn. "The translation was then handed over to me, as editor and English rewriter. Editors in Japan, as described in Sharon Kinsella's recommended study 'Adult Manga,' take an activist approach, and I felt I had to work hard on the project. I took the cue from Kawaguchi's extensive research into American history, and use of American settings and characters, to give all characters and scenes a true-life American voice. This expressed itself both in the graphic design and the script.

"Graphic design presented particular challenges. As you are aware, the Japanese language, like Hebrew and Arabic, is usually read right-to-left; this orientation extends to manga layouts and hence manga published in translation here have traditionally been 'flopped' -- mirror-reversed - so that the action can read left-to-right for Western readers. Although leaving the manga 'unflopped' is a provocative new trend (TokyoPop does it extensively, and Viz itself does it for five of its titles), I would not have wanted to do it for 'Eagle.' In some ways it would have been easier, because of Kawaguchi's constant portrayal of recognizable American locales and driving (i.e., on the right) scenes -- accurate portrayals that would be spoiled by flopping. But I feel that turning and reading the pages in a Japanese order would distance American readers from a story that is meant, after all, to be American. I chose a hybrid solution, pasting down unflopped panels in 'flopped' reading order. Sometimes this involved cutting up and re-assembling entire pages; fortunately Kawaguchi's layouts are not as baroque as those in some manga. This hybrid approach is similar to the one used by Studio Proteus/Dark Horse Comics on Hiroaki Samura's 'Blade of the Immortal.'

"Another graphic approach in the English version was more extensive use of real visual media American motifs. You can see this in the original cover design of both our monthly issues, which used a collage of licensed TV news images resonant with the events of each issue. I chose, and designer Izumi Evers laid out, video stills from archived footage that included such things as a neo-Nazi march in Atlanta, a rally by Bill Bradley, Cuban-Americans in Miami, or the campaign of the late Congressman John Swigert, the Apollo 13 astronaut who was one of the inspirations for Yamaoka's Republican opponent, Senator Richard Grant. The covers of the five collected editions ('Eagle' Books 1 - 5) were also original designs between Izumi Evers and myself, based obviously on an American newspaper front page."

Within the pages of "Eagle" can be found a number of faux-newspaper articles providing updates on the various stages of the campaign. In the original Manga, Kawaguchi might use a generic newspaper article in English, one that might not even relate to the actual story. Obviously for an American translation that won't work, so Horn created new headliners and newspaper stories. Horn paid close attention to detail in modeling each newspaper after the locale visited during the campaign. " Newsprint was created with a combination of high- and low-tech methods; something created in Illustrator 9.0 might then be run through a FAX machine five times to create the rougher, pulpy look of blown-up typesetting," said Horn. "The dramatic arrangement of the final front page to appear in EAGLE was based on The New York Times' layout for September 11, which, as the series' postscript implies, happened just as we were preparing the final issue.

"In terms of script, I wanted to give the American characters (and of course, almost all the characters in the story are Americans) authentic voices. While it would have been a questionable proposition for Kawaguchi to try and represent dialect 'equivalents' in Japanese, it was appropriate to represent it in the English version; for example, in the Texas sequences. Although a native Californian, I've spent about eight and half years of my life, off and on, in Texas, and felt Kawaguchi understood certain aspects of the Texan soul and identity quite well; places like the Star Cafe [a restaurant Senator Yamaoka visits in 'Eagle'] actually exist."

Horn himself has been active behind-the-scenes in politics, having worked for the campaigns of Bob Kerrey and Jerry Brown in 1992. That experience helped him shape his input in "Eagle."

"I've tried to put these experiences and interests into my work on 'Eagle;' it also helped me to realize the more subtle aspects of where Kawaguchi was choosing to shift and alter from real events (for example, like Al Noah, Sr., Al Gore, Sr. was also a U.S. Senator, but Gore's father had already passed away by the time of the 2000 election). When I was a kid, I read Robert Heinlein's political thriller 'Double Star,' which was based in part on his own 1934 campaign for the California State Assembly (which, in a history-changing move, he narrowly lost) and which impressed me with the idea that a politician and statesman is inseparable from the team backing him. Kawaguchi of course profiles this through such characters as Tuck, Sarah, and McCoy. This also influenced my work as an adaptor and editor; I viewed 'Eagle' as the candidate, and myself as its campaign manager, seeking to convey Kawaguchi's native charisma, ideas and energy as a storyteller with the best presentation in text and graphics."

While Horn is not aware of any U.S. Politicians who have read "Eagle," the Taipei Times ran a story in 2001 that indicates a high ranking Taiwanese legislator, Cho Jung-tai, was a big fan of "Eagle."

"Topics [depicted in 'Eagle'] such as the transfer of power, political reorganization and the young revolutionary generation versus the older generation in politics are close to experiences in my own political career," Cho told the Taipei Times.

All five collected books of "Eagle" are now available and can be ordered by your favorite comic book retailer through Diamond Comics Distributors.

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