Kawaiide World: even superheroes can be cute

Thanks to Ada Palmer of the Anime & Manga Research Circle list for a heads-up on Junko Mizuno‘s Spiderman comic for Marvel. The divine Ms M’s recent (Sept 2009) Spidermanga envisions Peter Parker and his beloved Mary Jane as Stan Lee would never have imagined. MJ comes off especially well – in Mizuno’s Spidertown she’s a foxy dollybird with a penchant for making red Jello.

©Marvel/Mizuno

This image was originally posted on a fabulous Italian blog called Non Solo Kawaii. Not only does it collect cuteness, fantasy and style across a wide range of media,  from all over the world, but it also offers English translations for the linguistically challenged.

Covering everything from movies, musicals and manga to fine art, toys and lifestyle goods, it’s a visual treasurehouse where every click leads you to a new feast of eclectic imagery. A visit there may well have you wandering their pages for hours – it certainly destroyed my schedule for the day.

This week alone, the homepage leads with an interview with watercolourist Juri Ueda atop a photo-feature on kimono, another interview with fashion photo-fantastist Tim Walker, Barbie’s 50th birthday in Italy and the many versions of Dickens’ classic A Christmas Carol. Tear up the appointments list for today and treat yourself to a visit.

Spidey has another cute incarnation in Spiderman J: Japanese Knights, Marvel’s US release of Akira Yamanaka’s Spiderman Family. Hero Sho Amano is a shy, clumsy fifteen-year-old with similar paranormal gifts to the American Spidey, who hides his identity to protect his family and friends. Only goofy Detective Makoto and his loyal pets, Leo the cat, Par the dog and Don the bird, know his secret.

Of course, manga starring American comic heroes aren’t new. Batman has a long history in manga, chronicled in Chip Kidd’s beautifully illustrated reference tome Batmanga.  Spidey first appeared in Japanese comics way back in 1970, in Shonen magazine. The first six issues were written and drawn by 26-year-old Ryoichi Ikegami, but from issue seven Kazumasa Hirai took over script duties. Ikegami’s Spiderman, a junior high school student called Yu Komori, is bitten by a radioactive spider, has powers similar to Peter Parker’s, and faces some Japanese versions of the villains from the US series. (Ikegami later became a US fan favourite when his 1985 manga Mai the Psychic Girl became one of the first to be translated and published in America, in 1987. He’s probably best known in the West for his work with Kazuo Koike on Crying Freeman, and for his work with writer Buronson on Strain, Sanctuary, and his current historical epic Lord.)

Japanese Spidey got his own live-action TV series from Toei in 1978. His name wasn’t Peter Parker, but Takuya Yamashiro. His origin story is different on Japanese screens too – he’s a bike racer who sees a UFO falling to Earth and is drawn into the war with evil alien Professor Monster’s invading Iron Cross Army. This fits the mould of established Japanese tokusatsu (special effects) TV series such as Kamen Rider, where the hero is always an insect-themed biker.

© Marvel

If someone had told the original Spider-fans, who fell for the character on his 1962 debut, that one day their tortured teen superhero would be a cute, squashed-down kook in wacky adventures drawn by a Japanese chick, they would probably have laughed. Then again, if someone told them Spidey would one day share a cover with the current President of the United States, they’d probably find that hard to believe too. As for the idea that one day girls would be buying comic books – even Japanese comic books – as eagerly and regularly as boys, that might have been just too tall a tale.

But re-imagining old heroes and old stories in new ways opens them up to new audiences. Increasingly, people – and not only female people – are choosing to see the world through kawaii lenses, and kawaii can be more than marshmallow. CLAMP have legions of male fans because they balance their cute images on a knife-edge of sharp storytelling with occasional dark depths. Junko Mizuno warps the sweetness of her aesthetic with her own subversive touches. Kawaii culture is global; anyone, anywhere can find a place within it, even if their personal style tends to spandex and muscles.

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