Mangaman is no ordinary tale of star-crossed lovers. Romeo and Juliet may have been separated by a clan feud, but at least they inhabited the same universe. Ryoko and Marissa are separated by layers of fictive conventions that are blown apart by "an extrascientific event" that has stranded the two-dimensional Ryoko in Marissa's seemingly three-dimensional world. Manga conventions clash with those of Western comics in a daring, funny tale.
The author of such well-received prose novels as The Astonishing Adventures of Fanboy and Goth Girl and Boy Toy, Barry Lyga is a self-described "recovering comic book geek." He has long been an advocate for the introduction of comic books and graphic novels into schools and libraries, and with Mangaman, he makes a strong case for the form's potential for narrative and visual complexity. I recently caught up with Lyga to talk about the genesis of his novel, the difference between writing prose and graphic-novel scripts and working with the amazing Colleen Doran.
Find more great fantasy, science fiction & the paranormal among our 2011 Best Books for Teens.
How did Mangaman come about?
It came around the turn of the millennium, when the J-pop trend hit. I saw how bookstores started carrying manga, but comic-book stores resisted it. So I had this idea of a manga character in the "real world." It sat for a long time, because I can't draw. I knew I wanted to call it Mangaman, but it just sat there in the back of my mind.
Then, a few years ago, Marvel approached me about doing a Wolverine for the Wimpy Kid audience. It wasn't a comic, and I had a lot of fun with it. And there was my name next to Wolverine. And my editor at Houghton Mifflin called and asked me if I'd ever be interested in doing a graphic novel. Now. For us.
She was expecting Fanboy–Barry Lyga in graphic-novel form, but I feel like each story has its ideal form, and I didn't want to do a Barry Lyga novel in graphic form. Then I realized it had to be a romance to bring together the two different art styles. It's Romeo and Juliet with the genders reversed.
The way Ryoko interacts with the "real world" is pretty funny, the way the speed lines get all over the place and his eyes become actual throbbing hearts when he sees Marissa. I got those jokes, and I'm not a manga fan. How did you decide where to draw the line so it wasn't all inside baseball?
Well, we went back and forth on that. There was some thought given to putting actual kanji in, but we decided early on that this was for a Western audience. Even Western manga fans are reading in translation, after all. They'll get some jokes that readers of Western comics won't, but that's OK, too.
You play a lot with the conventions of manga; why not Western comics conventions?
Before I settled on making it a romantic comedy, I thought of doing a superhero comic. The juxtaposition between the superhero and a manga universe was not so extreme though. It had to be a "realistic" universe for the juxtaposition to be so pungent.
How conversant are the kids in Castleton, the town in Mangaman, with manga?
That was a casualty of page count. We were able to do a little, but I couldn't do an actual scene featuring manga readers. Except for Dr. Cappelletti, [the government scientist working with Ryoko], who is a manga fan.
What's the difference between writing a prose novel and a graphic novel?
You can't just add another paragraph. In the first draft, Marissa was not as well developed as I'd wanted. But we couldn't just keep changing stuff and ever hope to publish it. So I finally had this epiphany that, "Dummy, this is a graphic novel. It's got pictures." So I hit on the idea of having Marissa have all these different outfits. It isn't till she's happy that she dresses like a regular person. And it gave Colleen a lot of chances to have fun.
Do you expect to reach a different audience with this book than with your prose novels?
That's a really good question. I have to confess that when I write, I don't give a lot of thought to the audience. Not because I don't love the audience, but if you think too much about it, it changes your writing. And I'm not very good at guessing the audience. I thought Fanboy and Goth Girl would appeal to boys, but it is read mostly by teen girls and adult women. Go figure.
I know I'll pick up a lot of Colleen's fans, because she's got a huge readership, and it's got pretty Colleen pictures in it.
When I'm working on a book, I never imagine people are going to read it, and that's what keeps my writing honest.
You've got a series of prose books for younger readers that still owes a lot to comic books—they're about kids with superpowers. Can you talk a little bit about your Archvillain books?
The Archvillain books are criminally fun to write. I cackle to myself as I write. [When I realized] it was very different from what I'd been writing, and I could have fight scenes, it brought out the 12-year-old boy in me. I get to have a lot of fun with the stuff I loved as a kid and just run with it.
Do you think you'll do a sequel to Mangaman?
We've all talked about one, and actually the letterer [Tom Orzechowski] said when he finished, "Please tell me this is a trilogy," because it was so much fun.
We'd all like to do it, but it depends on schedules. It took me as long to write this as it did to write a novel. And Colleen is really busy too. But we'd like to. I've already got the opening scene written in my head.
I have to say, it was a dream working with Colleen, and the people at Houghton Mifflin were fabulous. They're not accustomed to graphic novels. Graphic-novel publishing is different from prose, and they put a lot of faith in Colleen and me. They worked really hard, everybody from editorial to production and design, to make this book.