EAGLE: The Making of an Asian-American President
By Jake Forbes
November 10, 2000. Americans were split at the poles, having to choose between two very different, very passionate candidates. The republican nominee seemed a shoo-in, but this was no ordinary election year, what with the upset at the Democratic National Convention and the controversies in both parties. Everybody was wondering, could he do it? Could Senator Kenneth Yamaoka beat the republican nominee, war hero and former astronaut Richard Grant, and become the first Asian-American president?
Well we all know that the election wasn't really like that. Sure there was some controversy surrounding this election, but controversy of the most mundane variety, and bland candidates to match. The election described above is what American voters will be facing in the next issue of EAGLE: The Making of an Asian-American President by Kaiji Kawaguchi that will be coming out in Japan this month. Normally, insightful, contemporary, issue-driven manga such as this would never see print in English, but thanks to some good people at Viz who see beyond the mecha and the breasts to what makes manga great, EAGLE is coming stateside in 100-page monthly installments.
As you all probably know, manga in Japan is a much bigger phenomenon than comics have ever been in America. About 40% of all books printed in Japan are manga. It's read by almost everyone born after WWII, and even as anime has been declining in its popularity, manga continues to run strong. What comes to the US (with the exception of Pulp magazine and a few hentai titles) is almost entirely kid stuff. The CLAMP book that a 22-year-old otaku obsesses over here is read by 8-year-olds in Japan. Dragonball Z? For kids. Evangelion? Older kids, but still kids. What do grown ups in Japan read? Well, robots and babes are popular in the same way that American adults go to Michael Bay and Disney films, but it's serious titles like EAGLE that adults really like.
That's not to say that EAGLE is like a stuffy John Grisham novel. EAGLE is a very fast paced drama. As it was originally serialized in 25 page chunks, you are guaranteed to have dramatic moments throughout the books. Even though the finished series will probably run around 2,500 pages, it's easy to read a couple hundred pages in one sitting. The pacing is very cinematic, causing some reviewers new to manga compare it to movie storyboards. This cinematic quality led Asian-American director Greg Pak to take an interest in filming EAGLE.
EAGLE is the story of New York Senator Kenneth Yamaoka's run for the Whitehouse. A talented middle-class kid with an Ivy League education and Vietnam war scars, Yamaoka knew from the time he was in Vietnam that he had to become president. Like Charles Foster Kane, Yamaoka is a man driven by an unknown demon. His methods are shrewd, ruthless, maybe even cruel, but he just might be able to heal what ails our country.
While EAGLE is definitely about Senator Yamaoka, Kawaguchi chooses to tell the story from the point of view of a small town Japanese reporter. Takeshi Jo is a pushover reporter for the Meicho Shimbun paper who is mysteriously requested by the Senator himself to cover the Yamaoka campaign. In a Star Wars twist, we find soon find out why Yamaoka wants Takeshi by his side. EAGLE plays out much like Citizen Kane, with Takeshi interviewing the people around Yamaoka in an attempt to understand both the politician and the father he never knew. What fuels Yamaoka's mission is a mystery, and it's up to Takeshi to uncover his Rosebud.
Takeshi serves as the moral compass for the series. While Yamaoka and his advisors don't flinch at the morally questionable tactics involved in modern American politics, Takeshi is equally shocked and enamored. Ultimately it is Takeshi's judgment of his father that will determine whether or not Yamaoka is a hero or a madman. Says EAGLE editor Carl Gustav Horn, "it seems fairly clear from Kawaguchi's moral viewpoint as expressed through Takashi Jo that Yamaoka's means do not necessarily justify his ends, so it is not clear whether the Senator will be seen as a hero in the end."
The characters that surround Yamaoka are equally compelling. There's his wife and in-laws, the Hamptons; old New England money who are very protective of their name, money and heritage. His wife has been researching Takeshi Jo and may or may not know that he's a bastard son. Then there's the adopted daughter Rachel. She's also guided by a strong moral compass, and it doesn't take long for her and Takeshi to grow very close.
The other political players are all fictional, but only loosely so. Vice President Albert Noah, a calm, intelligent, lifetime politician, seems shocked and offended by Yamaoka's upset victories and strong-arm maneuvering. The president, "Bill," has yet to make an appearance, but he will show up very soon. In true Clinton fashion, "Bill" suggests to Noah that he's not controversial enough and should name the First Lady as his running mate. In an almost prophetic turn (as it appeared in Japan months ago), there is a tie in the primary election and much political maneuvering is necessary to chose a nominee.
The Republican candidate, yet to be introduced, is much more dynamic than our current Republican President-elect. "Richard Grant is twenty years older than Yamaoka, a rugged 'Right Stuff' hero who walked on the moon, went into high-tech enterprise, and then took off as a politician after he became an advisor to Bush during the Gulf War," Horn says. Yamaoka's radical foreign policy proposals promise an exciting campaign once he and Grant meet up later this year.
Also interesting about EAGLE is that it is the first manga to be published in America that is really about America. This allows American readers to get a foreigner's view of our country's political system. I see Kawaguchi's portrayal of the election process to be almost reverent. He definitely doesn't approve of all of the wheeling and dealing that goes on, but he portrays politicians as larger than life, men who really do think of themselves as protectors of the free world.
The vast details that Kawaguchi researched and incorporated into Eagle made it a particular challenge for editor Carl Gustav Horn. "It is a heavily research-intensive manga; it is almost edited by the square
inch. Manga set in Japan or in SF worlds are one thing, but as EAGLE is
supposed to be set in present-day America, I can't let anything slide." EAGLE is presented left-to-right, as most manga in America is, but to preserve the accurate American details (driving on the right, shape of buildings, etc.), Horn and his retouch team often had to rearrange panels rather than simply flip the entire pages. He also had to rewrite the newspaper clippings as Kawaguchi used generic English clippings that had nothing to do with his story. The resulting American version reads seamlessly.
Viz is releasing EAGLE in monthly installments of over 100 pages, similar to how Dark Horse released the Star Wars manga. I find this format to be much better than the typical 30 page installment. Manga is usually such a quick read (as it's meant to be) so that a 30 page comic takes less than 10 minutes to absorb. When you're reading 300 page phone book manga collections, the sheer number of stories makes up for the short installments. I think Viz's solution here offers the best of both worlds, keeping the serialized feeling, but giving readers a big enough chunk to sustain them for a month. Will Viz continue to release grown-up in manga book size chunks? "Alvin Lu and myself are both in favor of further use of the EAGLE format," Horn says. "We're doing our best to make it happen and use it to its best advantage."
Every serious manga fan needs to check out EAGLE. The square-jawed, down-to-Earth art style might turn some readers off at first, but if you give it a chance, you'll see that EAGLE's characters are just as compelling, if not more so, than Usagi, Kaneda, Ranma, and the rest. The political subject matter is not half as dry as you might expect. After two months of real-life political nit-picking and tedium, EAGLE just might make you care about politics again.
EAGLE is not a manga for every Otaku, but more than any other manga on the market, it is a manga for "everyone." Eagle might just be the most accessible comic book on the market for the non-comic reader. Hopefully other publishers will follow suit and show the American public that manga isn't a genre, but a format for telling any number of stories. Carl Gustav Horn explains: "I edit both EVANGELION and EAGLE, both good manga on their own terms--yet I recognize that EAGLE has far more to say about why comics are as big as television in Japan than EVANGELION does."
Thank you to Carl Gustav Horn for sharing his thoughts and experiences.
|EAGLE: Character Dossier
Senator from New York, Vietnam vet, and married to old New England money. Kenneth is driven by a mysterious passion to become the first Asian-American president, and it's looking increasingly likely that the impossible just might happen.
Adopted Hispanic daughter of Kenneth and Patricia. She's a hard worker who greatly admires her father and serves as his Press Secretary. On the campaign trail she gets very intimate with her estranged brother Takeshi.
Kenneth and Patricia's only child together, Alex is frustrated at living in his father's shadow. He loves his father deeply, but feels rejected as Kenneth has little time for family matters.
Senator Yamaoka's wife and daughter of a banking tycoon, William Hampton. She gave up her own career to help fuel Kenneth's ambitions. She suspects that there is some link between her husband and Takeshi Jo, and doesn't like the Japanese reporter getting close to her adopted daughter. Only time will tell if her dedication to the Yamaoka or Hampton name is stronger.
The bastard son of Kenneth Yamaoka and the eyes through which we see the presidential candidate. He's a two-bit reporter for the Maicho Shimbun newspaper who is requested by the Senator himself to cover the Yamaoka campaign. As he researches the life of his father, he begins to have suspicions as to whether his mother's death was really an accident.
Takeshi's mother and one-time lover of Kenneth Yamaoka. She dreamed of reuniting with her Asian-American soldier boyfriend until she died in a mysterious gas leak at her restaurant.
Campaign Director for Senator Yamaoka. Arthur was a field medic in Vietnam and helped save Kenneth from seemingly fatal wounds. Kenneth swore even then that he would become president. In recent years, McCoy was unemployed and angry until Kenneth recognized him on the street and gave him a job. Now the two are close friends.
Political spin master. Senator Yamaoka's first task in entering the primaries was to get this eccentric genius onboard his team.
Image consultant for Senator Yamaoka who makes all the decisions about how he dresses and presents himself. In some ways, she knows Kenneth better than his wife.
Senator Yamaoka's brother. Joseph was drafted into Vietnam and killed in combat. His death incited Kenneth Yamaoka into enlisting. Whatever happened in Vietnam still haunts the ambitious senator.
Vice President and the leading candidate in the bid for the democratic nomination. He's an intelligent, eco-friendly politician who is frustrated by Kenneth's efforts to take what he assumed was his.
The Nevada governor who starts off stronger than Yamaoka, but can't take the pressure of the media in this hot democratic primary election.
The head of the Hampton banking estate and Yamaoka's father-in-law. The Hamptons are old New England money, and it was only because he trusted his children that he let Kenneth join the family.
Brother-in-law to Senator Yamaoka. In college, Charles started out as the star quarterback. When Kenneth subbed for him and led the team to an upset victory, he Charles stepped aside and let Kenneth lead the team. When Kenneth started dating his sister, Charles stuck up for him against the angry Mr. Hampton.
The "King of New York." The endorsement of this highly opinionated mayor doesn't just guarantee a win in the New York primary, but shows that the candidate puts race relations at the top of his agenda.