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Lloyd Sealy Library
John Jay College of Criminal Justice

Graphic Novels and Manga: Themes

Guide for Library Research on Graphic Novels and Manga

Themes

 

 

Themes

 

Charles Dickens Reading Batman and Batman Reading Charles Dickens

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“A glorious place, a glorious age, I tell you! A very Neon Renaissance – And the myths that actually touched you at the time – not Hercules, Orpheus, Ulysses and Aeneas – but Superman, Captain Marvel, Batman.” - Tom Wolfe, The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test

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Oxford's dicitonary defines "theme" as "The subject of a talk, a piece of writing, a person’s thoughts, or an exhibition; a topic." A theme in a book is usually an idea or message that touches on every part of the story. It can be a lesson about some part of life or about a type of person we may encounter. There is a theme in every piece of literature or work that you encounter, regardless of whether it is an academic or educational work or if it is something produced for entertainment. Graphic novels are no different than regular books in having a theme to them.

On this page you will find a few select themes listed together with a graphic novel or manga that focused on it in some way that you can use in any assignment.

Immigrant Life

An immigrant is "a person who migrates to another country, usually for permanent residence." Throughout American history a variety of people from all over the world have immigrated to this country. The very act of immigrating, of moving to a new land with entirely new customs and language and government and way of life can be a very disruptive and confusing experience. There are a variety of works that portray the experiences of immigration and life in a new land. 

Immigrant Life

 

Will Eisner's Preface to "A Contract With God"

Will Eisner, an artist considered to be the father of American graphic novels, based a majority of his stories in the Jewish immigrant experience of New York at the turn of the 20th century, particularly in the Bronx. The characters in his stories face the challenges and struggles of life in not just a new country but in the hustle and bustle of a city that is a world all of its own, many times with a very realistic and sometimes very unhappy ending. Some collections of his works are: "A Contract With God", Life In New York" and "Minor Miracles".

Corruption

Corruption is "dishonest or fraudulent conduct by those in power, typically involving bribery." There are many ways to deal with corruption that range from fighting it to accepting it to participating in it. There are graphic novels and manga that deal with the question of what to do about corruption and how to react to it. Two series that deal with a corrupt society and reactions to it are "Sin City" by Frank Miller and "Message from Adolf" by Osamu Tezuka.

Corruption

Miller's "Sin City" is every noir detective story brought to life. It is a world of shocking brutality and injustice. In the various stories of Sin City, the heroes have to deal with a world so completely covered in corruption that it hangs like a mist over all of them. Each character deals with the situation differently; can the wicked have honor? Are you still a hero if your actions are tainted by corruption and selfishness? Tezuka's "Message to Adolf" deals with a fictionalized version of the rise of the Nazis and of World War Two told through through two characters all named Adolf. Over the course of the story the Adolfs, who start out as friends, are changed by everything and everyone around them, the corruption of the times tearing a little bit at a time into their souls.

Where are all the Superheroes?

Where are all the Superheroes?

In this section I have tried to avoid as much as possible using graphic novels and manga that dealt with superheroes or ninjas or zombies or anything like that. All of the themes of this page can however be applied to those works. Daredevil tells a tale of faith, corruption, and redemption. Batman is the story of senseless crime and indominable will. Superman is about being the ultimate outsider. Zombie tales can be about commercialism or the fragility of civilization while ninja tales are about tradition and honor. But as entertaining as they are, there are other works that deal with the same themes in a more realistic or focused manner. Some of those works are listed below.

Faith

Faith is defined as a "strong belief in God or in the doctrines fo a religion" but can also be defined as "complete trust or confidence in someone or something." There are many graphic novels and manga that chart the rise of a religion or of a person struggling with their faith in the face of the horrible injustices of the world.

Faith

Buddha Under the Bodhi Tree and Frimme Hersh Arguing With God

Two good examples of works that deal with religion and questions of faith are "Buddha" by Osamu Tezuka and "A Contract WIth God" by Will Eisner. Tezuka's "Buddha" is an eight volume series that deals with the life and struggles of the Siddhārtha Gautama, an Indian prince who eventually becomes the Buddha or "Enlightened One". Eisner's "Contract with God" is a collection of stories set among New York Immigrants in the 1930s Bronx and its most famous story in that collection deals with Frimme Hersh, a man who's faith is shaken when God violates the contract between them.

Prejudice

Prejudice is a "preconceived opinion that is not based on reason or experience" and a "dislike, hostility, or unjust behavior deriving from unfounded opinions." There are many works that deal with many groups and individuals who have suffered from prejudice and hatred. Two good examples of graphic novels that deal with prejudice and where prejudice can ultimately lead to are "Maus" by Art Spiegelman and "The Plot" by Will Eisner.

Prejudice

Pages from Maus by Art Spiegelman and The Plot by Will Eisner

"Maus" is the story of the experiences of Art Spiegleman's father during the Holocaust in Nazi Occupied Poland. "The Plot" is the story of the creation and spread of a book called "The Protocols of the Elders of Zion", a forgery created by the Russian Tsarist government that supposedly "proved" that there was a worldwide Jewish conspiracy that was alternately ruling and trying to conquer the world and that is still in print to this day.

Ethics

Ethics are "moral principles that govern a person behavior". There are many graphic novels and manga series that deal with the question of how people or a specific individual can react to the behavior of others and of the situations that they happen to fall into. Two series that touch on how a person should behave in the world or in reaction to his situation in the world are "Lone Wolf and Cub" by Kazuo Koike and artist Goseki Kojima and "Black Jack" by Osamu Tezuka.

Ethics

Black Jack Rebuilding a Person on the Brink of Death and Itto Ogami and his son Daigoro living as if they are in Meifumado (The Buddist Hell)

"Lone Wolf and Cub" is the story of a loyal samurai named Itto Ogami who is framed for treason and narrowly escapes death with his infant son Daigoro. Itto becomes a hunted man and is forced to become an assassin together with his toddler son in order to clear his name and avenge himself. It is a story that asks many questions including how do you react and behave when everything you have is taken away from you? Black Jack is about an unlicensed doctor by the same name who can perform miracles but only for a price. Is asking someone who needs medical help to pay tons of money right or do you only get what you pay for? But is everything as it seems with Black Jack or is there a method to his "madness"?