Over the years there have been several attempts at merging Eastern manga and anime with Western comics and cartoons. Batman had two manga outings (Child of Dreams and Death Mask), while the X-Men saw their manga counterparts run straight into a wall. Spiderman and The Hulk made appearances as early as 1970, and many people already know about the promised anime adaptations of several well known titles (Wolverine, X-Men, Iron Man, etc).
The problem is that all of the attempts thus far have not been as successful as one might hope or expect. One of the reasons for this is because the titles that have been adapted to date are already well known, and each has a wealth of existing storyline that makes reinvention more difficult (which some may find odd, but have a think about and you’ll understand why).
It’s strangely ironic that it has once more fallen to Stan Lee to light the way forward.
Originally a manga written by Stan Lee himself and drawn by Ota Tamon, Heroman tells the story of Joey Jones (a true Stan Lee name), an orphan living with his grandmother in Centre City. He spends his days attending school and working part time at a cafe (where Stan is also a regular customer), but all the while he wishes more than anything to be a hero.
In all honesty I wasn’t sure what to expect from Heroman. The name itself is very typically Stan Lee in its simplicity, but one would expect a tad more complexity from the story itself. The plot is very, very straight forward and in true Stan Lee fashion, the story can at times be very “preachy”. That said, the simplicity of the tale is rather appealing as there aren’t any of the hang ups typically associated with East-West crossovers.
The main reason for this is because Stan Lee decided against using pre-existing material and started from scratch on a totally new idea. He wanted to create “a hero for the 21st century”, and in a certain sense he managed to achieve part of that goal. The only problem is that while Heroman may be a different take on traditional heroes for the Western world, the whole idea itself is a throwback where Eastern media is concerned.
An orphan and a giant robot are nothing new in anime and manga. Giant Robo: The Day The Earth Stood Still showed just how good the format could be given the right setting, story and characters, and that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Other shows like Tetsujin 28, Gad Guard, Top wo Nerae and even Tengen Toppa Gurren Lagann all play around with the concept to a degree. Anime and mange are rife with tales of humans and their super robot counterparts, so it may seem a bit strange that Stan Lee would use the idea to herald a new age of crossovers.
Thankfully Stan is a very clever man (I’ll explain this in a bit).
Bones have produced a very good looking show for the most part. The animation is very crisp and fluid, and the numerous actions scenes are choreographed very well. The characters follow Ota’s original designs for the most part, and are reflective of the shows Western heritage, although one does have to wonder about the patterning on Heroman as it seems a bit too US-centric.
One thing that bears mentioning is the palette used throughout the series. Bright, bold colours abound which, together with the distinctly Western characters, give Heroman an air more akin to traditional Western comic book adaptations (the original X-Men cartoon for example).
Unfortunately, while the visuals may be very good, the same can’t be said of the acting. Komatsu Mikako and Kimura Ryohei play the roles of Joey Jones and Simon Kaina fairly well, but the series has one inherent problem when it comes to acting. The whole show is geared towards a Western mentality, a factor which will inevitably cause problems for any seiyuu unfamiliar with the mindset. Because of this there are occasions where the acting in just doesn’t seem to mesh well with the on screen action, and there are several occasions where the actors either ham it up too much or become completely wooden.
That said, the series will probably receive an English dub at some point, but whether that is better or not remains to be seen.
A big plus for Heroman is the quality of the sound effects, almost all of which are crisp, clear, and very well choreographed. The series is littered with great noises, whooshes and explosions, all of which would become a veritable cacophony if they were mixed with music, so it’s a good thing the majority of the show is relatively unencumbered in that department. The background music is often subtle and varied, and the tracks are used in a very intelligent manner.
Like many other anime out there, Heroman makes use of two opening and ending themes to highlight the midway point of the series. The first twelve episodes feature “Roullette” by Tetsuya (of L’Arc-en-Ciel fame) as the OP, and “Calling” by Flow as the ED. Both are upbeat, but very typical, J-rock tracks that work quite well with the theme of the series.
The OP and ED for the second half of the series, “Missing” by Kylee and “Boku no Te wa Kimi no Tame ni” (My Hands For You), by Mass Alert, are far less upbeat than the first two tracks. “Missing” is more of an emotional rock track, with all that entails, while “Boku no Te wa Kimi no Tame ni” has a slight feeling of angst. Strangely though, both tracks are equally well suited to the series, especially given that events become more serious later on.
As for the characters themselves, well, anyone who has read a Stan Lee comic will find many things that are familiar, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re good. Joey develops fairly well over the course of the series, but the main problem is that he is the only character who receives any substantial growth. What is surprising is the lack of attention given to Simon, Lina, Professor Denton, and even William. It would have been nice to have more insight into their respective characters over the course of the show, and while there are some efforts made in that direction, these seem more like afterthoughts than anything else.
My main gripe with Heroman is that William Davis, Lina’s older brother and the guy who keeps tormenting Joey, doesn’t get anywhere near the attention he deserves. Yes, he starts off as a bully, but his transformation is just as profound as Joey’s, and it would have been nice to see how his character copes with the change.
Now while it’s pretty obvious that the series possesses a number of issues, that doesn’t mean I didn’t enjoy it. The truth is that even with all its flaws, Heroman is a rather entertaining series, especially as it’s a throwback to the super robot shows of bygone days. Yes it has more cheese than Switzerland (and the plot has about as many holes), but the story is well put together and the whole thing looks good. Granted there are problems with the acting but they’re mainly from cultural differences rather than a lack of talent.
Which brings me back to the reason why Stan Lee is a clever man. When one considers Heroman from a manga and anime perspective, it clearly falls short of the mark set by many other super robot tales. Likewise, when consider from the perspective of Western cartoons and comics the series is nowhere near the level of Stan Lee’s more popular franchises.
Where people get it wrong is in assuming that Heroman is an attempt to cross the East-West divide. It isn’t, and the proof of that is in the fact that we have a traditionally Japanese super robot show created by an American and set in the US. Heroman isn’t an attempt to cross the divide, no, it’s an attempt to bridge it. By choosing this type of show, Stan Lee is sending a message to both DC and Marvel that if they want to crack the Eastern markets then they need stop trying to re-invent existing heroes, and should instead focus on creating new content using existing manga and anime as inspiration.
Heroman may not be as good as some of the older super robot shows, but what it heralds may be a new dawn for anime and manga, especially if Marvel and DC get the message.