Super Mario Manga Mania

Super Mario Manga Mania

Yukio Sawada

VIZ Media


168 pages

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Every month, over half a million copies of CoroCoro Comic roll out to Japanese merchants, shrink-wrapped nearly to bursting with synergistic treats. A staple of printed entertainment for elementary school-aged boys (and whomever else is paying) since 1977, CoroCoro is no mere manga anthology; it is a big, sinister toy commercial you can stash in your bag. The average issue runs nearly 800 pages, but over 100 of those pages are glossy color advertisements -- inserts, scratch-offs, foldouts, booklets -- primed to keep young eyes appraised of the latest in exciting goods from participating companies. And while there are original comics in CoroCoro, including the exploits of the redoubtable robot cat Doraemon, many of the magazine's features are themselves directly spun off from the products advertised elsewhere in its pages.

Nintendo, the video game giant, has enjoyed a particularly long and fruitful association with CoroCoro, and the longest-lived of its comics collaborations is Super Mario-kun, a zany burlesque of the company's #1 character, which has been running since 1990. Super Mario Manga Mania represents the first print edition of such work in English, being a translated edition of a 2017 author's sampler, in which the artist, Yukio Sawada, chose ten episodes for special publication. The Osaka-born Sawada is 67 years old, and his is a career perhaps more familiar to those students of American newspaper strips than fans of contemporary serial manga: he is a professional funster, brewing up gags and stunts on deadline for a mass audience. But don't confuse the character of this work with the concision beloved of an Ernie Bushmiller - we're looking at a very different tradition.

This type of busy slapstick is not atypical of CoroCoro, which trusts in the stimulation-ready minds of children to decode the mayhem. The violence is loud and rude -- this is not the last time in Super Mario Manga Mania where one of the Mario brothers is blasted in the crotch -- and every line of dialogue reads like it is shouted. The pages are often dense, sacrificing visual clarity for the sensation of noise: lines, clouds, droplets of sweat, and a myriad of sound effects, all of which have been rendered in English for this edition (presumably by the credited letterer, Vanessa Satone). At the same time, Sawada is not approaching the work strictly in terms of manga devices. In an afterword, he notes that the feature was inspired by one of the mighty Osakan comedy institutions, Yoshimoto Shinkigeki, which is a theatrical revue in which rotating teams of performers enact some sentimental or commonplace plot that becomes utterly derailed by puns, pratfalls and interruptions, often taking the form of miniature sketches-within-the-sketch to showcase the various participants.

An entire production has been subtitled online, and it's remarkable how much of what Sawada does is unaltered from the live show. The constant punning, the way the story stops for a few quick gags, only for some other character to drag the plot back into linear progression - Sawada's cadence is very much the same, and when you realize that he is adopting not just manga devices, or video game devices, but devices from live theater, the comic becomes a little more understandable to those without psychological real estate in the Mushroom Kingdom. The crowdedness of the pages begin to feel like an attempt to summarize the rapidness of the action on stage, where the audience is rightly pummeled with mirth. You begin to notice that almost everything Sawada does boils down to character exchanges:

I don't even want to think about the headaches involved in swapping English-language puns and rhymes for the Japanese originals, so credit to translator Caleb Cook and adaptor Molly Tanzer. Texture is pretty important to these stories, I suspect because the actual plot content is not entirely up to Sawada. Super Mario-kun has historically followed along with the release schedule of Mario video games, so that it is usually promoting whatever is newest in stores - one of the reasons for its longevity is that there is never a drought of Mario. As a result, nine of the ten stories in Super Mario Manga Mania can be categorized by the game which happened to be prominent at that time: three of nine pertain to Super Mario Sunshine (2002), with two from Super Paper Mario (2007), and one each from Paper Mario (2000), Mario & Luigi: Partners in Time (2005), Super Mario Galaxy (2007) and New Super Mario Bros. Wii (2009). This is a diverse list of games, ranging from near-plotless platforming to in-depth comedic RPGs to 3D exploration - yet Sawada approaches everything in exactly the same way, I think because this is not a 'proper' Mario product; it is a deliberately childish and silly variant, both an advertisement and a lampoon, and therefore able to remain consistently itself.

Indeed, the comics in Super Mario Manga Mania don't really match the tone of the Mario franchise at all - the games typically project a gentle whimsy, sometimes with touches of light psychedelia, or surreal character business. In contrast, Sawada's characters are frequently angry and sniping, shoving each other through knockabout scenes. There's norm-enforcing jokes -- fat jokes, ugly jokes -- that aren't so common on the manicured Mario scene. Sometimes the stories have little morals, like 'be nice to pets', while others are shot through with a pungent cynicism. One of the Mario Sunshine tales finds Mario approached by a random goon who seems totally out of it. The baddie explains that he's not been hitting his villainy quota recently, because he's working full-time and caring for his ill sister at night. Mario initially brushes him off, but after hearing that the sister is a beauty contest winner -- no loyalty to Princess Peach in this one -- Mario agrees to find eight red coins to aid her care. After much painful trouble (Mario Sunshine is a famously touchy game; collecting those red coins is *not* easy, and don't even get me started on the blue ones), Mario returns with the bounty, only to be informed that the goon was a liar: he just wanted Mario to wear himself out getting the coins, and his sister is totally ugly! Nonetheless, Mario manages to beat the bad guy, and is then castigated by the townsfolk for extending empathy to somebody who does wicked deeds. The story ends with Mario getting mobbed by other minor baddies, all of them with fake sob stories. Because I always keep Marxist literature on hand next to the GameCube, such #based humor brings to mind the writing of Ariel Dorfman & Armand Mattelart in How to Read Donald Duck (1971, 2018, David Kunzle trans.), critiquing the anti-biological 'contractual relationships' of familial structures in the Disney comics: "In any moment of suffering, a person is alone; there is no disinterested or friendly helping hand. One encounters, at best, a sense of pity, derived from a view of the other as some cripple or beggar, some old down-and-out deserving of our charity."

Not that I know anything about the parentage of Mario and Luigi, but there's little doubt that their brotherly commiseration here is often that of shared pain.

And what is very interesting about this book, then, is Sawada's explicit acknowledgment of the pain in his work. The tenth and final story is not from a Mario video game; it's a 2015 piece that ran in CoroCoro Aniki, a sister magazine aimed at an older readership. Originally titled "Super Mariossan" in Japanese (NOTE: see comment below), and rendered in English under the excellent title of "Super Mari-Old", the story finds Luigi searching for Mario to recruit him into yet another princess rescue, only to discover that Mario has been hospitalized for depression. Yet when it seems like Mario is about to explain his situation, what we instead see is a caption-based narration by Yukio Sawada himself, who talks about the experience of his father dying, and having to work nonstop on a silly video game gag comic throughout that emotionally grueling experience, the result being Sawada's own hospitalization... where he continued to work on the comic. The story then snaps back to Mario, clearly now an avatar for Sawada, who declares that he doesn't think he can do funny gags anymore. Yoshi can't swallow his feelings! How are the boys gonna get out of this one?

A: Through the sudden appearance of Dr. Mario, who crams a pill the size of small dog down Mario's throat, immediately resolving the situation.

Sawada has been at this forever. Super Mario-kun is not even his first Nintendo-related project - he's been making Mario comics since the release of the Japanese Super Mario Brothers 2 (aka: "The Lost Levels") in 1986, though his work in boys' comics stretches back into the 1970s. He is a total pro, and the message of this introspective story is that of a pro: you take the medicine, you stand back up, and you get back to work. Of course, this is an ideology that readily benefits the culture industry, like (for example) video game companies that romanticize hard work for the purposes of crunching as much productivity out of workers as possible. What can one man do? Super Mario Manga Mania is both an amusing collection of children's funnies, and a portrait of entertainment production in the riptide of commerce. "Good luck, Mario!" Sawada cries at the end of the book. "And good luck, me!"