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Make Mine Manga:

A Global Artform

Manga are no longer what they used to be. They once meant comics produced exclusively in Japan, where they cater to every age group and interest and account for up to 40 per cent of all publishing. But now that this mass medium is catching on worldwide, even the Japanese government recognises that manga can come from anywhere. It’s official: manga are now a truly global artform and that includes Britain.

In 2006 Japan’s Foreign Minister Taro Aso, a passionate manga consumer, came up with an International Manga Award, a ‘Nobel Prize’ for a foreign artist whose work has best helped to spread the manga form internationally. Picked from entrants from 25 countries including Britain, the runners-up announced last July hailed from Australia, Hong Kong and Malaysia, while the winner was Lee Chi Ching, a Hong Kong master of historical comics. As Ms. Chigusa Ogino from Tokyo manga agency Tuttle-Mori summed up: “You don’t have to have a Japanese passport to do manga.”

Here, a whole ‘Pokémon generation’ has grown up with these distinctive stories and styles. Many British youngsters are exposed to them first through card- and computer-games and anime (Japanese animation) in the form of such hit television cartoons as Naruto and Oscar-winning movies like Spirited Away. From here, they discover that their bookshop and library shelves are heaving with Viz, Tokyopop, Gollancz and Tanoshimi manga paperbacks. These sometimes long-running series, imported and translated from Japan, are printed in black and white and often in their ‘authentic’ right-to-left, back-to-front reading direction, baffling adults but captivating kids.

Another factor in manga’s addictive appeal is that you don’t just collect them, you can try making your own. This explains why How To Draw Manga manuals have recently seen the biggest growth and success in art instruction publishing. More ambitious UK mangaka (comics authors) are self-publishing their efforts as handmade fanzines or smart print-on-demand graphic novels and increasingly posting them on the internet where colour is the norm and the world is your audience. Prime movers in this homegrown scene are talent pool Sweatdrop Studios. Two of their members, Emma Vieceli and Sonia Leong won several talent searches including Tokyopop’s annual Rising Stars of Manga UK and Ireland contest and anthology, another great way to get yourself noticed.

As a result, Emma and Sonia landed the job of illustrating the first of SelfMadeHero’s British manga adaptations of Shakespeare’s plays. The Bard wrote for the stage, not the comics page, so text adaptor Richard Appignanesi edits the language to fit into balloons and captions but stays faithful to the original words and story. Only the locations have been reimagined. It is proof of the power of Shakespeare’s tales that they survive and indeed thrive when Romeo and Juliet are transported to a modern Tokyo of rock stars and yakuza gangs or Hamlet to a cyberpunk future.

Released this month are Paul Duffield‘s The Tempest, set after our present energy crisis has plunged humanity into a second Dark Age, and Patrick Warren’s Richard III, rooted in a darkly gothic medieval England. Across 200 pages, these British artists demonstrate how vividly manga’s sophisticated expressive visual techniques and ‘decompressed’ pacing can convey motion and emotion to create an immersive experience as if they are unfolding in real time.

That is SelfMadeHero’s goal, to make Shakespeare accessible and cool to as wide a readership as possible, and it seems to be succeeding, in Britain where the launch titles were reprinted within only six months, but also surprisingly in Japan itself. It might seem like ‘coals to Newcastle’, but publisher Emma Hayley and her two initial artists received a warm welcome when they were invited to talk at three symposia in Kyoto, Tokyo and Nagoya. "Our books have started being used at Japanese universities and I have had many educational institutions there expressing interest in our Manga Shakespeare workshops. My plan is to go back to Japan at the end of 2008 with others from our team on a tour of high schools and universities."

Like the works of Shakespeare, the Old and New Testaments have been adapted into comics several times before, but now both have also been converted into original manga-format graphic novels created and published in Britain. The artist on The Manga Bible from Hodder & Stoughton is Siku, who fuses his influences from Japanese comics with his experience drawing for science fiction weekly 2000AD, home of futurecop Judge Dredd. His dynamic portrayals, especially of Jesus, are worlds away from any tame, traditionally stiff Sunday school imagery and, as Dr. Rowan Williams, Archbishop of Cante rbury, commented "... convey the shock and freshness of the Bible in a unique way.”

These are only the most high-profile examples of manga ‘made in Britain’. Others include Anthony Horowitz’s Stormbreaker, appearing in colour graphic novels adapted by British writer Antony Johnston and London-based Japanese artist Kanako Damerum, collaborating online with her sister Yuzuru Takasaki in Tokyo. In Edinburgh, Chinese-born illustrator Yishan Li is a one-woman hive of industry, drawing for both French and American companies, including CG!, a sassy American student in Japan starring in teen advice dramas
for Cosmo Girl monthly. And surely the biggest and boldest example must be the Mammoth Book of Best New Manga, two volumes so far of over 500 hundred pages each of impressively diverse brand-new work, edited and published in London and compiled from as far afield as Sweden and Thailand.

It was in Mammoth’s debut volume last year that 21-year-old Muslim manga artist Asia Alfasi was discovered and signed up by Bloomsbury to tell her own revealing story in a forthcoming two-volume graphic memoir entitled Ewa, from her early years in Libya to growing up in Scotland. "The recent avalanche of negativity between the Muslim world and the West has pushed me further, to try and reconcile the two. I understand both cultures and there is no need for a culture clash at all."

The appetite for manga culture in Britain shows no signs of abating, from Bodhi, the country’s first genuine Manga Kisa café opening on Brick Lane to London’s Embassy of Japan itself holding a Manga Jiman (literally ‘taking pride in manga’) competition. In 2007, manga was spotlighted at the ICA’s Comica Festival which invited fourteen young talents from across Asia and Europe and acclaimed creators and experts such as eminent manga historian Kosei Ono.

Also on hand was Mammoth editor Ilya who praises his contributors from Britain and elsewhere for creating "neither fake manga, nor a pale imitation of existing material, but something else again, something entirely unique and original." Certain purists may balk at this tsunami of non-Japanese manga, but it seems unstoppable. After all, the medium of comics was mass-marketed by powerful American syndicates from the early 20th century, stimulating local imitations wherever they went, including Japan. A century later, manga is doing the same, as this time a Japanese export becomes the new worldspeak and template for the future of comics.

Posted: February 24, 2008

An edited version of this article originally appeared in The Times in 2007.


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Featured Books

Mammoth Book Of
Best New Manga Vol 2

edited by Ilya

Romeo & Juliet
by Sonia Leong

by Emma Vieceli

The Tempest
by Paul Duffield

Richard III
by Patrick Warren

The Manga Bible
by Siku

by Antony Johnston,
Kanako Damerum
&  Yuzuru Takasaki