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An Introduction

Manga are getting everywhere. Japanese comics are invading your local bookshops, comics and music stores, even libraries, as never before. This is not some passing craze or flavour of the month. Manga look set to follow their phenomenal success across Europe as well as in the States, where over the past four years they have become by far the fastest growing category of book sold in America. Hardly a month goes by without another publisher joining market leaders Viz and TokyoPop in the field. Leading anime outfit ADV were a natural to diversify into manga, but more surprising are two of the latest entrants: DC Comics, home to Superman and Batman, and the major global player Penguin Books.

Still, despite the flood of new titles, as many as 30 in one week, so far what we are seeing in English is only the tiniest toenail clipping of the big, scary Godzilla that is manga. Comics are so massive in Japan that they make up nearly 40 per cent of the sales of all publications. Several weekly manga magazines have among the highest circulations of any magazines in Japan. Offering as many as 20 different features in 400 pages for the equivalent of only $2, Shonen Jump achieved record highs of over 6 million copies. Sales like that may be a thing of the past now in post-recession Japan, but Jump can still shift 3 million copies every week and that is to a population just over twice that of Britain, roughly half that of America.

A few of these chunky, cheap newsprint manga magazines can be ‘as thick as phone directories’, one or two offering up to one thousand pages, but they are not the end product which most Japanese choose to keep at home. When a year’s worth, 52 issues, of Jump stacks up to over 1.4 metres, who has room for them, especially if you’re living in a compact city apartment? Manga magazines are really loss-leaders, a low-cost vehicle to hook readers into following a serial or character. After catching up with their favourites, many casual readers chuck their comics away, or leave them on the train or in a cafe, as throwaway as yesterday’s paper.

What the Japanese prefer to buy and put on their shelves, to read and re-read, are the compact, usually paperback books that compile several episodes of a story, shrunk down and printed more sharply on thicker paper. These are commonly in the handy tankobon volumes of around 200 pages. Perennial sellers get reissued in the still smaller bunkobon size of 300 pages or more. Some tell a complete story in a single book but many unfold their tale across multiple volumes and can total hundreds, even thousands of pages. The book format is how manga are ultimately intended to be read, so you can immerse yourself in the flow of storytelling and characterisation.

Thankfully it’s a DVD-sized tankobon format at around $10 that has pretty much become the standard for manga now arriving in English. It was very different when manga first started being translated here in the late Eighties, when they were often chopped up into short episodes in separate American comic book monthlies and even ‘colorized’ in the case of Akira. In contrast, manga books offer you a meaty amount of comics to read when you compare them to the mere twenty-something story pages you get for around $3 in most American titles. Admittedly, comic books are frequently in full colour, whereas almost all manga are in black-and-white. Nevertheless, manga artists’ skilled use of screens, tones and special effects can make monochrome seem as vivid as the flashiest computerised colouring.

Manga are comics, but not as we know them here in the West, so how do they differ from The Beano or Batman? One obvious big difference is that they are read in the opposite direction, from right to left. When Western publishers first put them into English, the pages and panels had to be ‘flopped’ to reverse the reading sense. Japanese artists were not entirely happy about this distortion of their artwork, which could sometimes result in everyone becoming left-handed. Gradually, artists and publishers started insisting that the translated pages be left ‘unflopped’. The fan community demanded this as well, to the point that today more and more manga are being published and consumed in their original Japanese direction. Booksellers can get a bit puzzled by these ‘back-to-front’ books and how to display them, even returning copies because they think they’ve been misprinted. Part of the appeal of these ‘100% authentic’ manga is that it makes reading comics a cool secret language again to baffle parents and teachers.

Another noticeable distinction between Japanese and Anglo-American comics is their pacing. The same story that might be told in twenty pages in a traditional English-language comic can unfold over fifty or a hundred pages in a manga. Both motion and emotion can be so slowed down to a moment-to-moment speed, that the time it takes to read seems to equate with the time passing within the story - almost like reading comics in ‘real time’. One practical explanation for this may be that if you’re a manga author, who has to come up with fresh instalments of 12 to 20 pages each week, you don’t want to use up your plot ideas too quickly, so you make them last. It also results in more room to develop characterisation and to convey a richer sense of place, weather and mood. This so-called ‘decompressed’ approach has started being adopted by American creators, though usually they are allowed far fewer pages to play with.

Perhaps the biggest difference is the dizzying variety of manga, appealing to everyone, male and female, through every stage of their lives, from nursery learning manga for toddlers to ‘silver’ manga for senior citizens, and embracing every subject you can imagine, and a few you possibly can’t. Manga stay fresh and vibrant because they have to keep on finding new authors and winning over readers. Unlike in America, where Spider-Man or Superman are still wearing their underpants outside their trousers after forty, or sixty, years, in Japan not every successful series has to last forever. Manga engage you because they chart the lives and growth of characters and do actually come to a conclusion. It may take thousands of pages, but you can see genuine change going on, not just the ‘illusion of change’ found in most superhero soap operas, where even death is temporary in order to protect and preserve valuable properties. Manga stories can really end, because that way new stories can begin.

In Britain comics like Bunty or Jackie for girls have vanished, while endless Archie comics are about all there is for American girls. In Japan, however, there is a thriving industry of shojo or girls’ manga, crafted by hundreds of women artists, some still in their teens like their readers. Their stories talk directly with them, offering the power fantasies of Sailor Moon, sassy high-school love comedies, anguished romances between ‘beautiful boys’, or realistic treatments of issues like first sex, self-harming or bullying. No wonder that 70 per cent of TokyoPop’s manga readers in America have turned out to be girls aged 11 to 17, a whole new readership for comics.

As for comics by, and for, adult women, they are pretty rare in the West, but make up a substantial market in Japan. These comics can provide tips on pregnancy and childcare, or on spicing up your lovelife in a marriage. There’s even a magazine entitled Truly Horrifying Mother-in-Law and Daughter-in-Law Comics which deals with the tensions many young wives face having to live with their husband’s family. Women also create their own pornographic manga or redikomi (‘Ladies’ Comics’), which can be as raunchy as anything aimed at men.

Manga do immediately look different from British or American comics. You can’t miss those exaggerated eyes staring out at you from the page. These seem strange, but they are perfect for conveying feelings and engaging the reader. They really originated in the Disney cartoons we all know, which greatly influenced post-War manga. It’s worth pointing out that there are plenty of current manga that do not use large eyes at all. Another striking impression is that manga use fewer panels per page and few, if any, narrative caption boxes. The whole idea is to show, rather than tell, to sweep you up in the story, and it’s an attitude that is catching on in Western comics too. From Zap! to Ka-Boom! we are used to sound effects in comics, but these can’t compare to the enormous dictionary of onomatopoeia available for manga, words to describe the subtlest movements and gestures, states of mind, even different kinds of silence.

Some people think manga all look alike, but part of reason for this is that we in the West have been seeing only a skewed sampling of Japanese comics, much of it biased towards science fiction/fantasy. As a result, certain stereotypes have been built up about a set ‘manga style’, reinforced by conformist ‘How To’ manuals. While there is a predominant look to mainstream manga, they accommodate a plethora of styles, from Ikegami ‘s lush realism on Crying Freeman and Kojima’s kinetic brushwork on Lone Wolf and Cub to Maruo’s decadent precision on Ultra-Gash Inferno and Matsumoto’s Euro-American remix on Black & White. The more manga you get to see, the more individualistic you discover they truly are.

So where do modern manga come from? They are a fusion, harking back to Eastern traditions as well as being inspired by innovations imported from abroad. For centuries Japan was cut off from the outside world and developed its own pictorial mass entertainments, such as the dreamy ukiyo-e prints of the floating world’ and the explicit erotica of shunga prints. To these were added the cartoon styles from humour magazines like the British Punch and from American newspaper strips, once Japan reopened to Western influences in the late 19th century. The result was that by the Twenties Japan had a flourishing comics industry, geared mainly towards children’s adventures and family comedies. The growth of manga was largely halted during the Second World War, but took off after 1945, galvanised by the revelations of comic books brought over by the occupying American forces.

Millions dreamt of a Japan that could rise like a phoenix out of the ashes of defeat. The post-war manga of young doctor Osamu Tezuka tapped into those hopes for the country’s future, most famously personified as Astro Boy, his robot Pinocchio that predicted Japan’s own scientific miracles and technological leaps in the decades to come. As well as inspiring successive generations of young men and women to take up the manga profession, Tezuka also led the way in expanding Japanese animation in film and on television. Manga became inextricably linked to anime and many of their greatest exponents, from Tezuka and Go Nagai of Mazinger Z fame to Katsuhiro ‘Akira’ Otomo and Masamune ‘Ghost in the Shell’ Shirow, cross over from one artform to the other. Even the Oscar-winning Hayao Miyazaki, director of Spirited Away, developed his movies Nausicaä and Porco Rosso initially in manga form. While there are outstanding animated shows and movies in Japan that are unique to the medium, many of the biggest successes started out as manga. Globally, these animated versions have served to introduce viewers to the heroes and concepts and provide a way in to discovering the comics themselves. If you’ve enjoyed the movie or DVD, why not track down the manga they came from?

The same applies to many of the most popular live-action TV series, and movies too including such recent hits as Dragon Head, Baseball Battlefield, Cutey Honey, Uzumaki and Ping Pong, all derived from manga. Unlike in America or Britain, where comics struggled to compete with the unstoppable rise of television, in Japan they became equally successful, mainly because they were allowed to be as vital a medium as TV and film for challenging ideas and creative vision, for engagement with social change and the national psyche. In fact, manga are where you can find much of the strongest, most idiosyncratic writing in Japan today.

Certainly manga have had their detractors and courted controversy. Last January in a highly publicised obscenity trial, the publisher and artist of one S&M sex comic, Misshitsu (Honey Room or Secret Room), sold shrink-wrapped strictly to adults, were found guilty and fined and their manga withdrawn. For years any illustration of realistic sexual acts, genitals and pubic hair was restricted under Article 175 of Japan’s Penal Code, leading to the use of whiteouts, black shapes, even video pixillation to obscure the offending areas. More recently, it seemed this rule was being relaxed, but this obscenity conviction has raised the question again and seems to have had a chilling effect, pressuring some publishers and artists into self-censoring their explicit content and some bookstores into reducing or removing their adults-only sections. Even so, the overall tolerance in dealing with sexuality remains far greater in manga than in American or British comics.

Dealing with sensitive politics, on the other hand, can raise fierce protests. For example, in October 2004 a group of Assembly members complained to the publisher and author of a serial in Young Jump weekly for daring to depict the disputed Nanjing Massacre ‘as if it were true’, when they claim there is no proof that it ever took place. To counter such attacks, several of the most respected manga professionals have set up a campaign organisation to champion freedom of expression and decry any moves towards censorship.

American pop culture was exported to almost every country and its imperialism dominated most of the 20th century. But the tide is rapidly turning, now that a tsunami of Japanese comics, films, merchandise and games is sweeping around the world. This wave has more than tripled over the last ten years, to the point where it is virtually neck-and-neck with its American counterparts. Could this sea-change in exported culture herald a new Japanese century?

The word manga itself is made up of two kanji or ideograms, ‘man’ and ‘ga’, roughly meaning ‘crazy drawings’ or ‘irresponsible pictures’. It was coined by the famous woodblock-print artist Hokusai in 1814 to describe the playful spirit of his personal sketchbooks. Over time, the word’s meaning in Japan has come to cover a wide variety of joke and political cartoons, newspaper strips, comics, caricatures, graphic novels, and not just Japanese ones.

When manga finally began to be exported to the West, there were some mixed messages at first, particularly in Britain, where one company labelled their animated videos as ‘manga’, instead of ‘anime’, and even tried to patent the word as their own. The confusion persists, but manga are definitely comics from Japan, not animation, which is known as ‘anime’.

To complicate matters further, in recent years the word manga has become stretched by some to encompass comics which are created outside Japan and not by Japanese writers and artists, but which have some stylistic or thematic similarities. These include Korean ‘manhwa’, Hong Kong comics, Western imitations or ‘pseudo-manga’, and the emerging international ‘Nouvelle Manga’ movement.

Posted: April 23, 2006

The original version of this article appeared in 2004 in the pages of Neo, the UK magazine of Manga, Anime, Asian Films, Games & More.


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My Books

Comics Art by Paul Gravett from Tate Publishing

Comics Unmasked by Paul Gravett and John Harris Dunning from The British Library

1001 Comics  You Must Read Before You Die edited by Paul Gravett

Featured Books

60 Years Of
Japanese Comics

by Paul Gravett
& Peter Stanbury

Which Manga will you read next? Here are a dozen top recommendations:

by Tezuka
Life-changing enlightenment

Barefoot Gen
by Nakazawa
(Last Gasp)
Surviving Hiroshima

Lone Wolf and Cub
by Goseki & Kojima
(Dark Horse)
Samurai epic

by Otomo
(Dark Horse)
High-rise superpowers

by Miyazak
Ecological fantasy

The Walking Man
by Taniguchi
(Ponent Mon)
Awakening to nature

Happy Mania
by Moyocco Anno
Sex-crazy ‘chick-lit’

by Tanaka
The toughest baby dinosaur

by Ito
Spiralling horrors

Club 9
by Kobayashi
(Dark Horse)
Antics of a bar hostess

by Fujisama
Punk schoolteacher rules

by Kawaguchi
‘West Wing’-style political thriller