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Manga Impact:

How Manga Reinvented Comics

Bake a cake! This weekend, more precisely yesterday 25 September 2010, marks the 5th anniversary of the Paul Gravett website. Every week for the past five years, usually on a Sunday morning, you’ve been able to read a brand new article covering a diverse range of international comics, manga and graphic novels, as well as regularly updated events listings. The whole project was kickstarted in 2005 by Tim Webber, the mastermind who ran the excellent, since-suspended Read Yourself Raw site. Through Tim and I working together, the PG site has become an amazing, fruitful collaboration, expanding to the associated Comica Festival and Escape Books sites. We both look forward to making all three sites even more of a vital web resource and community over the years to come.

To celebrate, this week’s Article is my essay for Manga Impact, a lavish new reference book on manga and anime forthcoming from Phaidon Books, which is being launched during this year’s Comica Festival. Manga continue to fascinate me. I presented an expanded lecture version of this essay at a Japanese Media Studies Workshop recently at The Sainsbury Institute for the Study of Japanese Arts and Cultures, where I met and learned from many pan-European academics pursuing their researches into Japan’s rich popular culture. Next week The Ashmolean Museum in Oxford opens their exhibition Japanese Ghosts and Demons, taken from their collection of stunning 19th-century ‘yokai’ or ghost and monster prints, mostly by Kuniyoshi and Yoshitoshi. I will be talking there about this tradition and its ongoing influence on manga past and present in an illustrated lecture, Manga Monsters!, next Sunday 3 October, 2-4pm, tickets are £6.50 and booking is required so please do this online here - do come along if you can.

And further ahead, the thrilling troupe Spice Arthur 702 will be over in the UK from Tokyo to perform their updated, phantasmagoric version of traditional ‘kamishibai’ or live ‘paper theatre’ storytelling, a precursor and progenitor of comics and animation in Japan. Fast, noisy, accompanied by a zany, zealous horn section, and in Japanese (don’t worry, English synopses are provided), this will be a unique, unpredictable, unmissable experience. Spice Arthur 702 are presented by The Crick Crack Club, a project of The London Centre for International Storytelling, in association with Comica Festival. They play at the Soho Theatre, Dean Street, London (020 7478 0100, £8/6 concs.) on Tuesday evening, 26 October, and at The Ashmolean Museum at a lunchtime gig, 1-2pm on Wednesday 27 October (£5, no booking required, though you can pre-book a ticket by calling 01865 288078). Once you get a flavour from this YouTube video, you’re not going to want to miss this spicy treat. It’s all more proof that manga is alive and kicking and making an impact wherever it goes!

With so much of anime deriving from manga, one of anime’s roles outside Japan has been as an ambassador for their comics. Almost symbolically, the letters "man" in manga are "hidden" inside the word anime. Broadly, Japanese animation has proven far easier to export to the West, after some relatively straightforward dubbing, than the long, black-and-white, “back-to-front” comics which demand text translations and either “flipping” or reverse-reading.

The “flipped” translation of the birth of Astro Boy by Tezuka Osamu

So for example, Astro Boy in Tezuka Osamu’s cartoons zoomed onto America’s TV screens within 8 months or so of his Japanese debut on New Year’s Day 1963, whereas his manga origins starting in 1951 had to wait until 2002 to appear in English. Despite cultural references and stylistic traits, anime was broadly not so different from drawn animation enjoyed worldwide. In contrast, manga was long perceived as so "alien" from American comics that nobody touched it and Astro Boy had to make do with flawed U.S. imitations from publishers Gold Key (1965) and Now Comics (1987-89). It was not until 2002, over 50 years since they began, that Tezuka’s manga started to be finally translated into English by Dark Horse.

The Americanized (per-)version of Astro Boy from 1965

One major factor which has made manga distinct from other comics traditions is its arsenal of narrative devices and techniques which cumulative generations of mangaka or comics authors have refined or introduced to expand the expressive capabilities of the medium. Initially, from the early 20th century, Japanese cartoonists had adopted or adapted Western formats and conventions, starting with American newspapers’ broadsheet full-pages or ‘Sunday funnies’ and four-panel horizontal daily comic strips, read vertically in Japan, then expanding to multi-page tales inspired partly by American comic books. What enabled mangaka to diverge from their peers abroad, however, were the opportunities to unfold much longer stories than anything in either standard American titles or Franco-Belgian bande dessinée (BD) albums.

Lost World and Metropolis, two early akahon or red books by Tezuka

Significantly, Osaka-based publishers had devised the akahon or red book - compact, cheap novelty hardbacks for kids usually with only three full-width panels per page. For Shin takarajima (New Treasure Island) in 1947, Tezuka, 18 at the time, had wanted to enlarge Sakai Shichima’s synopsis into a 250-page epic but Sakai pruned it back to 192 pages, still a remarkable page-count at the time. When their collaboration sold 400,000 copies, it became the model for other akahon publishers and launched Tezuka’s solo career. The advent of thick weekly manga magazines brought another outlet for lengthier projects in their furoku or extra supplements. Here mangaka could break free from short episodes set strictly to some 10 to 15 pages which always had to end on a cliffhanger, and elaborate stories of sixty pages or more. Finally, their periodical serials were reduced from roughly American comic book size into handy paperbacks of around 200 pages, which could run to numerous volumes.

The black background here signals a flashback in Tezuka’s Phoenix

Deadline pressures on mangaka to deliver yet another instalment to a magazine encouraged many to ‘decompress’ their plotting and let the visual take precedence over the verbal. Their ability to devote more pictures to a scene allowed them to portray more of its moment-to-moment actuality and find ways to convey motion and emotion. The goal became to immerse the reader in the protagonist’s experiences and feelings, to create a sense of presence and involvement, of stepping inside the body, head and heart of the protagonist, of being there and participating rather than merely observing. Above all to make you feel. As British graphic novelist Ilya expressed so well, “In Western comics, you read what happened next; in manga, you read what is happening”.

An example of ‘decompression’ in Koike & Kojima’s Lone Wolf and Cub

Part of that immediacy comes from mangaka’s chance to show, rather than just tell. For years, many Western mainstream comics were originated or dominated by writers and editors, the “word people”, for whom the artist played a subsidiary role as mere illustrator of their finely hewn texts and dialogues. No wonder a wordless panel, let alone a sequence or page, in these was a rarity. Mangaka, on the other hand, understood and could exploit the power of silent imagery to convey mood, nature, weather, landscape or the intensity of movement or passion.

Mangaka also knew that the only way to surprise a comic reader is by the turn of a page. The smaller dimensions of a manga book commonly meant fewer panels per page than their Western equivalents, so they could stretch out their story across more pages, thereby increasing the number of page turns and heightening the propulsion driving the reader onwards through the story. The unit of a comic was no longer the single panel, strip or page but very much the whole two-page spread. More pages also permitted a greater use of such widescreen vistas, seldom seen before in comic books or BD albums, aside from Jack Kirby or Philippe Druillet.

Three successive bleed spreads from Drifting Classrom (French version)

In contrast, Umezu Kazuo in The Drifting Classroom devotes three spreads in succession to punch home the horror of a headteacher’s gory wound. Adding to this impact is the way such images often ‘bleed’ or spread off the outer edges of the printed page. This breaking free beyond the neat confines of the panel border suggests that the moment itself has become larger, longer-lasting, resonant, as if its time and space are expanding. Whether for technical or aesthetic reasons, such bleed effects were rare in Western comics, although more recently they have become more common.

A breathtaking underwater shot from Igarashi Daisuke’s Children of the Sea

This is just one example of how manga is impacting on comics creators worldwide, which I have written about at length in my book Manga: Sixty Years of Japanese Comics. There is an abundance of other techniques ready to be absorbed into their work: the way a black background behind panels indicates a flashback; the range of abstract "auras" to manifest mental states in shojo or girls’ manga; their insertion of a character’s asides in smaller lettering as commentary on a scene; the fluid portrayals of the same character as realistic, cartoonish or super-deformed within the same page; the striking effectiveness of emptying a panel of all imagery except for a phrase or thought in text form. No longer alien, these and other unique solutions developed by mangaka will continue to enrich the comics medium as it evolves and mutates through the new millennium.

Posted: September 26, 2010

This essay was written for the forthcoming book Manga Impact (Phaidon).


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