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MANGA: Sixty Years Of Japanese Comics

A Review By: 9eme Art

The following review appeared in 9eme Art No. 12 in January 2006.

Manga According To Paul Gravett:
In dealing with the vogue for manga, the major media has sometimes been tempted by conspiracy theory: that the manga phenomenon is the result of a diabolical plan concocted by Euro-publishers eager to replace Franco-Belgian bande dessinée, nearing its end, with a new and above all more economical product. The reality is that the publishers have been as surprised as the media by the infatuation of a generation for Japanese comics, not that this has stopped them of course from exploiting this easy option in an opportunistic way.
This disarray and this distrust among publishers explains an initial delay in secondary literature on manga. This delay is starting to be compensated for now that we see the sort of things appearing that would make comics historians feel they were dreaming: for example, manuals teaching adolescents how to draw shojo manga put out by the very Catholic Editions Fleurus, who, you may recall, published BD (some of them remarkable) only in order to fight back against “bad comics”, ie non-confessional ones. It’s clearly the sector on general introductions to Japanese comics that is the most coveted, and here the better are side-by-side with the worse, or simply the most hasty. Les Mondes Manga (EPA, 2005) by Martin Delpierre and Jérôme Schmidt, the latter already the author of a disastrous Génération manga from Librio in 2004, is little more than a big book of images. A sort of brief article, not bad for all that, by Fabien Tillon, becomes a little book, entitled simply Les Mangas in the collection Les Petits Illustrés (Nouveau Monde editions, 2005).

In this context, we must salute the translation of the work by Paul Gravett, Manga: Sixty Years of Japanese Comics (Laurence King Publishing/Harper Design International, 2004) from editions du Rocher, and if the BD amateur unsure of manga wishes to buy only one work on the subject, this is the one we would advise. Gravett is an intelligent author and positions his enterprise within the English-language literature on the subject. So he knows that his reader knows of the work by Frederic Schodt, Manga, Manga (Kodansha, 1983), the first introduction in the West to what had been translated only in a very marginal way. Consequently, Gravett picks up the ancient history of manga (via the toba-e, kibyoshi or Japan Punch) only to clarify his intention. Similarly, he presumes that the founding position of Tezuka is known to the reader and so highlights the no less important developments of gekiga and the production of manga for lending libraries (kashibonya) published in Osaka.

With an historian’s lucidity matched with an aesthete’s judgement, Gravett proceeds to isolate the key authors, both in the past and in the current scene. Among the classical authors, Tezuka, Tatsumi, Tsuge, Shirato and Umzeu are translated in the West. But Gravett also knows how to recognise the merits of Mizuko or of Chiba. Knowing that the secondary literature on comics generally hovers between cursory, misinformed survey and obsessonal compilation, this faculty of discernment in a reference work, presented as an introduction to a studied area, deserves to be praised.  Equally among his assets Gravett draws on an encyclopedic knowledge of international comics and a clear understanding of how a comic is produced. Therefore, the fact that Tezuka uses a cast (the same characters return from one series to another, in different roles) is placed in relation to some of his predecessors (for example, Ed Whelan, author of Minute Movies). This is then clarified by a technical reason: this re-use partly explains Tezuka’s prolific output, since he would use characters over and over whom he knew inside out.

Gravett avoids falling into a reductive position which would make manga the strict inheritor of the Japanese iconic tradition (a position that the Japanese themselves do not escape from, including in their educational publications). Manga is described as the product of an industrial society and this society functions by definition on the fashion for global exchanges. It is really the cross-fertilisation between comics and American animation, on the one hand, and Japanese tradition, on the other, that explains the physionomy of modern manga. As well as his astonishing productivity, what makes Tezuka preeminent is that he is the man through whom this cultural reception passed. But Gravett is conscious that a second manga, “non-Tezukian”, is possible, and makes space for the minimalist Shigeru Sugiura, cited (page 135) as an alternative to the Tezuka system. Manga has swept the world and this in turn is only a new avatar of this globalisation, leading to new cross-fertilsations, very skilfully illustrated un this work, and will finally permit, according to Gravett, the emergence of a world comics literature. Here we can measure how far the usual debates in intellectual circles about the globalisation of cultural goods can be reductionist; multiculturalism is only validated, in these debates, when it concerns the promotion of Third World cultures, and when the question of the globalisation of post-industrial societries’ cultural productions is brought down in a polemical way to a denouncement of North American cultural hegemony.

When he comes to modern manga, Gravett speaks about a literature that is largely translated today (in English and in French) and his book works in this regard both as an anthology -  more conscientious and methodical than, for example, the Japanese work published by Taschen in 2004 (Manga Design by Masanao Amano) - and as a reading guide for a cultivated person who does not know about manga but wants to plunge into them. This applies as much to series aimed at a broad public as to avant-garde authors.

An effort has been made by editions du Rocher to adapt the work for a French public. If the manga pages illustrating the book have been kept in English, the translations of those titles are given when needed and a notice of the French edition has been added. On the negative side, it is regretable that the translator doesn ot always underdstand what he is translating, leading to some misprints and imprecise terms. He has also undertaken assorted interventions into the text, sometimes in bad taste (so Eroica, a masculine hero from a shojo manga based on male homosexuality, becomes a camp female blonde). It is high time that publishers understand that illustrated literature is a technical domain and you cannot simply assign the translation of an historical or theoretical work on the subject to no matter who, no more than you would give the translation of a work of philosophy or chemistry to a non-philosopher or non-chemist.


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My Books

Comics Art by Paul Gravett from Tate Publishing

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

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

All contents © Paul Gravett, except where noted.
All artwork © the respective copyright holders.