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MANGA: Sixty Years Of Japanese Comics

A Review By: Comic World News

This review first appeared on the news blog Comic World News.

Compulsively reading manga is bad enough, but you know you’re hopeless when you start reading books about manga. But when there are books as good as Manga: Sixty Years of Japanese Comics by Paul Gravett, it’s easy to succumb. Gravett writes with a journalist’s fluidity, but Manga is a scholarly and comprehensive look at the art form’s evolution. It’s a vast subject, and any number of its components (cultural, historic, and aesthetic) could sustain a book of its own. Gravett balances the various pieces of the manga puzzle to provide a very readable overview.
He starts quite sensibly with Osamu Tezuka, the universally acknowledged ‘God of Manga.’ Beyond being an accomplished storyteller and artist, Tezuka was a passionate advocate of comics as a legitimate art form with limitless potential. He was inspired by the American films that flooded Japan after the end of World War II and wanted to translate their kinetic energy and the range of emotions they evoked to comics storytelling. Over the course of his career, he worked on hundreds of comics and produced dozens of animated films. From humanistic science fiction like Astro Boy to adaptations of classics like Crime and Punishment to a biography of Buddha, Tezuka’s prolific accomplishments were limited only by time. (He died at 60, still working despite a battle with stomach cancer.) As Gravett writes, ‘His influence in Japan could be seen as equivalent to that of Walt Disney, Hergé, Will Eisner and Jack Kirby rolled into one.’ Tezuka’s innovations and passion for comics serve as a perfect launching point to explore manga’s evolution over time. He was an inspirational figure, and Gravett spends the rest of the book exploring the ways Tezuka’s dreams for Japanese comics are being realized.

Gravett delves into manga from a wide variety of angles. He goes into its expanding range of subject matter, the driving influence of boys’ comics, the diverse audiences it serves, and its growing popularity outside of Japan. He talks about independent and underground creators; manga as escape, instruction, and eroticism; and manga’s place in Japan’s daily life (and economy.)

My favourite chapter is Through A Woman’s Eyes, where Gravett traces the role of women as a creative force and women and girls as a loyal audience. It’s difficult to resist comparing women’s influence in Japanese comics with their still-evolving place with American publishers, particularly when Gravett rattles off a fact like this: ‘Shojo manga publications currently employ an estimated 400 women mangaka, among them some of the industry’s most successful creators. Girls are no longer their only audience; stories by women are reaching across age differences and the gender gap.’

Gravett packs the book with history, perspective, and detail, and he has a splendid way with an illustrative anecdote. As sound as the scholarship is, though, Manga isn’t a bit stuffy. Gravett’s style is conversational and engaging, and the pages fly by.

I would be completely remiss if I didn’t note the staggering range of eye candy the book boasts. There are plates from literally hundreds of comics of virtually every style and genre. Anyone finding themselves in an argument over whether all manga looks alike could benefit from a copy of this in their library. Of course, you’ll probably want one there anyways, just to gape at all the pretty pictures.

Even if you aren’t a manga fan, Manga: Sixty Years of Japanese Comics is a fascinating look at an art form that seems to keep going from strength to strength (with the occasional correction along the way). And for manga fans, it’s an accessible, essential overview that will only enhance their appreciation of the comics they love.

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