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MANGA: Sixty Years Of Japanese Comics

A Review By: Contemporary Magazine

The follwoing review appeared in Contemporary Magazine.

In the past year, The New York Times ran several articles about how US publishers such as DC Comics and Viz are racing to launch Japanese-style comics, especially the girl-oriented genre shojo, to jostle for a phenomenally expanding American readership. It seems that this Google generation want their Manga 100 percent authentic, printed to read right to left; not because all things Japanese are cool, but because US-centrism is un-cool. Manga has come to denote sophisticated global culture.
From the breathtaking Studio Ghibli films (Spirited Away, 2001) to that dizzy cross between Charlie’s Angels and Beverly Hills 90210, the cartoon Totally Spies (2001), we consume Manga graphics without reading a single page. For the uninitiated it just seemed to come from nowhere, but in 2002 there were two exhibitions. The landmark exhibition ‘Manga’ toured Japanese comic artwork around England courtesy of the Japan Foundation. Paul Gravett responded by coordinating ‘Za Manga!’, an authentic Z to A of popular Manga. A David Mach-like wall of Japanese pulp publications was set up in a sleek Magma bookshop, looking as curated as an Amazon warehouse. Too accurate as a micro-reconstruction of a corner of Tokyo, it made Manga appear impenetrably Japanese and the sole preserve of pony-tailed guys in Matrix-style leather coats.

Happily Manga: Sixty Years Of Japanese Comics rips off the wraps and takes a hint from the medium itself to survey its staggering versatility in exuberant spreads of words and images. We enter a different publishing world. Comics as thick as telephone books, and just as disposable? Statistics and personal accounts from artists and editors locked in the relentless creative process that yields sales figures of millions conjure the empowering reek of black ink. Gravett introduces a feast of storylines and styles that make the book dazzle with screaming action and poetry and every human emotion in between. He is inspired less by nipponphilia than by this historical and transcultural renaissance of the comic form. Forgotten American and European examples are revisited, and contemporary role models are reviewed demonstrating the sociological forces at play in the comic industry’s rise in Japan.

Japanese officialdom proclaims that Manga began with ancient scroll painting, but modern Manga is distinguished from the children-oriented mainstream by its gekika (‘dramatic pictures’) style that rose from the gutter. In the streets of post-war Japan , actors performed to a TV-shaped window displaying story-sheets to millions of people a day. The writers brought the storylines to Manga, reflecting the brutality of contemporary life, from the darkness of criminal business to the desperation of stillborns stripped of the valuables swaddled with them as they wash into the grasp of sewer workers.

Manga: Sixty Years lands you in a reeling variety of weird worlds and graphic technique, but despite that you do come to understand what Manga is. This will become a classic reference sourcebook for every art school library. So I wish I could but can’t – as yet – hand over this book to my daughters. They are well-versed in Manga, especially the ongoing sex-comedies dating from the mid-1990s, No Time for Tenchi (featuring Ryoko of the pneumatic breasts) and Rumiko Takahashi’s transgender, trans-species farce RanMa ½. But – here’s the novelty – comic book sexual content is not the preserve of teenagers. Manga: Sixty Years examines a lifespan and as Manga matures along with its audience, Gravett illustrates how its artists redefine erotic genres using folklore and the female as well as male imaginary. From satire to pornography, Manga’s urbanity is thoroughly adult rather than Men Only.

Parental Guidance notwithstanding, shock was delivered in the chapter on horror. Scissors push through a child’s eyes: is this her dream or …? The action is spread over seven panels transfixing the viewer in a way that much video art tries to do. Manga, “the poor man’s film” is a sequence of images that can screw down any conceivable moment for eternal flashbacking even as the eye scans ahead for resolutions. To achieve that effect in a time-based medium, you would have to press replay. As if.


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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

Comics Art by Paul Gravett from Tate Publishing

All contents © Paul Gravett, except where noted.
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