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MANGA: Sixty Years Of Japanese Comics

A Review By: Roger Sabin

Roger Sabin is a lecturer in Cultural Studies at Central St Martin’s College of Art and Design in London. He is also the author of Comics, Comix & Graphic Novels (2001), Punk Rock, So What? (1999) and Below Critical Radar: Fanzines & Alternative Comics From 1976 To Now (2001). The following review appeared in The Journal of Design History in 2005.

This solidly researched introduction to manga belongs on the reading list of any student interested in Japanese popular culture. With 360 intelligently chosen illustrations, there is a real sense of allowing the strips to speak for themselves: the book’s main strength is its range of material, from girls’ comics to salaryman funnies. Thus, there is an implicit, and very welcome, challenge to the stereotypical view held in the West that manga are merely about sex and violence (tits and tentacles) fodder for Beavis & Butthead-like teens.

The ten chapters range from historical narratives (e.g. From pay libraries to newsstands) to more focused themes (Through a woman’s eyes), while the illustrational content also includes helpful extras such as a time-line and pie charts to indicate the genres sold. This care and attention is matched by the writing style, which is accessible and politically astute - albeit within limits. It helps that Gravett has had a long career as a freelance journalist on papers such as The Guardian and on specialist comics publications.

In terms of where to begin, Gravett equates the “struggle to develop manga from slight entertainments principally aimed at children into narratives of every type for readers of all ages” (p. 24) with the career of just one man: Osamu Tezuka. This “Father of Japanese comics”, Gravett tells us, represented “Walt Disney, Hergé, Will Eisner and Jack Kirby all rolled into one” and essentially set a template for manga, with hits such as New Treasure Island (1947), Astro Boy (1951) and Buddha (1972) selling in their millions. Tezuka’s work is recognizably what we think of as ‘manga’ today, whereas Gravett could have taken the decision to start his history with the ukiyo-e prints of the seventeenth century, or even with monastic scrolls from the twelfth century. This is the line taken by many studies of manga, but would have been a mistake for two reasons: first, it makes an association between comics and so-called ‘high art’, which Gravett is shrewd enough to realize is a totally spurious one; second, by extension, it connects manga with forms which have an arguably very different aesthetic. Recently, for example, academics such as Jaqueline Berndt have argued persuasively for a fresh take on the definition of manga, with the corollary that tracing their origins back several centuries falls into the same trap as claiming that the roots of Western comics stretch to the Bayeux Tapestry or Trajan’s Column.

The best chapter features the wilder shores of post-1960s’ underground comics publishing, with underrated creators such as Yoshiharu Tsuge and Suehiro Maruo getting their due. Their comics represent a personal, non-commercial, approach - stories about working in factories, psychedelic experiences, etc. - and the images chosen display a vibrant alternative to the Tezuka-derived ‘big-eye’ style on show in much of the rest of the book. Although there are comparisons with the underground and alternative comics scene in the West, it is conceded that, “In Japan, the border between ‘mainstream’ and ‘underground’ tends to become rather blurred because of the size and range of available opportunities within manga publishing” (p. 132). This is undoubtedly true, though differing cultural norms also play a role. Whatever you call these comics, it is clear that an entire book could have been devoted to this single genre.

This raises the point that if the book has a drawback, then it is that it tries to do too much. Gravett points out in the cover blurb that manga “account for 40 per cent of everything published each year in Japan”. So the subtitle of the book, Sixty Years of Japanese Comics is a slightly worrying portent of overambition. Of course there has had to be a severe selection process, and the cherry-picked examples are entertaining enough, but there are still too many of them, with the result that the accompanying text is often squeezed to the point of superficiality.

For this reason, the reader will not find out much about the wider context for these comics. There is little about production history (no comment on the notorious sweatshop conditions in many studios), and despite some astute analysis of the depiction of girls and women, scant interest in ideology. Thus, for example, concerns over the alleged promotion of neo-fascist politics in some manga (e.g. Silent Service) are ignored in favour of a more celebratory tone. This fannishness is evident in the fact that creators are often referred to as “visionaries”, and that information offered on individual titles, while being punctiliously PC, is more or less descriptive (for the seminal Akira, we are told more about the different printings than anything else).

But who is to blame for this? Perhaps it is germane to ask how far any highly illustrated text published in the 2000s can be expected to be critical. Publishers typically insist upon written permissions from copyright holders to reproduce work, and this can entail some pretty binding strings. To take an example from the world of comics (though, of course, this situation applies to any book about visual culture): DC Comics in the USA will demand to see the text before granting permission, and then will (usually) charge a considerable fee. This means that if they do not like what an author has to say, that crucial picture of Superman, Wonder Woman or whoever will be denied. There are ‘Fair Use’ clauses in law allowing certain levels of reproduction for scholarly purposes, but because most publishers of illustrated books are nervous about what this covers, the norm is for a contract to put the legal responsibility on the author to secure clearances. End result: censorship.

Gravett’s book is a lot more critical than most illustrated surveys, but for truly analytical work it is clear that one has to look towards the academic presses (where it is not uncommon to find studies of comics that absurdly contain no pictures whatsoever - e.g. Routledge’s Many Lives Of The Batman). There is a growing literature about manga at this level, and Gravett lists in the bibliography such important Western academics as the aforementioned Berndt and Sharon Kinsella, as well as occasionally referencing statistical analyses such as Tim Perper and Martha Cornog’s study of the sexual content of translated manga. When it comes to Japanese voices, critics such as Fusanosuke Natsume and Tomafusa Kure are namechecked, but it is obvious that Gravett’s (entirely forgivable) lack of fluency in the language has been a barrier to exploring indigenous studies.

If it is tempting to conclude that the book is more of a bumper-sized fanzine than a scholarly tome, this is not fair. It goes much further than this, and offers readers the opportunity to look closely at a side to manga they may not previously have encountered. There has been a need for a good primer on the subject for many years (Frederik Schodt’s Manga! Manga!, 1983, has done sterling service), and this informative, engaged and above all wide-ranging compendium fulfils that role admirably.

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