Don't Make Those Manga Eyes At Me!
Recently, I received an interesting enquiry from a woman who has been reading my articles as research for her dissertation investigating the British comics market from the female perspective. She wrote to me that she found it hard to believe my comment that “manga in all their true diversity are comics unconstrained, uncompromised, unleashed.” She admitted that she had not read a huge amount of manga. But, as she put it, “Surely manga is constrained simply by the fact that if you see manga, you know it is manga. There is a visual style that prevails throughout. Any style, whether it be manga or Marvel, can restrict experimentation and originality within an artform.”
It turned out that she was studying illustration and explained further:
“On my course manga is a no-go-zone. Pupils that started the course heavily inspired by manga never seem to move very far away from it, it is a constant battle between them and the tutors. DeviantArt.com is also plagued by horrible imitations of the form - why the big eyes?! I get a horrible feeling in my stomach when I think about manga. I love creating comics, or ‘sequential art’, as my tutors prefer to refer to it. If someone wants to become a comic book artist, surely they should start by teaching themselves how to draw from real life rather than following step-by-step pages in a book. I worry that perhaps manga will suffocate originality in comics the same way that Marvel and DC have for so long. I was just interested if you shared any of my concerns, as I haven’t read anything but postive comments about manga from you.”
I wrote to thank her for her thought-provoking feedback and offer some sort of response:
Manga is being constantly misunderstood as one set style. The crucial key phrase in my quote about manga is “in all their true diversity”. If someone were aware of the full range of American comics, they would hopefully never dismiss them all as looking like Marvel or DC superhero comics. If someone were aware of the full range of French and Belgian bande dessinées, they would hopefully never dismiss them all as looking like Asterix or Tintin. Similarly, if someone were aware of the full range of manga, they would understand that not all manga look like Naruto or Guru-Guru Pon Chan. Not that there is anything wrong with all these popular publishers and series. The problems with manga here in the West though are that many people start out wanting to copy - which is actually quite natural, a great way to learn, and the way a lot of comics creators usually start. But the snag is that they can become fixated on one series or one artist above all others, perhaps one they’ve discovered via its anime versions - and so they don’t continue to look further afield and find out where their favourite artist’s influences came from, like Art Nouveau, or Japanese ukiyo-e prints, or explore other manga, or other types of comics, and learn from them as well.
I have met some art school tutors who dislike, even despise manga, and some who feel threatened by manga. I can totally understand this, because they mostly don’t know enough about the bigger world of comics and the language and techniques, history and cutting edge of this amazing medium. A teacher wants to teach, but if they are in the dark, exposed as not knowing enough, or not knowing more than their students, and unsure or lacking expertise, then they feel vulnerable, confronted, and therefore resistant, if not hostile. On top of this, they probably find that many of their manga-fanatic students are closed off from discovering more, about manga, about the whole of comics, and about all sorts of other art and imagery which could enrich their own ideas and creativity and help make them more individual and self-expressive. So it becomes a stalemate.
Manga is like all comics cultures which acquire predominant pre-sets to them, one or more successful formulas which get rapidly adopted by lots of people and become standardised. However, nowhere else but in the full breadth of the comics medium worldwide can you encounter so many wildly different styles, skills and approaches to drawing. Comics is the true refuge and home of drawing today, more so than anywhere else. I don’t believe that all comic artists need to start from life-drawing, by any means - many are self-taught and hone their drawing by studying, and yes copying, the artists they admire most. One key issue with drawing is that we all have our tastes, our comfort zones, our tolerance levels for the eccentric, awkward, poorly crafted, or utterly bizarre. So it’s no surprise that live-action dramas on TV and in films are much easier than comics for most people to enjoy and engage with, because every one is photographed, filmic, acted, has sound, movement like real life, music to help make you emote, and it is mostly pretty identical in its basic look, function and editing. Whereas comics demand a lot - the reader has to look as well as read and has to process a style of art that may not appeal at all at first glance.
If that’s the case with your aversion for manga, I’d suggest you look through my book Manga: 60 Years of Japanese Comics (shameless plug, but it is a good visual survey - get it free out of the library). I hope it can show you a bit of the diversity and scope of the medium there, alongside more familiar and popular series. And you’ll see there have been plenty of manga without those window-sized panes for eyes, ranging from Lone Wolf & Cub by Kazuo Koike & Goseki Kojima in the Seventies, to the super-realist Crying Freeman by Kazuo Koike & Ryoichi Ikegami (who was inspired by American comic book artist Neal Adams), or Katsuhiro Otomo’s Akira in the Eighties, to the recent, sublimely strange Travel by Yuichi Yokoyama. And sometimes, once you can get past any aversion to those big Bambi eyes, you’ll find the content, the story, can surprise and captivate you, as in so many of Osamu Tezuka’s wonderful narratives - I’d especially recommend the grittier Ode to Kirihito where he adopts a more naturalistic “gekiga” approach to facial proportions and expression.
But if those big eyes really are an obstacle to your enjoying manga, as well as the numerous volumes many stories can run on and on for, here are six (mainly) single-volume manga without any sparkly distended orbs, no manic speedlines or mad hairstyles, none of what is supposedly “manga style”, for you to sample from your library or comics store, whose subjects are mostly more mature and whose drawing styles are quite varied. I hope you can track these down and then show them to your manga-crazy co-students - and to your manga-phobic teachers too. I hope this helps you, and both your fellow pupils and tutors too, to see that not all manga look the same and that there’s much more variety of styles and subjects out there to discover. And plenty for both pupils and teachers to learn about and learn from.
The Walking Man
by Jiro Taniguchi
Fanfare do other great books by him too,
like the two-volume A Distant Neighborhood.
Go Go Monster
by Taiyo Matsumoto
My top manga of 2009. He also did
Tekkonkinkreet, Blue Spring and No. 5 all in English.
by Kiriko Nananan
In elegant, sensitive faces and figures, she really captures
the frissons between these school girls.
by Seiichi Hayashi
A couple’s struggles with life and love from the early Seventies,
story and art still fresh and surprising today.
Sexy Voice & Robo
by Iou Kuroda
A wild streetwise manga like no other, with bold,
almost woodcut-like inkwork.
Posted: March 28, 2010
Children of the Sea
by Daisuke Igarashi
Now this is drawing, often from nature, really well observed,
serving a fascinating underwater eco-fable.