- Dragonball Z s2
- Kamisama Kiss
Comics and cartoons seem to naturally go hand in hand; the comics I read have always depended on the cartoons I watched. When I was growing up, I loved Star Trek, Transformers and G.I. Joe, so most of the comics I bought were in those franchises. Even though I would look around when I was at comic stores, I didn't branch out very often. Sure, I'd pick up the odd superhero comic here and there, but since I didn't really watch such cartoons or play with superhero toys, they didn't do much for me. I think one of the reasons is that a lot of comics feature long-running storylines that require a lot of previous knowledge to really get what's going on – from the few times I picked up an interesting-looking comic at random, I realized it's not something that you can just jump right into. I learned the hard way that this can be true even if it's a franchise you think you'll know. (In the very first issue of the G.I. Joe comic that I ever bought, it seemed that Snake Eyes stepped on a landmine and was killed, which upset my little mind greatly until I discovered in later issues that it was all a ruse and he had faked his death.)
It was the same way with manga for me when I was getting into the anime scene. When I studied abroad in Japan as an undergrad, I was inundated with the varieties of manga that were available at the average bookstore. I just didn't know where to begin, so I stuck with what was safe and, as my first manga purchase, bought the first four volumes of Yoshiyuki Sadamoto's Neon Genesis Evangelion. Although it probably wasn't the most inspired choice, when confronted with so much choice I just went with what I knew.
This week's featured Read This! article is “How Manga Reinvented Comics” by Paul Gravett, and it caught my eye precisely because of these experiences I had with comics. As Gravett writes, “one of anime's roles outside Japan has been as an ambassador for their comics.” I know it may not be like this for everyone, but for me animation always provided an easier point of entry for getting into a particular franchise. Indeed, it wasn't until anime had established a commercial beachhead in North America in the 1990s that we began seeing more manga coming out over here. Gravett suggests that this might be a more general trait of manga. Since it has its own way of telling a story that may not be immediately obvious to those with little experience reading such comics, manga were slower than anime to be adapted in many English-speaking countries.
When you stop to think about it, it's really kind of strange that we've only had manga in English since the 1970s, and it's only really gotten popular in the last decade or two. As I'll be discussing later in this column, some scholars have asserted that manga and its roots go back for centuries. Although anime is much more recent (it began in the twentieth century) when Japan began producing manga films and television shows after World War II, it wasn't unheard of them to show up in English versions within a year or two. So why has manga in English been so late to the game?
Gravett asserts that while “despite cultural references and stylistic traits, anime was broadly not so different from drawn animation enjoyed worldwide.” In other words, anime was a variation on a theme – it may have looked and sounded a bit different at times, but we could still understand anime as being like the cartoons that we were used to. Make a few edits for content, slap a new dub track on, and voilà, you've got a new product ready for export. Manga, as Gravett explains, was a more complicated case, owing to the “arsenal of narrative devices and techniques which cumulative generations of mangaka or comics authors have refined or introduced to expand the expressive capabilities of the medium.” In many ways, from their beginnings, film and television were global media – when Japan was first developing its film industry, it first looked to the West for examples of how to use the new cinematic technologies to tell stories. This made moving images more or less universal. I'm sure we have all had the experience of watching a movie or TV show in a language we didn't fully understand. But, more often than not, we are able to follow along with what is going on by piecing together the expressions of the characters and how the onscreen action is shown to us. What Gravett is saying is that unlike anime, manga often doesn't have a common global language to fall back on. Sure many countries have different types of comics, but the forms they take can vary greatly from country to country. In the case of Japan, as Gravett points out, the way their publishing system functioned gave manga authors many more pages to work with than US comics authors got. This meant that while US comics could be dense and rather text-heavy, manga had more room to decompress and show actions across multiple panels or pages. (Of course I'm just generalizing here.) This meant that manga came up with its own way of showing what was going on in a story, which makes perfect sense if you know what you're looking at, but isn't always readily apparent to those on the outside.
In addition to this article, Gravett wrote the book Manga: Sixty Years of Japanese Comics, which I hope to get to in a future column. But I wanted to mention the title of his book because it makes for an intriguing contrast with the book I'll be focusing on this week.
One Thousand Years of Manga by Brigitte Koyama-Richard
Okay, at this point you may be wondering to yourself, “Wait, just how old i>s manga anyway? One book says sixty years, one says a thousand years. Surely one of those has got to be wrong.” My response is that it all depends on what you consider manga.
In the 1990s and 2000s, people in Japan began noticing that the stuff like comics, animation, and video games they had been producing were starting to attract a following overseas. Popular culture was becoming the public face of Japan to the rest of the world. Although these things were once mere throwaway products of no importance, they were now being reclaimed and reincorporated back into Japanese culture. Part of this meant that things like manga needed to have a good long history attached to them, something that would add weight and heft.
Many centuries ago, artists in Japan produced scrolls that were very much like comics or caricature. The most famous scroll of this type still in existence is called “Frolicking Animals and People” by Bishop Toba. When people talk about manga being “a thousand” years old, stuff like this is usually what they're referring to. Although it could certainly be called comics or “sequential art,” I'm not so sure that I'd call it manga. As mentioned above and in last week's column, some of the most distinguishing features of manga are how it tells its stories across panels and pages. These early scrolls do often tell a story, but it's on one long piece of paper without breaking things up. (The idea of publishing manga in a book or magazine format with the art divided into panels is actually a relatively modern one.) I think these scrolls could be considered ancestors or precursors of manga, but it's not manga itself.
This isn't to say that everyone who tried to look back to see the origins or manga is necessarily a Japanese nationalist trying to give such comics a centuries-old lineage it doesn't deserve. There's certainly value to be gained in looking back that far historically. Obviously, such scrolls mean that people in Japan have been creating comic pictures for many hundreds of years. It's worth thinking about the reasons why and how someone like Toba would have created “Frolicking Animals and People” as well as why someone more contemporary might make comics.
Koyama-Richard's book provides a roughly chronological look at how manga came into being. Other than the caveat above about how old this thing called “manga” is, I quite enjoyed how it presented the material and it is very informative in places. The book begins by looking at the early Japanese scrolls I mentioned above. However, even here it's hard to definitively trace back manga's origins for a thousand years. There are a few from the eleventh or twelfth century, but many of the examples, even in early chapters, are of fairly recent vintage – nineteenth century and more recent. The second chapter discusses the Edo period (1603-1868), but even the majority of these selections are selected from the latter part of the time period.
Brian Ruh is the author of Stray Dog of Anime: The Films of Mamoru Oshii. You can find him on Twitter at @animeresearch.