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Manga Answerman - Is the Distinction Between Manga And "Manga-Style Comics" Going Away?

by Deb Aoki,

Do you think the distinction between manga made in Japan and manga-style comics made elsewhere is slowly going away? Do you think it should?

This is an interesting and timely question, especially given the recent debut of Radiant, the new anime series based on the fantasy-adventure manga created by Tony Valente, a French comics creator who was recently Viz Media's special guest at Anime Fest @ NYCC 2018.

Radiant is notable in that it's one of the rare examples of an overseas comics creator getting his work adapted into an anime series and aired on Japanese TV (NHK). Prior to Radiant's debut as an anime, it has also enjoyed a successful run as a printed manga series (now up to 11 volumes) that was first published in France and Japan years before it was available in English. (Viz Media recently released Radiant Volume 1, and Volume 2 is due to hit the shelves in November )

Sure, Peepo Choo by Felipe Smith was serialized in Kodansha's Morning 2 magazine in Japan, which is definitely a noteworthy success, but Radiant marks a rare instance where an overseas creator's work has been picked up for anime adaptation for the Japanese market, with 21 episodes planned for its first season.

When I flip through the Radiant manga, it's clear that Valente has got a great grasp of manga character design and visual storytelling. It evokes current and classic hit series like Dragon Ball, Fairy Tail and Naruto, to the point where it's almost indistinguishable from hit manga created in Japan. It's a bit wordy and dense reading sometimes (which is kind of a French/Belgian bandes dessinées tendency), but overall, it ticks off most of the marks for a fun shonen manga series.

While his concept is a pastiche of shonen manga's greatest hits, the main thing that sells Valente's story is the high energy and high level of craftsmanship on display here. You can tell that he's spent the time and effort to learn more than just how to draw, but how to create characters and tell a story. It's not going to win awards for being wildly original, but it's a fun and interesting read, which counts for something, I think.

Generally speaking, I have mixed feelings about overseas creators describing their work as “manga” and describing themselves as “mangaka” (manga creator), mostly because the vast majority of creators who do so are putting out work that is… well, sub-par, and are a slog to read. The art is sometimes awkward, the dialogue is stilted, and the storytelling is drab and predictable. This is maybe to be expected from any comics creator early in their career, as they find their style of drawing and storytelling.

This is tough, because when these newbie creators call their work “manga,” they're inviting comparison with the best work by creators with years of experience that's coming out of Japan today. When held up to that standard, these international “manga” stories often fall short. The batting average of most of these would-be manga creations Is historically pretty low, so it has created an impression that they simply aren't very good. This is of course changing, as more creators are building skill and experience to create more polished, original and professional-quality work, but the reputation that many are more “wanna-bes” than there are wonderful ‘ international manga’ out there remains.

While there is no ONE way to draw manga, and manga in Japan is constantly evolving, there are some distinctive things that makes Japanese manga different than other comics art styles and storytelling traditions. I get why a lot of overseas comics creators want to call their work “manga” because they want to signal to fellow manga readers that their comics might be something they'd want to read.

My usual take on it is that comics creators from outside of Japan should just call their work “comics,” and avoid the baggage and expectations that come with calling their work “manga.” It's fine to have obvious manga influences in your work, but the pro creators who have really taken their craft to the next level focus on creating their own style that often has a mix of comics styles and storytelling techniques and subjects from all kinds of comics. It's far more interesting to be a creator who is drawing something new, fresh and different than it is to be a creator who is trying to copy what thousands of manga creators are doing in Japan, and likely doing it better. Japan sets a high bar for comics, and it's not easy to meet or top it, even for creators in Japan, much less creators from overseas.

Do I think these distinctions are slowly going away? Yes, I think so, as the quality of work from overseas creators gets better and they produce pro-quality stories that are just enjoyable to read, labels be damned. There are already creators like TogaQ (a.k.a. Jo Chen) and Kichiku Neko, whose erotic crime drama boys love series In These Words have been published in Japan to critical acclaim, and creators from Korea, Taiwan, Indonesia, and beyond who are getting their work published, read and enjoyed by fans all over the world.

I think we're on the cusp of some interesting developments in the world of comics, as we're seeing a lot of N. American comics and French/Belgian comics with definite manga influences, and Japanese comics that show the influence of American and European comics too. Webcomics, webtoons, and online publishing is lowering barriers to entry, and giving readers worldwide access to comics by creators from all over the globe. This comics cross-pollination is giving us lots of interesting comics, new styles of visual storytelling, and new stories from new and different perspectives to read. In the end, isn't that what matters more than labels?

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Deb Aoki was the founding editor for About.com Manga, and now writes about manga for Anime News Network and Publishers Weekly. She is also a comics creator/illustrator, and has been a life-long reader of manga (even before it was readily available in English). You can follow her on Twitter at @debaoki.

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