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Jason Thompson's House of 1000 Manga - Even A Monkey Can Draw Manga!

by Jason Thompson,

Episode XI: Even a Monkey Can Draw Manga


"Our dream: to rule Japan with manga! First, our serials must appear in every genre of every major manga weekly and be voted #1 in all the readers' polls! Then, those serials must be published as lushly produced graphic-novel collections! Then, they must be released as anime! Then, this will be followed by character merchandising, which will make us billionaires! Furthermore, we would like to run for public office with one of us eventually becoming the prime minister of Japan, and then we will brainwash the entire population with manga and anime and rule the entire nation! That is our dream! It's a dog-eat-dog world! Only champions like us can rule it!"
Even a Monkey Can Draw Manga

Let's see a show of hands, everyone who wants to become a mangaka! I'm not judging-- I do too. And we're not alone. For at least 50 years, since Shinji Nagashima's 1961 Mangaka Zankoku Monogatari ("The Harsh Tale of a Manga Artist"), the manga audience has been self-aware enough to eat up stories about the experience of being a manga artist, not just stories about shinigami and dragon slayers. Hidenori Hara's Itsudemo wo Yume wa, Emura's Kyo mo Ashita mo, Kio Shimoku's Genshiken…these manga and many more give people the vicarious experience of living the dream. Just like fantasies of being a movie star, stories of being a manga artist are a sort of meta-fantasy, a consumer's dream of becoming a creator. All you need is a pencil and some paper-- and of course, as they keep saying in Tsugumi Ohba and Takeshi Obata's Bakuman, you also need FIREY PASSION! Friendship, perseverance, victory. To really be the best, you'll need to draw way more than just 80 pages a month; you'll need to draw 150,000 pages in your lifetime, like Osamu Tezuka. Even though drawing manga is a visually unexciting act that requires spending most of your time alone at your desk, the culture of manga is filled with wild stories and over-the-top characters, so it's pretty suited for fictionalization. (If you've ever wondered whether manga artists can go insane from overwork, do a youtube search for Kazuo Umezu.

Of course, there are the countless "How to Draw Manga" books, by artists of every nationality, of skill levels ranging from good to "someone sure was lucky to get a publishing contract." One of the most fascinating books about manga I've ever read was "How to Draw Manga: Compiling Characters," which is basically a totally cheesy, poorly translated book about how to draw mainstream manga, late-90s style. It's not actually very good, but when I read it many years ago, it was one of the first books about manga I'd seen, apart from Frederik Schodt's "Manga! Manga!" and "Dreamland Japan." It was like a lightning bolt hit me. Frederik Schodt, the Johnny Appleseed of manga in the West, had showed me the good side of manga, trying hard to convince me that it was artistic and bold, experimental and courageous. "How to Draw Manga: Compiliing Characters," a book written in Japanese for a Japanese audience, showed me that in reality, manga was about tracing photographs, drawing cute characters so you could sell more merchandise, and cranking your cliché level up to 9,000.

The ultimate parody of books like these, and the whole "let's draw manga and become superstars" phenomenon, is Koji Aihara and Kentaro Takekuma's Even a Monkey Can Draw Manga. Originally published in 1989, it's still disturbingly accurate, despite the contraction of the manga industry since then and the sweeping changes in manga styles, which make Aihara's art look incredibly crude and old-school. (Luckily, or perhaps unluckily, Aihara's super-stiff, super-gar art was always meant to be bad-looking. If it makes your eyeballs curl to look at it, you'll just have to tell yourself that it's good for you and choke it down.) Even a Monkey Can Draw Manga has been praised a lot online, I'm by no means the first person to write about it, but like the Bible, it's something you can keep talking about endlessly. It was published by Viz in PULP magazine, as a sort of dream project that the Japanese editors of PULP had been wanting to publish for a long time, although the English edition owes its flavor to the translation & editing by Yuji Oniki and Alvin Lu. The Viz edition is well-produced, although some of the Japanese puns are almost impossible to translate. It is the story of two dudes who want to become mangaka. Look at them in their berets-- that's how you know they're serious!

Even a Monkey Can Draw Manga is a gag manga, and it jumps right into the comedy. On the first page, we see the artist, Kentaro Takekuma himself, taking a break from drawing to enjoy reading manga for a change. He picks up a manga and starts reading – here in the 2002 Viz edition he's checking out Oh My Goddess!, today it would probably be Shakugan no Shana -- and steam instantly shoots out of his ears. "I can't believe what crap people are reading these days! At this rate, the culture of manga is doomed!" Determined to save the manga world from itself, he calls over his friend Aihara and they vow to make good manga so that civilization won't collapse, and so that both of them will be millionaires!

And so it begins. Each chapter of "Even a Monkey Can Draw Manga" covers a different aspect of drawing manga, from the basic (drawing border lines for your panels) to the complex (drawing four-panel manga which is funny, but not too funny). Aihara, the artist, is terminally brainless (in the story, that is), and Takekuma, the writer, has to keep getting mad at him in the style of a manzai comedy duo. In exaggerated panels crowded with screaming, yelling, bleeding and speedlines, Takekuma shows Aihara the basics of how to create a commercially successful manga. The titles of the chapters show how much it covers:

1. The Pen Name
2. Drawing Border Lines
3. Drawing Facial Expressions
4. Figure Drawing
5. How to Come Up With Ideas
6. How to Come Up With Stories
7. Youthful Arrogance
8. How to Draw Shonen (Boys') Manga
9. How to Draw Shojo (Girls') Manga
10. How to Draw Young Men's Manga
11. How to Draw "Ladies' Comics"
12. How to Draw 4-Panel Family Comic Strips
13. How to Draw Kids' Manga
14. How to Draw Salarymen Manga
15. How to Draw Mahjong Manga
16. How to Draw Gag Manga
17. How to Draw Psychic Manga
18. How to Draw P.R. Manga
19. Popular Manga: The Possibilities
20. Special Technique: Subliminal Messages

The sections on how to draw different manga genres are some of the best in the book, and include some great imitations of different art styles. As Takekuma points out, shonen manga is all about battle scenes; the trick is to watch out for 'power inflation' so that the villains and heroes don't get so powerful so fast that the manga becomes ridiculous. It's also important to show the hero training hard; for instance, running on a 60mph conveyor belt, wearing iron shoes, chased by a buzzsaw with hungry crocodiles waiting for him to fall off. There's also the friendship element-- don't forget that every hero needs a "four-eyes," a wimpy sidekick who constantly talks about how cool the hero is, like Manta in Shaman King or Roji in Muhyo and Roji! (Aihara: "If the relationship between the Hero and the Rival is overtly homosexual, then the homosexuality of Four-Eyes is latent.") For shojo manga, Aihara reminds us "the appealing heroine of a truly popular shojo manga must be…CLUMSY!" and then goes on to talk about what types of guys are popular in shojo. "Now the prince has been obliterated and the love interest becomes just a thug. In keeping with the times, heavenly expectations in shojo manga have come down to earth, and have stooped even lower, so the most desirable guy is a total loser."

What other types of manga are there? Well, there's seinen manga -- aka young men's manga -- typified by the erocom, or erotic comedy, which Aihara visualizes as a sort of sushi boat restaurant where hot women are continually hitting on the main character, one after the other, until finally he ends up with the one perfect girl. Seinen, shonen and shojo manga was available in English in 2002 when Even a Monkey Can Draw Manga was translated, but what wasn't available yet were "ladies' comics," women's sex manga in the Harlequin Manga and LuvLuv Manga style. Aihara sums up the difference between ladies' comics and young men's manga in one sentence: "In 'erocom,' the manga concludes with love, but in ladies' comics, we start with it! as long as you include all this 'love' stuff, you can just fill in the rest with p-o-r-n." The section on "How to Draw Psychic Manga" explains that sci-fi psychic manga of the '80s (typified in my mind by Kia Asamiya's Silent Möbius, even though just one of the Silent Möbius characters is a psychic) is basically an updating of ninja manga, which weren't popular at all in 1989. (Interesting how times have changed.) The key difference is that ninja have to train hard to get their powers, whereas psychics don't, making them 'the ninja who don't require effort,' which is more appealing to lazy modern kids. Oh, and as for the artwork: "The drawing style of old drama manga is pretty annoying to you whippersnappers, huh? Yeah, I know-- if you draw stuff in the hip, cool 'anime style,' you'll be super popular! For backgrounds and accessories just steal from Katsuhiro Otomo and if someone accuses you of ripping him off, just proudly reply 'Oh no, I'm actually more influenced by Moebius.'" The section on "How to Draw Salaryman Manga" features a lengthy parody titled Eternally Average Salaryman Super Stupid Diary (a combination of Tsuri Baka Nisshi  and Section Chief Kosaku Shima, pointing out that the most popular salarymen comics aren't about hard-working 'super salarymen' like Kosaku Shima, they're about amiable losers with frivolous hobbies, like Yoshitani's Boku, Otaryman.

There are other great bits of advice mixed in with the genre parodies and snippets of often filthy, dirty manga. One chapter deals with using subliminal sexual imagery to make big money. Another talks about how not to draw facial expressions. ("By just adding symbols for sweat or steam you can make objects both animate or inanimate look sad or angry. You should add manga notation to the flower vases and telephones in your home. It might get some laughs and save your family from falling apart.") Takekuma and Aihara rip off their own clothes to practice figure drawing. There's a running gag about Katsuya Shirai, the editor Aihara and Takekuma were working under, whose middle-aged face keeps showing up over and over, like the face of J.R. "Bob" Dobbs.

Although Even a Monkey Can Draw Manga was published more than 20 years ago, it's amazing how current most of it is. (Again, with the exception of the beautifully hideous artwork, which was such a turnoff for me at first that it took me ages before I was willing to read the story.) From a modern perspective, there are only a few gaps, such as the absence of yaoi/Boys' Love manga, which at the time was in its infancy. Another gap is dojinshi; Takekuma and Aihara clearly aren't gonna spend the time on that self-indulgent stuff, they're all about parodying the manga BUSINESS, the MONEY, baby! (And doesn't it seem like the dojinshi market has grown at the same time the 'mainstream' manga business has shrunk, as if fans are trying to replace the ailing manga market itself?) In 2006, Takekuma and Aihara attempted to update Even a Monkey Can Draw Manga by drawing a few extra chapters, including a section on moe. (The Ikki serialization also included fold-out nude photo spreads of the 40something artist-writer team, in a parody of the gravure idol foldouts often included in manga magazines. Sekushi da ne!)

A few chapters are more memorable than others. In the chapter on "Youthful Arrogance," Takekuma explains what to do if you start getting the dreadful notion that manga can be 'art.' ("Watch out if your big-hit-manga-artist-aspiring child starts pledging allegiance to 'Art.' Remember, Art is the spiritual cancer of adolescence.") When Aihara explains that he wants to draw more meaningful manga, Takekuma flips out and starts beating him senseless. "Art?! ART?!" he screams. 1989, when Even a Monkey Can Draw Manga came out, was close to the high point of the Japanese manga industry sales-wise, but some people felt that manga was already selling its soul. Takeo Udagawa's Manga Zombie (1998), part of which has been translated online in an official, approved translation by John Gallagher (http://comipress.com/special/manga-zombie), broke the difference between pre-'80s and post-'80s manga down into one thing: before the '80s, manga was story-driven, but afterwards, it was character-driven. Of course, stories are made out of characters, but the difference is between stories where the characters grow and change, and stories where the characters are designed primarily to be cool and marketable, stories where the characters are always the same (sorry, shonen manga fans, characters just getting stronger doesn't count as changing). Or, as Takekuma puts it in the section on kids' manga, "If you can come up with a hit kids' manga, you can make a killing off character merchandising. You just sit on your ass and the licensing fees come pouring in! You're laughing all the way to the bank!"

Takekuma's speech is also relevant to the reason why Viz never translated volume 2 of Even a Monkey Can Draw Manga. Only the first volume was released in English, possibly because the translator just couldn't take the incredibly intensive translating job anymore. But another likely reason was that, in 2002, PULP magazine was ending and avant-garde manga like Even a Monkey Can Draw Manga weren't selling so well. You can almost hear the soon-to-be-ex-editors of PULP speaking their cynicism through the mouths of the characters; the future of manga was kids' character-merchandising manga: Pokémon, SHONEN JUMP and all the rest.

But that was eight years ago, and now art-manga is making a little comeback. Now that Viz has the SigIkki line for its underground/cult manga, it seems like Even a Monkey Can Draw Manga would be a perfect addition to the SigIkki online comics site. After all, the sequel manga even ran in the Japanese Ikki, so why not? I've just submitted a request at the SigIkki contact form. There are tons of new manga about being a mangaka, and lots of them are good, but I'd love to read the rest of Takekuma and Aihara's manga. They say things out loud that the creators of Bakuman only think.

Jason Thompson is the author of Manga: The Complete Guide and King of RPGs, as well as manga editor for Otaku USA magazine.
Banner designed by Lanny Liu.

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