Yen for Manga art

If Manga was just big eyes then ‘Lone Wolf and Cub’ wouldn’t be Manga. If Manga was just stories about cute girls and high school romance then ‘Crying Freeman’ wouldn’t be Manga. If Manga was just about giant robots and alien invaders then ‘Barefoot Gen’ wouldn’t be Manga.

What Manga is, is a form of visual narrative in the form of comics and print cartoons (originally) in the Japanese language telling stories in the genre of action-adventure, romance, sports and games, historical drama, comedy, science fiction and fantasy, mystery, horror, sexuality, business and commerce, among others. In their modern form, the first Manga date from shortly after World War II, but a number of the narrative techniques used can trace their roots to the tradition of Japanese Emakimono narrative scrolls.

Since the 1950s, Manga have steadily become a major part of the Japanese publishing industry, representing a market of nearly 500 billion yen market in Japan alone. To understand the place of Manga in Japan, you must begin with its ubiquity. Even though the popularity has fallen in recent years, it still comprises about 22 percent of all printed material in Japan.

Omnipresent are the magazines — Weekly Shonen Magazine, Weekly Shonen Jump, Young King Ours, Shojo Comic, and countless others. Published on flimsy newsprint and often as thick as a phone book, these magazines can contain 25 different serialised stories that run about 20 pages each. The most popular series then get repackaged as paperback graphic novels. Weekly Shonen Jump for the past six years has an average circulation of 46 million copies (in a country of 127 million people).

Manga, as we know it, literally translating to “whimsical pictures”, originated while a previously militaristic and nationalist Japan rebuilt its political and economic infrastructure after the Second World War, it’s origins being credited to artists Osamu Tezuka who created ‘Astro Boy’, before going on to create many other major works, including ‘Buddha and BlackJack’ and Machiko Hasegawa who created ‘Sazae-san’.

Eye on details

The artistic techniques adapted and developed for Manga primarily by Tezuka, can best be described as cinematographic, in comparison to American or European comics; the panels revealing details of action bordering on slow motion as well as rapid zooms from distance to close-up shots. This kind of visual dynamism was widely accepted as the standard by later Manga artists. Paraphrasing American artist Paul Pope, one of the few artists to work for a major Manga studio (Kodansha) as well as the major American publishers (DC, Marvel), the difference between a comic panel sequence is that it narrates events from Point A to Point B; if a man jumps out a window, the first panel has him preparing to jump out the window, the second shows him after the act of jumping.

What Manga does, is attempt to capture the moment in-between those frames, the sensation of going through the window, with its dynamic use of line, perspective and foreshortening.

And while Tezuka defined the technique of the medium, Hasegawa redefined the nature of its content, moving from action-oriented, pulp fiction to a quieter focus on daily life and on the experience of womanhood, the precursor for what we would come to know as Shojo Manga.

Between the 1950s and the 1970s, an increasing readership for Manga emerged in Japan with two main marketing genres, Shonen Manga aimed at boys and Shojo Manga aimed at girls. The ‘Year 24 Flower Group’ offered to Japanese girls, Manga conceived and drawn by young women for young women. These had an aesthetic of their own, an attention to issues such as rape or unwanted pregnancy, and a female perspective on love and sex.

Market segmentation, product development, efficient production, lack of censorship, treating universal themes that appeal to the teenage mind — these explanations for Manga’s global success are limited. In India, as my generation came of age, we had to make do with infrequently distributed comics aimed solely at a particular subculture: Elitist, male, and at once, intellectual, schoolboyish, and more or less rebellious.

I follow the major superheroes to their latest issue today and started reading the Vertigo books, as everyone did, through college. And I would often pass on comics when I was done reading them to friends, but with the exception of perhaps, Neil Gaiman’s ‘Sandman’ and currently Bill Willingham’s excellent ‘Fables’ I was unable to find any series which paid the slightest service to the attentions of young women.

Anybody who has also followed this process will understand immediately why Manga was destined to become a global product: It had something to offer audiences diverse in age, sex, and taste. Neither American nor European comics could provide such variety.
This unparalleled diversity is only one of Manga’s many advantages over the international competition. It also dominates through industrial mass production, which leads to low unit costs. Most Manga are the work of a single auteur artist (mangaka), typically working with a number of assistants and associated with a creative editor from a commercial publishing company.

And while it may be cheaply mass-produced, Manga is also a high-quality consumer good. In this sense, the global success of a publishing house such as Shueisha or Kodansha is no different from that of Toyota or Sony.

As observed by Jean-Marie Bouissou, in Jaqueline Berndt’s ‘Reading Manga from Multiple Perspectives’ (Leipzig, Leipzig Universitätverlag 2006), Manga is “a product of exceptional quality, it brings pleasure to the mind by satisfying six fundamental psychological needs: The will to power, the need for accomplishment, for security, for excitement, for escape, and the need to be distinct.”

In the last five years Manga has been one of the fastest-growing genres in publishing with bookstores devoting entire sections to the distinctive digest-sized, black-and-white, right-to-left formatted paperbacks. Manga publishers like Viz, Tokyopop, CMX, Kodansha, Vertical and Dark Horse are prominent in bookstores; with titles ranging from English translations of popular Manga like ‘Orion’, ‘Berserk’, ‘Dragonball Z’ and ‘Sailor Moon’, to adaptations of Shakespeare as well as the complete works of Tezuka or Katsuhiro Otomo whose masterwork ‘Akira’ is considered to be the breakout work that introduced Manga and Anime to the rest of the world.

No mere side-effect of Japan’s economic power, Manga has become a key part of the cultural accompaniment to globalisation.

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