World Comic Book Review

A Deep Six’d Publication

2nd October 2022

A Brief History of Manga (review) (and an interview with writer Helen McCarthy)

Writer : Helen McCarthy

Year of publication : 2014

Published by : Ilex Press

Manga, as a concept, have come to mean more than simply comics produced in Japan. Just like Europe and the USA cannot be defined by either the symbolic presence of Goscinny and Uderzo’s Asterix or Siegel and Shuster’s Superman, so must the plethora of stories invented in the Asian islands be considered as a treasure trove where many a different product can be found. There seems to be an overall idea, of course, showing that these books (be they short or long graphic novels, serialized issues, one shots, or anything else) are part of a general culture that draws its life from a long tradition. So, if tradition is what we must talk about, it should also be noted that a handbook telling us this (hi)story would be more than simply needed.

This is what Helen McCarthy offers us in her A Brief History of Manga, a short book that manages to give its readers a clear vision of the evolution of this medium. Such word, evolution, sounds more than simply accurate if we are to describe what we are being presented: starting from the 19th century, with a glimpse into a remote past, McCarthy shows us the many bifurcations that the world of manga is made up of, a world where writers and artists (usually the same person) were (and are) shaped by, just as much as they shaped, the culture they lived in (gekiga being a good example, as artists strove to find a new adult audience).

It would be wrong, then, to think that due to the length of the book (less than 100 pages) not enough information is to be found, or that the scholarly method might leave a lot to be desired. On the contrary, McCarthy knows what her goal is, that is, a concise yet precise sketch of the history of manga, and by adhering to it she succeeds in keeping our attention just as much as her style keeps piquing our curiosity and our thirst for knowledge.

Easy to read, chock full of information and gorgeous pictures, A Brief History of Manga, then, serves its purpose with deftness by giving its readers a solid understanding of this form of art. By taking a historical point of view, it also becomes a rich and fruitful guide for those who need to be introduced to this world, just as it can help those already well versed to expand their knowledge and find, should the case be such, hidden treasures that might have gone (terrible as this idea could sound) unnoticed.

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Interview with Helen McCarthy

  1) A sociological question that has always fascinated me. Why are manga so well accepted in Japan? Comic books, in the western world, are usually seen as part of childhood; when we grow, society seems to tell us that we are supposed to stop reading them, unless we want to be stuck in a peter-pan-esque nightmare. In Japan, instead, not only have manga a wider audience, there is also a lack of the kind of social stigma we find (might we say “we found”?) in the West.

One could say that ever since Saint Paul urged Christians to “put away childish things” the West has been anti-comics, but that wouldn’t be strictly true. A disdain for comics is an issue around social class and economic status –a means of exclusion. Comics and graphics are a great way to communicate with the illiterate, but historically the rigid hierarchies of most Western societies  looked down on illiteracy and urged children to graduate to “adult” texts, preferably with few pictures or only fine art illustrations, as a mark of social and economic progress.

Developments in any art form are driven by technology, politics and economics. Mass literacy in Japan followed the opening up of the nation to outside influences. Many Japanese only learned to read their own language as their intelligentsia and upper classes were learning English, French, Russian and German for the first time; but there was an established market for visual imagery, thanks to the Edo-era tendency for anyone with a little spare cash to buy prints of actors or beauties, or to go on jaunts to places of interest and pilgrimages to remote temples and buy more prints as souvenirs. Japan was primed for comics during the Edo era, by these prints and by the sales of illustrated stories and picture albums by creators such as Santo Kyoden, the first Japanese writer to make a living from his writing.

Comics translate easily to mass consumption, since effective comics can be at least partly read and enjoyed without understanding the text, and the Japanese quickly adapted both to reading and making them, originally thanks to a London-born immigrant named Charles Wirgman who taught both Western art and satirical cartooning as a side gig and ran a satirical mag packed with his own cartoons. The Japanese comics market grew fairly quickly, at first mainly in newspapers but also as indie publications. Japanese comics, like western comics, built their mass markets as “funny papers” read by anyone who bought a newspaper and so the first comics markets anywhere in the world were adult-led.

As the Japanese economy expanded and middle-class people had more disposable income, there was a boom in magazines aimed at particular sections of the market – fashionable women, housewives, boys, girls, men about town, businessmen, sports fans. Comics and picture stories (known as emonogatari, without word balloons but with blocks of text accompanying each image) were used in both adult publications and children’s magazines, but as photo-printing became easier and cheaper, adult publications tended to use more photos for news stories and celebrity interviews, with artwork for advertising and “funnies”. 

I don’t know a huge amount about western wartime comics, but it seems that the self-designated upper classes in most nations read “serious” material while the common man still read comics:  during the Second World War sales of American war bonds were heavily promoted by popular comics characters. In Japan, with huge shortages of almost everything, comics were relegated a long way down the list of priorities. Many manga creators who lived through the war experienced hostility to their ‘frivolous’  or ‘unpatriotic’ activities. Osamu Tezuka records that he was beaten up for making and sharing his own comics with workmates during his teenage years on war service.

After the Second World War, comics never survived and were bought by some adults. My father was a devoted reader of small-format war comics such as “Commando Comics”, sold in newsagents and on station bookstalls across the UK. At a time when there was no mental health support of veterans, these comics may have provided some way to make sense of their experience, when their societies largely forgot them. But they never regained respect as adult entertainment in the west. There’s a telling chorus in David Bowie’s early song “Uncle Arthur” about a henpecked adult still living with his mother and working in the family shop: “Uncle Arthur likes his mommy, Uncle Arthur still reads comics, Uncle Arthur follows Batman.”

The Pacific War and the Occupation left Japan impoverished and heavily (though secretly) censored, but comics generally escaped censorship because the US military censors considered them kids’ stuff. They were the cheapest form of entertainment available apart from kamishibai street entertainers, and could be swapped and shared. At the same time, Western comics were readily available in the major cities from the Occupying forces, and since these only told stories acceptable to Western eyes, with Black and minority races in subordinate or comedy roles, there was no problem about these being read by Japanese of all ages. Starved of adventure and comedy, many Japanese found comics the only affordable, available option. Even those with spare money for movies often couldn’t find a cinema because so many towns and cities had been heavily bombed. There was no public TV service.

So the cheapness and wide availability of comics made them popular across Japanese postwar society. Meanwhile the West, comics were less socially valid. The nearest adults could come to a gripping adventure or a good laugh without being considered childish was by spending more money – paying to go to the movie theatre, or later, by buying a TV. Swapping and sharing comics was for kids.

Today there is a stigma attached to comics obsessives –otaku – in Japan. Yet it’s acceptable for an office worker, public servant, housewife or businessman to buy a manga anthology at the station and read it on the train. Most manga begin life in anthologies designed to be read on a commute; you can usually read one fast 20-25 page episode between stations, and on longer journeys you might consume a whole magazine.

The rise of the mobile phone and tablet has bitten into the manga anthology market, since many commuters now either read comics on their phones or play games and email through the commute. It will be interesting to see how this develops and how it impacts the print market, which was already declining under the impact of other media, such as games, before cheap accessible broadband made the mobile phone an entertainment centre.

If anyone is interested in digging deeper into Japanese postwar comics there are a number of scholars they should read. Always go for someone who reads Japanese well, otherwise you could just use Google and cut out the middleman. Frederik L. Schodt, of course, is a major pioneer in the field of Western manga scholarship, and I really respect Ryan Holmberg, who goes where most of the people you’ll find on Google fear to tread. Follow both of them on social media, pick up the names they drop, and you won’t go far wrong.

2) What makes manga different from other comics, especially western (that is, America, South-American and European) comics? I don’t mean just the kind of content they are about, but also the way they are serialized and read. Adult manga, for instance, that is, explicitly pornographic books, or strongly violent ones seem to be more accepted than their western counterparts, and even the idea of an author spending so long a time (that is, years and years, even decades) on a series seems to be all but problematic.

Because manga are available for readers of all ages, there is less of the “you can’t do that in a cartoon, they’re for kids!” ideology that the Puritan cultures of America and Britain often apply. Adults in the English-speaking world often grow away from comics, not just because of social pressure, but because comics  (especially mass market comics) no longer give them stories that appeal to them. We don’t see this to the same extent in South America or in Europe because there is a tradition of storytelling geared to a more diverse audience. “Adult manga” and “adult comics” outside English are not automatically assumed to be pornographic or violent. If you read French, Italian or another European language, or if you can handle the occasional infelicities of machine translation without losing your temper, you can find many excellent manga and great critical writing on anime and manga outside English. Marco Pelleteri is an Italian comics and animation scholar who’s well worth reading.  France and Belgium have many critics and scholars I respect, including Yvan West Laurence, co-founder of France’s first critical anime and manga magazine Animeland, and Julien Pirou, a game designer and writer whose work I first encountered editing “Leiji Matsumoto: Essays on the Manga and Anime Legend” (2021, McFarland.)

To see how far beyond porn “adult” manga can go, you have only to look at the work of artists such as Jiro Taniguchi, whose mountaineering manga “Summit of the Gods” had a wonderful French-language animated adaptation last year that you can currently see on Netflix. Edgar Wright’s Last Night in Soho or Baby Driver are both films that could just as easily have been done as manga or anime in Japan; indeed, Last Night In Soho has many common threads with some of my favourite anime titles, including Perfect Blue and Belladonna of Sadness. And just as comics made their way into Western art galleries with the work of pop artists such as Roy Lichtenstein, so manga is part of high culture through the work of many artists, including Takashi Murakami and Yoshitoshi Nara. 

As for the idea of the author staying with a series for years or decades, that’s a reflection of the way the manga industry developed, but also of relative attitudes in Japan and America to the importance and the rights of the creative artist. Creators in all arts and crafts don’t necessarily earn huge money in Japan but their skills are respected and their work evaluated and admired.  In America and to an extent in England, publishers have historically exerted far more control, sometimes cutting out the original creator altogether. A character or story universe is a property that can be marketing and merchandised for huge sums, and obviously the more the publisher keeps, the better for them. American comics like Batman – in fact the whole of the DC and Marvel canon – are not creator-led and have been handed from artist to artist for decades at the decision of the publisher. In Japan, a manga title starts out in an anthology. By the time it has become big enough to make an impact as a solo book, that individual creator’s style and storytelling are a vital part of the manga’s success.

Creators can and do diversify – following Osamu Tezuka, Shotaro Ishinomori and Leiji Matsumoto, many have created a huge number of titles – but there are artists whose careers have been built on one or two hugely successful titles. Why would they want to leave their own world to work in someone else’s, mostly for the benefit of a publisher seeking to attach their star allure to a property they don’t own or control? Instead of playing in someone else’s sandbox, many prefer to make their own. It’s not that crossovers and collaborations don’t happen, but the artists and creators have more say in how and when they happen.

3) Is the manga audience more demanding, more specific, than that of other comics? Or is it the other way round? In other words, we see that there is an abundance of genres and sub-genres concerning manga, whereas, in general (although we have exceptions), mainstream western comics tend to be more “traditional” or, better said, to have fewer of the aforementioned genres and sub-genres. Is it easier for a mangaka to find his/her niche, then?

I don’t know the answer to this, except that perhaps because there is so much diversity, publishers are more open to trying new ideas and new artists. But that doesn’t make it easy to find your niche.

Working in serial manga is a brutal meat-grinder where you have to make your page quota every week, on time, without fail, or you’re out. Only the famous and popular can go “on hiatus” – if you’re a newbie and sick, the publisher won’t have someone else pick up your book for you, and you definitely wouldn’t want that anyway because they might be more successful with it. Most of the anthology magazines contain reader feedback cards, and they get filled in and returned to the publisher in big numbers. If the reader feedback on your serial is not good, it can be cut out of the publication after four or five episodes.  Two or three serials like that and you’re likely to be on the train home to the sticks, or self-publishing online.

The mitigating factor in this brutality is the feeder system that’s evolved from fan manga. Almost every weekend of the year there are two or three doujin – fan manga – markets in Japan, ranging from a few stalls in a local hall or station forecourt to the binannual Comiket with over half a million attendees. Creators can hone their skills, build a following, find out what stories and styles fit their skills and work for their readers. If they move on to the bigger markets in major cities, they may be scouted by a publisher. All the big publishers visit, not only Comiket, but other major manga events, to keep an eye on new talent. Artists also look at doujin for potential new assistants, and being an assistant to an established artist gives a newcomer an inside track to a whole world of contacts, as well as an income.

The doujin market itself gives young creators and wannabes a pretty clear idea of what’s involved in making manga and how the market works. It provides a peer group accessible wherever you are in Japan, however shy you are, whatever your disability or however much you want to keep your manga activity secret from your parents or school. It’s not quite as brutal as pro publishing because it’s self-directed and self-selecting, but you don’t go from doujin to manga unprepared and you can form a clear idea of the pitfalls. This is helped by the continuing presence in the doujin market of creators who’ve gone pro, but keep up their doujin connection to publish books in genres their publishers won’t take, or styles their regular weekly readers find less acceptable. Progression in Japanese comics doesn’t have to be linear. You can go back to making fanzines, or make them on the side, usually under a pseudonym but by no means alone.

Where most young American or British creators work solo, many Japanese make doujin as part of a doujin group or circle. Circles can be any size from two to ten or more participants – it’s up to the members. Some circles have members who specialize in particular tasks, dividing art, writing, principal figures, backgrounds, layout and publishing admin. In others, members do everything on their own story but collaborate on the content, direction and publication of anthologies.  This is a very supportive system for young women seeking to develop in comics, since they can make or join an all-female circle. The most famous of these circles in the last 40 years is the CLAMP collective, women who have been making doujin together since high school. The antiquated attitudes and practices of too many comics fans and pros in Britain and America make it difficult for women to survive abuse, build a career and receive the respect they deserve as creators. The Japanese comics scene has its share of perverts and bigots, but doujin circles are largely protective and affirmative and they help women to thrive in comics without diverting their creative energy to the struggle against handsy, aggressive, entitled, patronising or downright vicious fans, publishers and creators.

The doujin market itself can be lucrative. Many doujin artists make good money from their work and some have put themselves through college or bought a home on the proceeds of fanzines. When the only deadlines are the dates of the markets they sell at, and they have total creative control, some choose that as a career or a second gig rather than entering the world of pro publishing.

4) In your book A Brief History of Manga you let us readers look at decades of this cultural product(s). How much would you say manga have changed during their long history? What is their future? Are we going to see more new ideas, or are we going to be stuck in repeating the same old tropes?

It depends what you mean by ‘we”.

In the West as in Japan, markets and industries are driven by what’s technologically possible, which in today’s digital world is almost anything, what’s legally permissible, and above all else by what sells in the local market. Violent porn, child porn and neo-Nazi/fascist comics don’t sell heavily in legal marketplaces in the West because most nations have laws against them; the underground market can only grow so big before someone complains and the authorities crack down. 

So “we” in American and Britain will only see those manga that fit our legal profile for comics, and that sell most heavily. Our only exposure to the more “extreme” ends of Japanese comics comes via the Internet, or through western media frenzies whipped up usually for political or economic reasons from time to time. Naturally this affects our view of Japanese comics, and our willingness to explore the medium. For any readers who’d like to see examples of mass media attacks on anime and manga in the UK, British comics scholar Leah M. Holmes has a video of her 2019 talk “Manga-lled by the Media: Misrpresentations of anime and manga in the British Press” at https://leah-m-holmes.blogspot.com/2019/ 

In today’s (usually) less hysterical market, rights buyers and distributors self-select the manga and anime with the biggest commercial response in the English-speaking world. This explains the endless high school, battling gang, and teen harem variations on the English language market – these are the titles that sell, so publishers and distributors buy and offer more of the same and anyone who might be interested in a wider range decides, based on what they can buy and read, that manga has nothing to interest them.  In other countries with a more all-embracing comics culture, there is a wider range of manga and anime on sale.

Looking at the growth of individual niche markets, things look hopeful. Pioneering publishers like Erica Friedman, whose Okazu blog documents, supports and promotes lesbian-themed manga and related media, can now supply audiences that mainstream distributors ignore. But the level of diversity the Japanese market offers is in no way reflected in the mainstream English-speaking market. So manga will continue to present new ideas, but whether we get to see them in English or not depends on whether English language publishers think they’ll sell. (This is another very good reason to learn French, Italian or Japanese – wider access to a broader range of comics.)

5) One last question, which might help new readers to start their journey or old ones to find forgotten gems. Which manga would you advise to read? Which are the essential or classic books that everyone should read at least once? What do you think would make a good small library which could show how diverse manga are, no matter how old, new, long or short they might be?

That’s a huge question because it depends entirely on what the individual asking it already likes. I could tell anyone to read Ursula K. LeGuin’s The Dispossessed or Bram Stoker’s Dracula or Thursbitch by Alan Garner, all books I love, and I might turn them off SFF or Victorian fiction for life, because those aren’t the books for them.

Also, so many “must read” lists are like those lists of classic books in school. Most books on them are twenty to a hundred years old, and possibly not to your taste, but they’ve been on lists for ever and people just copy them through.

So I’ll always answer that question with others: What kind of comics do you already like to read? What’s your favourite genre? How realistic do you like art to be?  If you have a specific taste in comics or fiction – Gothic, steampunk, romance, detective stories or giant robot battles – you’ll recognize manga in that style when you see it, so I’d start there.

I would obviously recommend buying A Brief History of Manga (or borrowing from your public library, who pay me a little money every time you take the book out – a courtesy that pirates never extend to creators.) You can flip through it quickly and it has lots of pictures. Have a look and see what leaps out at you. Be led by your eyes to an art style that appeals to you, because reading a comic where you hate the art is usually a non-starter. Then go to an online store, or  a big bookshop with a manga section so you can browse in depth, and have a look for the titles you liked, or something like them. You can go to many big local libraries and find a section devoted to manga. That lets you browse for free, like a bookstore, but also check out the whole series and read for free legally.

In Britain and Eire, and a number of other countries, checking out a library book also sends a small sum to the creators, with no charge to the readers. Twice a year we get money from the pot built up by libraries. More people borrowing our books means more money for us. It’s called Public Lending Right and creators love it.

If you can’t visit a bookstore or library, but need some help navigating the avalanche of Internet sites claiming expertise on manga, visit Gilles Poitras’ website koyagi.com .  Gilles is American, a former librarian and a Japanese pop culture scholar. His site has online guides to anime, manga, and film for parents, teachers and librarians that are also helpful to new fans.

Shonen Jump, the major teen boys’ manga, offers an inexpensive subscription service where you can read tons of current and older manga in English, completely piracy-free, with your cash going to the publisher and artists.

If I were pushed for a name or two, then regardless of any preference I’d say start with those contemporary mangaka whose stories and styles are accessible to most readers. Naoki Urusawa makes very clever, very evocative, highly enjoyable manga. His work is both accessible and challenging and I think his art is wonderful. If you like a good conspiracy theory, 20th Century Boys is a killer.

I love Takehiko Inoue’s work. It encapsulates many of the styles and scenarios Westerners think of as “typically Japanese’ and then explodes our limited notions and shows us something more interesting. His basketball classic Slam Dunk is one of the most exciting sports manga ever.

I absolutely adore Hirohiko Araki. When I first saw his longrunning series JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure in 1989, I didn’t like the art at all, but I loved the story so I kept going and the art began to make sense and became beautiful to me. I once showed his work to a British publisher who immediately saw his resonances with Ronald Crumb. His universe is crazy and glorious.

Despite my reluctance to recommend the classics unless specifically asked for them, one classic that is definitely worth reading is Katsuhiro Otomo’s Akira. The anime version was what really exploded the anime/manga boom in the West, and it says a lot of things relevant to our world and our relationship with Japan. I’d skip Ghost in the Shell and go for some of Masamune Shirow’s less well-known work. The tit’n’ass’n’cyberpunk quotient is still high (and that’s why most fans do Shirow rather than his politics, myth references or plotting) but the stories are clever and sparky. I love Orion, a batshit-crazy mix of particle physics, mysticism and ancient religion.

While recommendations can help, I think it makes more sense for people to do a bit of digging online and find what kind of manga art excites them. Above all, don’t be led by the bestseller shelves in the average US/UK bookstore. They’re fine, but they’re not necessarily aimed at you. It’s great for Bowie’s Uncle Arthur to follow Batman, but if you’re not a middle-aged white guy with righteous billionaire fantasies, you might not find Batman works for you. (If he does, there’s a Batman manga, entirely made in Japan. Check it out in Chip Kidd’s gorgeous book Batmanga. There’s a Japanese Spider-man too.)

Nose around online and in the library and have fun reading whatever manga appeals to you. Drop it when it bores you and move on to the next manga. There is no right or wrong way to read any form of comics, and no obligation to like or finish any of them, manga included. Just have fun.

[Editor’s note: A Brief History of Manga is available at https://helenmccarthy.wordpress.com/books-and-articles/a-brief-history-of-manga/ ]