In case you’ve been dead for the last several years, an important visual art form from Japan, manga, has been sweeping our nation. Manga are comic books. The stories are generally released in anthology magazines, featuring a chapter each in the lives of a half-dozen or so continuing characters. Then when enough chapters have been created, each character’s adventures are gathered up and re-released in a separate single theme manga compilation, a paperback book.
But you probably know this. Or do you? Have you been ignoring manga the way people tried to ignore rock n’ roll? I don’t recommend ignoring major popular trends. It puts you out of touch with the mainstream of your culture. You don’t have to like a trend. But you probably should know something about it. I’m not suggesting that you torture yourself by watching every reality TV show, for instance, but it can’t hurt to know what “American Idol” is, or where Joey Fatone sprung from. And anyway, for years to come, listing the members of N’Sync will be a quiz show question.
Manga stands a good chance of becoming just as pervasive as any music or TV genre, so pay attention. Librarians say that these days the items most checked out are graphic novels. And I’m betting that manga, once the libraries carry them routinely, will surpass them in circulation. Why? Because most manga readers are female. And most book readers are female.
Maybe you think that manga are like the American comic books of the recent past—mostly written by men for men or boys. But not so. A big streak of manga are written and drawn by women. Since the writers and artists (often one and the same) have Japanese names, most of us don’t instantly realize that fact. American-origin manga are pretty much the usual by and for males stuff, emphasizing the typical themes of male interest—violence, sex, horror, and then more violence and sex and horror. Oh, well. But women share some interest in those topics, as the popularity of paranormal romance proves. Laurell K. Hamilton’s Anita Blake comics, which feature a manga-influenced art style, plenty of violence, and quite a bit of sex one way or another, are currently in the top ten of graphic novel bestsellers. I don’t know if mostly women or mostly men buy Anita Blake and it doesn’t really matter. What matters is that we’re finally seeing a batch of comics published in this country that are about women and that are written by women and that maybe even reflect some genuine interests of women. On that last, it’s a hard call, since what Japanese women find interesting is not necessarily what American women find interesting, and the bulk of manga available in America today so far is Japanese written.
But there’s hope, since once a market has been discovered, everyone wants in on it. That’s one reason that DC Comics launched its Minx imprint. Although these are meant to be Serious Graphic Novels, they’re geared to a teenage girl market that DC Comics abandoned 30 plus years ago—but manga rediscovered. My godchild reads manga. And so does her mother.
Since I have finally stopped ignoring manga as just something my male friends read, I have felt compelled to research it. You’ve surely heard the line “We watch so you don’t have to” or a version of it. Well, I have read a big batch of manga so you don’t have to. It’s easy to do. Manga is widely available in America now. Wal-Mart carries Shojo Beat and Shonen Jump, for instance, respectively girls’ interest and boys’ interest manga anthology magazines. Bookstores carry manga compilations. Libraries have graphic novels and some already stock manga, too. In addition to imports and reprints, there now are a significant number of major American publishers creating their own manga. The material is out there. Of course it’s a big question where this is all going. So far, the answer has been straight to the top. Manga sells millions and makes millions.
Meanwhile, to the basics. Sailor Moon was probably the manga that put shojo manga on everybody’s lips. It’s the one I’ve heard references to for years. I’ve just finished reading a French translation, and my French is pretty rusty, but I definitely got the concept: Cute 14-year-old schoolgirl encounters a cat and gains mysterious powers from the moon, thus being dubbed Sailor Moon. Her real name is Bunny. Well, that’s the Japanese for you: Openly cute and not ashamed to be. Bunny is a pretty blond youngster who is always late to school, doesn’t like doing her homework, plays video games, and gets involved in some mystical adventures. She gets gifted with sparkly, bejeweled weapons to aid her in destroying the demons infesting her immediate vicinity. They’re apparently searching for that common grail of the supervillain, the Item That Gives Control of the Universe. In this case, it’s a silver crystal. It’s in the possession of a princess. Finding it involves dressing up for a ball and dancing with the mysterious glamour boy, Tuxedo, and turning into Sailor Moon—basically, getting glammed up. Sailor Moon uses her bejeweled pen, her bejeweled Frisbee (really!), and her bejeweled brooch (and maybe a few more jewels I have forgotten) to fight the bad guys. Only, she’s not sure if Tuxedo is a good guy or a bad guy. Well, that’s book one. It was charming. Pretty art. Pretty jewels. Very little of the demons—who significantly seem to inhabit previously trusted close relatives or friends.
By contrast, I was just looking at the July, 2007 issue of The Comics Journal, a very long-lasting comics fanzine. It has some thoughtful and thought-provoking articles, and numerous illustrations of current comics of many types and of historical comics material. And I was struck by how ugly the illustrations were. Sure, maybe they were badly reproduced and that explained some of it. The paper was dull and the blacks did not pop, and maybe they were low-res images to begin with. But that’s not the whole story. The selection of illustrations had very little beauty and almost zero cuteness. It struck me suddenly that one main reason I have been able to enjoy manga is that so much of it is pretty.
Call me girly because I like to see pretty things, including a clean rendering with a nice ink line. My favorite American comic books and comic strips have been those drawn with fine attention to detail and with advertising quality finish. For me, it is not enough to draw Mary Jane Watson’s hair; you must make it shine. People ought to look good in comics; that’s my opinion. Ugly exists in reality all too much, so when drawing fantasy, beauty should be a major goal. Sailor Moon is not the only pretty shojo manga. Pretty exemplifies the manga art style.
These samples of manga are very typical of manga, especially shojo manga and yaoi (supposedly gay) manga aimed at girls and women, although they also are common in shonen manga aimed at boys and men. People look pretty. Their clothes are crisp. Their hair shines. Their eyes sparkle. Males look like fashion models, impossibly wasp-waisted and pointy-chinned and debonair. The characters look attractive. This is what I like about manga.
What I don’t like is the idea that demons are all around, or that they could be inhabiting our friends and relatives. But that’s a metaphor for the strangeness of what can pass between people when trust gets mangled or broken. As such it’s acceptable as a literary device. Young children don’t really have a language to explain complex relationships, so demons work nicely.
I’m also not too crazy about a style of idolizing pre-age of consent teen girls and giving them still-childish ambitions and thoughts and then placing them in teasingly grown-up, sometimes openly sexual situations. It’s a version of pre-womanhood that depends too much on good luck or the kindness of strangers, and that has some troubling voyeuristic elements. But when I visited Japan recently and saw girls dressed up as maids and Lolitas (more on that another time), I had to admit that they were showing only about as much skin as American girls do today. Just different parts. American girls and women face similar pressures in our society as Japanese girls and women do in theirs. Manga stories touch on universal issues. Just the treatment is different.
And I think that is what makes manga fascinating. They aren’t the same old thing. What is serious in manga and what is comic and what is sexy and what is silly—and yes, what is pretty—are all different from what we in America have lately seen in any medium. But not so different that we can’t recognize many similarities in the basic human condition, including a love of sparkly jewelry and a fear of close relatives turning unrecognizable, for instance.
You don’t have to read manga. But you might like some of them.