Comics vs. Manga

A column article by: Zack Davisson

I love Seattle in spring. More often than not, the weather sucks and the skies are gray. But every year in spring, Seattle hosts two booming comic book conventions, packing thousands of fans and pros into the Washington Convention Center for a combined six days of comic book wonderland. People run around in costumes, play games — of all sorts — get very serious on topics like the future of the B.P.R.D. universe and spend their cash on bright-colored treasures. I look forward to the dual-event every year.

The Emerald City Comicon is in April, and Sakura-Con is a month later in May. Both draw about equal numbers and last for three days each. As you can probably guess from the names, one focuses on American comics, and the other is exclusively Japanese comics, otherwise known as manga. With so much geeky fun to be had, you would think that every card-carrying fanboy and girl would be eager to spend as much time as possible at both conventions. But in actuality, there is very little cross-pollination. Amongst my comics friends, I am one of the few who attends both.

People tend to fall into one camp or the other. Either they read American comics or they read Japanese comics. Take, for example, our esteemed Comics Bulletin publisher Jason Sacks (who partially inspired this column; the other inspiration came from an internet rant I read about how American comics fans were cool, but anyone into manga was a friendless little Johnny No-mates deserving disdain). Jason is a guy who loves comics. He has unlimited stamina and enthusiasm for the Emerald City Comicon. He goes all three days, even to the after-parties and comes home with a pile of goodness. But this year, he had to be dragged — kicking and screaming — by his youngest daughter to a single day at Sakura-Con.
It is more than a lack of interest. There is a sort of active disdain between American comics readers and Japanese comics reader. They both look down on each other, each feeling they are the superior comics fan. For example, my editor, Laura, commented that she didn't read manga because she thought of them as a) fairly misogynistic, and b) lacking a level of emotional complexity. This, of course, is exactly this is the same argument made by manga readers about American comics. (Especially the misogynistic part – manga commands far more female readers than American comics, who see superheroes as little more than male power fantasies.)

I've never really understood this derision. Me, I like comics. I don't particularly care what country publishes them. I read French comics and English comics, American comics and Korean comics. And Japanese comics. As long as they are good, I read them. Every country has a different flair with comics, something they do different and better than others do, but I see them all as being essentially the same thing: comic books. To me, it is no different from movies. Or food. I can't imagine limiting myself to the product of a single country.

Obviously, this is not the common attitude. Most people separate American comics and Japanese comics as "different." Take this website, for example. Comics Bulletin advertises itself as "The Most Diverse Comic Website," but there is no coverage of Japanese comics here. Somehow, to many people, Japanese comic books are not even comic books.

But they are.

There is no manga.

Let's clear up some misunderstandings with a definition of terms. There is no such thing as manga. At least, not in the way you think.

Most people (mis)use the term "manga" to mean Japanese comics, specifically print comics. Why? Why do the same people who say "Japanese movies" and "Japanese food" need a special word for Japanese comics? I know, I know. It makes them feel cool and knowledgeable and exclusive. But to quote a wise Spaniard: "You keep using that word. I do not think that word means what you think it means."

The word "manga" does not mean Japanese comic books. At least not in Japanese.

So what does "manga" really mean?

Well, nothing really. Using the word "manga" to describe Japanese comics is entirely an American invention. The term isn't used in Japan, not with such a limited definition. In Japanese, the word literally means "frivolous pictures" and can be applied to pretty much anything. My wife is Japanese, and she refers equally to all my comic bookery as "manga." Spider-Man? Manga. Walking Dead? Manga. When I pop in the latest DC Universe animated DVD, I am "watching manga." My awesome collection of 1940's Captain Marvel memorabilia? That's right. Manga.

I realize the term has fallen so much into colloquial English that it would be impossible to change it as this point. But try saying "Japanese comics" instead of "manga," and see if that changes your mind a little.

It's all just comics, after all.

Manga is not a genre.

Even if I allow you the word "manga" as describing Japanese print comics, if I were to ask you to describe manga as a whole to me, what would you say? Unless you answer with terms "diverse," "no set style" or "lots of variety," you are missing the mark.

In truth, Japanese comics are much, much, much more diverse in style and substance than in America, where 90% of the time comics = superheroes. Japanese comics are more like American animation. Here, we can have South Park and Family Guy, Scooby Doo and SpongeBob Squarepants. Disney and Pixar make 2D and 3D movies, while films like Waking Life, A Scanner Darkly, Polar Express, and Beowulf push boundaries of live-action/animation. It all fits under the same banner. It has been a long time since "animation" was a genre. Animation is a medium.

Much of this diversity is pure volume. Japanese people read a hell of a lot more comics than Americans. Comics are front-and-center, mainstream pop-culture in Japan. There is no set idea of what a comic "should be," and the demands of that mass audience need to be met. There are kids' comics and adult comics, educational comics and porno comics, funny comics and serious comics.

As an example of some of this diversity: In Japan, you can have comics like Oguri Saori's popular My Darling is a Foreigner, which is a humorous and spot-on autobiographical comic about living in Japan with a foreign husband and dealing with all of the stereotypes, discrimination and cultural-misunderstandings. Or hyper-realistic mountain climbing comics like Jiro Taniguchi's Summit of the Gods, a harsh, man-against-nature story in the tradition of Jack London, or his frank and emotional The Quest for the Missing Girl which deals with the dark underbelly of the Tokyo sex-trade and teenage prostitution. You can have "wacky family" comics like the long-running Sazae san, the closest Japanese equivalent to The Simpsons, alongside Mizuki Shigeru's Ge ge ge no Kitaro, which deals with traditional Japanese folklore. Or Urasawa Naoki‘s dark drama Monster, which deals with a doctor who saves the life of a young boy, and then finds that the boy grows up to become a vicious serial killer who sees the doctor as his savior and draws him into his twisted world. Or his absolutely brilliant 20th Century Boys, a science fiction fantasy about a dystopian future ruled by a masked tyrant known only as Friend and the group of childhood buddies who realize that the fictional world they devised when they were kids has somehow come true.

In fact, manga encompasses just about everything. Well, except color. It is true that most Japanese comics are in black-and-white. But so were Strangers in Paradise and Bone. Nothing wrong with black-and-white!

And my editor's illustrative misconception of manga is not without some basis. The problem is that many of those misconceptions about manga are based on the selective criteria of publishers. They often only translate and publish a certain kind of manga: the big-eyed, little-mouthed stuff that she was thinking of. The stuff that makes for good cosplay. There is nothing wrong with those kinds of comics; I like quite a few of them, but they are only the tip of the iceberg for Japanese comics.

Manga is comics.

There was a time when Japanese comics were first being released in the US, when Viz and Dark Horse were dipping their toes into the water, that both manga and American comics were displayed side-by-side in the comics store. I picked up my first issues of Ranma ½ and Grey right next to my X-Men and Batman. They were even scaled and flipped right-to-left to be the same size as American comics, and most comics buyers from that time bought both. Those were good times.

At some point in time, however, the two separated; the audiences detached. Manga tapped into a reading population almost entirely ignored by American comics – namely teenage girls – who didn't like going into dingy, male-dominated comic book shops. They started picking up their manga in brightly-lit big box stores like Borders and Barnes & Nobles, and publishers responded by producing book-friendly editions. Over time, American comics and Japanese comics where split into two different entities like two diverging lines of evolution which can no longer mate with each other.

I call for an end to segregation! Let us put aside pointless nationalism and realize that all sequential art is one. Regardless of origin, comics are comics. If you are not a regular reader, give some manga a chance. If you don't like the popular big eyes/little mouth–style, try the serial-killer epic Monster or the amazing 20th Century Boys. Try something realistic and historical, like The Life of Botchan. Try a mountain-climbing comic, like Summit of the Gods. There is soooo much variety in Japanese comics; it is almost impossible that you won't find something you will like.

Oh, in a final bit of irony: Japan has adopted the English term to describe their own national wares. When you go into a bookstore in Japan and search for the manga section, you might have a hard time finding it. The latest installments of Naruto, One Piece and School Rumble aren't in the manga section. They are in the section labeled "Comics."

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