Mangasia is a must-buy for anybody who wants to learn about the history of comics in nearly two dozen Asian countries.
Master comics historian Paul Gravett delivers a sumptuously illustrated history of manga, manhwa and all its other variants through twenty different Asian nations. He discusses well-known comics scenes in Japan, South Korea and the Philippines but also lesser-known comics markets in Vietnam, Tibet and Indonesia. This history spans hundreds of years, from classic folkloric art that resembles comics to popular recent manga like Attack on Titan.
Smartly, Gravett divides the book by genre rather than nationality, which allows readers to compare work across countries. A chapter on “Fable and Folklore” includes samples from a miniature Chinese lianhuanhua series depicting a monkey king story, as well as excerpts from an Indonesian comic about embracing traditional culture and Indian comics about Hindu legends. We even get pages from North Korean comics that cover historical and political topics.
The chapter on “Stories and Storytellers” likewise hits the usual suspects like Bakuman from Japan and Singaporean artist Lat’s classic Kampung Boy, but also includes girls’ fantasy comics from South Korea and pages from autobiographical Japanese comics. Maybe my favorite excerpt from this section is from Two Poles, the over-the-top wild Hong Kong story of what happens when a fictional character comes to life and invades his artist’s world, with a wildly diverse art style in the four pages shown.
Gravett also discusses several crucial topics. No book of this type could be published without discussing the impact of censorship on the comics industry. He starts with contradictory pronouncements by Douglas McArthur, while head of the occupying force in Japan, that on the one hand Japan have free speech and on the other forbidding the depiction of samurai and ninjas in manga. He also discusses government censorship in South Korea and Taiwan, among other countries, while also providing samples from some of that work. Several of the Filipino comics he includes could have come right from 1950s American comics, with lurid colors and graphic horror.
The strength of Mangasia is also its obvious weakness. As a survey of comics across twenty Asian countries, it casts a wide but shallow net. There are more encyclopedia books about the comics scene in many of these countries (including at least one written by Gravett himself), and I often found myself frustrated by the lack of depth he offers here. But this sort of survey approach allows Gravett to draw comparisons other writers cannot, and that enriches his narrative. The level of research on display here is impressive, and the diversity of art styles he shows is exhilarating.
Paul Gravett has become the dean of comics historians, and this new book is a worthy addition to his oeuvre.