As mentioned in my earlier post about Mai the Psychic Girl, the first few floppy issues included a series of essays called "The Manga Story" in the back. These were written in 1987 by the manga/Japan experts of the day. I'm going to re-create the text of these essays here, as I don't believe they were reprinted elsewhere(?).
The first of these articles was published in Mai the Psychic Girl #3 and written by Fred Patten, "one of the five creators of the Cartoon/Fantasy Organization (C/FO) and author of numerous articles on Japanese manga and animation. Fred Patten came up in my interview with Frederik Schodt about the early days of manga fandom for Electric Ant Zine #1.
Click for large versions! Full transcript below!
BEYOND SUPER-HEROES by Fred Patten
What is there to look for in Japanese comics? To start, set your tastes for something rich and exotic. Costumed heroes are fine, I enjoy many costumed-hero titles myself, but they aren’t all there is to cartoon-art literature. Conventional American / British cartoon-art storytelling isn’t the only approach to the writing and drawing of comic books, either.
Japanese comic books are very personalized works. This is no longer unusual in America, given the rise of the Independent comics industry. However, the standard American practice is still for the publisher to own a title and assign various artists and writers to produce it over the years. Japanese comics are owned by the writers and artists who create them, which gives the comics a very individual look. Even when a Japanese title is the work of a cartoonist who has a large staff to assist him or her, the book unmistakably shows his personal artistic touch. Virtually no Japanese comics, no matter how popular, are passed on to new writers or artists when their creators are no longer able to continue them. If you have an eye for an artist’s style -- If you’re more interested in the individual nuances of Byrne’s art or Bark’s art or Spiegle’s art rather than in generic costumed-hero art or funny-animal art -- then you’ll find much to enjoy in the varied styles of the many excellent Japanese comic-book artists. (There are also many lousy Japanese artists, but their work isn’t being reprinted in America so you don’t have to worry about getting any of it by mistake.)
American comic books are traditionally open-ended, intended to be produced indefinitely, as long as they sell. There are some open-ended Japanese comics as well. Many of the best, however, are designed as novels, with a definite conclusion in mind from the time that the story is conceived. The Japanese practice of publishing comics as thick “real books” is a key factor here. Two of the first Japanese comics I saw were Osamu Tezuka’s Vampire (1968), 575 pages published as two thick paperback volumes, and Takao Saito’s The Shadow Man (1967-68), 559 pages (plus two separate 50-page short stories), published in three volumes. I was stunned when I read these (well, when I looked at the art and guessed at the story), and realized that they weren’t just complete sequences from an open-ended title such as Dick Tracy or Batman. They were clearly designed as independent novels in cartoon-art form. We are just getting to this in America, with such works as Wendy and Richard Pini’s Elfquest, Frank Miller’s Ronin and The Dark Knight, Howard Chaykin’s The Shadow, and Alan Moore & Dave Gibbon’s The Watchmen. The Japanese have been doing this for decades. There are many tightly-written stories that are 500 pages or more. America doesn’t have the habit of publishing comic books in a 200- or 300-page format, so we’ll be getting these stories serialized in the standard “pamphlet” format of about 30 pages at a time. But, we have the foreknowledge that these aren’t just a publisher’s open-ended commercial product. They are literary works and there is a well-planned climax and conclusion to come, when the story has run its course.
American comic books tend to be very current. There are some reprint projects such as the Collected EC Comics and Donning/Starblaze’s four-volume Elfquest set, but generally, once a comic book is a couple of months old and is replaced by its next issue, it’s gone. In contrast, Japanese comic books tend to be kept in print in paperback collections. Osamu Tezuka’s Mighty Atom (Astro Boy) was written between 1951 and the early 1970s. There hasn’t been a new story in fifteen years, but the complete Astro Boy stories are available in a 22-volume paperback set. Kaoru Shintani’s Area 88 was first collected in 1979. That first volume now carries a “40th printing” statement and is still available, as are the more than twenty volumes that have followed it.
Japanese comic-art is generally more cinematic than its American counterpart; check the average American comic book, and you’ll find speech balloons in seven panels out of eight. Check the average Japanese comic book, and you’ll find lots of wordless art. Some of this may be establishing shots, setting a scene or a mood. Some of it may be pure visual action or suspense, told solely through motion, facial expressions, or body language.
Another cinematic trait in Japanese comics is the use of detailed backgrounds. Automobiles, beer cans and other commercial products are genuine, recognizable brands. The character-art style of Kaoru Shintani's Area 88 aerial-adventure series is very cartoony, but his military hardware is accurate. The reader can distinguish one type or airplane or missile from another, and all are models actually in use in the air forces of the Middle East. Some artists, such as Takao Saito in his Golgo 13 stories, open a sequence in a foreign city by "rotoscoping" an actual photograph of that city to establish it as convincingly as possible before beginning the fictional action.
Many Japanese cartoonists pride themselves on creating original "sound effects" rather than relying on the standard BOOM, WHAM or WHOOSH. Others, such as Sanpei Shirato, the author of The Legend of Kamui, prefer to keep written sound effects to a bare minimum. They trust that the reader will mentally supply the appropriate background sound from the visuals alone, such as a scene of heavy surf crashing on a rocky shore.
One major difference between American and Japanese comics is the tendency in the latter toward realistic depiction of mature themes. For one thing, there are fewer taboos on these in Japanese society. For another, comic-art in Japan is more accepted as a literary art form for readers of all ages, rather than just children. As a result, Japanese cartoonists are more experienced in depicting such themes. Despite recent advances in America towards producing comics for mature readers, many artists have not yet mastered the realistic details. Visual violence is often either too sanitized or sophomorically exaggerated. Nudity is, to some extent, still censored, or played for shock value or risque humor, rather than with naturalness. Dialogue is either too cleaned up or overemphasizes the use of profanity. Japanese comics for mature readers look more like what you might see in today's average R-rated motion pictures, rather than comic books designed to titillate adolescent boys.
While American comics tend to fall into a few specific genres (superhero, science fiction, etc.), Japanese comics are designed for a much wider range of reading interests. There are Japanese comics for infants, young boys, young girls, teenage boys, teenage girls, young men, young women, and adults of all tastes and interests. There are sports comics, soap-opera comics, "ambitious young corporate executive" comics -- just about any subject matter you can name. Many of these are much too specialized for the American market (how many buyers would there be for a comic book about the adventures of a high school girls' volleyball team, with page after page devoted to a single game in details?), but they are fascinating to know about. And you just might find something that's really tailored to you!
Japanese comics are just beginning to be introduced into America. There are those who say that they'll never catch on, that they're too unusual; that American comics-buyers won't touch anything that's not stuffed inside a super-hero's costume. Fortunately, not every comic-art title has to conquer the mass-market appeal and be written for the broadest possible tastes. For those readers who are interested in something more challenging than world-shaking hero/villain slug-fests, Japanese comics have a lot to offer.
Manga Story #2 and #3 are coming soon!