After a few weeks off, I'm returning to "The Manga Story" essays, which were an introduction to the genre/style of "manga" published in the first few floppy issues of Viz's Mai the Psychic Girl. These were written in 1987 by the manga/Japan experts of the day-- with the first essay written by Cartoon/Fantasy Organization co-founder and author Fred Patten.
The 2nd essay in the series is by someone I admire greatly, and one of the most interesting dudes in manga, interpretor/translator/author Frederik Schodt. If you've been reading Same Hat or know anything about manga, you are aware of Fred's important role in the development of a "manga industry" for English speakers. On top of that, Fred is one of the smartest and most genuinely nice and insightful dudes in the world of comics. When I tweeted about posting this essay he joked that he couldn't even remember what he wrote at the time; I find this essay especially interesting given his long history of commentary on manga's history (and future) in America.
For more from Fred on the early days of manga, please see my extensive interview with him in late 2008 for Electric Ant Zine #1.
ENTER THE ID by Frederik Schodt
Click for large versions! Full transcript below!
ENTER THE ID by Frederik Schodt
Many years ago in Tokyo, I talked with the local Marvel Comics representative about translating American and Japanese comics, and I still remember how pessimistic he was. American comics took much of the world by storm in the fifties, so much so that they caused protests in some countries. But in Japan, despite the fact that many Marvel and DC titles were translated into Japanese in the 1970s, the reading public never really accepted them-- they were often said to be too boring, alien or wordy. As a result, the Marvel rep had concluded that as far as Japan and America were concerned, comics and culture were inseparably linked, and "People may be able to tolerate exoticism in other media, but not in their comics.
I often think about that statement. I've probably been directly involved with, or have closely observed, most attempts since the mid-seventies to introduce Japanese comics into the United States and, needless to say, most of the attempts -- if not always artistic failures -- have had a rough time in the marketplace. Today, though, with the new Viz-Eclipse International titles, and others from competing firms, it looks as though translated Japanese comics have finally come into their own, breaking out of a ghetto of isolated fans. At this point, the words of the Marvel rep bear re-thinking.
If comics and culture are particularly inseparable in Japan it may be because they have developed in relative isolation from the rest of the world. No matter how well translated, many Japanese comics are still very "Japanese," not only in story, but in visual style and pacing as well. Sometimes pictures are intrinsically linked with verbal jokes and puns. Characters may seem to have nothing but dots in their word balloons, to be gazing incessantly at horizons, or making poignant gestures. Often the plot seems to move in a rather round-about way. Why don't they get to the point? The answer is, of course, that Japanese comics were written and drawn by artists thinking in Japanese, not English. For us to read these comics, even when translated into English, takes a little more work and understanding. A new visual as well as written vocabulary must be learned.
Comics and different from other media, in that they are so accessible and personal. There are well over a billion produced each year in Japan, including weeklies, bi-weeklies, monthlies, bi-monthlies, quarterlies, paperbacks, and hardbacks. Because the market is so huge and there are so many publishers, and because the comics have stressed stories and characterization rather than artistic ability, comics are one of the easiest creative mediums to break into in Japan (but success is not guaranteed). Expectations are lower to begin with, and creating a comic does not require the same level of education or writing skills as the creation of a novel. Some famous artists may have assistants or outside scripters or eve, like Takao Saito, a staff photograph (for backgrounds), but most don't. All an aspiring artist really needs are pens, paper and pencils, talent, time and a good idea. Compare to making a film, financing a comic is a joke. The result of all this is that Japanese comic books are sometimes a repository for eccentric talent, but they are also a very direct reflection of what is going on in the mind of the average person-on-the-street, relatively unfiltered by massive editing, the commercialization of other mass media and "committee"-style production.
The unique social role played by comics in today's Japan must be considered. In the last few years reader in their fifties have become fans of comics, making them a true "mass" media, in the sense that nearly everyone reads them. Comics are still different from television, records, novels or newspapers; although some are very serious and comparable to the best literature, most are light, disposable entertainment, to be read when on the train, waiting for a haircut, or over a bowl of ramen noodles. Many young "salary-men" buy two three hundred and fifty page weekly comic magazines when leaving the office at the end of the day, read the comics from cover to cover during an hour-long train ride on the way home, and then toss them in the trash can when they get off.
Of the billion or so comics produced each year, the vast majority have a dream-like quality. Sometimes I think of Japanese comics as being the place where stressed-out modern urbanites work out their neuroses. Viewed in their totality, the phenomenal number of stories produced are like the constant chatter of the collective subconscious-- an articulation of the dream world. Sort of like MTV in America, only on a much larger scale.
So why do I think Japanese comics have a hope of making it in the United States? The first reason is the sheer size of the Japanese industry and the variety of material it churns out. Probably ninety-five percent of Japanese comics are not worth translating. A lot of them are soft-core porn for men or trashy romances for women, stuff we Americans could create on our own, thanks. And who wants to read volumes about the problems of hierarchical relationships in boring office jobs or the spiritual rewards of selling discount cameras in Tokyo's Shinjuku district? But precisely because there is so much stuff produced, there is something for nearly everyone, if selected properly. You want a story on the Russian revolution, or an analysis of gourmet cooking? You wan wild, original art work? You want something that looks just like an American comic? If you can name it, Japanese comics probably have it. I recently bought a three hundred and fifty page hardback comic book on the Japanese economy that has been on the non-fiction book bestseller list, and sold over three hundred thousand copies; it is filled with information.
The second reason Japanese comics may finally make it in the United States is also related to volume. The comics industry in Japan is more than comics, and has evolved into a giant, self-perpetuating organism. Serialized stories in huge three hundred to five hundred page comic magazines are compiled into paperback books. Paperback books are compiled into hardback books. Stories are made into television animation series, then feature films, then novels, toys, merchandise and eventually sequels of the original stories are produced.
Animation has boosted the popularity of Japanese comics around the world. Since animation is less personal, and is filtered through producers, directors, and the hands of thousands of staff, it is often a little less culture-specific than comics. And besides, since it moves, it transcends language more easily. In mainland China, animation guaranteed the popularity of Osamu Tezuka's comic Mighty Atom (Astroboy). In Italy, animation paved the way for the success of the girl's comic, Candy Candy, and Go Nagai's Mazinger Z. With interest generated by animation, Europeans have gone on to publish quite a few other Japanese comics. Kazuo Koike, who wrote the script for the samurai classc Lone Wolf and Cub also authored a hard-boiled action series being published in France under the title Mutants-Android
The same thing has happened in the United States. So much Japanese animation has been shown on American TV that people are curious the comics on which the films are based and there is a large body of fans, ready to read something translated into English. This is a wonderful thing, because it means that most people who buy a Japanese comic are going to expect something a little different from an American one, and not be put off by things like big eyes and weird hair color. A little bit of exoticism here is not going to hurt.
It's a thrill for me to see comics like Mai, the Psychic Girl, The Legend of Kamui, and Area 88 finally published in English, largely unedited. I'm not sure everyone will like them equally, but that's the way it's supposed to be. I am even more excited because these comics haven't yet been on television here. Most American fans of Japanese comics tend to gravitate toward whatever they have seen on TV or in video, which cuts them off from the real richness and variety of Japanese comics.
Sometimes when you're reading Japanese comics, it may seem as though it takes a little more work to understand them than the thirty page American variety. Don't worry. The rewards at the end are enormous. Not only are you reading a comic, but you're getting a rare opportunity to see the world through the eyes of another culture. There's a lot to learn out there.
-Frederik Schodt is the author of Manga! Manga! The World of Japanese Comics, winner of the "Special Award" in the 1983 Manga Oscars.