East vs. West: Comic Book Showdown

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Though my position here, such as it is, is that of “anime blogger,” I think that my real interest in media from the Land of the Rising Sun is comic books, otherwise known as manga.  Despite being exposed to Western comics fairly early on in my life, it wasn’t until I started reading manga that sequential art became a real interest of mine.  Even now, if the choice is between a Western comic or a manga, I reach for manga first – possibly because it’s more familiar territory, but also because, until very recently, Western comics just weren’t as good.

I realize that something being “good” is pretty subjective, but I’d like to have a chance to prove my point.  It was only this past year that I started to think more critically about comic books and my personal preferences thereof, but I’ve been able to come up with a surprising amount of evidence to favor manga over its Western counterparts.

Manga in Japan is much, much more mainstream than comic books have been in the West, at least to my understanding.  There are multiple weekly magazines publishing stories specific of a genre, some of which have become popular enough to have Western imprints (Shoujo Beat is no longer printed in the US, but Shounen Jump seems to be doing all right).  And the genres are multitudinous, and have been for a very long time.  Traditionally, American comics have centered on super heroes in four-color box panels.  Will Eisner didn’t publish the first “graphic novel” until 1978 with A Contract With God.  Meanwhile, Lone Wolf and Cub (Kozure Okami) by Kazuo Koike had been running since 1970, with incredibly wild success.  (I’m actually curious – how many people have read A Contract With God?  It’s an extremely influential piece of comic book history, but it’s very much outside of the modern consciousness, unlike Lone Wolf and Cub which, once again, has incredible success both in Japan and here – with eight million copies being sold upon its initial Japanese release.)

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Will Eisner’s “A Contract With God: And Other Tenement Stories,” first published in 1978.
Kazuo Koike's "Lone Wolf and Cub," started in 1970.
Kazuo Koike’s “Lone Wolf and Cub,” started in 1970.

Going back before Eisner and Koike, you have the rise in superhero comics in the 1940s in the West.  Because of money matters, Western publishers were forced to only print in four colors, as in this Superman page from 1952:

Superman-Vol.-1-76-1952-739x1024

In Japan, printers decided to forgo color altogether, meaning that all manga was published in black-and-white; maybe it’s not as eye-catching, but this set-up allows the artist to be more adventurous with artistic style and use of dramatic shadow.  And even in 1952, Osamu Tezuka was utilizing dynamic panel designs in Astro Boy, the manga that would go on to become the first Japanese animated series and spark a media revolution.

AstroBoyEx

Because manga is such an easily consumable form of media – printed cheaply, with engaging stories and artwork that span varied genres and appeal to all age groups – it has made it over to the West (just as American comics have ventured into Japan!).  But reading manga is not something that comes naturally or easily to an American reader.  For starters, many publishers have opted to keep manga in its traditional right-to-left reading format, which means that left-to-right readers have to learn a whole new way of scanning a page.  For me, this came easily because I started young enough; even now, if I pick up any kind of comic book, it is my natural inclination to read from right-to-left.  But this is very important, because flipping the pages to be more Western-friendly actually diminishes the manga, as it flips around artwork and panels.  And oh, the artwork and the panels are too good to be abused that way.

If we had to flip around most traditional Western comic books (I’m talking the old superhero variety – don’t bring modern or underground stuff into this discussion just yet), I don’t think too much would be lost.  Panels are mostly square, reading in a predictable sequence.  But manga has a tendency to screw around with panels; characters from one panel will be standing in the next one as well, or several panel boxes (not all of which are perfectly square!) will be laid over a larger establishing art work.  Because of this, manga in general appears more fast-paced and dynamic.

From "Clover," by all-woman manga team CLAMP.
From “Clover,” by all-woman manga team CLAMP.

Another interesting tidbit about the set-up of a manga page: There are almost never exposition boxes.  You know, those little yellow boxes in the top corner of a panel?  The ones that explain the action?  Yeah, those don’t really exist in manga.  On the one hand, this can be a drawback for less skilled artist/authors who have trouble portraying action without explanation – but on the whole, I think it has allowed for mangaka to really step up their collective game.  And perhaps it says something about how stories are told differently in different cultures.

The actual process of writing a manga is very different from writing a comic book.  In the West, you’ll have a writer, a sketch person, an inker, a letterer, and someone to lay on color.  With manga, nine times out of ten, there’s only one person in charge who does all the story-writing and initial drawing.  They will have assistants to go in and do backgrounds and shading, but the work itself is usually the vision of one person only.  This can seem somewhat limiting, but I think it produces really great results.  When I first tried to actively get into Western comics, I started with Neil Gaiman’s The Sandman series.  One of my largest complaints, then as now, is that the artwork was inconsistent.  In one way, it’s nice to see so many different artists’ takes on characters and situations.  But when the art fell short of my expectations, or didn’t match the wonderful writing that Gaiman employs, my eyes began to wander from the page.  The art style is crucial to any sequential art, as it really sets the tone, and I have found that I can tell a good manga based on its artwork – something which I can’t always do with Western comics.

Do I hate Western comics?  No, of course not.  I believe there is a rich history behind comic books all over the world, and I endeavor to expose myself to it as much as possible.  I think that now, especially, artists are finding new and interesting ways of using the comic book format, and I look forward to seeing what they come up with.  But I love manga, and I can only hope that Western comics will take some of the better traits of manga into consideration going forward.

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