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    MANGA: Orignal English Dispute

    By Chris Arrant

    One of the biggest news stories in recent years has been the explosion of manga in bookstores and comic stores. Reaching places comics haven’t seen since the heydays of the early 1980s, it has changed the way people look at the future of comics in America. Originally imported from Japan, in the past 18 months new comics have been produced that follow some of the rules of manga but being produced by non-Japanese residents. In the hurry to identify and understand the changes coming around the pike, there has been great debate as to what to call these comics: manga, comics, or something else. Although the debate of the naming of something might seem trivial, it belays a deeper root problem into the acceptance of ‘foreign’ influences and their impact on the works created afterward.

    There are many terms floating out there for it: OEL manga, post-manga, amerimanga, nissei comi, western manga, world manga, pseudo-manga and more. While ‘amerimanga’ is the oldest term for these comics, it went out of favor as manga increasingly permeated English-speaking culture increased due to its’ America-centric connotations. Today, the most commonly used and generally accepted term is “OEL Manga” or Original English Language Manga. This is still in my opinion a transition phrase, but has effectively brought the classification from a negative connotation to at least a neutral one, and symbolizes the progress of acceptance of local comics works influenced by manga. While some traditionalists disagree with any non-Japanese made comic being labeled with the Japanese word “manga,” efforts to disambiguate the use of the word “manga” to describe works not of Japanese origin haven’t come to a consensus. This isn’t a problem unique to English speaking culture; Korean has ‘manwha’, while Europe has their own: ‘la nouvelle manga.’ Semantics aside, to identify and understand the comics being created that owe some influence to Japanese-created comics (a.k.a. manga), you have to know what manga is in the first place.

    Although the word ‘manga’ has roots in 17th century Japan to describe a style of painting less concerned with minute details and more with entertaining and meaningful connotations, it wasn’t until 1947 that the word ‘manga’ became the identified as what it is today. In 1947, cartoonist Osamu Tezuka released a novel-length drawn story entitled “Shintakarajima” (or New Treasure Island, in English), the very first well-known tankoubon or graphic novel. Inspired by the recent importation of the Disney movie “Snow White & the Seven Dwarves,” Tezuka took a bit of that style, with a bit of his own, and applied it to the already present medium of sequential art that had been present in previous forms on the island. Although he would not cement the movement known as manga until the release of “Astro Bo”y years later, this is where Japan’s comic art movement known as manga began.

    Some argue that manga is, and only is, the unreproducible model of the Japanese comic industry in format, content, style, storytelling and most stringently, origin. While this culturist viewpoint is shared by some, by and large artwork is now seen as more culturally transient, as the separation between cultures is increasingly blurred and recognizable not as regional cultures but as global. With that being said, the general principles of manga that are commonly agreed upon are exaggerated facial expressions, emphasis on emotional (rather than plot-like) storytelling, and continued development of the characters over the course of the story. Although I’m sure the boundaries and intricacies of manga are not as clearly described here as some would like, these general points help better understand manga in relation to wider medium of comics.

    With a definition of manga in one hand, and the abbreviated origin in another, we must now go into how manga came from Japan to permeate English-speaking shores as it is today.

    In the early 1980s, the influence of Japanese manga and anime (animation produced in Japan in a style similar to manga) began to infiltrate English-speaking comics. Manga reached American shores either through unofficial imports of the original Japanese volumes, or through fledgling efforts of American publishers to reprint manga stories re-forged in the popular America serialized issue format. 1983’s “Ronin “by Frank Miller was clearly inspired by Kazuo Koike’s “Lone Wolf and Cub” (which wasn’t officially published in America until 1987, but available much earlier), mostly clearly though the use of strong emphasis on visuals and character interaction over more plot-oriented pacing that was commonly seen in American comics. This inspiration was taken further with 1984’s “Mangazine” (and later “Ninja High School”) by cartoonist Ben Dunn, whose influences were evident in the artistic style as well as the story, which parodied famous anime and manga conventions. It’s these two examples which most clearly lay out the two paths that the influence of manga would take on English-speaking comics: some, such as Miller, would take influence from the manga and incorporate it into their own style, while others, such as Dunn, would be more heavily influenced by the manga art form and become, by extension, a manga-styled artist themselves.

    The influences of manga in American comics continued to bubble to the surface with such works as 1989’s “Dirty Pair” by cartoonist Adam Warren, and the emergence of manga inspired artists in the dominant American superhero genre in 1994 with Joe Madureira and his work on Marvel Comics’ “X-Men.” While Warren brought his manga-inspired art style and storytelling to “Dirty Pair” as both writer & artist, the manga influence of Joe Madureira as seen in superhero comics was purely of a visual nature as overlaid on his root influence of superhero comics by way of Art Adams. Nonetheless, it was the work of Madureira, along with J. Scott Campbell and Chris Bachalo, that manga-influenced comics gained its first major foothold in the English-speaking comics community.

    But it was during that same time period that another American artist would learn first-hand. In 1995, Paul Pope began working with Japan’s biggest manga publisher, Kodansha. “Manga has become surprisingly big in the States and I am the one comics guy that worked for five years for the biggest Japanese comics publisher,” said Pope in a 2006 interview with Publishers Weekly Comics Week. “I know the structure of manga. I consider it my graduate school.”

    Although his work for Kodansha remains largely unpublished, Pope’s tenure there gave him a unique skill set that would prove invaluable to his development, as seen in works such as “Heavy Liquid” and “100%.” Wildly influential to later cartoonists, Pope’s foundation in both American comics and Japanese manga puts him squarely in history as one of the first hybrids of the field.

    In that same time period, lesser-known cartoonists at the time began exploring the avenues exposed by the influence of manga. Colleen Doran’s long-running series “A Distant Soil,” David Mack’s “Kabuki,” Lea Hernandez’ work and others continued to build foundations in the comic readership at the time for further development of the themes highlighted by manga. American independent publisher Dark Horse as well has been seen as one of the first, and most long lasted, American publishing houses with devotion to manga.

    The first full-scale explosion of manga to American shores began in the late 1990s with relatively new publishers finding success by reprinting Japanese manga in affordable manga-sized digest books and building the comic niche in bookstores. By carefully culling from 40 years of Japanese manga largely unseen by American eyes and choosing properties that had cross-over appeal with popular American kids television cartoons such as “Pokemon” and “Dragonball Z,” which were also produced in Japan. These were not overnight successes, but longtime efforts by publishers such as TokyoPop and Viz that finally reaped rewards for those companies.

    Sales grew, in no small part due to the increased footprint of comics in bookstores thanks to its’ reach outside typical comic readers; and people took notice. Publishers in and out of the manga reprint business saw new avenues to wider readership audiences developing with manga’s reach, and took the next logical step and greenlighted original work created for the English-speaking market that still could be considered and promoted through the roads manga had forged. Not only would they not be tied down to the limited and contencious resource of manga from Japan, but they would be more than reprinters but originators and, in some cases, co-owners of the new creations. For while the success of titles such as Naruto spread to manga, television and merchandising, the American manga publishers were not owners of the property, and could not reap any additional rewards that their promotion of the property developed.

    Although Viz has thus far avoided this avenue, TokyoPop has dominated the field with more than 60 OEL mangas released with more to follow. American independent companies such as Oni Press, Seven Seas, Marvel Comics, DC Comics and others have all produced manga-influenced work and have taken advantage of the consumer acceptance of the $10 or less manga sized black & white digest format.

    With manga reaching English-speaking audiences beginning the early 80s, the younger generation who grew up as manga reach grew was brought up on a different kind of comic than previous generations. While the cartoonists of the ‘70s, ‘80s and early ‘90s were primarily influenced by previous American comics, the late ‘90s saw an explosion of new comics artists coming of age and begin to publish their work. The mainstream acceptance of manga was not overnight; existing in the background and as a cult-type art movement only indoctrinated and won over children who would grow to be teenager ands adults, both readers and creators.

    When asked by David Welsh in a 2005 interview for about the influence of manga on his work, cartoonist Bryan Lee O’Malley explained that he had gone through a manga phrase, but wasn’t in mind to become a ‘manga artist’ per se. “It’s part of the vocabulary of comics that I’m still learning. The stuff that TokyoPop is printing right now reminds me of work that friends of mine were doing online in the late ‘90s. I always used to wish that there were publishers who would go full tilt with that stuff, and now there is one, so I think it’s good. It would warm the heart of my 17-year-old self, that’s for sure. I guess I grew up and adapted to what was available. I got here too early.”

    While it is true that a few artists might be mimicking the styles presented in Japanese manga to capitalize on a perceived boom in that, for most cartoonists working in this broad movement are influenced by manga, but along with influences of other artistic movements in and out of the comics medium. In the end, this fusion of manga, comics, and the entire pop cultural spectrum leads to a gestalt that in some instances resemble manga. What is called OEL manga today is merely techniques taken from manga and combined into each cartoonist’s broader style of work. By assimilating the influence of manga into their overall make-up as artists, they produce works influenced by manga, but progressing on their own unique path.

    Going back to my original matter, trying to label the original English language comics that show inspiration as manga as purely derivate of manga is an unfair means of segregating and classifying artwork and not taking into account the broad range of influences impacting people living in his post-modern culture. We’re at a transitional period in the influence of Japanese manga upon the landscape of comics worldwide; what was once disparate cultures only looking inward is now a global culture taking influence from anywhere and from any time. To use a metaphor, just as the British music invasion spearheaded by the Beatles in 1960s was seen as an “invasion” on American culture, the musicians of the time soaked in this new influence and came back years later with it’s own creative response to what they had heard prior. Although the term OEL Manga has taken big steps for the sake of this art movement, it still in some ways stereotypes works of this nature the way some stereotype comics of the superhero genre.

    At the end of the day, there is one thing pretty much everyone can agree on; it’s comics. Manga is comics. “Superman” is comics. Political cartoons are comics. “Calvin & Hobbes” is comics. Instead of classifying comics by the country of original or the style it’s drawn (as style is subjective), a more reasonable approach would be to take cues from your local library and classify by genre. Yes, comics would be its own section away from mere words written on a page, but inside this comics section would be sub-sections based not on the origin of the creator, but by the subject matter of the story.

    Think about it: If Osamu Tezuka, Bryan Lee O’Malley and Frank Miller each wrote a fictional novel about the same subject, no matter how differently they’d write it, it could all be filed in the same section: fiction. Instead of filing by the subjective parameters of style, origin or publisher (that’s another subject), it could be done in a more concerted fashion to make it more inclusive (instead of exclusive) to readers and potential readers. While this solution, or any solution, is years away… it’s a goal we could look to. I am.

    Posted by Tim Leong on May 5th, 2006 filed in Story Archive |

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