Art and Narrative: Mommy, Why Are My Eyes So Big?

One of the most interesting stylistic elements of most manga or anime, for me, has always been the character design. In most Western comics and animation, character design has as much to do with personal expression as it does with story.

The fact that most of the characters in the Peanuts strips have large heads and dots for eyes probably has more to do with how Charles Shultz decided to draw them than the stories he told.  There’s no denying that narrative can influence character design to some extent, but for the most part, Western cartoonists have worked very hard to stand out from other works through their stylistic choices. They are individuals, and their comics are often an expression of that individuality.

Manga, on the other hand, often adheres to a nigh-universal system of visual conventions, one that makes for noticeable similarities between the work of different creators. Character design in manga and anime seems to relate more to specific narrative conventions than with an artist’s individual style. We recognize the archetypes of the doe-eyed girl, the witch, the stoic hero, the innocent child, and the big-mouthed comic relief, time and again in manga and anime.

The character designs in manga and anime have evolved over time much like the masks of the Commedia del Arte. They are a type of visual shorthand the artist can use to tell a story. Readers familiar with the conventions recognize certain character designs from story to story, and tend to associate them with certain qualities. The character designs are part of the visual vocabulary of manga and anime creators as much as word balloons or motion lines.

Working and creating in a web-based medium like webcomics, there is bound to be some degree of cross-pollination between styles and cultures. Creators borrow from one another, and from each new combination of styles something new begins to germinate.

The current influence of manga and anime on Western comics has been enormous and far-reaching, and though some may complain about what seems to be a glut of manga and mock-manga, I think we ought to be excited by what this might bring to comics, and particularly webcomics.