Manga School's In -- Testing Manga-style Webcomic Authors on their Knowledge
Write what you know.
Write from experience.
These are two major tenets you'll hear spouted to you from a million million creative writing teachers, or from a thousand thousand famous writer/artist people when asked, "What should I draw/write about?".
Not everyone agrees with this approach, but I certainly do. It's of my opinion that while there ARE those rare "gifted" people who are somehow able to craft magnificent universes purely out of the power of imagination, regardless of lack of experience or knowledge... the majority of creators shine BEST when their work echoes a truth known or experienced by them in the past or present. Readers today are a smart breed, and can always tell when something smells like a fake or rings of the real thing.
That said, it occurs to me that there are a hundred hundred webcomics out there that either show hints of, emulate, borrow from, or straight-out copycat the booming, popular animanga styles of (mostly) Japan. Now it's true, if one takes stock in age-old adages and proverbs, that 'imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.' It's likewise true, as many teachers from many fields will be the first to profess, that in order to become great and original, one should first study and imitate the classics, in order to better understand what already exists before knowing what "doesnâ€™t exist", before trying to walk that road less travelled.
The question that inevitably pops into my mind, then, is this: "All these people drawing manga and manga-style stuff on the web... how much do they KNOW about the style they're cribbing from? How much exposure have they had to all things animanga? What are their motives for borrowing/adopting elements from this particular movement?"
To settle this internal quandry, I whipped up a list of questions, and sent them out to 27 separate webcomics of different animanga-saturation levels, ranging from strip comics that use big eyes and sweat drops to comics that look and read just like the "authentics." To my glee, 21 webcomics responded, with two of them sending a response from both writer and artist, to boot. My questions ranged from very simple and easy "favorites" questions, to more difficult questions on history and theory. Feeling evil, I even slipped in a few trick questions, to see who would call me on it â€“ such as calling Manga a 'genre' when it is clearly nothing of the sort (while manga encompasses many genres within itself, it itself is "comics", thus a medium or movement within a medium, and not a genre).
It has to be said that I am pleasantly surprised to discover that a fair portion of creators are decently versed in manga and anime, more so than I would have expected, even. But very few of them seem to be what I would call an "expert" on the subject/medium, either. Their responses likewise indicate that there is no "set profile" from which one could be compared with to see if they, too, are likely to be manga-style creators. Some were brought up immersed in manga culture, others discovered it recently. Some had easy access to manga, others have to work hard just to get an old third-hand copy of something.
Without any further ado, we should examine their responses, and then formulate more substantial conclusions from there. Dividing the feature into four parts â€“ elementary, middle-school, high school, and postsecondary levels of knowledge â€“ this first section will address the basics and what should be fundamental food for a manga-style creator: authors' reasons for choosing to draw in a manga-style, their favorite titles. The following week will go a bit further, examining their exposure to manga (reading, buying), author name recognition, what they perceive as the differences between manga-style and american-style comics, what they see as differences between manga and anime, and then to finish it off, a manga title awareness test.
Once that's done, we'll get even more serious.
But first, ring the bell, 'cause grade school's about to begin.
ELEMENTARY LEVEL: MOTIVES, FAVES, AUTHOR NAME AWARENESS
I â€“ Motives
Some of the respondents, like Tsunami Channel's Akira Hasegawa, Trilokan's Suburi, and Ghost Hunters' Eunice P, explain that they choose to draw in a manga-style because, quite simply, it's what they were exposed to the most. Brought up around or within an Asian culture or backdrop rich in manga, they couldn't help but fall in love with what was available for reading, eventually feeling within themselves an overwhelming drive to give back what they'd been absorbing for all those years.
The most common response, however, usually involves the "look" of manga-style art, and the creator's preference of that look over other prevalent comic art styles. As Flipside's Brion Fouke puts it:
I just love the aesthetics of manga in general. There is a cinematic style to it that is excellent for telling stories, and can be used in a variety of ways. I also think that there is a certain beauty in that style of drawing characters.
Artists like Fouke agree, asserting how they feel the style is "more esthetically pleasing ... than most American styles" (Ron Kaulfersch), or that they find they have more freedom with facial expressions (Jamie Anderson) and panel flow (Xero Reynolds). Whether they have only been briefly exposed to manga or are drowning in it, they essentially maintain that manga-style offers more to them than any other style available.
Of course, more than a few artists openly admitted that they draw in a manga style because it is the style that seems to be easiest for them. As SkyFall's RekKa put it, she prefers drawing in a manga style "because I can't draw American style without breaking my pencil in half. ^^ My style isn't TRUE manga, it's my rendition of it. It just... works for me." Kara Dennison of Conscrew confessed that "I'm much more comfortable with it than attempting to draw in a Western or even semi-realistic style." Even Space Coyote, a Japanese-Canadian who draws the sci-fi manga-style comic Saturnalia, jokes about her reasons:
Because I can't draw anything else! Seriously though, I was really into American comics 3-4 years ago. I tried so hard to get an American comic book drawing style, but I just couldn't do it. Drawing in the manga style just comes automatically to me. For a very long time, I drew in a weird slightly manga-ish, pseudo-American comic style. I gave into the full manga style a few years ago.
In an interesting aside, she explains why she tried so hard to NOT draw in a manga-style initially:
Truthfully, one of the biggest reasons why I wanted to draw in an american style is because I wanted to beat a stereotype that's plagued me for all my life. In school, people would come up to me and go, "You're Japanese? That means you draw in that Sailor Moon style, right??" Argh. I found that to be offensive and irritating, and I still do, even though I DO draw manga. You might as well go up to a black person and ask them to teach you how to rap and play basketball. I never wanted to be the typical Japanese girl who drew manga, because people expected that from me. Sadly, I am now just a stereotype. ;_;
When thinking of some of the landmark manga series of the past, though, it seems odd to hear creators say that drawing in a manga style is easier than in other styles. If one were to compare the backgrounds drawn in your average American comic to, say, any of the incredibly detailed, hyperrealistic cityscapes or backgrounds found in such series as Akira, or the quasi-realistic figure and facial stylings of a series like City Hunter, then calling those "easier to render" than an American-style comic borders on the ludicrous.
Perhaps what is meant by 'easier' are some of the more currently prevalent manga-cartoony art template signatures, such as that certain nigh-universal head/face shape (something akin to Rumiko Takahashi's [Ranma Â½, Inuyasha, etc.] style); the more stylised, softer-lined bodies; the tendency to allow for the art to change from panel to panel â€“ from semi-realistic to chibi-elastic, say â€“ which lessens the need to work for exacting consistency; etc. Some manga theorists and afficionados also notice how much of the uber-realism found in earlier manga is a waning art, replaced instead by the use of very generic and stylistic foreground and background templates, in order to facilitate more mass production of manga material.
Since many webcomics, including a fair number rendered in a manga-variant style, are sparing with backgrounds, their creators likewise sidestep what is (was) a VERY difficult and skilled art in the manga tradition... that of elaborate spreads of lush foliage, gorgeously-drawn buildings and shrines, or painstakingly-rendered details of any number of objects, people, or places. Fortunately, there are still some who work hard to preserve this tradition in their webcomic, even if they are currently few in number. Space Coyote, for one, seems to favor this type of approach â€“ when asked what her favorite elements of manga-style are, she replied, "I like how the faces and body proportions are cartoony and expressive, but everything else is realistic. I think it really shows the artist's range."
Finally, an interesting motive offered to us by The Lounge's John Joseco:
It's sexy and cute. It has such a erotic edge to it.
We'll save the ecchi/hentai portion of this discussion for another time, however.
II â€“ Favorite Manga Elements
When asked what their favorite elements of the manga style would be, I was not surprised to see a wide variety of responses. However, I was not expecting to see so many of the "usual" answers, either. Interestingly enough, what was mentioned most often by these creators were things like "big eyes", "all the hair", the "ability to relay emotion", the "fluidity of the line work", the ability to draw "action scenes" and "depict movement", the "use of [screen]tones", and "unique page layouts" â€“ all those elements often alluded to as the stereotypes of manga-style art.
Some *do* mention other elements such as the storylines/storytelling techniques, or the "camera angles" (i.e., the way a visual shot is set up). One even gives a shout-out to the spiky hairstyle so prevalent on males in manga ("Go the spikes!" says Jamie and Nick's Jamie Anderson). Perhaps the most interesting response was the following, by Eat The Roses' Meaghan Quinn:
Pointy noses. All the hair. Random bubbles and roses. I kid you NOT. I like the humor juxtaposed with serious stories. I like the self-reference mocking. I like the line work, the tone shading, the black and white, the fact it's written and drawn usually by the same person and self-owned. The fact mangaka work so hard at their craft and can be famous.
A good point is certainly made there â€“ successful manga creators in Japan are very well-respected, treated like celebrities, and sometimes as national heroes; meanwhile, it is unheard of for an American or European to achieve such an esteemed status on the strength of his or her comic work alone. Sure, rabid comic fans may know who Alan Moore may be, but few others would. If you show a picture of Asterix or Tintin to a non-enthusiast, they may recognize the character but will draw blanks when asked about the creators' names. Artists like Disney and Schulz are exceptions and not the rule in North America.
Overall, though, the responses seem to be the same that one always hears when referring to or asking about manga and manga-style art. Still, that's not necessarily a bad thing: it can easily be argued that the reason these same elements always get mentioned is because they ARE very distinct and valid elements that distinguish manga-style art from its American and European counterparts. Certainly, one can make the case that until very recently, such techniques, stylings, and approaches were not to be found anywhere else, and as such, are among the best examples of what makes manga so different.
A danger still exists, however: that of oversimplification. Manga is NOT merely the sum of the aforementioned parts, nor should people think that simply adding any or all of those elements to a comic will make it a manga, much less a *quality* manga. And webcartoonists old and new have to ensure that they are not simply applying such kinds of oversimplified logic to their work's approach.
If one looks at American and European comics of today, we see that they too are applying a number of these manga-derived elements to their own work while not trying to be a manga. Just like Osamu Tezuka was influenced by and introduced some American and European elements in his style and works, so are American and European creators doing the same by looking at manga, and making it their own by mixing what they discover with the style(s) they already have. Blatah's Apis Teicher certainly feels that that is how she is doing it, though she admits she also just happens to like the style she is borrowing from:
I think my style is a mix of North American aesthetics and manga ones, personally. I think a lot of manga art has been associated with the overly large eyes and non-existent mouths. I do favor manga style because it comes easier to me, I think. I also find it more aesthetically pleasing personally to find the smoother lines, sparser linework than the hard-set overly built north american style. In the end I suppose it just comes as a personal preference in depicting the images I see in my mind.
III â€“ Favorite Titles
This was a very pleasant surprise â€“ to see how varied the reading lists were! While expecting to see many people saying they read little to no manga and learned more through watching anime than anything else (since anime is much more accessible/available than manga is in many regions of North America), it turned out that most of the creators interviewed have managed to find one way or another to get their hands on many manga, indeed.
There were those, like Hasegawa, who collect manga by the wheelbarrow loads:
I keep track of about 50 series (or more) per week from "Shounen Weekly Jump", "Shounen Weekly Sunday", "Shounen Weekly Magazine", "Shounen Champion", "Weekly Young Jump", "Weekly Young Magazine", "Spirit" (weekly), "Morning" (weekly), "Afternoon" (monthly), "Monthly Magazine" (monthly), "Young King Hours" (monthly), "Young Animal" (biweekly), "Shounen Ace" (monthly), "Blade" (monthly), "Sunday GX" (monthly), "Gundam Ace", and more.
His list of favorite manga alone was impressive in its variety: Kin niku Man, High School Kimengumi, Kimagure Orange Road, City Hunter, Dragon Ball, Maison Ikkoku, JoJo's Bizarre Adventure, Black Jack, Master Keeton, Cardcaptor Sakura, Hunter x Hunter, Vagabond, Berserk, and Tenjyo Tenge.
Others, while not as eagerly proactive enough to list so many (since they were only asked to list their one favorite), still spouted up a very varied menagerie: X/1999, Cowboy Bebop, Trigun, Love Hina, Toshiki Kudo's The Empire Strikes Back, Houshin Engi, Gunnm, Lupin III, Saint Tail, Miracle Girls, Naruto, Slam Dunk, Ranma Â½, Midori no Hibi, Sugoi-yo! Masaru-san, Akira, Blade of the Immortal, Stigma, Dragon Ball, Dragonball Z, Karakuri Zoushi Ayatsuri Sakon, Violinist of Hameln, Hanikiri no Kimitashi E.
Of all of these, only one is truly a product of US licensing/exposure in the 90s -- Dragonball Z. The rest vary from anime/manga club favorites which are popular to those who are into manga or anime, like Trigun or Cowboy Bebop; those that made a worldwide impact like Akira; those that are considered classics in the medium, like Black Jack; and those that are still not known by many but are gems to those who HAVE found them outside of pure otkau circles (or Japan/Asia), like Sugoi-Yo! Masaru-san.
It was a refreshing surprise to NOT see such animanga works as Sailor Moon or Pokemon on the list â€“ not to knock these works, necessarily, but to point out that the above lists show that most of the creators interviewed HAVE in fact managed to read around a bit beyond the mainstream, rather than only know about whatever was most popular on US-licensed TV or stocked in the mainstream comic stores.
Report Card So Far
In terms of the basics, it seems that the creators have in fact been paying attention and doing their homework. Their motives seem fair and mature â€“ like almost any accomplished artist, they are searching for a style in which to best express themselves to fit their own personal sense of aesthetics. They see elements they like and want to learn from in manga.
Even the "because it's easier" line makes for a fair reason: when one starts working out at a gym, they donâ€™t kill themselves by bench pressing 400lbs on their first days. They start with something that "feels right" to them. The creators, likewise, choose to start off with something that they feel more comfortable with, that flows better right from the start to them.
This is by no means saying that manga is an "easy artform", either! Rather, it's saying that some enjoy the 'looseness' allowed by the conventions of the medium, and that these conventions appear to be more user-friendly than those of other styles to the newcomer artist drawing his first straight line. Once they get more comfortable with the form, and work to improve on their techniques, they can achieve great and complex art pieces that rival any other style out there.
Perhaps it's easier to just say that "you can fudge it" more easily in manga at the beginning than you can with, say, a straight Jim Lee or Alex Ross superhero style.
The creators likewise DO point out many key elements that set apart manga from other styles, even if these elements all seem to be the 'known stereotype ones.' Moreover, they READ manga, and not just the common or trendy stuff, either; they take the time to go LOOK and see what is out there, unconsciously studying all sorts of different little tricks and techniques in the process.
But is that enough? These creators may have all passed elementary manga school... but will they be able to hack manga middle-school, or be exposed as hacks themselves? Tune in next week to find out.