Here’s the deal. I work for a manga publisher, Viz LLC, purveyors of such titles as Phoenix, Inu-Yasha, Nausicaa of the Valley of Wind, and Shonen Jump. I’m surrounded by manga and the attendant detritus of Japanese pop culture for eight hours a day, five days a week.
I like it. A lot.
And yet I don’t like most manga-style American comics.
On this side of the Pacific, manga-style seems to mean one of two things:
1. Comics by hacks who try to cash in on the manga boom by adding big eyes and speed lines to a basically Western-style comic – a bad one.
2. Comics by otaku who copy every element of their favorite manga so thoroughly that they bring nothing original to the table.
There are a lot of manga-style comics on the Web, and the vast majority fall into that banal second category. They beg the question: Why should I read this, when I could just as easily be reading actual manga?
Here’s a tip, fellow gaijin: ever since the Dragon Ball craze hit over fifteen years ago, Japan has been inundated with manga about absurdly superpowered psychic martial artists who hurl chi blasts. There are hundreds of these comics. The world doesn’t need any more. If you insist upon bringing yet another of the spiky-haired monstrosities into the world, it’d better be a damn good superpowered-psychic-martial-artist-who-hurls-chi-blasts story, a superpowered-psychic-martial-artist-who-hurls-chi-blasts story the like of which has never before been seen. And that doesn’t mean, In the one I read, the comic-relief sidekick was a cat, and in my version it’s a fox. That goes for you Sailor Moon wannabes, too.
Another example: high-school romantic comedies in which milquetoast heroes are surrounded by cute girls who flash their panties in every other panel are so old hat that Rumiko Takahashi was parodying the genre over twenty years ago. Don’t draw more. If you must draw more, then stop putting the girls in those damn sailor suits. You didn’t go to a high school where the girls were forced to dress in humiliatingly cutesy-poo uniforms. I know you didn’t, because you’re not Japanese. What’s wrong with drawing from life?
Speaking of drawing from life, I can tell you copied all your figures from the Manga Pose Resource books. Stop that. Cribbing from books is all right once in a while, when you can’t get a pose right and you’re in a bind, but if you base all of your art on other people’s drawings, your own style will never get the chance to emerge.
As manga becomes more popular and Westerners are introduced to the exciting innovations of the form, it’s only natural that more cartoonists will develop manga-influenced styles. But that doesn’t mean we should copy manga wholesale. The most interesting (and successful) manga-style artists in America are those who use elements of manga to tell original stories in original ways.
Take, for example, Lea Hernandez. A successful print cartoonist, Hernandez has two comics online: the autobiographical strip Near-Life Experience on Modern Tales, and the science-fiction action comic Rumble Girls. In some respects, Rumble Girls is a standard manga-style comic, built upon one of manga’s oldest and creakiest genres: mecha. It’s immediately clear, however, that Hernandez isn’t just setting up superpowered robot battles; she’s using the Rumble Girls to comment on larger issues of celebrity and what people are willing to sacrifice for success. It’s a more ambitious brand of mecha adventure, following in the footsteps of series like Neon Genesis Evangelion without treading anything close to the same territory. Her style, although obviously inspired by manga, is one-of-a-kind: Hernandez uses a broad, strong line that calls attention to the presence of the brush, and her style is chibi-cute while suggesting deeper emotions. Her art will never be confused with anyone else’s. Anyone who wants to draw manga-style can learn a lot by reading Rumble Girls.
However, as I keep saying over and over until my face turns blue, there’s no need for artists to stick to the established manga genres. As If!, by Mimi and Jet Wolf, is a four-panel strip about a friendship between two teenage girls at the bottom of the high-school pecking order, and the manga-style art is just a very very very small part of the charm. The voice of As If! is direct, funny, and, above all, unique: child pageants, summer camps, dread slumber-party makeovers, musical versions of Archy and Mehitabel, high comedy, high drama, and the weirdness of love all get tossed into the mix. The two central characters, tough tomboy Hunter and fluffy girly-girl Angela, are developed with intelligence and warmth. As the icing on the cake, the strip is set in the 1980s and incorporates very nearly every ’80s cultural artifact and cliché anyone could possibly desire. As If! is proof positive of the flexibility of manga-style art: you can use those big eyes and over-the-ears hair tails to tell any story with flair.
Then there’s Jen Wang’s intensely readable Strings of Fate. Wang combines some of the visual and story conventions of manga with character designs reminiscent of Disney movies. Her elegant, expressive art, delicately shaded with ink washes, is beautiful, and she ties it to an original and deftly-written story. Strings of Fate involves a man who discovers that he is the human incarnation of Rat, one of the twelve animal gods of the Chinese zodiac. In the course of the story, he learns to channel godlike powers (such as telling the rain to fall), but he also makes the unpleasant discovery that, as Rat, he wasn’t the nicest of entities. The solid premise is given flavor by a well-observed urban Chinese-American setting and by the strong, rounded personalities of the characters. That’s an interesting story. That’s a story worth telling.
You know what the most popular manga in Japan is right now? It’s called One Piece. It’s about a pirate. A pirate with stretchy powers. Who wants to be King of the Pirates. The story is a mix of improbable action and slapstick comedy. It’s goony, off-the-wall, and utterly crazy. Nobody could have predicted the popularity of this thing. Pirate comics were never big in Japan before. Neither were stretchy guys. And in pacing, dialogue, and art – especially art – it’s unique. One Piece was a shot in the dark, but it’s hit the bullseye, becoming the bestselling manga of all time in a period when the manga industry is in somewhat of a slump. Best of all, it’s a lot of fun. I couldn’t invent a better example of how original, lively work can succeed where timid imitation cannot.
As a longtime otaku whose income depends on the continued popularity of manga, I’m tickled pink that so many American cartoonists are turning to Japan for inspiration. But come on, people. Put away your pose resource books and How To Draw guides for a while, and draw what you see. Stick your favorite tankouban on the shelf, and write what you hear. Manga offers an exciting artistic toolbox, but use those tools to build something of your own. Go crazy. Ain’t nobody stopping you.