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The Hidden Style of Manga

Hello, everyone! My name is Clay Gardner and I'll be a guest-blogger for you this week. My comic interests (if xerexes apt introduction has not made it obvious) concern mainly manga-style comics, and as such, that will probably be the topic of this and future blogs.

It cannot be denied that Japanese manga is taking the world of comics as we know it by storm. A quick look at the local bookstore will reveal that the superhero and indie comics that have shaped and cultivated the American graphic novel have been shoved aside in favor of countless shelves of manga, manwha, and OEL -- that's original english language manga -- titles. Characters with huge, expressive eyes and technicolor hair have dominated all matters of pop culture. It is not hard to understand why young comic authors have taken to mimicking the style of manga in their attempt at emulating the Japanese stories they've grown to love. Even bigwigs like Marvel have made stints in emulating the Japanese. The problem: the style of manga is not the real reason manga has become so popular.

In years to come, the fad of eye-poking hair and super-sized weapons will pass, as most visual fads do. What has made manga endure world-wide, and in Japan for half a century, is not a style of art but a style of writing. The Japanese have treated their comics as a legitimate form of literature, while many American authors, even those who pen in the name of manga, continue to treat their readers like the children that fell in love with the golden age of superhero comics.

"Okay, so what is the big deal about manga storytelling?" you ask. I hardly consider myself a scholar of such things, but as someone who truly loves and appreciates writing, and as such, appreciates the forethought that goes into manga story-telling, I will try and cover five tips I personally follow when writing comics in the manga way.

1) Don't make characters blabbermouths. It has long been a habit to make characters say everything they think. This has resulted in the really bad conclusion that a "good" writer must put as many word balloons on each page as possible. It's simply not so. Characters, real and true characters, feel many things and express it, not through words, but through body language and actions. After losing his job, Greg might kick over a nightstand or break a dish. On the other hand, he may sit in a corner and weep in private, knowing how much the income means to his family. In neither case is he likely to express aloud, even to himself, his worries. (Except, perhaps, in the form of strings of colorful 4-letter language.)

Let's take a look at two pages from Fantasy Realms. [1] [2]

Now I could have spelled out her feelings. "Oh, my family home is in ruins! What is this? Why, it's a painting...Oh! On the other side is a family portrait. I grieve for my youth." Admittedly, I haven't seen dialogue this bad in a while, but it illustrates that dialogue, any dialogue, would not be nearly as effective as a brief smile followed by tears.

2) Don't let unseen narrators butt in to explain. There's always exceptions of course. Selections narrated by characters or entire stories set up with omniscient fairy-tale-like storytellers are certainly plausible. But more often than not, comics feature boxes of faceless text that serve to do nothing but to correct lacking story techniques. If you cannot make something clear through the natural course of your story, a quick narration box out of nowhere is not helping your cause. It only makes you like a bad writer who has to make crib sheets for readers.If you fear something is not clear, consider restructuring your story. Or, as much manga does, leave it open for interpretation. This is not an open invitation to confusing, however.

3) Don't crowd panels. Paper is not at a premium, especially on the internet. Don't feel you have to cram as much story per page as possible. Part of where manga succeeds is by slowly expressing the beauty and dynamicism of situations. Startling views and events take up entire pages, and pages regularly consist of only a handful of panels. Leave the art room to breathe.

4) Don't be afraid to be artistic. Many comics are very literal when illustrating their scripts. One of the advantages of comics over prose is its ability to convey scenes and ideas that simply cannot be captured with words. Take advantage of it.

5) Don't try too hard. In their attempts to be Japanese, most would-be mangaka -- manga creators -- over-embellish their comics with features they think will concrete its identity as Japanese-ish. However, when the pages of an otherwise grim and serious story is populated with sweat drops (abstact manga indication of embarrasment), chibi (super-deformed) characters, and other goofy borrowings from Japanese manga, the result is a mish-mash of ideas that cannot be taken seriously. If the kind of story you are trying to tell calls for these concepts, use them. But don't include them because you feel you have to. You don't.

Even so, Clay, as admirable

Even so, Clay, as admirable as your article, it still feel, what's the word, pretentious. The manga that you've read must've been diamonds alright, but they're mere diamonds in a rough.As much as comics in America has superheroes dominating the scene, so too the big eyed schoolgirls that have become part of the mangascape. Manga is as guilty as American comics for following the same formulas for the past many years. Most manga are trying to be the next Sailormoon, the next Dragonball, the next Love Hina. The likes of Naruto, & One Piece, as good & popular as they are, are really trying to to be heirs to Dragonball's legacy. They are other wannabes like Rave, Mars, Black Cat, HunterXHunter and so on, and all of them are trying to unseat Dragonball.Â

On the American side, everyone's trying to be the next Alan Moore, Warren Ellis or Frank Miller, with their so-called "postmodern" take on superheroes, which really creates more stagnancy in the scene, despite the earth-shattering, Internet cracking Infinite Civil Crisis in the House of Comics. There's no effort for both indie & mainstream to actually come up with something new & decent, if not original. So far we haven't see more romantic comedies, hard science fiction or sports comics in America, as there are in manga.Â

You also forgot to factor in European comics, also remarkably more varied, if not different, from their American counterparts. There're so many genre, and so many different art styles, as well as there's much more mature stuff than Vertigo comics would contain. I've come across comics such as Largo Winch, XIII, Lanfeust de Troy and of course, Asterix & Tintin. I even own Le Geste des Chevaliers Dragons and Franka. But since your blog's about manga, I doubt Eurocomics might do anything with it.

But other than that, an admirable article from an enthusiastic fan who has passion and idea for how American comics should be made & where should they go. I hope this article might benefit webcomics in the future.


Fads are just indie experiments that the world has discovered.

RemusShepherd's picture

[quote]So far we haven't see more romantic comedies, hard science fiction or sports comics in America, as there are in manga.[/quote]

Sure about that?  I'm seeing lots of romance comics in my local store these days (the 'I (heart) Marvel' logo makes me physically ill). Hard science fiction comics exist as well, although many of them still have one foot in the superhero genre.

I think most of these 'new and decent' things are out there, they just haven't caught on...and that's a reflection of the current state of the world, not of comics. A depressed and frightened public wants to read semi-juvenile escapist fantasies like what most manga serves up. (I keep hearing there are mature, literary manga out there, but those kind never show up in the stores I frequent. I see shelves of Naruto, Cowboy Bebop and DragonBall. :p )

Manga's current popularity is a fad of the current times. It'll fade when the times change. Then some other phenomenon will take its place in the comics world. Euro-comics is well-positioned to be the next big thing, if the current euro-phobia in America tones down.




I wouldn't call manga a "fad

Scott Story's picture

I wouldn't call manga a "fad of the current times." It's lasted too long, had too many devoted fans, and brought too many innovations to sequential art to be a fad. I'll admit I don't read manga, because there's so much of it that I wouldn't know where to begin, but I have to admit that it's here to stay.Â

That having been said, the market will correct itself and eventually it will be no more or less important than American comics.

Will Euro-comics become the next big thing? I don't know. It seems to me that there has been an influence on comic creators by European comics for years. I remember reading Heavy Metal growing up, and influenced by many of the Euro greats. Will the audience spill into the American popular audiance? I don't know.

Ack -- the popularity, not the form.

RemusShepherd's picture

 I'm sorry -- I meant that that popularity of manga in the US right now is a fad. Obviously the form itself has a long tradition that couldn't care less about the acclaim of american pop culture.

 I agree that eventually americans will stop seeing manga as bright, shiny, and new, and it will become a more balanced part of the comic/literary market.




naruto and one piece

are you serious bringing up naruto when you talking about manga is sad manga comes ido style paintings, no where near naruto ( which by the way i love, cant get enought of that knuckleheaded ninja) and are you talking about anime or manga hmmm, if thats what comes to mind when you think of manga you need to dig deeper, the akira books are still in print, youve got gems like arcan,blame,samurai champloo bizenghast,battle angel kami kazee there are so many most of the ones you listed are for small children it seems you may be a small child, hmmmmm but anyways american comics has always had the over ton of super heros in tights but now there are alot of vigilante heros it seems but you have wolverine the maxx and other such vigilantes, and asterix and tintin seriouslly im mean seriouslly how old are you


The William G's picture

Okay, a bit of a ramble:

I have found, being in Asia and all that, that comics are viewed as disposable pop entertainment. There's really no respect for it outside of it's practitioners. So when you tell a Korean or a Japanese "Oh, I do comics." they still look at you like a dork.

The difference is, it's sort of like the music here. For the most part its light entertainment, and for the most part aimed at kids. Not to say there isn't popular adult level comics and music in Asia. There's a bunch of it.

 It's just that they use the low-brow, dumb, pap to attract kids to comics. And a good chunk of those kids tend to go on to become comic reading adults.Â

Manga is every bit as trashy and stupid as American comics. It's just that they, for the most part, aim their trash at children to get them hooked on the product for life. Where as north American comics are now solely aimed at a fanbase of 30 and 40 year olds.Â

So yeah, that's the real secret to manga's success. It uses a large amount of childish junk to attract eyes and hook kids. The well made, "Barefoot Gens" of manga are just bonus material. The rest of it only matters to foreigners who get off on the exotic nature of it all.Â

(Note: By kids I mean anyone not old enough to vote, so that includes the puberty crew.)

comics are still for kids

your opinion that american comics are for 30-40 somethings is way off marvel has always been for teenagers mutants dont come about intill puberty and like wise story threads even the likes of the darkness or the tenth some of images/topcow comics are geared towards teenagers, i dont know what asia is like but i know that anime the animated version of manga is very popular almost more so then actual movies, and to say there arent very many adult manga seems werid to me i own a few that are geared to just adults.
the ideas behind works such as akira and ghost in the shell 1 and second gig are usually above the average teenager (average here is casual) to say that the ideas in that are light enterainment is a gross understatement, yes there are alot of childish manga ( seeing how there is a category you think there would be) but thats only if you look on the surface, and the art work in alot of these cant be confused for childish, (arcana is a good example)
but anyways it sounds to me like you could use a good point in the right direction, try BLAME its a good place to start, ARCANA is beautifully drawn, AKRIA is timeless, there are others of course
and the current condition of american comics is slow but hopefully greats like the books of magic and x men will return along with all those indie gems

Again, wasn't trying to

Again, wasn't trying to imply manga is a holy grail of fiction. I know full well it contains a lot of trash, just as ANY artistic form does. There's trash novels, trash movies, trash music, etc. etc.

Besides, trash isn't all bad. ^_~

Whether it's manga or not, I

Scott Story's picture

Whether it's manga or not, I think the above guidelines are worth following. A lot of American fans consider letting the story 'breath' to be 'decompression,' and consider that bad. It's not. Much of manga began 'decompressed.' American cartoonists can learn a lot from manga without resorting to manga's stylistic hallmarks.


Derik Badman's picture

"The Japanese have treated their comics as a legitimate form of literature"

 That depends on how you are defining "literature". Most manga is not really that literary (with exceptions (starting with Tezuka)). I think the real key different is genre diversity, which we see only a little of here in the US (shoujo vs. boys comics (the term is escaping me) with more variations appearing (yaoi, and the more literary adult works from the likes of Fanfare/Ponent Mon).


Well, a lot of literature isn't so literary either. One need only take a glance at the Romance section to affirm that much. ^_^ My point was that manga is taken seriously in Japan, while the graphic novel in the US is rarely considered a serious work like the novel. I wasn't trying to imply all manga are deep works of art...far from it. It just more often reaches its potential.

The term you're looking for is shounen, BTW. :)