Hopelessly Lost, But Making Good Time # 56
Manga Meets a Herd of Cows
©2005, 2012 Pam Bliss
Manga (Japanese comics) are different from the US comics. They read “backwards” from Western books or comics. Manga pages are smaller than the pages of most US and European comics. And manga artists draw somewhat differently than either the “bigfoot” style of US humor comic strips or the competing “realistic” (independent /slice of life ) or “hyper- realistic” (mainstream/superhero) styles common in US comics. But once those obvious differences are pushed away, the first thing one notices about shoujo manga is the wild freedom the artists display in dealing with both the comics page and the problems of storytelling. They seem to be dedicated to the goal of blowing away all the rules that Western cartoonists learn at the knees of their mentors, and which we (and I include myself in this) regard as sacred cows.
Cow #1 Consistency in character design and art style: We’re taught to design our characters carefully so that those who appear often in the same panel will always be easy to tell apart. Then we are told to practice drawing them, over and over, so they will always look the same. This consistency, we are taught, is essential to both the ability of readers to follow the plot and to the voluntary suspension of disbelief. At the very least, when a character appears with a radically different appearance it is a clue to either a plot point (the character is in disguise, for example) or a change in setting, and often tone, (the character is in a dream, an alternate universe, or so on.)
Manga character designs seem to be out to deliberately slaughter this pet cow. These characters undergo wild changes of form on an almost every page, and nobody seems to have any problem with it. Some of these changes are clearly made in support of the story, usually to increase emotional impact—a character whining for love adopts the size and proportions of a toddler, or a character expressing strong emotions becomes a mere appendage to huge teary eyes or an enormous yelling mouth.
Others seem to be intended to support an effective use of space, with characters in the foregrounds or in large, prominent panels being drawn “realistically” (or at least “manga realistically”) and those in the backgrounds or in smaller, less significant panels drawn in a simplified style. This simplified style can be downright “cartoony” by Western standards, and yet these two (or even more) drawing styles coexist quite peacefully, often alongside photo realistic or even photo based backgrounds, making three (or more) art styles on a single page of a single manga. So I guess that’s two consistency cows slaughtered for the price of one. And yet it works.
Cow #2 Consistency in plot and genre: We’re told constantly not to overload our plots with “extra” characters, “meaningless” excursions and “irrelevant” details. Anything that makes a story harder to follow needs to be carefully examined and probably weeded out. Likewise a story should stick to one genre (science fiction, mystery) or one of the standard combinations (romantic comedy) if its creator wants it to reach the largest possible audience. People, we are told, like comics (books, movies, TV shows) that can be described in one sentence.
Watch the manga creators turn that cow over on its ear. Mystery/police procedural/ buddy comedy would be enough genre elements for a Western story. Trust a manga creator add a homosexual romance with tons of complications and a “kid gang” storyline with its own cast to the mix. Or take a story of a young man’s effort to make it big in world of rock music—a straightforward coming of age story—and add two or three layers of twisted romance going back to before the main character was born, long sequences of slapstick comedy, lots of gratuitous gunplay (that will makes anyone with basic firearms safety training bite through his or her tongue) and, of course, giant robots. And these are comics intended for girls and women, who, according to conventional wisdom here, “don’t like that kind of thing”.
Cow #3: “Show, Don’t Tell”: This is the biggest sacred cow in the herd, and the hardest for Western cartoonists to stop worshiping. While the manga artists certainly push this cow around a little, they don’t usually assault it in what we consider the most offensive way—with unnecessary captions that explain the action or tell the readers what to think. (I suppose the space limitations of the manga page make that particular crime just plain hard to carry out.) But the manga are full of little explanatory notes and thought balloons without the balloons—both taking the form of small captions in lower case letters. The generally clear, uncluttered designs of manga pages make these inserts much less distracting in practice than they sound in a description, and after a while they really start to make a lot of sense. Sometimes, as a loyal slave of “show, don’t tell”, I find myself adding panels that a manga artist might very well decide were unnecessary, since they could be so easily replaced by a written thought or a single small comment from the creator. I found this extremely interesting, and may break all my old habits and write something extra in a panel sometime soon. If I don’t chicken out.
“Borrowing” from the Manga Shelves
No overall value judgments are implied here. Where there’s a lot about manga that I think is “good comics” by any standards, and much more that I find refreshing and entertaining if not worthy of higher praise, there are a lot of manga conventions that just don’t work for me. (Spare me from 10,000 tall, willowy characters with enormous eyes and tiny noses who don’t look much like either men or women and can only be distinguished by their varying but always elaborate heads of feathery hair.) I’m certainly not recommending that Western cartoonists adopt the manga style in its entirety. I see a lot of comics like that and in my opinion they always seem to have a lingering air of imitation, if not outright pastiche. Instead of wholesale copying, I support serious reading, and of course, a little judicious borrowing of tricks and techniques that fit in well with one’s own existing style. Steal, certainly, but only take the good stuff.
If nothing else, a thoughtful look at manga will reveal our own comics-making conventions to be just that, conventions based on a common set of assumptions rooted in Western storytelling and comics culture, rather than immutable laws of nature. Telling stories the Japanese way works, not just for the Japanese, but with a little help from skilled translators, for us in the West as well. And I think that gives us all something to think about.
Sorry, cows. I didn’t mean for you to hear that.