2a. Teaching Manga – What You Do[n’t] Know Can[‘t] Hurt You

In Hindsight Not Such a Great Idea

if only...

if only…

When I first thought of teaching a class on manga for the Japanese program at the University of [omitted to protect the guilty], I was extremely excited.  I spent more time on that syllabus than I have for any class I’ve ever taught and made a number of hard decisions in order to create a class that I thought would challenge my students’ preconceptions about manga and perhaps, even, my own.  However, over time I became increasingly dissatisfied with it, do in no small part to the increasing stresses of my job.  So, in an effort to see past my frustrations at the time and to introduce some of the problems that come along with treating manga as if it were a unified thing, I would like to proffer, in addition to my own reflections, some of my students’, as well as my reaction to their (often comical–har har) student evaluations of the course.

The course was designed around four units, each of which asked a particular question (what is manga?, where is manga?, when is manga?, how is manga?) meant to approach the more general problem of what we consider manga to be.  The first unit (i.e. what?) was meant to think about manga in visual/formal terms (these are comics after all) as well as the demographics of various manga readerships.  The second unit (when?) was meant for thinking about manga through time in an effort, I had hoped, to get past the transhistorical universalism that purely visual studies of comics tend to elicit.  The third unit (where?) was for looking at manga outside of Japan both in terms of what does (very little) and does not get translated (very much) and also the recent phenomenon of non-Japanese manga and its uneasy difference from comics cultures throughout the world.  The final unit and to my mind the least successful (how?) tried to examine manga in a transmedia context, especially given how manga are in Japan a primary source of material for adaptation to animation, live-action film, television dramas, novels, games, etc.  This culminated in a research project whose demands steadily deteriorated into whatever-ness due in part to my students’ stubborn refusal to do what I asked by the dates I laid out and my own unwillingness to get pissy and do something about it.

On the whole, class discussions were, as far as I am concerned, productive, even when they seemed to stray from the day’s reading , because, as often as not, rampant digressions were the only means at the un-interrogated complexities that underlie so many of the things we take for granted: stylistic distinctions, differences between shōnen or shōjo or seinen, that what gets translated is in anyway representative of what’s available, etc.  Generally, when my students were the most frustrated with me was when I felt as if they were starting to get it.

Despite this, student responses (on their evaluations at least) were overwhelmingly positive–a first for me, as my teaching has a tendency to elicit polar opposite reactions and nothing in between–with relatively few ho-hums.  I let out a childish giggle over a drawing of me that I, unfortunately, won’t reproduce in which everything I say is capped with far too many exclamation points.  Drawings of me were quite common, and it occurs to me now that I had, in many ways, turned into a comic parody of myself, always aggressively challenging what students say and rarely, if ever, giving an inch.  It’s a rather surreal experience in a class on manga to become, in a sense, manga yourself.  One student suggested that I should integrate more manga into the class, which, honestly, perplexes me, because, besides the critical readings, all we read for class was manga.  Student presentations were not a hit–for me either, as it turns out–though I wouldn’t change this, even if I were, for some reason, to teach a manga class again.  One student deferred speaking in his/her own voice and let Batman lay down the truth that I was, like, totally awesome or something.

I want to be clear about just how much of a quagmire this all was and how much of a quagmire it needed to be, because I regularly see/hear in discussions between comics scholars solicitations for manga texts (sometimes just one!) to include in their classes, as if it were just that simple.  Knowing how hard it was to choose texts for a course about nothing but manga, I get more than annoyed when these things come up.  I try to be polite and ask what it is they might want to do with this text in terms of relating it to other reading assignments, but when I am responded to with the inevitable “something representative,” I generally just suggest something Bullshit Tezuka and go beat my head into a stone pillar.

If I had to choose just one thing that I learned from teaching a class on manga, it’s that my students didn’t need to have their preconceptions challenged.  They had, as it turned out, a pretty good handle on things and were capable of, if not turning in a draft on time, then at least having a thoughtful discussion.  Comics scholars, on the other hand…  I’m not going to call anyone in particular out, but I will say that traveling to comics studies conferences as someone with a serious interest in manga can often be a trying experience.

In Hindsight Surprisingly Worthwhile

Proof that manga and anime really are the same thing!!!

Conclusive proof that manga and anime really are the same thing!!!

In the interest of fairness, I thought it might be edifying for my students to represent themselves and their own reflections.  First up, Matsuyama Yuuki, whose brilliant animated interpretation of Hokusai’s dancing peasant poses has also been included.

“I didn’t know quite what to expect, or what I would take away from Professor [Ba Zi]’s class. Manga was a prevalent part of my childhood, as it was my parents’, the Gundam generation. To me, the evolution of manga and its history purely meant the aesthetic progression of the comics as trends fell in and out in accord to the readers’ tastes. Like fashion, what was ‘in’ in manga was a result of the dialogue between the artist’s vision, and the reader market on what looked cool, what entertained, and ultimately, what sold. If someone asked me how manga came about, my best guess would have been that after ‘Western comics’ appeared in Japan, it just sort of happened, a mysterious genesis where Astro Boy was born, and Japan went, ‘Cool. Now keep going, but with more 萌え.’ My understanding of manga was superficial, at best. If someone were to have asked me what ‘manga’ was exactly, which comic titles were manga, and which were not, my only answer would the difference between a title that was considered ‘manga’, and a title that was not, my only answer would have been that they looked different; ‘manga’ was an art style. Or is it?

“…This class introduced me to the argument that the term ‘manga’ does not point solely to a specific type of comic aesthetic, but a specific method of literary communication, a ‘manga experience’ that encompasses the artist’s techniques, the mode of publication, and the readers’ expecting frame of mind. In many ways, I walked away from this class perhaps a little more lost than when I came in. Lost, not in a bad way, but in a good way; the feeling of realizing there’s much more navigating to be done in a terrain that you thought was already charted.”

And Joan Gordon, a recently graduated art student:

“My conception of manga [was] that it’s a combination of storytelling through the combination of written (or spoken) words with some form of imagery to go with the words. Prior to entering the manga class my views on what manga is were limited mostly to my own genre reading list, shōjo manga, and attending Anime Iowa (a local anime convention). After the manga class, I was much more conscious of other genres as well as tropes that often appear in all manga (not just shōjo or shōnen), and how big the anime and manga realm actually is.

“The manga class helped widen my perception of how many genres and types of manga there are. For instance, I had no idea what moe was till after taking [Ba Zi]-sensei’s class. Granted, ever since junior high I have seen ‘moe-type characters’ while searching the internet for my own character ideas, but I would never get interested in the series itself because the plot was dull or didn’t have enough tension to make the plot interesting. Which makes sense to me now given moe is mostly about the audience being in love with how cute the character is and not about what actually happens to the character. The manga class opened up an explanation as to why this story was created, and who this story was created for: guys. I guess that it should have been more blatantly obvious to most of its viewers, (especially with all those panty shots) but clearly I missed the obvious signs…”

What both Matsuyama’s and Gordon’s recollections bring to light, aside from the, I assume, coincidental attention to moe, is a sense of being lost in what you already know.  I had never intended to leave them in conceptual shambles–in fact, I had intended, rather dishonestly, for my own brilliance to be recognized and my own approach to asking the question of what manga is to be readily accepted (due to the aforementioned brilliance).  What they both recognize (and I failed to) is that there is immense value in re-seeing what you have, in a sense, already seen.  However, this is only possible through the eyes of those whose perceptions you cannot reasonably anticipate.

In part b of Teaching Manga, we return to that pesky non-existent “manga style” and various “how to draw” manuals’ implicit insistence on its existence.

Stay tuned!

Ba Zi

contact me: uahsenaa@gmail.com

N.B. Edited for less complaining


  1. […] Next week: stories from the manga education abyss; I give voice to my students so they can confirm w… […]


  3. It has been 10 years since this post. How do you feel about this now?

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