There is [No] Manga Style (only Zuul)
When confronting the problem of manga style–and it is a problem, dear reader–it is quite easy to be led astray by the champions of manga in the English-speaking world and their passionate and earnest reassurances that there is no unified “manga style,” that manga can be anything you want it to be so long as you have the passion to create and the will to be all you can be, as if you yourself were the spitting image of those overzealous adolescent types who overpopulate the pages of Shōnen Jump, their eyes always overflowing with the joys and frustrations of their “dreams.”
As I pointed out not too long ago, though the claim of there being no unified manga style is basically correct, I cannot quite come to agree with it, due in part to the context in which such a claim is typically made. It is so often belied by the fact that an implicit (and, it seems, consciously unspoken) distinction is being made between comics and manga, even as the claim for the anything-and-everything-ness of manga is laid out in its particulars. By the logic so often used (c.f. Stu Levy’s “broad entertainment concept”), even ye olde ordinary, boring, run of the mill Anglo-American superhero comics would qualify as manga. They all do, in fact, qualify, though not for reasons the manga peerage are willing to explore in any great detail (i.e. because in Japanese, at least, the word manga can refer to any comic art). In a non-Japanese context, the claim of something being manga (and not your daddy’s comic books, fanboy) is not merely an innocent determination of an object of fan adoration (or policing of a particular gestalt fan consciousness) but a fairly clear, though perhaps unintentional, exoticizing of what might otherwise fall neatly into a pre-existing media discourse.
The other reason why I cannot quite accept these claims is because of the existence of numerous “how to draw manga” instruction manuals both in English and Japanese. So, while the style of various artists may differ widely from each other in aggregate, a great many manga titles look strikingly like each other, and the instruction apparatus in Japan (both in terms of self-study materials and vocational schools [senmon gakkō]) serves to propagate several manga styles (for various genres/demographics) that are remarkable for their regularity, despite the quirks of any one given artist or studio. There are, of course, how-to-draw books for all kinds of comics, but the regularity (or at least familiarity with common “styles”) that the Japanese apparatus serves to bolster is somewhat necessary in a market where individual chapters are produced at a much more rapid pace (at least for the weekly anthologies). Where a particular American title might have at most a writer and penciler (in addition to colorists, letters, and inkers who work on several books), a manga title might have many people working on just the basic art, perhaps even a single page, making a unified background in certain stylistic conventions a must for all involved, so that the finished product will appear to be cohesive. There are, of course, mangaka who work entirely on their own or with one or two assistants, but the point that a “manga style” (or styles) might be a necessary feature of how the market in Japan functions still stands.
Style is Substance
As with anthologies of non-Japanese manga, in how-to-draw manga manuals quizzical claims seem to be par for the course. Here’s Christopher Hart, author of numerous manga how-to books, from Manga for the Beginner (p. 9):
“When I first came up with the idea for this book, I saw nothing like it on the bookstore shelves. Although I did see piles of how-to-draw manga books aimed at newbies, they showed mostly Americanized [!] manga. I wanted to do something truly authentic [!!], with tons of step-by-step instructions that can really get you where you want to go. And I wanted to cover the entire world of manga characters, from all genres and categories [!!!], not just the bland fare typically dished out to beginners.”
The discourse of pure, grade A, small batch, organic, free-range manga is not new to Hart. Tokyo Pop would regularly advertise their translations as “100% Authentic Manga” certified by… well… who knows. It’s not clear to me, however, what his “truly authentic” texts are meant to counteract. Sure, there are books in English by non-Japanese authors, whose illustrations more and less resemble those of Japanese artists, but the first manga how-to books to become popular in the West were simply translations of a well-known Japanese series published by Gurafikku-sha. It is entirely possible that Hart simply did not know this (despite the extremely Japanese names of the authors) or they weren’t in print at the time or stocked by his bookstore or whatever, but his introduction stinks more than a little (a stench I myself take to an extreme, perhaps) of the elder otaku scolding recent initiates into the manga cult: “listen to me, young ones, for I have peered into manga mysteries that you can only begin to imagine!”
It would be easy to have a cynical take on what Hart is doing–after all, his claim to be providing only the purest manga knowledge may simply be a ploy to sell more books. Alternatively, he may have accidentally inherited a discourse of instruction that he only imperfectly understands. After all, in the early days of anime/manga fandom in the US, one learned to draw “like that” mostly by imitating artists one liked or by personal interactions with members of anime/manga clubs or at conventions. At a conference in Minneapolis some time ago, I tried to make the argument that there is a problem with making sweeping claims based on what you see now in Japanese media. Over time, what was done initially for any of a variety of reasons (often to save money)–printing in black and white, simple/no backgrounds, use of screentone instead of line work to fill large areas–is later interpreted simply as style. This “style,” which is propagated by a variety of means, invisibilizes the original reasons why artists did things a particular way, thereby making possible rather broad and essentializing claims that connect some aspect of visual style to some other assumption about the culture from which that style appears to originate. Bereft of any form of historical contextualization, what you see is the only thing you have to work from, and, for Japanese and non-Japanese alike, if the things you’re looking at closely resemble each other, it would be quite easy to infer that this is simply the way things are done, the illustrative “style,” and not the consequence of economic limitations.
Heads [Shoulders, Knees, and Toes?]
With Mark Crilley, also the author of manga how-to books in addition to his own original “manga,” we have moved from the necessities of imitating the specters in books to simple instruction streamed to you wherever you are (in range of a network). In what Crilley shows his viewers, the distinctions that so many manga champions seem to believe do not exist, are clearly recognizable in the head. Manga styles, so it seems, emphasize the eyes and detail of the hair while minimizing the nose and mouth. Furthermore, in the head is where fine distinctions between the same character type for shōnen and shōjo demographics becomes apparent: a more triangular vs. a more trapezoidal chin, soft vs. spiky hair, eye shape, blush lines, and so forth. Though Crilley claims to have simply picked this up from first hand observation of various manga texts, it is entirely consistent with what we see in the Japanese how-to series mentioned above.
Hayashi says below this that “[t]he classic male character in women’s [shōjo] manga is a dashing love interest designed according to women’s ideals and desires,” which is, perhaps another way of saying “more femmy,” a common complaint readers often have when encountering shōjo manga for the first time. He is also well aware that this stylistic distinction is about more than just character design; it involves layout as well. Anyway, what is clear in both Hayashi’s and Crilley’s modes of instruction is that meaningful distinctions only become clear by means of juxtaposition. By simply denying the relatively limited range or styles of manga outright, non-Japanese manga anthologists and some of those who actually seek to teach a manga style miss a clear opportunity to define how it is that a concerted interest on the part of artists in the visual aesthetics of Japanese comic artists can and does transform the entire range of comic art outside of Japan.
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