As someone who tries to take the study of manga both seriously but also with a sense of whimsy, I am nevertheless regularly annoyed by sometimes general and sometimes specific statements about manga (especially the critical fiction that is its seeming otherness to Western comics) that I have encountered in a variety of milieux. If it’s not Paul Gravett’s claim that there were no superhero or western manga (there were, btw), then it’s statements like “Tetsuwan Atomu (Mighty Atom [otherwise known as Astro Boy]) was the first weekly cartoon made for Japanese TV”–also not true; there were terebi anime (which I noted previously were called terebi manga) for a decade prior to the premier of Astro–in Wired’s manga history of manga in the U.S. If it’s not that, then it’s about.com’s Manga 101 page in which we are told, “[m]anga became very popular in the 20th century when laws prohibiting the publication of those kinds of items were lifted.” Though various types of manga have been threatened with censorship over the years, I am not aware of any wholesale prevention of all manga publication. Perhaps this is why, dear readers, I am a mere whimper crying out into the blogosphere.
Despite these recurring weirdisms and downright inaccuracies, scholars of comics who write on manga in any capacity in English seem relatively content with the state of Manga 101 material available to readers at this time. In fact, a recent anthology of essays produced by and for the MCAD/Mechademia coffee klatsch, Mangatopia, which if you look closely, dear reader, has the weirdest rendering of the character 画 I have ever seen, in its blurb sets itself expressly against introductory tendencies: “[t]hese essays provide insights unavailable on the Internet [“hey you, wanna fight?!”], giving the interested general reader in-depth information well beyond the basic, ‘Japanese Comics 101’ level, and providing those who teach and write about manga and anime valuable knowledge to further expand their expertise.” Putting on my “someone who teaches and writes about manga” hat for a moment, this volume, while it has a few okay essays, is hardly going to provide the depth of knowledge it stakes a claim to. If this is what you’re looking for, you’d be far better served by, say, IJOCA‘s special issue on shōjo manga and things of that sort.
At any rate, putting back on my “insights readily available on the Internet” [<—read this now!] hat, I don’t think Manga 101 has been done well at all, thus why I started this blog. When once in the mukashi mukashi I wore that other hat mentioned above, I was regularly in the position of having to correct or at least get my students to think critically about the numerous introductory misperceptions that run rampant in the introductory material available in English. This is not to say what’s available in Japanese is de facto better (though it certainly is more thorough), but across the board the introductory level of manga knowledge seems to be something we have to return to from time to time and which we will never be “beyond,” precisely because it colors so much of our thinking about more specific or, to use a fashion term, high end matters.
“STOP! You’re reading the wrong way!”
Recognizing that something is foul in the state of Introductory Manga Criticism does little to indicate where we ought to begin in correcting this state of affairs. So, I noticed that at the beginning of Wired’s manga history of manga [in the U.S.] linked above we encounter something quite common in unflopped manga (i.e. texts printed in their original rather than a mirror orientation), the “stop” page. This is where our dear, supposedly ignorant, reader tries to read super special manga according to the rules that typical attain to, say, most Western comics and is quickly informed that she is doing it wrong–particularly ironic, given the fact that the pdf Wired links to forces you to scroll up from the bottom. Sometimes, the stop page tells its reader expressly how to correct her gaze; sometimes it leaves her to muddle her own way through the text. In either case, with any initial experience with reading (most but not all) manga, you must “unlearn what you have learned.”
This is something of an open secret about most contemporary manga, that it reads the “wrong” way, though I have yet to read anyone satisfactorily explaining why this is. Generic big-eyed, no nose girl in a sailor outfit on the Wired manga’s STOP page is perfectly correct in showing you, with a helpful diagram, how to read not only the text at hand but also most contemporary Japanese comics. Moreover, in case you get lost along the way, there is a large green arrow always pointing you in the right direction. So, with the exception of yon-koma manga (lit. “four panel manga,” i.e. comic strips), which are typically rendered vertically, manga read conventionally from right to left, top to bottom, just like the Japanese language!
Well, no, that’s not quite right. While the statement “just like the Japanese language” is accurate, I should note that contemporary Japanese is not printed like this. Classically, Japanese is printed and written in vertical lines that accrue from the right to the left (following Chinese, from which early Japanese writing derived), and to this day most texts are printed this way. When printed horizontally, as on, say, a web page, it follows the conventions of Western orthographies, from left to right, top to bottom. Clearly, yon-koma manga conform to the classic orthography–something which is readily apparent in Azuma Kiyohiko’s Azumanga daioh–so why, then, do so-called story manga not conform to the reading patterns of Western orthography?
The answer has to do with a manga print culture often invisibilized in some historians’ over-emphasis on the postwar period. I recall walking with a friend of mine through the town where I lived in Japan and seeing a sign above a dilapidated old building that read 屋ぎなう. I asked her, “what exactly is ya-ginau?” “That’s unagi-ya [a restaurant specializing in river eels].” “Why is it written backwards?” “It’s not backwards, it’s just old-fashioned. Considering it’s an old, rundown place, it’s not that odd.” Though large bodies of text were almost never printed this way, titles, signs, and captions often were. In fact, many of the sugoroku I discussed last week use precisely this orthographic pathing. Why is this important? Well, titles and captions in magazine printed in the early 20th century in Japan, but before WWII, regularly used this right to left pattern. In magazines like Jiji manga, Tokyo Puck, and Osaka Puck, we see comics regularly printed in a variety of orthographic pathings: sometimes top to bottom, sometimes right to left, sometimes even left to right, be they translations of American comic strips like Opper’s Happy Hooligan or Japanese originals. There were also comics that conform to a variety of reading paths drawn from a variety of different media. For more on that, though, you’ll just have to wait until my book comes out.
This is another plank in the argument for not arbitrarily beginning with postwar manga, seeing as many of the conventions, the basics, of contemporary manga originate in a period many decades earlier. To simply ignore this fact is to wallow in a mire of distortions and half-truths that one reflexively repeats simply because that is what everyone else seems to know. The desire to move onto grander, more theoretical, more specific claims about particular manga texts may be a worthy one, but always keep in the back of your mind that the foundations upon which those houses are built are, if not sand, then sandstone.
A common reaction to all of this might be, “so what? Even if people get a bunch of trivial details wrong, does that really change anything?” Perhaps not, but bear in mind I use these examples as a demonstration of a general laziness and perhaps a frustration with the sheer number of manga introductory texts that are out there. I know that many comics scholars who do not specialize in manga would still like to integrate some texts into their more general comics courses but have almost no idea where to begin. It can be daunting given how insular fan culture is at times and how the few academics working in English really would rather get beyond such basics. I can understand this latter sentiment, even if I think in the end it is counter-productive, seeing as I have been subject to many such requests for texts to include in general comics classes. When I respond back with “what kind of genre/demographic do you have in mind?”, I typically get, “you know, something representative?” “Of manga?” “Yeah.” It’s enough to make you pound your head against the wall or drown yourself in a whole hand of whiskey.
Next week: Stan Sakai’s Usagi Yojimbo, is it manga? What would that even mean, if it is?
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