Before we dive into making manga, we must first define manga from an international perspective.
Over the years I’ve seen many opinions on what exactly constitutes manga. An manga snob may see it as exclusively greyscale comics made in Japan and consider anything outside of that to be manga-inspired . At the other end, an overly-broad perspective of simply the Japanese term for comics. Much the same view is afforded to anime but that is a rabbit hole for another day.
These disparate views make for dynamic internet battles, but I think we can meet somewhere in the middle. Extremes aren’t useful for those of us who want to understand manga in order to make our own. Let’s crack it open and see if we can define things more clearly.
What is or isn’t manga?
The easiest way to distinguish between Manga and American Comics is, frankly, to hold and read them.
Reflecting their native language, manga is read from right to left, also known as reverse-bound, and US comics are read left to right. Comics are saddle-stitched and printed in color while manga is perfect-bound and Greyscale. One is designed to be collected, one consumed and discarded.
Major American comics tend to be released in 32 page single issues, known as a "Floppy". . Benefitting from the large print size (6.63"x10.24"), and good quality paper, the art tends to be bold, detailed and full color. Issue numbers are kind of chaotic and all are designed to be collected. Characters are decades-old, some dating back to the 1930s, and are periodically cycled through different teams of creators. Crossovers and combining IP's or worlds is comm0n, variant covers, reboots and events designed as *must haves* to further encourage the collector to spend money. The work involved in creating a comic is specifically divided into designated roles (for example: penciller, inker etc.), and the publisher keeps ownership and control of the IP (intellectual property). This division and rotation of labor can create inconsistent stories, but many fans enjoy seeing a favorite creator take on different characters.
From the point of view of readers and store owners, figuring out where to start can be confusing. If you love a particular property, there can be a near endless supply to collect. Single issue floppies are preserved in protective sleeves and stored in long boxes, there is a well-established secondary market where pristine comics can reach eyewatering sums . Collecting, grading and selling comics from the major American publishers has long been considered a hobby much like Baseball cards and other collectables. Sadly, the vast majority of other comics and animation are considered to be children's content and are ignored by most adults.
Manga is more discreet in format. Instead of a releasing a mass of individual each week, single issues of multiple series are released together in a phone book like tome. These large magazines are printed on cheap newsprint, designed to be read and discarded. The work inside tends to be black and white, with the length depending on release rate (weekly monthly etc.). A featured work may have colored pages in a particular issue, but black and white art with Screen tone is generally the standard. Each series is then collected into sets of small trade paperbacks, or Tankoban, similar to what readers in America might refer to as graphic novels.
With a distinctive cover design and easy to use numbering system, starting at volume one and going from there, Tankoban are much easier to get into and assemble. While readers collect and proudly display their collections, there seems to be a greater emphasis on the story and property itself, rather than the collectability of the object. This could certainly reflect the difference in culture and may change as American Manga develops. Anime and other licensing are used to great effect to drive sales rather than tricks like variant covers, reboots and crossovers.
Unlike the US “big two” manga is enjoyed by all ages rather than being relegated to children and geeks . The Wide range of stories, styles and subject matter reflects this massive and diverse audience. Far beyond superheroes, there are manga about fishing, wine tasting, insects, specific card games, scuba diving, fear of spirals, and so on.
They can become incredibly specific.
Isn’t manga just comics?
Much of the blame for the stigma of “Original English Language” manga is laid at the feet of Tokyopop, which is both partly true and a little unfair. A mashup of manga, webtoon, Calart styles, Disney and even Tumblr style art have seriously muddied the water and should shoulder this blame too.
Tokyopop helped establish and define Manga in the American market during the rush of the early 2000’s. Among other things they established "right to left" printing as a standard for manga. On the other hand, their ambitious attempts to sign large numbers of American made manga drowned the ones who had potential with many more who didn’t. For this unnurtured manga, sales were abysmal, and the program was quickly ended. Many properties were then stuck in limbo as Tokyopop was unable to revert the rights to creators. They pioneered and laid groundwork for US made manga but the flood and collapse left a dark cloud and a stigma against OEL manga developed. It should be noted that Tokyopop original manga is alive and well in Germany, all is not lost. As interest in Manga here reignites, we may be able to pick up and give it another go.
In comparison, the manga industry of Japan is old and well developed, they have a well-worn system of finding and developing talent. Most hit series don’t come from a rookie, many have been working for year to hone their craft. It’s common practice for a manga artist to start as an assistant, apprenticing to more experienced and successful artists before achieving their own serialization. They go on to submit many, many, many, many one-shots that are rejected or have series that briefly languish only to be unceremoniously dropped from the roster and swiftly cancelled. While manga artists have been known to debut as early as 16, the artists of major hits are more often closer to middle age.
In contrast, the OEL program expected their fast, young acquisitions to make immediate financial returns without much support or time for the creator to develop and mature.
How do we get from "manga inspired" to "manga"?
Western manga is often labelled as “manga inspired” instead of simply manga. I’ve often wondered how we can overcome this separation and derivative designation. In short? Work harder and smarter.
That’s easy to say I know.
Since the manga rush of the early 2000’s we have come a long way from “big eyes + colored hair = manga”. A more nuanced understanding of the difference in aesthetic, tone and storytelling has developed. The differences likely stem from the ways the two cultures developed, their underlying religious philosophies, traditions and mythology. There is little doubt that western stories grew out of Greek hero myth, the Christian duality of good vs evil and a powerful father figure to look up to who can guide your moral compass. In comparison Asian stories lean more on harmonizing conflict or dissonance, villains are more likely to be people who make bad choices rather than just inherently evil. The stories are often decompressed in comparison to Us comics, giving attention to the moment and background instead of just focusing on the characters and foreground. One could say there is an analytical and individualistic flavor to the western stories and collectivist, holistic nature to the eastern. I'm over simplifying of course and there are always exceptions, but I think digging down can help us parcel out the core differences.
Find your authenticity
I have noticed as I look for manga to publish there is still that lingering issue of imitation. In my experience and research, manga art is a simplified version of reality. It is full of atmosphere, impressionistic and portrays how something feels not just how it looks. There is a personal originality to it, an authenticity that makes manga *style* so hard to pin down.
Western manga art online is often made up of fans who have drawn their version of a favorite Shonen character, rather than artists who simply want to express their story in a manga format. It may sound the same, but the two couldn’t be more different. Fan art has a built-in audience and traffics better online, but has created a glut in derivative work making American Manga feel like a photocopy of a photocopy. I think readers of traditional manga feel this instinctively and shy away. Much of the readership that I have noticed around American manga is made up of the aforementioned artist-fans which, alone, is a small and ultimately dead-end audience.
Instead of just drawing your favorite anime characters, it’s important to take time to study anatomy, facial structure, expressions, perspective, drawing techniques, ink techniques, graphic design and more. Learn the language of the type of story you want to tell, help your reader entertained and let them escape into your world. Trying to learn by drawing your favorite Shonen Jump character is a great way to start out, but long-term leads to the work looking derivative and dull. It’s important to look “behind” that work and learn “why” it’s drawn that way. At a fundamental level, manga characters are just simplified Japanese people. The style and design changes depending on the artist, genre and time period but the foundation is the same.
This principle also applies to writing, a series of consecutive moments isn’t the same as a story and purposeless dialogue is just word salad. It may be tempting to set every story in a Japanese high school, reflecting all your favorite anime, but without going to one, you won't have a familiarity with the subtext and nuance of the experience, relying instead on tropes. Engaging and well written characters are key to connecting with your reader, they can be a tentpole for an entire series. A manga can survive bad art but not badly written characters.
As a reader I think you can feel both the disconnect or the honesty of writing from what you know or don't. It's a fine and difficult line to walk, and it may help to spend time studying Japanese culture and customs, with the understanding that manga often follows some rules, and breaks others. One example is how custom tends to be more stoic in the public sphere, much like a Japanese theme park asking people to “scream inside their hearts” in 2020, but manga and anime often show emphatically overexaggerated emotional outbursts. Even if the manga takes place in a fictional world, the storyline is heavily influenced by Japanese culture.
Quality through quantity
Before being dragged into a “aNyOnE wHo DrAwS iS aN aRtIsT” argument, let’s be clear, there is difference between manga fans who draw and artists who make manga. In the main comic industry, for example, there has generally been a high standard of quality in the art and writing. Todd Macfarlane of image often talks about how hard it was for him to get into Marvel comics. US based manga should develop such a standard too.
Just like any endeavor there is a difference between a causal hobbyist and a professional. In Japan, published manga is made by trained professionals, the developing hobbyist tends to draw Doujinshi or “indie manga” many of whom go on to become professionals. It’s also worth noting that the average manga artist generates 15-20 pages a week compared to the 3–4-page standard in American comics. Now consider the idea that a comic artist's skill tends to advance every 50 pages or so. At their pace, Japanese artists or mangaka are going to develop MUCH faster.
That said, 15-20 pages in an inhuman pace that can’t be healthily maintained, Mangaka tend to live with little sleep, serious health problems and die young. I’ve heard of American editors who have spent time working with manga who wish for 8 pages at minimum (as opposed to 3). I have personally found 10 pages to be a good professional level average. Now when I focus, I can complete 2 in a day, though when I first started I was happy to finish one phase of a page (pencilling or inking) or even a single panel. Months and years of a daily habit, drawing manga at my desk slowly helped me build skill, speed and efficiency. As a self-taught artist I have found I can publish a 250-page volume in a year and my art changes noticeably between books.
Does direction really matter?
I see this debate frequently and have mixed feelings about it. On one hand, yes, L to R is more comfortable for western readers and it’s the way our language reads, not to mention the ease of publishing this way! Since reverse bound manga became a standard in the western market, readers have become used to it. I have noticed that younger readers pick up my books in the correct direction, while older customers struggle a little. A clearly designed cover will clear up any confusion and guide the reader to the "other front page".
If manga readers are comfortable with R to L and associate it with manga, I think western manga creators should strongly consider adopting it like they have screen tone. Details like this bring western manga into alignment with readers expectations and make it easier for them to try, adopt and love. As magazines and anthologies develop, the publishers will have to wrangle with stories going in multiple directions. Ultimately, for our sanity and print runs, like Tokyopop, we’ll have to pick a direction.
Cultural Ping Pong
If a creator is using western art, structure, direction, values and tools while calling their work manga, it’s easy to see why readers struggle to connect with it in that way. While a foundation for manga in Japanese art can be traced as far back as the 12th century, manga as we know it was inspired by American comics. This kind of exchange is my favorite part of open cultural exchange and cross pollination. Each culture developing and adding to an artform while it is passed back and forth. Shortly following the second world war GIs in allied occupied Japan brought comics and other cultural influences from the west including Disney. The end of the war also affected story telling (though I’m sure it too has earlier influences including Buddhist) and structure. Western writing tends to follow a three-act structure centering on conflict and resolution. with a focus on journey and where things are going as the author slowly builds tension. The ending is the climax, and as such, incredibly important – an unsatisfying ending, or one that doesn’t make sense, can ruin an otherwise perfectly good story.
Manga story telling has a four-part structure that relies on context and not conflict, more focus is placed on the current moment and atmosphere more than the journey and ending. Knowing that manga developed at the end of World War two, which we will explore in a future post, it’s easy to see why.
Manga Beyond Japan
As you wade into making your own manga, it’s important to know at least a little about the history, study the culture that influences it, develop the skills and find the tools that make it, both from a storytelling and an artistic standpoint. Once we understand the essence of Manga we can differentiate it from web comics, Manhwa, traditional and indie American comics etc. Once we move past spikey power mullets, hand powers, screaming bean mouths, large, but dead eyes (specifically referring to American imitation-manga here) and dig deeper, I think the artform will truly develop. We will more naturally step onto a path to developing authentic manga with our own experiences. Our unique spirit breaking the cage of for fans-by fans, captivating an audience beyond deep otaku culture.
Freed from being derivative American can reach beyond its potential, touching the hearts of readers in the wider public, much like our beloved manga from Japan.
What do you think? What makes manga Manga?
Let me know in the comments below, share the post with your manga friends and see what they think or join us on the Mayapple Discord where we talk a lot about making our own!