Manga: Reasons To Like It

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One of the most oft repeated statements I’ve been the recipient of the last several months, in one version or another, is “I can’t believe how much manga you’re reading!” Well, quite frankly, neither can I. For a very long time, I was adamantly against the idea of reading manga, and to be honest, the reasons haven’t changed.

The main reason was, and still is, that I really do hate the manga trade dress. If for no other reason than because while I’m reading, part of my attention is spent on ensuring that I’m reading the book correctly instead of on enjoying the book. Now, I understand the need for authenticity (it’s a touch jarring having someone mentioning an event occurring to the left when the art has it occurring to the right) but it’s sometimes hard to enjoy what’s going on when you’re mentally going “word balloon on the far right…now go left…whoops, don’t miss that one a little bit lower…ok, back to the left for the bottom panels…” See what I mean?

The second reason was the art. We’ve all seen that mass reproduced images or Digimon, Yu-Gi-Oh, Sailor Moon and the like. Huge eyes, huge muscles, huge…well, you know. They all look alike and except for certain body parts, never look a day over ten, regardless of what they’re up to. While these certainly aren’t the exception when it comes to manga art, they do seem to be among the extremes in that particular style. While that art style is the most prevalent in manga, it’s far from the only art style. For a good sampling of the variations in manga art, I recommend flipping through Vagabond, Basara, Samurai Deeper Kyo, Priest, Rebirth, Forbidden Dance, Les Bijoux, Inu Yasha, or Lone Wolf and Cub. While you’ll see certain stylistic similarities among most of those books, you’ll also find as much variation in styles as there are among popular American comics. This does not, however, mean that I don’t still sometimes find myself reading a book in spite of the art, simply that I’ve come to like some of it, and accept most of the rest. Though there have still been a few occasions when I’ve simply put a book down because of the art, or put an interesting sounding book right back on the shelf as soon as I flipped through a few sections and got a good taste of the art.

Why, then, do I keep reading manga? We’ll start with a couple of smaller things that keep me coming back before getting to the big reason.

One aspect is the energy. No, I don’t mean the hyper manic energy you’ve no doubt heard so much about or seen in samplings of anime you may have seen (though there isn’t exactly a shortage of that) but the energy most manga writers seem to have towards their project. See, most American writers and artists seem to be more concerned with keeping the publisher happy and putting out a “solid” work that will keep that particular franchise going. When I read an article by a creator, I rarely get the impression that they’re excited about the project…more often than not I can’t help but feel that a project is a part of their resume, not what they really want to be doing. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that I think US creators don’t care about their work, just that I feel more like I’m reading their project than their assignment. This may be because the American comic market is so franchise oriented, while the manga market seems to be (to my limited knowledge) more creator oriented, but in almost every manga I’ve read, whether I liked it or not, there seemed to be an intense energy and excitement coming from the creators that’s directed at the work, and lets face it, the more you can feel a writer or artist’s enjoyment, the more infectious it is.

Another is the feeling of realism. It’s very rare in reading an American publication that I get a feeling of spontaneity in dialogue or reactions. Dialogue is always carefully crafted to accomplish a specific goal of the author’s, and reactions carefully choreographed, and the dialogue and reactions only come from specific, central characters unless a comment from a bystander is specifically required. Even Brian Michael Bendis, a writer known for dialogue centered storytelling, rarely conveys a sense of spontaneity. In manga, however, characters react instantly and instinctively. Nor is the dialogue controlled so that only what absolutely needs to be said gets said. Just like us, the characters in manga ramble a bit and tend to take their time getting to the point. Likewise, if there are a dozen people around to witness an event that would invoke quite a bit of comment, you get quite a bit of comment, not a couple of well placed comments from the peanut gallery, but the reactions of a crowd. While this does tend to make the stories ramble a bit more than they have to, it also invokes a sense of realism that helps to draw me further into the story.

The real kicker, however, the main event, is the storylines. Just like the American comics market is drenched in superheroes, the Asian comics market is drenched in history and mythology. Just like if you got to a comic shop and pick 10 random books off the shelf, you’ll end up with 9 (or 10) superhero tales, if you go to the manga rack at a bookstore and randomly pick up 10 mangas, at least 7-8 of them (unless you’re careful in your picking) will have some connection to history, mythology or fantasy. Given the choice between the 1500th adventure of Superman with a story that’s had at least some variation of told before by a team that’s there for six months before being shipped off to another title or a fantasy tale told by one person (or team) from beginning to end that was fully formed and developed by that team…well, it’s not a difficult choice for me. Not that I have any objections to the man of steel in the least, it’s just that, barring certainly storylines, I can’t help but feel most superhero comics are still being published because that’s what people are used to, and what new readers expect in a comic. As my own interests lie more in history, fantasy and mythology, I’m very happy that there’s a market that, while not necessarily caters to my desires, definitely answers many of them.

So, for anyone who wonders why someone who’s not overly fond of the manga art form reads so much of it…now you know. And for manga fans who wonder why some people are so resistant to books that seem to be tailor made for them, you also know.

- Megan B. Moore

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