January 2008

Jeff VanderMeer


Understanding Manga: An Interview with Robin Brenner

Librarian and recent Eisner Award judge Robin Brenner has spent several years reading and studying manga, among other forms of illustrated narrative. This summer, her book Understanding Manga and Anime was published by Libraries Unlimited, garnering much praise, including a starred review in Library Journal. Brenner also runs the exceptional No Flying No Tights website, which specializes in reviews of teen and adult graphic novels. I spoke to her recently about the rise of manga and about her book, the discussion of interest both to manga enthusiasts and those who have yet to be converted...

What distinguishes manga from comics and graphic novels generally, in your opinion, other than their generally Asian origin?

To my mind manga cannot be separated from their country and culture of origin. Everything about them, from the way creators tell stories to the symbols and gestures involved are created with a Japanese audience in mind. Those outside Japan can learn all of the sound effects and references, but most readers will not instinctively understand every joke or implied meaning simply because the story comes from an environment we didn't grow up in. That being said, there are elements that make manga markedly different from the comics and graphic novel titles here (now on to the sweeping generalizations!).

Manga tells stories with more images and more panels per page. The reader is expected to put together a lot more panels in a less traditional order than the transitions and layouts found in many mainstream Western comics. That doesn't make it better than Western comics, just different, and something that readers new to manga have to learn. While stories are meant to be read quickly, during your commute or as a quick break from the stresses of life, they are usually written with long story arcs and span hundreds to thousands of pages. Unlike stories driven by characters, like the Batman and Spider-Man tales that continue for decades, manga series have one overseeing creator and end when the creator wants to end the series. Because of the solo creative control, there is a consistent aesthetic for manga series and the sense that while there may be spin-offs or sequels, the story you are reading now will reach a resolution sooner rather than never.

Manga rely more on the visual side of a tale than the words -- which is why they can often be read faster than a Western comic of the same page count. The symbols, character shifts, and visual cues provide more information per page than the text and therefore a reader must be fluent in all of these elements to understand the story. This kind of visual literacy is as complex as parsing prose, though a fundamentally different experience. If you read the text and skip the visuals, you're missing a good three quarters of the story. As Osamu Tezuka, the creator from which all manga originally grew, was inspired greatly by film, manga's cinematic elements have been dominant from the beginning of the medium. Many manga rely on silence and pacing to accentuate everything from the pathos to the humor of a situation, and expect a reader to stick with them through contemplative stretches.

Manga is gendered from its creation to its marketing. Titles are created for children (kodomo manga), for tween and teen girls (shojo manga), for tween and teen boys (shonen manga), for women (josei manga), and for men (seinen manga). These categories are marketed very specifically, and while many gendered comics have crossover readers (in that Bleach and Naruto have as many female readers as male), the target audience is evident in the art and the type of story for each subsection.

Is manga always quintessentially Japanese or Korean in outlook? Are there American manga creators?

Japanese manga and Korean manhwa always represent their creators' point of view, so in that way, yes, all of these titles reflect their country of origin. In terms of American manga creators -- well, that’s an argument still to be settled. Personally, I do feel that a lot of what’s created in the U.S. and is called manga doesn’t actually read like manga. It may have certain elements -- manga style character design, emotion symbols, or pacing -- but most of the time these titles only have one aspect of the tradition, not all. So, while there are a lot of creators out there adopting manga’s styles and storytelling techniques, I don’t quite feel comfortable dubbing their creations manga. Each manga style title should be judged on their own merits, and there are some great titles as well as some clunkers.

The most irritating aspect of publishers’ scramble to cash in on manga’s popularity is companies jumping on the manga bandwagon without any sense of what makes manga appealing to its readers. Just aping the art style doesn’t work. A large part of manga’s appeal is its difference from Western comics, and the culture that it comes from, so just manga-fying what are essentially U.S. stories won’t sell those books to manga readers. What will work is paying attention to the kinds of stories manga tells, from historical mysteries to school romances to supernatural adventures, as well as the visuals and [plots]. That kind of U.S. “manga” is far more appealing, and is represented by the best titles currently out (like Svetlana Chmakova’s Dramacon series).

What is it that you love about your favorite manga -- what is that keeps drawing you back to the form?

I grew up loving both pictures and words as ways to tell stories. My great wish as a child was to become a Disney animator, and my own creative work was either short stories or pictures. When I finally really discovered comics after college, I was amazed I’d never seen such great combinations of my two favorite art forms before. Where has this been hiding all my life? Manga was even more impressive to me, particularly because so much of its story is told in images. I am particularly responsive to images, and finding all of the information and emotion wrapped up in manga’s panels feels like the perfect storytelling form to me.

I love manga’s cinematic storytelling and pacing. The art of my favorites always knocks my socks off both for the beauty of the art but also for the shades of emotions present in a few wordless panels or a slight shift of expression. These are the pages that I have to stop and admire mid-story. It amazes me that a style of art that generally relies on far fewer lines for representing a face, when used by the best artists, feels a thousand times more expressive than the most detailed, full-color superhero face. Perhaps because the lines are so simple, they allow the emotion rather than the artistry to stand out.

On top of that, I love that manga’s wide variety of stories lets me find a manga for almost any mood. I can read the silliest comedies (One Piece, My Heavenly Hockey Club), swoony romances (Mars, The Moon and the Sandals), complex science fiction (Ghost in the Shell, Akira), compelling historical fiction (Town of Evening Calm, Country of Cherry Blossoms), and inspiring nonfiction (Project X: Nissin Cup Noodle). I can also get many genres in one: the charming Antique Bakery is part comedy, part slice of life, part drama, and part cooking show (and has scratch 'n’ sniff covers to boot!). Right now, this kind of variety is harder to find in Western comics, and the fact that I can find many stories rather than only a few makes the whole format very appealing.

Should manga get more of a free pass for gratuitous violence and sexism. If so, why?

The simplest answer is: should manga get more of a free pass than other mediums? No, I don't think so. The complicated answer is still no, but there are so many influences that inform both violence and sexism in manga. First, readers should take a step back and acknowledge that our own comics (or television, or films) are just as fraught with violence and sexism issues (seen the recent spate of horror films dubbed torture porn, anyone?).  Manga's version of sexism, and limits (or lack thereof) for violence, arises from Japanese history and society, and so it is both similar to and different from the same problems we have here.

The one thing I've realized over time that may be why readers notice the violence and sexism more in manga is that there is a distinct lack of shame surrounding fantasy -- whether that fantasy is sexual, violent, or silly. Anything that is within the creator (and thus the reader's) imagination is a potential subject for manga. In the Western world there is not such a clear line in people’s minds between fantasy and reality. We worry that people will act out their fantasies, whether inspired by childhood trauma or violent books, movies, or video games. In Japan, that worry is present, but it has not yet prevented creators from bringing their wildest and unnerving visions to the page.

Depictions of violence and all kinds of sexuality have been a part of popular Japanese art for thousands of years, and manga continues those traditions. Consider the vivid ukiyo-e paintings and woodblock prints of the 17th and 18th centuries and you’ll see many of the same images pushing boundaries then as they do today, and perhaps because Japan was and still is not a country broadly influenced by Christian traditions, some kinds of sexuality and violence unwittingly cross into territories repressed or rarely seen in countries with strong Christian roots.

There is also still the lingering sense that comics are aimed generally at children and teens (no matter how many "Comics! Not just for kids!" headlines we see, U.S. readers still leap to the conclusion that comics readers are children. Manga diversified in terms of age ranges very quickly in its progression as a medium, and today comics are made for every audience, from adventures for young kids to pornography for adults. The problem is that many Western readers, when confronted with the latter, are seized with the erroneous impression that these comics were originally intended for kids. This is simply not true -- the various sexual and explicitly violent manga out there reflect all kinds of erotic scenarios and viciousness, but they are ultimately intended for adults who are expected to one, know the difference between fantasy and reality, and two, be able to handle emotionally whatever the creators decide to depict.

Sexism is a slightly different kettle of fish. Sexism in Japan is different from what we perceive as sexism here, though there are many points in common, from women ruffling feathers as they excel in the workplace to being victims of violence and rape. There are representations of what is stereotyped as the Eastern ideal woman: submissive, gentle, and silent. At the same time, girls (shojo) comics have some of the best girl action heroes in any comic, period. Women’s (josei) comics explore modern relationship dilemmas and office dynamics as well as the darkest sexual fantasies either via straight drama or the by-women-for-women male/male relationship melodramas found in yaoi titles. The diversity of the way women are represented and are authoring stories is heartening, and shows a society still struggling with women breaking out of their traditional roles.

Sexism in manga may be more obvious to U.S. eyes because of the gendering of titles. Boys' comics (shonen manga) and men's comics (seinen manga) contain a lot of elements that appeal to their target audience, including fan service (frequent glimpses of tantalizing women, from panties to cleavage to improbable poses in revealing outfits all the way up to explicit sexual fantasies for adult men). But comics aimed at teen girls and women feature beautiful young men in sensual poses and go all the way toward inventive sexual fantasies in works aimed at adult women, acknowledging the female audience’s fantasies and desires. This kind of targeting still objectifies people for either gender, but at least there is an equal opportunity aspect to it. As a woman, this is somewhat refreshing, since in Western comics almost all fan service is aimed at a male readership only.

Manga publishers employ around 400 women creators, and girls and women’s manga magazines together represent around twenty percent of the overall market. This does mean that sexism in manga is perpetuated by female creators, but it also may be a large part of why there are the balancing characters of strong girl heroines and complicated, formidable women. Until the U.S. comics industry devotes a substantial portion of its market to comics for women and girls, and recruits a whole parade of female comics artists to tell their stories, we as an industry or a fan culture may want to take a hard look at our own comics rather than critiquing manga’s representation of women. I don’t mean to belittle the work of the many women in the industry today, from creators to fans, but as a market, female readers and creators are often considered too little, too late. There should be too many female creators to count, and too many comics aimed at girls to call publishing for girls a gamble.

So, in the end, no medium should get a free pass -- but understanding the context of the stories can help readers decide for themselves what they will and will not accept.

What’s the future of manga in your opinion?

A lot will depend on what happens in Japan. While manga publishers are well aware of their growing international market, manga are still mainly created for Japanese readers. A lot of things are currently affecting the Japanese manga market, including the rise of reading comics on portable devices like cell phones. Still, I think in the U.S. the market is here to stay. I don’t know that it will always be quite as tremendously popular as it is now, but I do think it’s seeing into our culture in a way that is lasting. My hope is that the current strongest manga readers -- i.e. teenagers -- will grow up into a market that is part manga, part western, with the sense that comics are comics, no matter where they come from. So many of the teens I work with are inspired by manga and anime, that like the Marvel readers of the '60s, they are not going to give it up as they become adults. In that way, I think more and more of manga’s diversity will be seen here in the U.S., and it will become just another way to get a story, taking its place in with comics in general as one option in a host of storytelling formats.

Who is your book aimed at, and how have you organized it?

My book is aimed at anyone who’s curious about manga but is confused by how to understand it. I meet a lot of people, from parents to teachers to librarians, who try to read manga and just get utterly befuddled by everything from reading from right to left to figuring out what someone suddenly has a nosebleed. There are a number of excellent books that focus on graphic novels and on Japanese anime, but when I began the book there were very few recent titles that zeroed in on manga. (As a side note, happily there are a now a number of complementary titles that I adore, from Paul Gravett's Manga: 60 Years of Japanese Comics to Jason Thompson's tome Manga: The Complete Guide, and classics like Frederik Schodt's Manga! Manga! The World of Japanese Comics remains top-notch guides.) 

The first sections of the book discuss manga’s (and to a lesser extent anime’s) quality and appeal, its history, common genres, the fan community here in the States, and the cultural road bumps that may startle or confuse U.S. readers. As it was written with a librarian audience in mind, portions of the book are devoted to both how to appeal to manga fans as well as how to create programs for manga fans. The final portion is devoted to recommended reading lists, though there are also many targeted lists throughout. I hope it’s the kind of book that appeals to readers with different levels of knowledge, from a complete newbie to the format to manga fans who may know their favorites but aren’t as aware of the history of the format or the unique visual literacy that manga teaches.

What are you working on now?

Most of my time is, unsurprisingly, taken up by my full-time job as a Teen Librarian. However, I’m continuing to write articles for the library world when inspiration strikes -- for example. I just wrote a short feature article for Library Journal on yaoi/boys’ love titles for women. I review for a number of library publications right now including Booklist, Video Librarian, and the ICv2 Guide. I am in the middle of revamping my website, No Flying No Tights, behind the scenes and am hoping to launch reviews of Japanese anime as soon as the coding is finished. My reviewers and I at No Flying, No Tights also host our manga reviews at Teenreads.com, an excellent website devoted to reviewing titles for teen readers. My goal right now is to get my website up to snuff and to start blogging on it regularly.

What forthcoming manga are you most looking forward to in 2008?

There are a number of continuing series that I look forward to every new volume, including After School Nightmare by Setona Mizushiro, Monster by Naoki Urusawa, and Emma by Kaoru Mori. There are a few new series that I’m waiting for new volumes for to see how they play out, like Tadashi Kawashima’s Alive and Yuto Nakano’s Mushishi. I was a big fan of Matsuri Akino’s Pet Shop of Horrors, so I’m keen to see the new sequel series Pet Shop of Horrors – Tokyo, and Honey and Clover by Chica Umino (currently serialized in Shojo Beat) will also be released in book form. I admit, though, I’m often most happy when I discover something I’ve never heard of, or had five people recommend and am finally able to sit down and read it. There’s so much being published it’s hard to keep up, and I always appreciate the heads up for new series worth pulling from the giant to-read pile!