Tom posted yesterday to say that he really doesn’t like manga at all.

All that solid-black hair, those pie-shaped googly eyes and triangle mouths (with rounded corners!), the stunted pseudo-children, the skimpy few words stranded in fat balloons. And never anything in view but more black hair, googly eyes, and a lonely sprinkling of words against white space. Page after page, book after book, truckload after truckload. Manga makes me feel claustrophobic.

He adds:

manga, all manga, carries to an extreme the formal trend followed by US mainstream comics over the past few decades, which is to streamline word-and-picture arrangements so that the eye is always pinging forward with as little drag as possible, even if a concomitant of drag might be better dialogue or more detailed drawing.

That second quote is interesting, because it’s got the formal influence exactly reversed. That is, manga isn’t carrying a U.S. trend anywhere; the influence goes the other way. To the extent that there has been cross-fertilization between manga and American comics over the last decade, most of it’s gone Japan to America, rather than the other way around, I think.

That aside…Tom’s not really making, or attempting to make, an objective argument here, so refuting it is in some sense kind of pointless. If you hate manga art, you hate manga art; I can’t make you like something you don’t.

Still, there are a couple of ways to go with this argument I guess. In the first place, the formal elements you object to seem to be derived mostly form looking at shojo — comics for girls. As Tom somewhat reluctantly noted towards the end of his post, there’s actually a lot of manga out there that looks rather different.

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Gon, by Masashi Tanaka

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Lady Snowblood, Kazuo Koike and Kazuo Kamimura

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Lone Wolf and Cub, Kazuo Koike and Goseki Kojima

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Parasyte, Hitoshi Iwaaki

I’m sure Bill could come up with more and better examples, but I think you get the general point; dismissing all manga is like dismissing all American comics…or, more, like dismissing all American movies. It’s a huge medium; if you felt like looking, you could probably find something that you liked.

As for shojo — that’s actually a genre I like a lot. To answer your objections in turn:

1. Stylization — If you don’t like stylization, you don’t like stylization, I guess. If most of the enjoyment you get from art is based on realism and anatomical fidelity, then, yeah, shojo isn’t necessarily the place to be looking. If, on the other hand, you really appreciate patterning, layout, and surface detail, shojo can be amazing.

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Amaterasu, by Suzue Miuchi

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Forest of Gray City, by Jung-Hyun Uhm

I just hardly see anything, ever, in mainstream comics, and precious little in alternative comics, that gets me the way drawings like the above do.

2. Too few words — American comics are extremely wordy. Manga in general (and shojo in particular) are much less so. You seem to see this as a failure on the part of manga. For me it’s the reverse. Manga is extremely good at visual storytelling; in comparison, American comics writing seems extremely tedious, tending to state the obvious over and over and over again. This afflicts superhero comics..but it’s also the case for things like Maus, which goes on and on and on and on and on, almost fetishizing the fact that the pictures are so unnecessary to the story.

When manga (or shojo specifically) doesn’t work, it can be well nigh incomprehensible; I wouldn’t deny that. On the other hand, when it does work, it fuses word and images in a way that’s really sublime. Nana and Let Dai, two of my favorite shojo series, have incredibly nuanced and thoughtful characterization and relationships, much of it conveyed through visual expressions and body posture, just as you would see in, say, a movie or on stage. In comparison, something like Fun Home seems to me incredibly thumb fingered, in every sense — constantly harping on the obvious, much less fluid storytelling, art with a lot less emotional heft, etc.

I’m kind of not the best person to be defending manga, maybe…I haven’t read a ton, and I’m certainly nowhere near being an expert. But in my limited explorations in the genre, I’ve found a number of series that are funny, touching, thoughtful, cool as shit, beautiful — all the things I look for in art, basically. So that’s the point of manga to me.

Or you can read Tucker’s take; first review at the top.

Update: Tom does over his post. His rejiggering of his discussion of manga pacing made me thing more about his point, which in turn made me not quite get what he’s talking about. Tom says manga is all very fast forward movement. I don’t get that at all. On the contrary, people like Ai Yazawa or Sooyeon Won or even Clamp seem much, much more in control of pacing than their Western peers. In Nana especially, the story can bounce along quickly…or it can be slower and more contemplative…or it can freeze in a moment of emotional intensity. It’s true the text is less heavy than in American comics, but there are other ways to slow down the story — close-ups, expression, levels of detail, and so forth.

I guess it’s possible that what’s happening for Tom is that he’s so alienated by the art that he’s not able to pick up on the pacing cues? Anyway, for me, super-hero comics seem to be much more frantically paced…Grant Morrison’s cyberpunky stuff especially often seems just jam-packed with stuff without almost any effort to do visual pacing. Most of the manga stuff I see is very aware and capable of using space for pacing….

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