Arama They Didn't

2:10 pm - 04/19/2012

Why Comic Fans Find Manga Difficult to Get Into

By Christian Sager

Why do readers of American comics often ignore Japanese manga? Vice-versa, what is so different about American comics that turns off manga readers? The stories in both styles are told in the same medium but for some reason their audiences rarely overlap.

As a reader of American comics I can offer one possible answer: If I wanted to try something new like manga, I would have no idea where to begin. The manga shelves at the book store are intimidatingly packed. How can I know I’m starting with the right manga for me?

My CNN Geek Out! colleague Colette Bennett is a manga expert. I asked her to compare and contrast these two different comics styles in order to find the starting points where curious readers could jump into something outside of their comfort zone.

In preparation for this discussion, I dived in headfirst and read more than 1,000 pages of manga to get a better sense for its stylistic differences. Then, Bennett and I discussed production, pacing, storytelling diversity, themes, regulation of sex and violence, and the economic struggles of both industries.

First of all, it's important to know that manga and Western comics are produced quite differently. A great way for a Western comic book fan to learn about the manga industry is through “Bakuman,” a manga which provides extraordinary insight, as it’s a story about teenagers struggling to become manga creators.

Japanese culture has a lot to do with manga’s style. For instance, the pace of storytelling in manga is often much slower, with less action than in American comic books. “At heart, the Japanese are not in a hurry to tell a story," Bennett said.  "And while it may take patience to read it for an audience such as ours, usually the investment results in a gratifying payoff.”

While reading manga, I noticed there were many full-page spreads highlighting emotional reactions, instead of the traditional action spreads I’m used to. I also noticed a pattern of non sequitur panel transitions that sometimes made it difficult to follow what was happening. Panel layout in general was quite different from Western comics.

For instance, establishing shots, which I’m used to seeing at the start of a page to inform the reader of the current setting, were often placed at the bottom of a page in manga. Again, time orientation and cultural difference make the reading slightly unusual. This, however, can make for a fresh experience if you’ve been reading Western comics most of your life.

Of the manga I read, Naoki Urasawa’s “Pluto” struck me as having the most in common with Western storytelling. A lot of the story’s action happened off-panel, but its conflict and resolution built up at a pace I was accustomed to. While other manga had volatile characters yelling and emoting at each other in zany, slapstick scenes, “Pluto” was more subdued, without any of those tropes.

Thematically, both manga and Western comics seem comfortable exploring dark topics and concepts. Although American comics are primarily known for the superhero genre, they’re capable of telling a broad variety of stories. Manga is equally diverse, but I was surprised at some of the sex scenes, violence and scatology in the material I read.

“Velveteen & Mandala” was particularly jarring with really graphic rape scenes that seemed to have no context in the story. Osamu Tezuka’s “The Book of Human Insects” (which I loved) is over 40 years old and had some fairly risqué scenes for the era it was produced in. Even in “Chi’s Sweet Home,” which seemed like a children’s comic to me, I was surprised at how comfortable the creator was with scatological visuals. It would be easy for Americans to dismiss manga as being riddled with “tentacle porn,” but according to Bennett there are culturally specific reasons for this kind of material.

“Since Japan’s primary religious affiliations are Shinto and Buddhism and neither contains anything that connects sex to shame, the Japanese are much more comfortable exploring sexuality in general than Americans are,” Bennett said.

Given American comics’ long history with regulation, I asked Bennett about manga censorship in Japan. She said Japanese censorship laws were very strict for decades, but recently these laws have relaxed on all but one thing: the display of genitals and pubic hair. Regardless of this restriction, manga that might be considered lewd in America still has an audience in Japan, the fifth top-seller of pornographic materials in the world.

In North America however, when you compare sales of manga and other comics, manga is definitely selling less. Some speculate that the American economy’s recession combined with the closure of Borders bookstores contributed to this drop. According to Bennett however, in Japan, everyone reads manga.

“It’s not unusual to see an older man or woman on the subway reading manga in Japan,” she said. Because there are a wide variety of manga types out there, there is content for all Japanese, regardless of their age or gender.

That’s not the only diverse aspect of manga. Despite being created primarily in Japan (an ethnically monolithic country,) manga stories often feature protagonists from multiple ethnicities. For instance, in “Bakuman” one of the leads is blond. In “Chi’s Sweet Home” the entire family is Caucasian. Yet these characters are clearly supposed to be native to Japan. Bennett assumes this trend is because of “the Japanese fascination with anything that falls outside the norm of their own look.”

That could be one reason why many manga storylines are focused on providing the reader with a sort of behind-the-scenes look at unique careers or lifestyles that are especially rare in Japan.

“The Drops of God” is a comic all about wine tasting. Likewise, “Bakuman” tells the story of kids striving to be manga creators. Both fabricate competitive plots that make these insider stories compelling while revealing what these worlds are like. This plot formula reminds me of American reality television shows that focus on unusual skill-oriented contests, like fashion, cooking, special effects design or even drag queens.

Bennett explained this trend in manga is popular because “many people pursue run-of-the-mill careers in Japan and there is such tremendous expectation to secure a “good” job.”

“Having a unique career is simultaneously a fantasy and also something frowned upon,” she said, “especially if it is not financially productive.” Even though Japan as a society may have some of the strictest constructs in the world, manga explores these themes because as Bennett said, “people still yearn to dream.”

Despite the diverse ethnicity and career plots in manga, there still seems to be a preoccupation with manliness and masculinity. In several different books I read, characters either doubted their masculinity or constantly pronounced their confidence in being strong men.

Masculinity is a key topic in Japan, Bennett said, although it frequently goes unspoken - more of an assumption. “The anime community uses a slang word, “Gar”, to describe a character in an anime or manga as radiating a powerful, almost godly sense of masculinity,” she said, citing the character Kamina in the series “Gurren Lagann” is a classic example of this.

After a full submerging into the world of manga I have three gateway recommendations for Western comics fans looking to try out something different: “Pluto,” “7 Billion Needles,” and “Bakuman.” I now know where to begin and what kind of manga I enjoy.

I’m looking forward to reading even more. Do you have any good suggestions for beginners to Manga?

Editor's note: Christian Sager is the creator of "Think of the Children" and "Border Crossings." He has also written essays about the comics industry, punk subculture and national identity.


Although brief, I did like the commentary about sexuality in Japan. But omg, if you're going to tentacle sex, you MUST discuss yaoi- something I have yet to understand in Japan. People who are fans of both manga and comics, what differences do you see and why don't you think there's much overlap within the fandoms? Edit: It would've been good if he had compared comics, manga AND graphic novels...

Source: CNN

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jia_zhang 20th-Apr-2012 02:18 am (UTC)
Trufax. Woman is a creative genius. Angel Sanctuary changed my life.
mousougirl 19th-Apr-2012 07:41 pm (UTC)
I thought this was a very interesting article. I primarily read manga, but I also occasionally read Western comics. Usually what puts me off of a lot of Western comics is artwork and also length. Since I primarily read manga, I'm much more used to seeing the typical visual style manga is drawn in. Western comics are also a lot shorter, and I'm used to long-running manga with multiple story arcs. There's also obvious cultural differences between the two, since a lot of manga deal with themes that are pretty unique to Japan, and also the process of translating from the Japanese you need to adapt certain cultural phrases or colloquialisms to make sense in English.

It seems like a lot of people enjoy one or the other though. I'm still not too sure why this is though since I generally enjoy both. I know some people don't like manga because it is pretty awkward to read manga for the very first time and some people just don't like manga pacing or art, and the same could be said for Western comics too. I want to say people may just have their preferences, but I dunno if that's 100% true in some cases...
zoemi 19th-Apr-2012 07:53 pm (UTC)
That’s not the only diverse aspect of manga. Despite being created primarily in Japan (an ethnically monolithic country,) manga stories often feature protagonists from multiple ethnicities. For instance, in “Bakuman” one of the leads is blond. In “Chi’s Sweet Home” the entire family is Caucasian.

He just had to go there...
uledy 19th-Apr-2012 07:59 pm (UTC)
Right? He went there and then just left it. No real critical analysis. I've yet to find an article the analyzes these occurrences in a satisfactory manner…
nalty7 19th-Apr-2012 07:53 pm (UTC)
"The anime community uses a slang word, “Gar”, to describe a character in an anime or manga as radiating a powerful, almost godly sense of masculinity”

Never heard of it.
Generally I think it's a good article from a foreigner's and comics fan's view.
zoemi 19th-Apr-2012 08:04 pm (UTC)
I think that started with Gurren Lagann? That was after my time though.
smokin_drummer 19th-Apr-2012 08:03 pm (UTC)
While I've enjoyed both, I think some of the problem comes from the fact that manga is read in the opposite direction from what we are used too. There are times when reading a manga, that the wording order is confusing even when read in the right order. I'm sure that a newbie will be very confused because of this.

I pretty much gave up on American comics years ago. The crossovers were killing my wallet. I remember when Marvel did the Onslaught series. The story spanned the entirety of the Marvel Universe. The cost of purchasing all the comics involved was unreal. Spending money to buy a book of a series you didn't follow just to keep from missing an important part of the Onslaught series made me angry.

asweetsymphony 19th-Apr-2012 08:07 pm (UTC)
I read manga because of the slice of life and girl-oriented themes.

I dunno but most of the popular American comics like Marvel are all about Superheroes. I like Archie comics though!
brucelynn 19th-Apr-2012 08:25 pm (UTC)
I love Archie comics
atarashiiyoake 19th-Apr-2012 08:15 pm (UTC)
the Japanese are much more comfortable exploring sexuality in general than Americans are

yeah, only not really.

Despite not really sharing 'our' Christian values and the shame that comes along with that, the importance of status in Japanese culture brings along its own truckloads of shame, which makes sex something that's REALLY not talked about at all.

Experimental hentai, horror films and a certain porn niche doesn't make an entire culture 'comfortable' sexploring.

Edited at 2012-04-19 08:15 pm (UTC)
brucelynn 19th-Apr-2012 08:25 pm (UTC)
Thank you
brucelynn 19th-Apr-2012 08:24 pm (UTC)
I read manga and western comic books , I just lean more towards western comic books because I have been stanning the shit out of Marvel, Archie, Peanuts, and basically anything else that appeared in Sunday papers since I was young, not to mention stories like "The Love Showdown" ( Archie ) , The Infinity Guantlet and Age of Apocalypse ( Marvel ) hold a really special place in my heart.

However , I did not find it difficult to get into manga but I noticed a good amount of the stories in each genre are super cliche. Every Shoujo Manga I've read has some boogle eyed geeky girl who is shy and self conscious ( even though she can dress her ass off and get her hair did all pretty ) falling for a popular bad boy and she ends up winning his heart. I think the plots in Manga are overused more than Western comics.

Edited at 2012-04-19 08:26 pm (UTC)
asweetsymphony 19th-Apr-2012 08:27 pm (UTC)
LOLS! I hate those cliche shoujo mangas. That's why I moved on to slice of life even though everyone says it's the boring genre. However, I must admit a good cliche shoujo manga is irresistable. =^^=
abusedpancake 19th-Apr-2012 08:43 pm (UTC)
wow, a really nice reading. thank you OP for sharing this interesting article.
I honestly wish i read more articles like this, but i guess it can't be helped.
joyeuxnoel 19th-Apr-2012 08:48 pm (UTC)
Hmm... there are many things I love about manga and many things I love about comics. On the other hand, there's things I absolutely hate about both.

I like that manga has consistency. Consistent drawing styles, consistent plot, consistent characterization. I like that there's many more genres to be found in manga.

I dislike manga that has a ton of padding or flashbacks. I dislike that aside from story arcs, there's no other real jumping off points. You either continue (and collect 'em all) or you just stop. It's also better if you start at the very beginning. I also dislike the size of the collected formats. Tankobon and American manga collections seem so small. I also dislike newsprint so.

I like that comics have glossy pages and color. I like that comics can switch up their characterizations and story formats for events or special things. We get elseworlds, one-shots, genre changes/creator reinterpretation without messing with the core of the work. I also like crossovers between characters. It's nice to have dedicated stories about your favorite character rather than having to wait until it's their turn in the story arc.

I hate the fact that comics have continuity hell and that they keep doing hard and soft reboots of the world, the characters, everything in general whenver they feel like it. I hate that comics cost so much in comparison to manga. I hate that comics recycle plots every seven years. They're also expensive compared with to how much little time they take to read. It also feels like there's a higher signal to noise ratio at times. (Although manga's probably much higher.)

Seriously though? I kind of think that independent comics with a set plot and a more or less set creative team is probably the closest we'll get to having the best of both worlds. :3

Edited at 2012-04-19 08:56 pm (UTC)
yume_no_yousei 19th-Apr-2012 09:09 pm (UTC)
For instance, in “Bakuman” one of the leads is blond. In “Chi’s Sweet Home” the entire family is Caucasian. Yet these characters are clearly supposed to be native to Japan.

Interesting read, but the only problem I had with this article was this.
There are characters in other manga that have purple, pink and blue hair. What race are they supposed to be? ==
rim1789 19th-Apr-2012 09:37 pm (UTC)
''have purple, pink and blue hair'' The Katy Perry race.

Jk. I love her but your post remind me of her xD
___varying 19th-Apr-2012 09:18 pm (UTC)
OT, but manga fans: does anyone have any good seinen manga recs? I loved Monster, so something similar (and not too long) would be awesome.
atelierlune 20th-Apr-2012 12:17 am (UTC)
I love Dogs: Bullets and Carnage... though I honestly don't know how long it will be.
itsonehotmess 19th-Apr-2012 09:30 pm (UTC)
In “Chi’s Sweet Home” the entire family is Caucasian.

This bothers me. Colette the manga expert should have corrected him. If she didn't see reason to, that title should maybe be taken away
rim1789 19th-Apr-2012 09:36 pm (UTC)
Mmmm I've never been a fan of comics. Other than the Disney mags, I've never read them even when I was a child...It's mostly a question of taste though.

There are way more theme in manga, and a greater diversity in stories and characters etc. I prefer the drawings also....

Maybe because I also grew up with animes mostly ?
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cherrycoloured 19th-Apr-2012 09:51 pm (UTC)
To me, there is a lot of difference between manga and superhero comics, but not a lot between how manga is consumed here in the West and graphic novels/indie comics. Both are typically published in a graphic novel format and can be of any genre or style. They all have their pros and cons, and I think to say one is better than the other is just elitism. Unfortunately, that's really common in both manga fandom and superhero fandom.
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