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

yume_no_yousei 20th-Apr-2012 02:26 am (UTC)
I'm only using Sailor Moon as an example. Not all anime has such a specific situation like Sailor Moon or Pokemon (and I don't even think the characters in Pokemon have a real-life specified race. Seeing as how they even have their own written language and Japan - nor America - doesn't even exist in Pokemon). And speaking of the 'donuts' edit, I'd blame that more on 4kids, than anything else. They did horrible edits, but that hardly warrants the Western public to be so elitist about anime/manga.
If you're going to use examples, take Cardcaptor Sakura, for example, then. They kept Sakura's name, but I remember my friends calling her Caucasian, because she was a brunette.
Also, I hardly doubt "TK" and "Matt" are Japanese names. Just sayin'.
exdream1999 20th-Apr-2012 03:36 am (UTC)
(Having to re-write this because the Internet ate it the first time)

I didn't bring up Cardcaptors because my comment was about shows that were white-washed in the late 90's and early 00's which Cardcaptors wasn't one of since they didn't change anything. But, my comment was about how people might have thought she was white because, besides being lazy and obtuse, they were used to the majority of characters being white-washed. Even in Pokemon, there was still a ton of Japanese things about it, like the rice balls, that were changed to make it less "foreign". Basically if they had watched things like Sailormoon or Pokemon, which aired years before Cardcaptors, they would have just assumed the characters were white. I still personally think it's dumb given the very non-English names and the fact that they didn't try to white-wash them.

I brought up Digimon because it came before Cardcaptors and aired on the same channel and they didn't white-wash them. Yes, they gave them English nicknames, but they were just that, nicknames. In the first episode when Tai introduces them, they leave their names in Japanese on the screen. In Digimon, the fact that these kids are Japanese (Though, Matt and T.K. are half) and live in Japan is a plot point.
yume_no_yousei 20th-Apr-2012 03:57 am (UTC)
You're obviously deviating from the original argument.
And I obviously had no clue why you brought up Digimon instead of Carcaptors, seeing as Digimon is still airing and you never brought up the subject of anime "in the late 90's and early 00's".
And if you're going to use Pokemon as an example, they also used foods like salads and sandwiches (even in the Japanese version), are they white enough for you now?
And just like how the Japanese use riceballs to relate to the general public, 4Kids chose to change their food to donuts and sandwiches to relate to the Western general public. Remember, these shows were directed to children in the 90's and early 00's, not teens and tweens studying Eastern Asian foreign affairs. Western kids would have no clue what the fuck riceballs are, so in order for the anime to relate to the children, they changed it to donuts and sandwiches.

I don't remember Matt and TK being half, but that's beside the case. If you compare Pokemon and Digimon (why you would do that in the first place, I don't know), but they're completely different. Digimon makes it a point to state that they live in Japan. Pokemon, on the other hand, lives in a fictional world where enslaving creatures in a small red ball and using them to fight in a collesium-like battle is allowed where they eat both riceballs and sandwiches, have no race relationship to real life (ex. Iris is dark skinned, but no one has called her Indian or African, because she is NOT. She is of a dark skinned descent of the Pokemon world, that is all), and it shouldn't matter if their names are altered from Japanese to English.
exdream1999 20th-Apr-2012 04:12 am (UTC)
I brought up Digimon because it went on the air a good year or two before Cardcaptors did in the US.

My WHOLE point was that there was a period in time when anything Japanese was erased from an anime and the characters were presented as "white". I use Sailormoon as it's the one that I most familiar with regarding changes. I also brought up Pokemon because even though it's a fantasy world, it's a fantasy world based on Japan. Hell, Satoshi comes from Kanto, which is actually does exist, I know, I live in Kanto. Don't forget that they still have the Doll Festival in the Pokemon world too. My point is that in the Japanese version, despite being a world where you have things like Pikachu, these characters are still coded as Japanese, so when they started dubbing it, they removed all these references.

My point with Digimon is that when it aired, it was the first show that aired on FOX (then the basic cable home of anime) instead of Cartoon Network (Which in some places, like where I lived, you had to have satellite to get) that they didn't go and erase all traces of Japanese culture from the show.

This has nothing to do with what world they take place in, it's more about how in the past any traces of Japanese culture in an anime was erased to make the shows less "foreign". Which was something they did with Sailormoon and Pokemon, but not Digimon or Cardcaptors.

I get the feeling we're arguing the same things, I have no idea why you said "are the characters white enough for you now?"

My only point was that if you were to back when Sailormoon first aired, people would have thought she was white because she MADE white by the original dub. This of course changed and after that she was Japanese. That's why my point, nothing else.
yume_no_yousei 20th-Apr-2012 04:46 am (UTC)
Again, changing the cultural things mostly has to do with the audience (and 4Kids. Remember One Piece? Yeah.) They weren't necessarily trying to make it less "foreign", as it is making it more relate-able. Of course I know a place named Kanto actually exists, my friends are going back there at the end of the month. But just because it shares the same name, doesn't mean it's the same place. The fictional Kanto obviously lives in the Pokemon world, has it's own map and demographics, which makes it extremely different from the original. We have a city here in Canada named Paris. Does it have an Eiffel tower and it's population speak French? No. There is no Eiffel tower there and the majority of them speak English. Just because they share the same name, doesn't mean it's the same place.

Now, there is a huge difference between FOX and Cartoon Network (which I don't have or know much about, but I'm assuming it's a Cable TV Channel which you have to purchase.) FOX (as are all basic cable tv channels) bases it's success of a show on the percentage of viewers, where as cable tv channels bases it's shows on the number of people who has purchased it's channel. For channels like FOX, that earns money based on the number of viewers, they will have to relate more to the viewer, and in order to do that, they have to change those factors in anime that are less relatable (like a riceball) to something that is more relatable to the Western general public (like a donut).
I'm not saying it's the right thing to do, and it is negating all the little Japanese cultural things added in the anime to create character, but you have to look at it from a tv corporation point of view. The only thing they care about is the ratings, and so if they have to alter something to make it more relatable to the general public, then they will.
Now, unlike FOX, who relies on ratings, Cartoon Network doesn't. Because of this, they don't need to do things like making it as relatable to the general public as FOX does. Because of this, they don't need to alter the original product. This is the same reason why they change Japanese names to English names. English names are more relatable and easier to remember in Western society, so FOX would obviously alter the original anime. Where is Cartoon Network would see no need to.

And you were going on about the riceball - donut thing in the Pokemon arguement. I felt that if I included other examples that are more "white" from the Japanese original, that it'd calm your tits a bit. But I guess not.

I don't even know why your point is about Sailor Moon, when the original arguement was the Western audience think blonds = Caucasian by default, rather than thinking the character might have dyed their hair. But sure. As long as your point was made, I guess.
exdream1999 20th-Apr-2012 05:00 am (UTC)
Your whole comment is basically what I was saying, they took out all the Japanese culture points to make it less foreign for Western audiences. This is what I meant when I said we were arguing over the same thing.

I know why FOX did what it did and they stopped doing it when they realized people didn't care if they left all the Japanese bits in.

I brought up the rice ball - doughnut example because Pokemon takes place in a fantastical world and yet they still have to change the one thing that was Japanese.

Sailormoon was brought up way back when you mentioned characters that were naturally blonde in anime and I was all like, "Yeah, like Sailormoon", since I haven't seen the show you're talking about. The point about dying hair though was because in Bakuman the character live in Japan with a Japanese name, so I was like, why did the author jump to "Not Japanese" instead, "He dyes his hair", since dying hair isn't something only white people do. I brought up Sailormoon again because in the original dub (out of, like three total), they changed it so the show and characters read as being from North America, so if you had watched that version she would have been white. It was an example of when that assumption would have been OK. Instead of all the other times, like with this author here.

Basically, I err on the side of optimism that people would use their brains when reading something instead of being stubbornly obtuse about things and always end up disappointed when they do things like say Japanese manga are full of ethnic diversity. (Side note: It hurts even more because there are non-Japanese/half-Japanese character in manga/anime, but those aren't any of them.)
yume_no_yousei 20th-Apr-2012 05:37 am (UTC)
I hardly see this as an arguement, as the main point of the conversation is deviating from the original.

And again, what they changed wasn't the ethnicity of the character, but rather the cultural references that add to characteristic, thinking they could increase relatability and thus ratings. And, of course, since they changed the character's name, what they eat, what language they speak and where they live, it automatically warrants them a different ethnicity, no? Personally, when I watched Sailor moon when I was younger, ethnicity was far from my mind. They were neither asian, nor white to me. I think in my mind, I thought she was half, or something, but for no reason, I just liked the thought of Sailor moon being half. For children, which was Sailor moon's main audience, race wasn't an issue.
But of course, either way, what the author said shouldn't be accepted, before or now. Sailor Moon is only one example. Is Misty a Ginger now because she aired during Sailor Moon and she has red hair and eats donuts - not riceballs? Besides, again, as stated before, in Sailor moon, you have characters with blue and pink hair. What race are they pretending to be then? White as well?
exdream1999 20th-Apr-2012 06:22 am (UTC)
What I mean by arguing the same argument is that what you're saying and what I'm saying is the same thing.

When someone goes and changes Usagi to Serena and has her attend Crossroads Junior High instead of Azabu Juuban Juinor High and remove everything else Japanese about the original I would feel very strange calling her Japanese or where she lived Japan. The only thing that's Japanese is the artwork and even then they would flip it over so cars and their steering wheels would be on the "right side" of the road. 12 year old me didn't even notice that the city looked nothing like an American city because I grew up in the country side, I was shocked to find out that it was originally a Japanese show because there was nothing there in the dialog and names of things to cue me into it being in Japan. Like, I figured Raye was Asian American, because there was shrines and temples on the west coast, so I figured it was a place like that, but Serena has blond hair and blues like my mom, so I figured she was Norwegian like her.

Well, by the time Rini showed up I already knew about the original version, so I knew it was just the anime laws of the unierse in play, but if I hadn't, I watched Jem as a kid, so multi-color hair was nothing new to me. Thing is, I can't say anything about anime characters and how they're perceived because when I finally met other people who watched anime, we all knew that it was all originally Japanese anyways, so we never saw them as other than that, unless it was clearly stated otherwise, like in shows like Gundam Wing, or when it was a fantasy land, like Sorcerer Hunters.

In the end, companies like DiC and 4Kids ending opening up a broader market for anime and after a while people knew these shows came from Japan and companies stopped changing names and culture references (well, most of them), so that's why I was so amused that someone would look at a manga that probably has had nothing changed about it except what language it's in and see a blond character and think, "NOT JAPANESE" instead of (if they don't know about how anime/manga like to play with hair color) something a bit more realistic like "He's young, maybe he dyes his hair" instead.
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