Wednesday, February 06, 2008

Essay: Another Name for Manga

Every Wednesday, I have an essay on any topic that catches my fancy!

For "purist" manga fans, one point of contention is the trend of Original English Language (OEL) Manga--that is, manga created by non-Japanese for an American audience (typically written by Americans). Before I start talking about this phenomenon, I would like to point to two incidents that are similar.

The first is manga's scion, the medium we call anime. Now anime has an interesting history, everything from Osamu Tezuka being inspired by Disney cartoons and started making both anime and manga influenced by that particular art style. In the 80's however, American cartoons would have their production work done in Japan and some notable titles include Spider-Man, The Real Ghostbusters, Thundercats, G.I. Joe, and Transformers. The knowledge that they were animated in Japan wouldn't really become relevant (except to insiders in the animation industry) until the late 90's when anime would hit it big in the US and fans started to wonder whether such shows can be classified as anime. Perhaps even blurring the line are video games with its cut-scenes and CG. Are they, too, considered anime? Different fans will give you different answers, or more importantly, give you different exceptions. I mean someone might not consider everything else except Transformers as anime citing how the Japanese have appropriated the show for their own and that the toy line originated from them (never mind the fact that the show was originally targeted for the American market). So it really isn't the first time that a label like "anime" or "manga" has been in contention, even if at their fundamental level, they really just mean animation and comics to the Japanese.

The second incident is the history of American comics. In countries like Europe and Japan, comics get a lot of respect. In fact, it's accepted as a literary vehicle. In America, as much as it pains me and my fellow comic fans to admit, that's not really the case. When you speak of comics to the casual person, they'll probably have one of two mental images: superheroes in spandex or the funnies found in newspapers. To combat this pervading paradigm, the industry adopted the term graphic novels. Now tackling the history of comics and graphic novels will take up this entire essay. Suffice to say, it worked to a certain extent, and so in the 80's and early 90's, you saw two terms for comics in US comic stores: comics and graphic novels. I'd just like to note that the comics industry has its fair share of detractors towards the term graphic novel. But what one cannot deny is that graphic novels is a marketing term that is effective. One doesn't catch bookstores stocking comics (please, don't take me literally--exceptions do apply) but instead they're stocking graphic novels! (Never mind the fact that the content is the same.) For me, this is relevant because that's very much the same reason why publishers have started to label their own material as OEL Manga because apparently, the term manga is very marketable these days. (Manga fans of the 90's will find this ironic because for a time, the market wasn't ready for manga and so they were classified as graphic novels early on to help sell them.)

Now to purist fans, when you speak of OEL Manga, they'll point to who they perceive is the biggest offender: Tokyopop. They've churned out several OEL Manga, some of which are based off popular properties such as Warcraft. Following that trend, other publishers have released OEL manga that are similarly based on popular properties such as OEL manga written by romance author Christine Freehan or by pop-rock artist Avril Lavigne. However, OEL Manga isn't anything new. Perhaps one of the earliest OEL Manga titles is Adam Warren's The Dirty Pair originally published by Eclipse Comics and then later by Dark Horse. This was back in the late 80's (1988 if Wikipedia is to be trusted) but of course, back then, The Dirty Pair wasn't really trying that hard to be manga. Sure, Adam Warren was obviously influenced by manga/anime but it wasn't pretending to be manga, especially not because of its format (large, single issues--you know, the regular format American comics came in). Instead, it took the franchise into its own unique direction. And before that, there were the Robotech comics by Comico and Eternity--which while I wouldn't label as having a manga aesthetic more than an anime aesthetic, is still based on a popular Japanese property. So OEL Manga has actually been around for quite some time. One could make an argument that both examples I cited aren't really OEL Manga because they're not original properties but rather based on existing ones, but I think that's besides the point: they're titles written and drawn by Americans for Americans using a certain Japanese aesthetic (which I think describes OEL Manga in general although feel free to contend this definition). If you want more precision, Viz had the Amerimanga line in the early 90's. I don't think that really caught on but to be fair, selling manga back then was difficult.

For me, it's not really a surprise for countries to appropriate material from other countries: it was good enough for Rome after all. That's not to say there aren't differences between OEL Manga and manga written/drawn by the Japanese. But I do like to point out two things (cue history lesson segment here). The first is that the OEL Manga movement isn't particularly new. The French have their La Nouvelle Manga, Koreans have their Manhwa, and the Chinese have their Manhua (and honestly, to westerners, noticing the differences in pronouncing manga, manhwa, and manhua is difficult--not to mention the actual differences between them and "authentic" manga). Even here in the Philippines we have our own attempts at using a certain aesthetic (but in some cases, I'd like to think it's more of an anime influence more than a manga influence) although we don't really have a label for it. Which is fair I think because manga wasn't developed by being inclusive--rather, it gradually formed to be what it is thanks to foreign as well as local influences. And at the end of the day, manga is just another name for comics. (Plus the Japanese have this thing called the International Manga Award.) The second point I want to make is addressed to purists. As I mentioned in my views on translations, if you want to be 100% faithful to the concept of manga, don't read the translation or the scanlations. Read it in the original language, Japanese, and view it from the lens of a Japanese person. That's honestly the only way to retain its "purity". The moment you translate a material--any material be it fiction, a poem, etc.--something is already lost in the transition from one language to another (that's not to say we can't live with the change, merely acknowledging that there is a change and that is part and parcel of reading translations). There'll always be editorializing going on even if you're reading authentic manga that's been translated into English. For example, in the face of a cultural joke, the editor has usually one of two choices: either translate it literally and hopefully put a footnote explaining it (but we all know the saying that a joke isn't funny if you have to explain it) or translate it in spirit, using another context that the reader is more familiar with. Then there's the matter of sound effects, flipped or unflipped manga, etc. (Honestly, some of these changes, I can live with.)

At the end of the day, when I pick up a comic, I'm not asking whether this is manga or OEL manga or a plain Western comic. The question I ask myself is whether a) the comic in question works and b) was it fun and enjoyable. There are a lot of authentic manga out there that's just crap or simply doesn't appeal to me (i.e. a genre that I'm not a fan of). The same goes for OEL manga and comics in general. There will be Western-made titles that I will hold in higher esteem than Japanese titles. One must remember that manga is a term that just means comics (and comics come in all forms and sizes) just as graphic novels is a term. In an era where cross-pollination among cultures is starting to emerge (Kia Asamiya's Batman: Child of Dreams comes to mind--a manga that was written and drawn by a manga-ka for a Japanese audience), having an uncompromising standard is perhaps unacceptable. To those who dislike identifying comics created by Westerners as manga, well, that's why the industry is attaching the OEL label before the word manga to make a distinction. As far as terminologies go, we must remember that words aren't stagnant but evolve. Fans may want manga to mean comics made in Japan but who knows what the future has in store? In the future, manga might simply mean black-and-white comics drawn with a particular style that's packaged in a certain size. It wouldn't be the first word that's appropriated outside of Japan (the first casualty of anime/manga fandom is probably the word "otaku") and I doubt if it's the last.


Anonymous said...

I find your essay very clever. It's the best I read about the OEL manga 's debate. Thank you.

John T said...

This is a very well-written essay, and I agree with much of what you say.

As you point out, if "manga" simply means "comic" then why are non-Japanese people calling their work "manga". I think for two very different reasons: 1) Marketing. The Manga Bible is an example. And 2) they think they are making comics in a "manga-style". I would argue there is no "manga-style".

I have no problem with the term "OEL manga" or publishers that use it. I think it is a fair "compromise". I don't like it when they call American drawn and published works simply "manga". I think that is misleading and unfair to fans like me, that are interested in manga due to a love of Japan (and not the other way around.)

Charles said...

Cilou: Thanks!

John T: I'm not entirely comfortable either with non-Japanese manga simply being called manga (dropping the OEL) but I also think because of what you stated as #1 (a marketing term), I think publishers will appropriate the term for their own and eventually manga will be a term that describes how comics are packaged rather than a particular art style or ethnic origin.

As for #2, I it's a yes and no. Yes, there is no single particular "manga style" yet it can be argued that most Japanese-made manga have a certain attribute to it (whether it's an aesthetic, a narrative method, etc., I can't quite point my finger on it) that makes you identify it as Japanese, in the same way a perceptive reader can distinguish manga from manhwa. But obviously it's not something as simple as "hey, big eyes" or "look, black-and-white cinematic comics" or "decompression".

John T said...

It has become a complex topic, in recent years, hasn't it?

I think publishers will appropriate/steal/bastardize the term, and there isn't much shlubs like me can do about it.
if trade-paperback is too clunky a term (and it very well may be) then we need to think of a new one. I am not saying the term "manga" is too precious, I just think it's too misleading. Appropriate it or not, it will still mean comics in Japanese, and old fogys like me aren't going to forget it.

In terms of "#2", I have yet to see a non-Japanese "manga" fool me into thinking it was "manga" either in artwork or in story structure. That thing you can't "put your finger on" is exactly what I am talking about. It can't be imitated, but is what makes manga MANGA...and that's why I think the term should be left to real mangaka.

Charles said...

One manga that came close for me was Blade for Barter. The knowledge that it's OEL was more or less the only factor (that and the genre it was covering) that distinguished itself as something else.

John T said...

Really? Blade for Barter looks very OEL to me. Maybe it is the thick lines on the cover...

I would hardly classify myself as any sort of "manga detective" but as someone who reads manga to connect with a certain faction of Japanese culture, they stick out to me. It may be because my needs are specific, and possibly selfish. I just want truth in advertising, and manga from Japan.