In an earlier blog post, Manga and Reality, I covered what relationship the ever-present label “manga” has to reality, and I wanted to expand on it with a problem that’s been bothering me for a while. You could read it through again, but it’s pretty bloated with personal material about my own relationship to the term, so here’s an overview (partly paraphrasing from John Agg’s blog post Ruskin Explains Manga):

Many people use the word manga to describe a particular style of drawing, or a particular form of comic storytelling. However, the actual existence of this style is just as debatable as the existence of any other art style when you attempt to set a description of it in stone. Every book that someone decides as being in the manga style differs in some significant way from every other book that they describe the same way. Many of those books will include features which, if they occurred in other books, would not be considered manga at all. Yet many of them will share recognisable features that inform a general sense of “manganess” that that person will recognise when looking at certain images. It is this that people identify when they refer to a style or comic as being “like manga”, “manga influenced” or “a bit manga”.

To complicate this, one person’s sense of manga will differ from another’s:

And we can very easily add another person to the picture:

If we wanted to define a “true” sense of manga, we could keep on adding people to this picture until we had enough to discover the most commonly held ground in the centre of the diagram! However, a diagram gives this issue a false sense of clarity – not everyone has a sense of manga, and it’s hard enough to define in an individual even when it’s there, let alone cross reference that with hundreds of others! The task would be the study of a lifetime! Since I don’t have a lifetime to write this, I can at least say that thinking about the foundations of such a study gives us the impression that we are all sharing a cultural idea with a set of features that overlap at least partially. This means that we can’t deny that “manganess” exists (it surely does, in the collected heads of everyone who uses the term), but equally, we can’t claim that it is rigidly definable or unchanging.

Given this, if you come to the term manga without any pre-conceived notions of what it means, it must be a confusing thing indeed! Let’s imagine you’ve got an idea of what “comics” are in your head, and then you hear people discussing “manga”, proclaiming themselves “manga fans”, or publishing “manga”. The way in which the manga label is used often deliberately sets it apart from comics, and the first question that occurs is naturally “what’s the difference?”.

The “true” answer to that question comes in the same format as the intro to this blog post: they’re one medium of storytelling arranged, part intuitively and part formally, by massive and complexly interrelated groups of people, into two ever-shifting and fragmented categories that are defined by variously differing and hard-to-identify trends, with partially identifiable cores, and whole load of muddy ground in-between…  *deep breath* …in other words a very slippery and unintuitive way to understand something new. What’s much more likely to leap out are the most alien features of the new label:

However, doing it this way comes with a pertinent risk. If someone is a comics fan, they will include under their “sense of comics” everything they recognise as enjoyable about the medium. If they’re then confronted with “manga” (a new label used to define a portion of the same medium), the unfamiliar aspects of the new label are both the ones that they’re most likely to use to form their own definition of it, and the ones they’re most likely to dislike.

Since both categories can contain work that is executed with different degrees of skill and experience, the unskilled and inexperienced portion of the unfamiliar term will often stand out too, meaning that our hypothetical manga-virgin might well form a first opinion by isolating examples that they find unappealing and/or poorly drawn.

I reckon that this same phenomenon underpins many culture and style clashes, causing resentment and hostility wherever it rears its ugly head. Unfortunately, the ever-fluctuating popularity of manga in English speaking countries means that there is always a fresh supply of fans, creators, editors and publishers encountering the manga label for the first time – a portion of which will greet the unfamiliar medium as an imposter of poorer quality!

So we face a situation in which “that style is a bit too manga for me/my company” is often a veiled insult or criticism: an easy way to dismiss work that doesn’t cut it, or a genuine mistake that equates a foreign style with poor quality. The other unfortunate outcome is that commissioners who have only just seen the financial potential in manga sometimes uncritically accept an unskilled artist’s approximation of manga – meaning that shoddy work can be published under the label, in turn reinforcing poor opinions of it.

I can’t see a clear way around this problem, and it’s one that’s been bothering me for a long time. Being manga influenced, I’ve been on the end of comments like “that’s a bit too manga for me” or “nice work but it’s a bit manga”, and they sting, especially since I’m critical of my own work. I’ve even heard of someone being told “your work is looking a lot less manga lately, well done!”, which must really take the biscuit!

All I can say is, we’re all doing books with pictures and words here, and the qualities that make a comic good (careful observation, clear communication, consistency of style, efficacy of pose and expression etc) underpin EVERY visual story, labelled manga intentionally or otherwise! I’d personally prefer criticism to be constructive rather than hidden, since that reveals whether it’s baseless or not, and in turn, helps us all to improve!


  1. liquidcow says:

    I suppose what the “your work is looking a lot less manga lately” quote really means is ‘you’re developing a style that is much more your own’, at least that would be a nicer way of phrasing it.

    I can see much of this applying to music, we’ve had some contentions with labels that people sometimes apply to us (‘goth’ is the most apt one to mention here, it’s similarly dismissive I find). In a way though, you’ve got a bigger problem in that some people are dismissive of the entire medium, hence some of the rather awkward terms people often come up with to avoid using the word ‘comic’.

  2. aqws says:

    Venn diagrams. You’re not doing so well with this “free time” concept, are you?

  3. I fucking love Venn diagrams.

    @liquidcow I’d argue that someone “finding their style” being synonymous with finding quality is a bit of a red herring. There are certainly more or less popularly recognisable styles, or styles that blend more individual points of influence, but neither of those things are always marks of competence. You can improve whilst becoming more recognisably generic or vice versa.
    Interesting to hear that you get similar problems in the music industry – I wonder if there’s some equivalent in most creative industries!

  4. Britt7094 says:

    This reminded me of my dissertation. I looked at how Japanese culture influenced Western design and vice versa (which nicely included manga). The same argument applied across the board, people draw their own conclusions on what labels mean, often based on poor or very limited examples, manga, geisha, the street fashions, even the various idols and music.

    Only 5 years ago at uni, upon hearing me mention manga I was asked:
    “That’s Japanese porn comics, right?”

  5. Kate Holden says:

    One thing I’ve always struggled with is how anybody of Asian extraction gets a lot more allowance for drawing in a manga influenced style for British and American publishers.

    They can have lived in this country their whole life like me, they can be of totally non-Japanese Asian descent, yet they’re allowed to draw in that style and I’m some kind of imposter or hack for drawing in a Japanese influenced because of my Caucasian ethnicity, despite having probably grown up with all the same Japanese cartoons and video games and in the same country as they did!

    A publisher who would turn down a Caucasian artist who draws in a slightly manga-esque style will often be seen taking on an Asian who draws with just as much influence, even if the two artists were born and raised in the same western country. They could have been born in the same town, but Smith is ‘too manga’ and should change to draw in an ‘appropriate’, more western style, while Li is fine to draw that way because it’s ‘part of their heritage’ (even though they’re maybe of half-chinese, half-british descent and were born and raised in Milton Keynes. Doesn’t matter, they have an Asian name; they get a free pass to draw manga).

    I grew up watching Samurai Pizza Cats and Mysterious Cities of Gold and playing Sonic the Hedgehog, and these things had an indelible influence on my sense of aesthetics. The style is not foreign to me; I grew up with it just as much as any other person of my generation in this country. I was designing new Sonic characters of my own imagining in a manga style (though I didn’t know what that was at such an early age, it was just a cartoon style that I happened to like to me) aged six or seven. I am incensed by the idea that I am not allowed to draw in this style I’ve drawn in since I was a little kid just because of my ethnicity!

  6. @Kate Holden
    I can *imagine* what you’re saying being the case, especially when it comes to fans, and I’ve certainly heard other people make the argument before, but being honest, outside some isolated examples on the internet, I’ve never actually seen it in action, and it’s not like this industry is so big that there are significant portions of it that are hidden or inaccessible.

    Anyone with Asian ethnicity that I know of in the UK comics scene who is popular also happens to be very good – nothing to do with ethnicity, just skill and effort.

    If you can point to particular people who are successful beyond the merit of their abilities just because they’re Asian, it would be a more compelling argument, but I certainly can’t think of anyone.

  7. Kate Holden says:


    I am not doubting the quality of the artists here by any means, and it’s extremely hard to find documented evidence here. I know a lot of highly talented artists of every ethnicity. But I will say this; I have been told my work is ‘too manga’ by publishers who already publish work with a stronger manga influence by asian artists working for them. The ‘too manga’ being a comment totally unrelated to any other criticism of my work. Now yes, you could argue that they are saying my work is ‘too manga’ to dodge around the actual issue; that they feel my work is not up to scratch, and as a means of letting me down gently or quickly dismissing me as an inferior artist without having to waste their time detailing my many faults. That would be a perfectly valid explanation.

    I never at any point said that they were popular beyond their abilities or that a caucasian artist faces double standards in terms of how good they have to be; merely that a caucasian artist is much more likely to have to change their drawing style in order to get work and they’d be less likely to be told they needed to change their style if they were an artist of equivalent skill of asian extraction.

    I am not happy with the insinuation that you are making that I am a sub-par artist using ‘but it’s mah style!!!’ as an excuse for lack of work and saying that asian artists have it easy and it’s ‘so unfair!’ or something here.

  8. Archaeon says:

    I hate to say it Paul, but Kate has a point.

    One of the core problems with the cartoons and comics industries in the West is that they’re at the mercy of public perception, and this is the most important factor in the decision making process.

    The sad part is that there are many talented artists who are influenced heavily by anime and manga, but they’ll rarely get a look in because publishers know that for a “manga-esque” comic to sell, it needs an Eastern name attached to it. The average fan is fickle after all, and they’re the market being sold to. They are the ones who automatically relate the style of “manga-esque” images to Japan, and to a lesser degree Korea and China. Because of that they assume that anyone of Eastern origins, regardless of where they were born or raised, will be better than a Western artist of the same calibre.

    The aim of any business is to sell its products, and publishers know for a fact that a Western artist working in a “manga-esque” style will not sell as well as an Eastern one.

    The other part is the stigma attached to the anime and manga industries. The current state of both is such that Western businesses that don’t have a vested interest in them already are keeping them at arm’s length, and the main reason for this is because the Japanese industries have regressed to the point where they believe that shows wil lots of gore and fanservice will save them.

    As a long time observer of both, I can honestly say that this measure is doing more harm than good.

    The simple fact is that publishers don’t take anime and manga seriously because of all the complaints about falling DVD, manga and merchandise sales coming from Japanese studios and distributors (and a few American ones). Add to this what’s coming out of Japan from one season to the next, and it becomes clear why both media are held in low regard.

    Western artists will always carry the dual stigma of being influenced by media that many people perceive as “pornographic”, overly violent, etc, as well as the idea that Eastern artists are somehow superior with these particular styles. That won’t change until the Japanese industries start making the effort to cater to Western and global markets instead of focusing solely on Japan (Ghibli is a prime example of the difference in mentality.

    Everything ties into everything else. Aspects like prejudice are only secondary effects, and the only way affect change on the level you’re observing is to highlight the core reasons why the stigma is there in the first place.

    Anyway, that’s my two pence. I wish you well.

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