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!