During most of my life I’ve struggled not only with my art, but with how I identify myself and my art. I’ve been through various phases of influence, but I discovered “manga” at around the age of 13 or 14, and promptly fell in love with it… or at least the idea of it. I immediately started watching it, reading it, drawing it and attending conventions celebrating it, but at the time I never really thought coherently about what it was. Its technical meaning aside, here are the things that I now realise I associated with the term:
- comics from Japan
- animation from Japan
- games from Japan
- illustration from Japan
- a general style of drawing found in all the above
- an unfamiliar type of storytelling
- a web of exciting new cultural associations and imagery (mostly Japanese)
- a community, both online and at conventions
- artwork created by others from the manga community
- a hobby: I created my own “manga” influenced by the community, style and culture I had discovered
- a profession I aspired to
All that under one new and exciting word! It was obviously a satisfyingly complex and obscure label for the adolescent me to identify myself with, and these elements quickly fused inside me as both an artistic identity and a sub-cultural group to which I could belong. This mangaphile-me still exists – fundamentally so, since its artistic element became the foundation of my career, and its social element was a part of the circumstances that allowed me to become close to my partner, Kate.
However, due to an inevitable clash with reality, I’ve realised in small stages that the bases of the identity are in various degrees, tenuous, generalised, subjective, and in some cases entirely erroneous. What “manga” truly means and how I perceived it are two entirely different things!
In order to get where I’m going with this post, I need to take a quick tangent and describe another part of my self-identity that has grown stronger and clearer over time, rather than more confused. Anyone who reads this blog or knows me personally probably will have guessed, but that other part is science.
Whilst I was studying art at A-Level, I was also doing maths, physics and chemistry, and my University destination was a toss-up between physics and art. I even secured a deferred place on a UCL Physics course, which I pitched against art-based options that opened up whilst doing a foundation in Art and Design. In the end I chose art (thinking about it, the choice was made from the beginning), but my passion for science developed into a personal interest which further evolved into a world-view when I discovered how the scientific method underpins critical thinking and relates closely to the fields of humanism, secularism and scepticism.
Until very recently these two sides, my inner mangaphile and sciencephile never formally met, but perhaps were always accommodated by the fantastic science-fiction to be found under the manga umbrella. Consequently, the design and illustration I’m doing for the SETI Institute is a fantastic fusion that I stumbled across without ever consciously planning. For whatever reason, it just hadn’t occurred to me until recently to mix the two things I love.
This was brought sharply into focus when my favourite science blogger, Phil Plait posted this article about Sara Mayhew, a self-professed manga artist who promotes critical thinking with her work and is a TED fellow to boot, having presented a talk at TED about scepticism through manga… as you might imagine, my heart leapt to read this! My sciencephile agreed whole-heartedly with her message and was fanboyishly envious of her talk and the people she met at TED. My mangaphile resonated with her personal identification. The overall-me was presented with the uncomfortable realisation that it might have been perfectly possible to combine science and manga myself if I’d had the same presence of mind that she obviously has!
Soon after, I noticed that one of my favourite science podcasts, skepticality featured an interview with her and I excitedly had a listen… here’s where things get complicated though, and I have to leave my science-tangent on pause while return to what I was saying about my struggle with what manga “really” means:
The uncertainty started a few years after I got into manga, from the moment I found out that “manga entertainment” (the company from which I used to get most of my Japanese animation on video) had mislabelled themselves and were using the Japanese word for comics, instead of the correct term, “anime”. This prompted me to look into the origin of the words, which took me a good while at the time, but you can pretty accurately and effortlessly discover everything I did on wikipedia now, here and here. It was an odd feeling to find that to the culture of origin, they’re words just as normal as “comics” is to us, or “bandes dessinées” is to the French. It slowly dawned on me that all I was doing was calling my comics “comics” in a different language. The concept that “manga” embodied for me was now somewhat nameless, although no less fully formed. I still identified myself with that exciting world that I described at the beginning of the post, but the identification had become that little bit more abstract.
Soon after, I became aware of a large debate that was going on between manga fans about whether non-Japanese people could/should create “manga” or call themselves “manga-ka”. The answer wasn’t clear-cut: manga as I had found out is just a Japanese word for comics, and whilst English speaking creators are well within their own rights to appropriate the word, the point of doing so contains lots of debatable implications. This lead me to question the validity of the category, and my motivations for identifying myself with it. My reasoning at the time went something like this:
Well, I may not be Japanese, but I’m inspired by more that relates to manga than I am by any other type of animation or comics. The quality and diversity of storytelling I find in manga far surpasses any equivalent that I’ve encountered, so calling myself a manga-ka is a declaration of my influence and intent.
Following this I quickly exhausted the small number of translated titles I was interested in and had to dig deeper for more material, turning to what might have been considered “alternative” manga and anime. Taiyo Matsumoto’s Tekkon Kinkreet was an early example, as were many from the fantastic exhibition, “Manga, short comics from Japan” where I was first exposed to the work of Jiro Taniguchi. On the side of animation, I discovered a fansubbing company called the JollyRoger, who released un-translated and relatively obscure animation such as the fantastic shorts by Studio 4degreesC, some more recent examples of which I’ve talked about on this blog. What I found included hints of an even vaster array of styles and subject matters that were difficult to contain in any conceptual category other than “made in Japan”. The range of material that I had previously identified as manga and anime was exposed as representative of a Japanese mainstream that was archetypal or even clichéd when seen alongside the totality of all the animation and comics produced in Japan. In short, my mangaphile had become more complex and even harder to define, whilst my work took on wider influences.
Still, all this quality I find from Japan must be unique to the country I found myself thinking, I’ve not experienced anything like this diversity anywhere else… and then I went to study animation and illustration at University, whilst Kate went to study sequential illustration, and through our shared educational experiences my horizons were broadened further. I was introduced to all sorts of independent animation and comics from Europe, the UK and the US. Japan wasn’t unique, there was much of the same quality and huge range of subjects and styles to be found elsewhere, but here’s the tricky thing (and this is something that I still believe to be a fair generalisation): The visible mainstream of comics and animation in English speaking countries is extremely narrow in terms of content when compared to the mainstream from Japan. The two art-forms are just that much more ubiquitous in Japanese culture and so have a more diverse popular core, if not a more diverse overall structure.
At the time, I was struggling to come to terms with all this knowledge and put it into some comprehensible framework. I tried to do this at the end of my degree in the form of a dissertation on the subject, in which I researched and wrote about animation and comics in Japanese culture. Looking back on it, the content is full of interesting facts and figures, but its conclusions were naive and came mostly from the mangaphile inside me that desperately wanted to retain its identity in the face of a rapidly unreconcilable reality.
Here’s where I return to the Sara Mayhew interview at Skepticality. It was a fascinating and (despite the fact that I’d never come across her work before) oddly personal thing for me to listen to, simply because so much of what she talked about was familiar. I found myself wishing that I could successfully incorporate critical thinking and science in my work too, and wondering how I might go about it. I even sent her an email to say that I thought it was a great thing she was doing, and that it had given me the confidence to try something similar. However, this is the awkward thing, whilst I admire Sara’s work, there was something that made me uneasy about the way she defined manga when she was asked. It reminded me a little of the way I summed up my opinions earlier: The quality and diversity of storytelling I find in manga far surpasses any equivalent that I’ve encountered (that’s me quoting me, not quoting her, but I think it paraphrases what she was saying reasonably).
It’s hard to express why this made me uneasy, since it’s something I’ve agreed with wholeheartedly, but I can’t help but feel that there’s a disparity somewhere. I’ve done my best to apply critical thinking to everything I do, from my personal beliefs to the way in which I approach my work and by writing this post I’m trying to approach a framework in which my mangaphile and sciencephile can properly resolve the various conflicts that I’ve described. I realise this has become a mammoth and over-burdened, but if anyone who is actually still with me will put up with it for a bit longer, I think I’ve found a good analogy for this disparity.
I’ve now realised that this podcast episode “Race and Reality” (also from Skepticality) was the unconscious catalyst for this post. I even made my title a play on those words without realising it. It’s a lengthy and fascinating interview with Guy P. Harrison, a science and history lecturer and author of the book “Race and Reality: What Everyone Should Know About Our Biological Diversity”.
I had heard the principle that human genetic diversity is really very narrow before, but never understood it fully until I heard Guy speak. It essentially states that despite superficial evidence to the contrary (facial, skin and statistical differences between what we call “races”), the average genetic difference between one “race” and another is utterly negligible. As an illustration, Harrison describes two seemingly “black” tribes living next to one another, visually indistinguishable to a casual “white” observer. He points out the startling fact that the tribes are genetically more different from one another than a randomly chosen white European and East-Asian person would be. This is extremely counter-intuitive, how can two identical looking tribes be more different than two totally different other races? I think this boils down to common ancestry: if you were to trace the European and the East-Asian’s families back to a common ancestor, it would be a more modern one than the first common ancestor found between members from each of these tribes! The fact is that all humans come from a relatively narrow genetic stock: we ultimately hail from Africa (and not so long ago as far as evolution is concerned) so our subsequent racial categories are primarily cultural, partially arbitrary, and mostly defined by superficial differences. If I haven’t done a good job describing what I mean, check out the podcast or the book, they’ll do a much better job.
The thing is though, the fact that there’s no big human genetic diversity doesn’t mean that there isn’t a difference between races! No matter how arbitrarily defined a race is, belonging to it has a measurable impact on your life because of the way people around you perceive you and treat you. Your racial circumstances (i.e. who your parents are, what your nationality is and what your skin colour is) can affect everything from your health to your career! This social and psychological effect is the foundation of the flawed “science” behind claims that there are genetic differences between races, since statistical analysis of different races and nations often reveals large, very real disparities in IQ, criminality and other developmental factors. The flaw is ascribing these statistical findings to genetics instead of to social circumstances and history.
It’s extremely tricky to wrap your head around this concept, since it seems so contradictory. There are differences between races, but at the same time, there aren’t.
I want to get back onto my original topic of manga to (finally) bring this all together and illustrate what I’m trying to grasp at.
“Manga” is a category much like a race… in fact, it defines itself in a partially racial manner! It’s a nebulous and poorly defined category that both is and isn’t real. Depending on who you talk to, “manga” means different things: to me it was this amazing new community; to the culture of origin, it’s just “comics”; to manga fans, it’s a superior style of comics; to some sensationalist media outlets, it’s been branded pornographic and violent. All these things are and aren’t true, and if this still seems contradictory to anyone, it has done to me for the longest time! I’m only now beginning to understand the sort of critical framework needed to encompass this one, sneakily complicated word.
Because of the social, cultural and historical background behind manga, there is a measurable difference between it and other comics, just like there’s a measurable difference between “white” people and other humans even though both “white” and “manga” are very confused categories. There is also an aesthetic (stylistic) difference between manga and other comics, a different distribution of genres and production methods, and many other differences… but, crucially, they’re all on average.
Here’s a thought experiment to illustrate: you randomly pick two comics, knowing only that one is manga and one is not. This tells you what style they’re likely to be in, but not what style they actually are. It gives you some more likely and less likely genres for both comics, but only actually reading them will confirm which is which. In short, it tells you only what they might be, not what they are. Furthermore, if we allow different people to do the categorising, the term “manga” becomes a shifting goal-post, and what one person might consider to be manga, another might class a different way.
Given all this, what does it mean to say that “I draw manga”, or that “manga contains more quality than western comics”? These statements may have a kernel of truth, but in order to be true critial-thinkers, we must see past the categories, past the statistics, and ask ourselves fudamental questions about the make-up (the “genetics”) of comics, and what makes an individual comic better or worse, more or less affective, appealing to which people, and exclusive of which? This is the issue at the roots of what made me uneasy with Sara Mayhew’s (and my own) definition of manga. It’s the disparity at the centre of my personal identity.
So, where does this leave me, a self-professed “manga artist”? Like with racial categories, the label itself isn’t going to vanish overnight, so the questions are: is the label a positive one, or is it restrictive? Does it help comics reach a larger audience, or does it just segregate the industry and keep each segment in a sort of “comics ghetto”? Do we sacrifice, by announcing our influences, the reader’s chance to do their own categorising? And, if the reader’s categorising keeps the manga ghetto intact, what can we do to open things up to a wider audience and a wider frame of mind?
Emma Vieceli, Kate and I have talked extensively (often late into the night) about these questions, and although I can’t say we have the ideal solution, I think we all agree that the manga label might well hold comic work back, both from outside influence, and a larger audience. We’d like to see a comics industry free of arbitrary segregation, in which the best comics from every culture are read by every comics fan, and influence is free to flow from any source to any other without then being constrained by publishers’ labels, shelving arrangements, or media identity… I wonder how we go about achieving that.
A quick disclaimer, since this is quite a personal topic: this isn’t meant to in any way be disparaging of any particular style. Style is a personal choice, neither “right” nor “wrong” implicitly, although varying quality can be found amongst any style. It’s how styles are advertised and segregated once they’re chosen that concerns me.