Manga – What on earth are these googly-eyed-character comics?
Comics is what we call them in the West, while manhua is their name in China, manhwa (or as they are commonly referred to on the internet – webtoons) their name in Korea and, of course, manga in Japan. A general definition would be “an illustrated printed book, whose pages are divided by panels and the dialogues appear in speech bubbles and/or on drawing”. The real question is, are manga in any way different from comics?
Yes, very much so. To answer this, I will try to present manga through commonly asked questions. Before that, here’s some terminology:
- Otaku (as in ‘otaku culture’ and ‘community’): おたく or オタク is a term that describes people that are obsessed with the anime and manga fandom. Whereas in Japan the term has a negative meaning, to the point that it is highly shameful to be called an otaku, in the West the term is widely used to describe the loyal fan of anime and manga, as well as the Japanese language and culture enthusiast.
- NEET (Not in Education, Employment, or Training): a term deriving from the United Kingdom, but has been spread to the East and has come to replace the term hikikomori in Japan, which used to describe reclusive adolescents and adults, suffering from social withdrawal.
- Mangaka: 漫画家 is the artist and very often author of manga.
So let’s start our journey towards understanding a bit about manga. A typical conversation between an otaku and an unfamiliar-someone most often goes like:
- So, what did you do yesterday?
- Ah… Just spent my evening finishing that AWESOME manga I found the other day.
- That cartoon-ish thingies, comic-lookalikes of yours?
- Uhm… yes?
If you ever happen to come across some phone book sized, thin-leafed, 200-or-so-pages comic book in black and white, that start from the back cover, that’s what you call a manga (referring to commonly found independent publications, or tankoubon).
- How do you read this stuff?
After learning how to identify the manga by its looks, that is definitely the next question someone will pose, namely, reading orientation. Japanese is a language that is traditionally written and read from right to left, from the back to the front, regarding the western standards. So, manga as well, follow the same pattern. The correct way to read a manga is “from right to left, from top to bottom”, as I always say to my manga-unfamiliar friends.
- Why is it all black and white?
So, after realizing that there is something wrong with the Japanese, writing the opposite direction, another big question arises. The color. While comics are fully colored, usually printed in glossy paper, manga are most of the times printed on cheap, thin paper, solely in black and white. Well, if we are lucky, we can find some with colored central pages in, but that’s not usually the case. Some say that manga are in black and white because it is cheaper and faster to do so. Because of the fact that many are released on a weekly basis, something like that wouldn’t be strange. Others say that because manga is a light, teenage and NEET reading, it doesn’t need to be in color. Its purpose not being highly thought of, or so it seems. Otaku Culture, in general, is a controversial subject, both in the East and the West, standing somewhere between social stigma and liberating way of living and thinking, but that’s a subject that we will touch upon on a following article. Returning to color, my opinion is that manga were traditionally created in black and white, and remain this way because that’s just the way they are supposed to be. That’s the characteristic they are famous about. Black and white is, also, an art form. Without the typical shadowing used in Art, but with the use of screen tones, simple or heavy lining, mangaka convey not only the emotions and actions, but textures, volume and color, as well.
- And what about these huge eyes and close-ups on people’s faces and so?
Upon overcoming this last ‘technical’ question about manga, people finally start to realize how manga differ so much from comics. The huge-eyes and long, bony bodies are the stereotypic drawing style in manga. As far as focus is concerned, diving a little too deep into page setup, the panel setting for manga is highly distinguishable from other illustrated works. Large diagonal panels that split the page in two, mingling panels and pages that are completely left blank are very common in manga. Why is that? Manga, in general, doesn’t rely on plot or characters alone to get the story across. Paneling in manga plays a major part in the story, conveying emotions and action, focusing on the feeling of the moment, bringing the audiovisual characterization of this kind of literature to the spotlight. When the paneling is done right, for example, it can literally separate two lovers, the one being on the right page and the other on the left, with their thoughts flowing between the two major panels that cover the two-pages piece. The arrangement actually guides us to focus on their flawless expressions, and listen to their kokoro no koe, their heart’s voice.
That concludes our first acquaintance with the vast world of manga. Against every controversy and prejudice, manga is a means of transferring culture. They can be funny and light, but they can as well be a pretty serious reading, worthy of our time and thoughts. If you ever happen to come across a manga book, don’t throw it away, give it a second try. For all you know, this weirdly oriented, black-and-white, googly-styled illustrated story, may change your perspective and broaden your horizons.
- Ookami Shoujo to Kuro Ouji (The Wolfgirl and the Black Prince) by Hatta Ayuko, Bessatsu Margaret (Shueisha), Volume 3, page 129
- Orange by Takano Ichigo, Bessatsu Margaret (Shueisha) & Manga Action (Futabasa), Volume 5, page 189
- Noragami by Adachi Toka, gekkan Shounen Magazine (Kodansha), Volume 1, pages 120-121
- Coulomb Fille by Yoshizuki Kumichi, bessatsu Shounen Magazine (Kodansha), Volume 2, pages 143-144
- Deadman Wonderland by Kataoka Jinsei (author) & Kondou Kazume (artist), Shounen Ace (Kadokawa Shoten), Volume 13, pages 168-169