What Makes It Manga? The Building Opposite

This year, Kai-Ming Cha named a non-manga book by Jeffrey Brown to her Top 10 Manga of 2007 list for Publishers Weekly Comic Week. This obviously caused some discussion. I just read The Building Opposite, mostly because it was #1 on her Top 10 Manga of 2006 list (link no longer available), and discovered that it’s not manga either.

The Building Opposite cover
The Building Opposite
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It’s by Vanyda, a young French artist, and it’s a series of incidents in the lives of the inhabitants of a small apartment building. There’s a young couple on the top floor, an older couple with a large dog on the middle floor, and a single mother with a four-year-old on the first floor. It’s much more European than Japanese in both mood and art style, with loose linework and expressive figures. It’s not bad, but it’s not great, either — I don’t have much to say about it either way.

The book it reminds me of most, actually, is Gabrielle Bell’s Lucky, because of its episodic nature and its semi-autobiographical feel. (If the events didn’t happen to the author, they feel like they could have.) Others have compared it to Optic Nerve.

I just don’t understand why it would be called manga. It’s not in the usual digest format; instead, it’s graphic novel-sized, just a little shorter than a typical American comic book. The subject matter would fit right into an independent or “art” comic. It should go without saying that there aren’t any of the stereotypical manga elements included: no robots, maids, schoolkids, soap opera complications, fighting, science fiction, none of that. It doesn’t look like manga: no big eyes, large heads, exaggerated proportions. It doesn’t even look like the older-audience josei manga I’ve seen.

The only reason I can see to tag it “manga” is the publisher. Fanfare/Ponent Mon has put out some very good translated manga, including The Walking Man and Japan as Viewed by 17 Creators. They’ve also put out some books that they call “nouvelle manga“, which seems to be shorthand for “comics made by Frenchmen who like manga and Japanese women”. I kid, but if it weren’t for the publisher labeling these books as manga-influenced, I doubt anyone would call them that independently.

I have no problem calling books by non-Japanese creators manga (for instance, Dramacon) if they seem to fit and it’s a useful descriptor. In this case, though, I’m lost.


  1. […] Johanna Draper Carlson wonders why French cartoonist Vanyda’s slice-of-life drama The Building Opposite is being […]

  2. While confusing, it would be great to see the lines blur to the point where manga are just comics and comics are just manga. The last time I was in Japan, most non-otaku folks called all comics by the name “manga”.

  3. I agree, that’s the ideal future. But so long as manga has such a sales boost over comics in the US, and so long as publications like PW have two separate “best of” lists (although those lines are really blurred in their case; and I did the same thing this year), that’s not likely to happen.

  4. I’m not saying that I agree with “The Building Opposite” being classified as manga, but I don’t fully agree with the way you describe manga by putting it in a box.
    More than anything, manga is a way of story telling, but even the different ways the stories are delivered vary greatly.
    And there is also a genre known as “Slice of life”…no robots, sci-fi, action, maids. And there are tons of manga that don’t deliver the huge eye, exagerated proportions, and big heads you mentioned. Stereotypes are so faux pas.

  5. I agree, we don’t want to resort to stereotypes. If you agree that TBO isn’t manga, how do you define “manga” such that you can determine something shouldn’t be called that? What makes TBO non-manga to you?

  6. I usually side with the intent of the creator. Vanyda is part of the Nouvelle Manga movement, which was begun by Frederic Boilet and deliberately sets out to create slice-of-life comics in the manga style (as opposed to the standard French genres).

    In her review, Mely points to the pacing and the use of black and white as manga-like, and I have to agree. Vanyda uses the very manga-like technique of focusing on a small object or a part of a scene to both slow time down and subtly hint at something about the characters. And I thought her use of panels was very evocative of manga–she chops things up into small single panels, stops the action with wide horizontals, that sort of thing–although I don’t read enough indie comics to know how common that is outside the manga world.

    Vanyda is a young artist who is still learning her craft; the last page of The Building Opposite was a lot better than the first. I think her style will continue to evolve, and it will be interesting to see if she continues in the manga direction.

  7. […] Comics Worth Reading, Johanna Draper Carlson reads The Building Opposite and wonders “What makes it […]

  8. You both certainly speak more intelligently about manga than I can, but just out of curiosity: how many indie slice-of-life comics have you read? I’m wondering if we’re equating it to what we’re more familiar with.

  9. I’m embarrassed to admit that I have probably read fewer than a dozen non-manga comics in the past year, aside from webcomics. I did read the Best Comics of 2006 anthology but I didn’t care much for most of it. For some reason, I find manga easier to read than other types of comics; reading indy comics feels like work. But maybe I’m looking at the wrong books, because I do enjoy a number of webcomics (A.D., Sin Titulo).

    That’s why I put in the disclaimer: Vanyda uses techniques that I see in other manga, but I’m not sure whether they are unique to manga.

  10. I share your feelings on the relative ease of reading, sometimes. :) And thanks for restating your position: that’s a great summary.

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