by Ed Sizemore
Hang around Twitter or manga discussion forums long enough, and you’ll see the debate about how to ‘properly’ define manga pop up. Usually this happens when a work by a non-Japanese creator (such as Svetlana Chmakova, Felipe Smith, or Adam Arnold) gets labeled as manga. However, Jiro Taniguchi provides us with a challenge to the definition of manga from the Japanese side. Is it still manga when a Japanese artist intentionally seeks to emulate Western comics?
It’s no secret that Taniguchi modeled his own art style after Jean Giraud, better known in American as Moebius. In fact, one common comment you’ll see in reviews of Taniguchi’s books is how un-manga-like his art is. It’s not just that Taniguchi doesn’t use the stereotypical ‘big eyes, little mouth’ style people associate with manga. He also doesn’t use most of the visual shortcuts we see in manga, like the infamous large sweatdrops, nosebleeds, and snot bubbles. On a deeper level, Taniguchi tends to stay away from elaborate or innovate page constructions. He sticks mostly to a simple grid format commonly used by Western comic creators. So is Taniguchi’s work really manga?
Before we try to answer that question, let’s look at another manga creator with international connections, Kia Asamiya. He’s an accomplished manga artist that did a story called Batman: Child of Dreams. This was a DC-sanctioned comic serialized in Kodansha’s Magazine Z in Japan. DC liked it enough that they translated it and published here in America as a graphic novel. Now is this Batman story manga? DC Comics certainly thinks so. The promotional literature says, “Batman gets the manga treatment!”
But DC isn’t the only American comic company Kia Asamiya has worked for. He has also done work for Marvel. His credits include Thor: Gods on Earth, Killraven Premiere, and Avengers: World Trust. So are these books manga? I suspect both comics and manga fans would say no. Certainly, Marvel isn’t touting them as manga. So why is Asamiya’s Batman book manga and his work for Marvel not?
Let me suggest this definition for manga: comics first published in Japan by a Japanese creator. It seems to solve our Asamiya dilemma and get at the heart of what most manga readers find essential to manga.
Of course, there is the little matter of Peepo Choo. Creator Felipe Smith is an American living in Japan. Peepo Choo was written for and serialized in the manga magazine Morning Two. So it definitely meets half the requirements. Should we consider Felipe Smith a Japanese creator? Not yet.
Let me unpack what I mean by “Japanese creator”. I don’t mean simply someone born in Japan or of Japanese descent. If George Takei (best know as Star Trek’s Sulu) was to begin publishing comics in Japan, I wouldn’t consider them manga either. “Japanese creator” means someone who is part of the manga tradition in Japan. I do mean “tradition” and not style.
The mistake some people make in trying to define manga is thinking that it’s a specific art style. However, you don’t have to look far to see how absurd that idea is. Just look within the pages of the most popular manga magazine, Shonen Jump. Compare the art of Bakuman, Hunter x Hunter, Kochikame, and One Piece. You have art ranging from very detailed and realistic to simple and highly exaggerated. You won’t mistake one series for another. Yet, all these are manga.
Manga is defined more by the way stories are told. Visuals are as important, if not more important, than plot, dialogue, and character. You won’t see any pages of just talking heads rattling off exposition. You won’t see walls of text with just the occasional illustration. Manga wants to create all the visual excitement of a well-crafted movie. This ‘art first’ approach is what I mean by the tradition of manga. Creators spend their lifetimes trying to master it.
This is why Felipe Smith isn’t yet a Japanese creator. He is just beginning his apprenticeship in the manga tradition. Those born and raised in Japan have a big advantage. They are raised in the manga tradition, even if they aren’t manga fans. It’s as native to the country as their language. Without wanting or trying, they learn it. The creators are the ones who take the steps to study it, understand it, and become an active part of it. If Smith stays in Japan long enough, then one day he too will stop being manga-influenced and simply become manga.
So Taniguchi might have borrowed his art style from Jean Giraud and Western comics, however, his storytelling style is very much Japanese. Pick up any of his works, and you will see that he is a graphic storyteller in the truest sense of the term. He uses the art to do most of the storytelling. The narration and exposition serve visuals.
Taniguchi isn’t just a manga creator; he is a master of the tradition. His stories are for the more mature and attentive reader. Characters don’t tell us they’re mad. We see their anger. It’s in their eyes, facial expressions, and body language. Tragic moments are left silent. The lack of words adds weight and solemness to the emotion. You can’t simply skim the dialogue or narration and know what is going on. You have to actually look at the art to understand the story.
It’s creators like Taniguchi that help us see what is really significant about manga. They strip away the surface distractions of ‘big eyes and small mouths’. As the manga that get translated into English become more diverse, the greater our understanding and appreciation of the manga tradition will become, too. Perhaps one day you won’t need to live in Japan to be raised in the manga tradition.