Greetings TAY, this is your friend poco here with a column I'd been thinking about writing for a while (and thanks to DamsonRhee for the encouragement yesterday to do it!). While many of my esteemed colleagues (messieurs... mesdames... *doffs cap*) do a great job writing about Japanese TV and film animation, I thought I could add my perspective on the world of manga, highlighting a few of my favorite books and opening up some discussion on the topic.
For starters, I should probably get out in front and say that I'm not any kind of expert on manga. I don't subscribe to Shonen Jump (though I bought an issue at an airport a few years ago and quite enjoyed it), I don't read scanlations (except in a few rare cases where the books I'm looking for are untranslated), and I don't keep up with popular, new series coming out of Japan. I am coming at this from the perspective of a lifelong comic book fan and somewhat recent comic book scholar.
Now that that's out of the way, time to talk a bit about my manga history: The high school I went to had a rather large population of exchange students, mainly from Korea and Japan. Through a few good friends I was introduced to the world of anime, and soon afterwards, manga.
At the time, anime made sense to me. Manga, however, did not. For one thing, it was (and, frankly, still remains) incredibly jarring for me to read comics "backwards." Additionally, there was the problem of usually being in the middle of long-running storylines. And finally, there was just a more general culture-shock of the art styles, which I did not appreciate at first, finding them thoroughly odd-looking. All these added up to make me feel like manga just "wasn't my thing;" a simple matter of taste. But oh, how wrong I was...
The first manga that made a serious impression on me was a true classic of the form: Lone Wolf and Cub, written by Kazuo Koike and illustrated by Goseki Kojima. I'd like to share my thoughts on this in more detail on a later post, but suffice it to say that this comic singlehandedly made me reevaluate my opinions. The simple yet powerful premise of a wandering ronin and his son trying to survive immediately appealed to me. As a huge fan of spaghetti westerns, and an equally huge fan of the samurai films that influenced them, this book had everything I never knew I wanted from a manga. Kojima's artwork has an wonderful expressiveness, something that I'd previously found lacking from the more sterile-looking and tightly-rendered modern manga I'd read. Each story could almost be told completely visually, though that is not at all meant to diminish Koike's impressive contributions as a writer.
So, I'd found a manga I liked, nay, loved, but I was still far from a true "fan." Next came Blade of the Immortal, by Hiroaki Samura. It was a logical next step, being a more modern take on the Samurai genre, while offering some terrific body-horror and bloody action to boot. The story follows the ronin Manji, whose blood contains a "sacred bloodworm" that heals all wounds inflicted upon him, hence "the Immortal." While my first attempt at manga-reading was largely stymied by the art style, it rapidly became the biggest selling point for me in both Lone Wolf and Blade. Samura has an incredible style that really brings home the book's vicious, bloody action. It's highly dynamic, exceptional at capturing movement and speed, and yet almost equally exceptional at slowing down and capturing quiet moments with a skillful use of pencil rendering. While I never finished reading this series due to the fact that I ran out of published volumes, I still intend to catch up with the remainder now that the book is finished.
So once again, there was a manga vying for my attention. Meanwhile, I was trying to write my art history thesis on "Modernism in the American Comic Book." Out of necessity I had chosen to limit myself to the American comic culture, as I'd been immersing myself in Will Eisner and Jack Kirby for months already, and the European and Japanese comic scenes presented too many complications to work into my thesis. I doubted I could expand my argument's scope to include them in any insightful way. But still, books kept coming to my attention, slowly, inexorably, drawing me Eastward...
After finishing my art history thesis and graduating, I, like many college grads, found myself at loose ends. In the intervening years a strange school had opened up near my old hometown, promising a higher education in all aspects of comics and cartooning, and boasting a remarkably impressive faculty. After a few conversations with the school's founder, as well as my art history thesis advisor and studio-art professor, I decided that this place was something I needed to check out, lest I regret it. I whipped up some drawings using my meager studio-art experience and slightly-less-but-still-meager photoshop skills, and sent off an application.
Meanwhile, I was unemployed, living in a house where the only income was a single well-connected roommate "entrepreneur" (aka, weed dealer). I got my kicks from daily walks to the library, trying not to get too hungry passing by the restaurants on my way there lest I ruin my budget. It was at this library where I first read the work of Osamu Tezuka, the man they call "the kamisama [God] of manga."
Tezuka did not earn this title by sitting idly. He created over 700 individual manga series in his lifetime, drawing an estimated 170,000 pages of finished artwork and an additional 200,000 of scripts and drafts. By my calculations, placed in a single stack those pages would be roughly 125 feet tall. A literally towering achievement.
His most famous creation is Astro Boy, however I was introduced to him through his Buddha series, which became quite popular when it was reprinted several years ago (the English translations earned him several posthumous awards). These are fantastic books, telling the story of Siddhartha's transformation into the Gautama Buddha through a series of interrelated vignettes. While his art style was always well-suited to kids' books, strongly influenced by American animation such as Walt Disney and the Fleischer brothers, Tezuka was never one to shy away from more mature subject matter, often delighting in frustrating and confounding his audience's expectations. In this vein, Buddha's story starts well before the birth of its main character, and rather than simply following Siddhartha throughout, it's instead a sprawling, fascinating epic, told by a master at the height of his powers. This is a fantastic book, despite the fact that it's been overshadowed for me by several other Tezuka works (primarily Phoenix and MW, both deserving posts of their own).
Back in my own life, despite my overwhelming pessimism, I was accepted into the cartooning school; one of 24 new students. While I'd been able to save quite a bit of money on undergrad through scholarships, it still wasn't quite enough to cover the school's tuition.
My grandfather, a long-retired small-town mayor, agreed to cover the difference, despite never having picked up a comic in his life, as he told me. Although he did not seem to understand why it was important to me, he quickly recognized the simple fact that it was, and supported me fully. He died of heart surgery complications only a few months later; the first member of my immediate family to pass away and my closest personal experience with death yet. He was a wonderful man, and I sincerely hope he knew how much he meant to me, allowing me to pursue my dream in a way that lucky few are able. I can't help but remember him fondly every time I touch pen to paper.
My experiences at cartoon school are too much to try and cover in this post, so the brief version goes: I loved it. However, we're getting off topic, so let's get back to manga. On my list of required materials was a book I'd heard a bit about, but never read: A Drifting Life, by Yoshihiro Tatsumi.
It turned out this was the perfect book at the perfect time for me. Tatsumi is widely credited with creating the gekiga style of manga, which is essentially "adult" manga with a strong literary influence. His short stories are absolutely fascinating, offering the kind of "slice-of-life" narratives that are rarely if ever seen in mainstream manga. A Drifting Life, however, is something else: a memoir of his life in the industry, covering a large chunk of manga history as filtered through his own personal experiences. While the story seems to glide over many details, it gives the whole (lengthy) book a kind of historical sweep that nonetheless never looses its footing in Tatsumi's own perspective. His struggles within the industry and against his own creative muses resonated strongly with me, managing to portray the act of comic creation in a mundane way that eventually loops back around to romanticism. It's a beautiful, sad, and fascinating story, although I should warn interested readers that it is a bit on the dry side. While it tells a resonant personal story, this is largely a book for people who are especially interested in manga and manga history.
From that point on my love of manga has only grown, and I'm hoping to share it with the TAY community. This post was designed to get the ball rolling with a few key selections from my manga collection, as well as give you all an idea where I'm coming from. Future posts will focus on a single manga or creator.
Feel free to bring up any manga you personally love, or that influenced you strongly in the comments, and thanks for reading!
Coming up next post: