A Glance at the World of Japanese Graphic Novels
Manga (Japanese comics) is a fast-growing part of the U.S. publishing market. American interest in manga began in the 1990s, and boomed in the last few years with the proliferation of Japanese video games. Manga characters are instantly recognized by at least two generations of gamers. Television shows, films and other video adaptations (anime) reinforce story lines prevalent in manga, chock full of heroes and plots that pit good versus evil. Does this sound familiar? Of course it does. American comics, whose sales peaked in the mid twentieth century, hooked young readers on similar themes. Manga is mysterious to many people and it's not without its critics, some of whom deem themselves "serious readers."
The term manga was coined in 18th century Japan to describe the graphic novels being published at the time. Today, manga fans devour titles with gusto, despite an average of 400 pages per book. Japan is a highly literate country whose citizens are often seen reading in subway stations, at cafes, or wherever a moment of down time presents itself. This format lends itself to quick scan reading and its size enables portability.
Manga is brimming with symbolism, requiring a primer on the mechanics of the story before readers get started. Titles sold in the U.S. have instructions plastered on what westerners deem the front of the book. The uninitiated are told to "STOP" and begin reading at the back of the book. Frames and word bubbles must be read from right to left. The lesson is quick and easy, non-preachy and will make sense when you pick up a book.
Once you're comfortable with the flow of words and pictures, there are symbols and stylistic differences to look for. Manga is published with gender in mind. Shojo, the Japanese word for girl, describes a style of storytelling for females, and shonen, or boy, depicts stories for males. Shojo is recognizable by its tendency to focus on relationships. In shojo, boy characters are drawn with feminine lines and there are pronounced details in the depiction of clothing and scenery. Shonen is more likely to have strong male characters, voluptuous women, and tend toward slapstick jokes and situations.
At face value these are entertaining stories, but if you dig a little deeper you'll be rewarded with an array of interesting cultural mores. Hairstyle, facial features, clothing and even blood type play an important role in the story. The larger the eye is drawn, the more innocent the character. A guy drawn with two narrow slits where his eyes should be is a bad seed.
Themes can be a little risqué by American standards, but this seems to be part of the draw for fans. In most American literature the descriptive narrative leaves much for the reader's imagination to fill in. Depending on the intended audience, manga is capable of packing a visual wallop. There are stock characters that every fan expects to be in the story. Much like the supportive sidekick found in an American western, manga fans immediately recognize a lecherous old man or a bespectacled genius for what they symbolize in the progression of the story.
It is best to keep an open mind when partaking in this format and pay attention to the publisher's rating system, especially if you are a parent choosing books with your child. Is a picture actually worth a thousand words? Check your local library or bookstore's manga collection to see for yourself.
Meet CASEY BROOK MCPHEE
Casey Brook McPhee is an avid reader who has worked in libraries for twenty years. She is torn between her love for the scent and tactile pleasure of books and the instant gratification the Amazon Kindle provides.