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‘Misfit Lit’: comics and graphic novels

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How do story telling techniques in Japanese comic media differ to the western tradition?

The differences between the Eastern, Anime and Manga and the Western, Comic and Cartoon counterparts are clear from the outset. Apart from the obvious contrast in styles, there are many more distinctions that can be made between the two.

The words Anime and Manga refer to two separate and distinct, but interrelated things. The word Anime is used to describe Animation of Japan, similar to the animation made popular in America, by companies like Walt Disney. The word Manga is used to describe the Comic Books of Japan, similar to the comic books made popular in America, by companies like Marvel and D.C. To understand the differences in the story telling techniques between the Eastern and Western comic industries, one must first look at the history and culture surrounding these two diverse formats.

Comic strips in Japan originate from the post World War 2 era when American strips were imported into Japan. The format was widely popular and the authors began to create their own strips. While there were weekly strips poking fun at family life others became popular that followed people on journeys. These stories were mostly serial, where the reader had to read every strip in order to keep up with the goings on in the story. This format became successful in a commercial sense because people had to keep buying the next installment to keep up. Various influences can be associated with the manufacture of Manga but many storylines find their roots in the common Japanese religion of Shinto. Shinto is one of the two great systems of religious belief in Japan. Its essence is ancestor worship, and sacrifice to dead heroes. It can best be described as a disorganised religion, where there is no single God but many stories of extraordinary people and things that are worshipped as deities. An important element that must be considered is that the world of anime is in stark contrast to Japanese society.

Emotions are not expressed openly. This is very much true of women in Japanese society. Though they are leaders of the household Japanese women take on a secondary role in most of society. However depictions of characters in anime and Manga reveal something different, cartoon characters for the most part are very outspoken. They deal with their problems in the open. The Japanese also seem to have a fascination with powerful women in anime; the female characters are not the submissive women of Japanese society, but they are still regarded inferior to men. Japanese Manga clearly reflect some of the social characteristics, such as their concern for modern issues to the difference between genders, but it also reflects some of the more negative aspects of Japanese history, and you will find many Manga stories based in a post apocalyptic environment. American cartoons lately have been great reflections of society. To take a look at the cartoons of the past in the U.S. can give an impression of America’s mentality.

In the past all cartoons were directed towards children, a striking contrast to the anime of Japan. Cartoons produced by companies like Disney and Warner Brothers were clearly unintellectual and patronizing to children (compared to anime). The fact that cartoons of the past were used for fulfilling the simplest levels of entertainment reveals something about the American society. America tries to maintain children’s innocence and youth for as long as possible, and therefore their primary entertainment – cartoons, have not really ever displayed any thought provoking issues. The majority promoting Judeo-Christian views that there is a “good” side and a “bad” side, with one “right” answer in the end. This theme is present in almost all American animation series, where there is a good ‘hero’ and an evil ‘villain.’ The line dividing these two sides is strong and never fades. They are usually episodic so that children will never have to worry about missing the odd episode and won’t have to follow a complex storyline or character development usually present in series’. They are designed to be an escape from the harsh world of reality from which we all want to protect our children.

It is also a strange phenomenon that almost all feature length animation by Americans are musicals. Rousing musical numbers designed to excite the senses in a multimedia experience. Hardly any other popular medium except animation has made a successful musical in the last 20 years. Animation in America on the most part is strictly for kids. No one dies, no one gets hurt. The evil villain’s plans are defeated, but the villain himself escapes to hatch new villainy in the next episode. One great difference between Japanese and American TV Series is that the Japanese TV Series are designed to last only one or two seasons, 13 or 26 episodes and then come to a climactic and definite ending

Recently however several American cartoons have broken the mould and chosen to tackle real world problems and issues, while still maintaining a cartoon persona. Cartoons like The Simpson’s, Family Guy, South Park or Spawn have come to the forefront and some have even been labeled for a mature audience. The ways these cartoons depict society is interesting in itself. The primary way in which all these shows display their message is by obvious exaggerations of reality. The Simpson’s and South Park highlight some of the more colorful examples of American family life. The series Spawn presents a character that is neither hero nor villain, but commits good and evil acts at his discretion. These exaggerations make the problems in the real world more apparent. An intellectual person can see that the real world is not as messed up as these cartoons depict. But it may make them look more closely at the things they take for granted. Besides the apparent exaggeration these cartoons are marked with a distinct cynicism, exemplified by characters in The Simpson’s and Family Guy.

Knowing that the typical Japanese reader only spends 4 seconds per page while reading a Manga story must have a profound effect on the way the Manga Artists create their story and their visuals. Four seconds a page isn’t a lot of time for a typical reader to admire the artwork, so the artist gets around this by scaling down the level of detail, but some of them create highly elaborate illustrations that rival anything the best comic artists of any nation have to offer. Part of the reason the Japanese are able to read Manga magazines as fast as they do is that very little text is used. Another reason is the pacing of the stories is very slow and drawn out. Several issues might be used to convey emotions that might be summed up in 3 or 4 wordy panels in an American comic.

The Japanese have a very elaborate use of standard imagery to convey emotions. A large sweat drop on the back of the head displays embarrassment, driving rain represents a character’s sorrow, a breeze blowing flower petals from one person to another symbolizes love, when water drops fall from the eyes of robots, statues, or animals, typically due to the fact that it is raining, you know that an action has occurred that is so sad that even inanimate objects are moved to tears. All these things the Japanese read with a glance as their eyes zip along the page. The residing factor in creating popular Manga is proper page layout. The entire page has to flow; the symbols have to be clear; the words have to be sparse; the entire context of that page has to be completely understood in 4 seconds.

To directly compare the Eastern and Western styles is quite difficult especially in comics, as it would probably take years of reading thousands of Manga to fully comprehend all of the symbolic images representing emotions, seasons, etc., like the cross on the forehead that represents a swollen vein that pops out of your head when you are angry. Americans use words to convey emotions. As the majority of Manga a re printed in black and white a stretch of green that a character in an American comic is standing on can convey the idea of grass. Not so in Japan. The lack of colour requires the Japanese to render in greater detail background items and individual characters so that you can tell them apart. Also the use of shading is more highly developed. For the Manga Artist the layout of the page is very important since the reader has to get through that page in 4 seconds. The images have to flow into each other.

Text and sound effects are illustrated right into the page. Often there is a large detailed image right in the center of the page that contains the main action of that page. The smaller panels around the image help clarify what the main image portrays. Since the Manga Artist knows that if his story is successful, it might continue for years, there is no need to rush the story line. Images replace words, and the artist tries to create a feeling through the images. Action scenes are drawn out over several pages to increase the tension and intensity. Looking at works like Lone Wolf and Cub, a samurai adventure set in feudal Japan, some swordfights continue for five or six pages with no text at all bar the sounds of the swords.

The Japanese comic market has readers of all ages, sexes and education, the market is mature enough to handle storylines of an adult nature. This attracts a large number of Americans to Manga and Anime titles. Usually the series premise is never plain and will almost always have some sort of odd detail to go along with a seemingly normal story, for example in the series Ranma ½ the main character becomes cursed in the first episode, as ‘he’ becomes a ‘she’ when doused with water. A Manga Artist doesn’t feel confined to create one genre of storyline that will appeal to the comic buying public. There are also hundreds of different Manga magazines in which to publish your story. Because the Manga magazine contains several stories from different Artists, a publisher does not have to feel that every single story has to be a hit and can allow more unique storylines to be published. The reader gets to sample many different stories just because that is what is in the Manga magazine they purchased. Diversity is one thing that attracts a majority of the Americans to Manga and Anime titles.

This is where the major distinction lies, previously in the West, comics and cartoons were not seen as the mainstream popular phenomenon they are in Japan. One Manga magazine typically sells 5 million to 6 million copies every week. Compare these numbers to the sales of a translated Manga title in America, where 13,000 books a month is typical. Having said this, the popularity of Manga and anime in the states is growing by leaps and bounds in fact Disney itself is one of the companies to jump on the anime bandwagon having acquired the license to distribute all works directed by the legendary director Hayao Miyazaki. Including many classics such as Porcco Rosso and Laputa Castle in the Sky. But many of these films contain environments centered around violence and action. They carry a strong message and these films would not fit well with the Disney name so they were released through Miramax Films a Disney subsidiary.

It seems the much more liberal Japanese style of storytelling has more of a lasting appeal, at least until recently. It seems the western eyes have been opened by the influx of adult themed hard hitting story lines propagated by their Eastern counterparts, which has created a tide of American comics and cartoons that don’t just deal with good and bad, and take it upon themselves to tackle issues of morality or sexuality. Though the Disney and Warner Brothers cartoons do not provide the intellectual stimulation of other cartoons mentioned, they do provide an escape for children and adults, alike. Slapstick humor has always been popular in America, going back to the classics of the past like Charlie Chaplin and the Three Stooges, and the Warner Brothers Studios have developed this technique well in cartoon format. But it does not seem that the Disney films would be a great a success as the Japanese imports in America. ”This need for escape or need to protect themselves from reality seems to be indicative of the American society”.

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