Monday, July 17, 2006

Manga, Manga, Manga

I've been interested in manga for some time, but only recently got serious about trying to understand the genre. It's fascinating, and I'd like to share what I've discovered. I'll probably do more posts on the subject as my learning curve grows.

The Japanese word manga means "whimsical pictures" and is said to have been coined by a wood engraver named Katsushika Hokusai who produced a sketchbook called Hokusai Manga in the early nineteenth century. The process of producing prints using a wood block, ink and paper (called ukiyo-e) had been around for hundreds of years when Hokusai's sketchbook came out, but he appears to be the first one to actually combine the characters "man" and "ga."

In the United States, comic books (as opposed to comic strips) began being produced in the early 1930s. The field quickly became dominated by super-heroes. The character of Superman was introduced (1938) about the time World War II broke out in Europe. By the time World War II ended in 1945, the Golden Age of comic books was well underway in the U.S.

About the time the war ended, a teenage artist by the name of Osamu Tezuka was making a name for himself in his homeland of Japan. Tezuka is credited with creating story manga, using the manga format to tell a tale. Heavily influenced by Western movies, particularly those of Disney, Tezuka became famous in 1947 for doing the artwork for the manga book Shin Takarajima (New Treasure Island). The 60-page action adventure was a runaway hit, selling 400,000 copies. From that moment on, Tezuka's output was amazing. Before his death in 1989, he drew 150,000 pages for 600 manga titles and another 60 animated works.

Tezuka's style was cartoonish with wide-eyed characters, and his audience was primarily children. As the demand for his stories grew, inflation began to hurt the industry. An ingenious solution emerged: rental libraries for manga. Instead of paying 100 yen to buy a manga, Japanese children could pay a library 10 yen to have use of the book for two days. This made the monthly publications affordable for everyone.

Most Americans know Tezuka because of his character Astro Boy, who was introduced in Tezuka's series Captain ATOM around 1952. Astro Boy was the first anime (animated) manga character. Called Tetsuwan Atomu in Japan, he became the star of a Japanese animated television show in 1963 and later came to U.S. TV in the '80s as Astro Boy.

At the same time Tezuka was drawing manga for children, another manga artist emerged. Yoshihiro Tatsumi, seven years younger than Tezuka, coined a new term gekiga ("dramatic pictures") for his work, which was intended for more mature audiences. Artists like Tatsumi addressed grittier, tougher subjects and, instead of Disney, took their inspiration from film directors like Kurosawa.

Where the typical manga book would contain a dozen titles, the typical gekiga contained a single, more complex storyline with much higher production values. This style of book was extremely popular in the late '50s.

The arrival of the '60s changed the landscape. Television was taking hold of the population, and teenagers had more disposable income. They no longer relied on the rental libraries for their reading material. Even so, according to Manga: Sixty Years of Japanese Comics by Paul Gravett, "Starting in 1959 . . . the Japanese comics industry experienced a remarkable period of growth. This was fueled by the dynamic expansion of the economy and the increase in the available audience."

Like the United States, Japan experienced a baby boom after the war. The teenage boys of the '60s were demanding more frequent fixes of their favorite heroes. Thus was born the weekly shonen (boy's) manga. This was the beginning of the manga we know today.

I'm going to stop here. I'll pick it up another time.

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