I have always been a fan of comic books. In the last few years, manga (or Japanese comics) have become quite a craze. The word actually consists of three syllables and the correct pronunciation is (Maw – nnnnn – gah). To illustrate how popular they are, go into any Barnes and Noble. You might find one shelf dedicated to American comics, while at least four (if not more) is packed with manga. It’s obviously selling much better!
I’ve been reading arguments for years from American comics publishers and others that there was no market for comics for kids today. Then why is so much manga being sold? In an attempt to jump on the bandwagon, Marvel will periodically come out with a comic in which the artists try to imitate the style of manga artists. They’re missing the point.
Firstly, I think manga is popular because of the simplicity of the drawing style. When I was a kid, one of the things about comics that appealed was just that. A kid could look at a Spider-man drawing by Steve Ditko and think, “You know, I bet I could draw that.” American comics today are packed with realistically drawn and computer colored images. It is a marvel to look at, but far beyond the reach of the adolescent artist. Even the comics made for kids is illustrated that way.
To show what I mean, I'm going to post two pages from a recent Marvel Adventures Iron Man digest to compare it to two pages of Dragonball Z. I found the Iron Man pages to be quite murky and hard to follow. Compare that to the clean dynamic line of the manga pages.
Secondly, kids can get a lot of story for cheap. The books are printed in black and white on cheap paper. The American comics are obviously much more expensive to produce and cost much more. It also frequently happens that not very much happens in a three dollar comic book. For ten dollars, a kid can get a heck of a lot of story in a manga digest.
Thirdly, there is a great variety of different types of stories being told. There are manga stories about romance, relationships, tennis, and of course, fighting. Shonen manga is typically for boys, and Shojo manga for girls.
I think one of the things about manga that appeals to kids is this return to simplicity. I have to admit, I’ve been reluctant to attempt to read it. As an adult, it was a chore to learn to read “backwards”, since they are written from right to left in Japanese, and even after being translated, American readers need to learn to read that way. Incidentally, the kids don’t seem to have any problem at all with this. It’s us old dogs that need to learn new tricks. With three teenagers in the house, I’ve noticed they can’t get enough of it. I’ve noticed a lot of school kids who weren’t crazy about reading become big fans of reading manga.
I picked up DragonBallZ by Akira Toriyama. It’s the first manga book I’ve read all the way through, and I enjoyed it very much. This is a VizBig edition, meaning the format is bigger than the small digest edition, and collects Volume 1-3 in one big book. It’s what’s known as humorous manga, with some very goofy and silly characters who do a lot of fighting -- page after page after page of supernatural “martial arts” attacks.
I’ve also noticed that every manga book carries an accurate ratings description letting the buyer know what they’re getting – this is something American comics publishers would be wise to emulate. DragonballZ is “all ages” – but does have stylized cartoon violence and even death. But then again, so did the Wile E. Coyote/Road Runner cartoons.
With the current financial climate, I think American publishers would be wise to learn some lessons manga can teach. Make it simple, make it fun, make it cheap.