Today’s Independent newspaper has a nice chunky feature on manga, which, for a pleasant change, actually talks a bit about real Japanese comics. There is even a Schoolgirl Milky Namecheck, since, as ever, I am the bad guy who dares to suggest that manga come from Japan.
Needless to say, everyone quoted therein has been distilled from hours of interviews by the writer Archie Bland, with a bunch of people who I largely know in an internetty sort of way. It pleased me greatly to see Emma Vieceli (a Facebook friend) and John Aggs resisting the way that others have branded them as “manga artists” in recent years. I think Archie called me towards the end, when his article was already becoming more about British comics creators who are inspired by Japanese comics. And I think it artfully masks what seemed to be Archie’s mounting concern while talking to me, as he began to realise that some previous interviewees had been, well… economical with the truth over what manga actually is.
These issues do not trouble 99 per cent of people in the field. They only trouble those people whose livelihood depends on it, a group which, a decade or so ago, began to attract accountants and carpetbaggers who regarded a Japanese origin as a costly and troublesome tax on publishing popular comics. If only, they reasoned, we could get something that looks like a manga (whatever that means), but which doesn’t need to be flipped or translated. If only, we could get something drawn by some up-and-coming local artist, so we didn’t have to bother with intellectual property faffery. If only… manga wasn’t Japanese.
This is an argument that even extended to Schoolgirl Milky Crisis. The Big Giant Heads wanted to say on the book’s blurb that the book contained “manga illustrations” by my favourite artist Steve Kyte. But I didn’t want the word manga there. Until Steve gets a Japanese passport, he’ll have to content himself with being an artist, pure and simple. And is that not enough to be proud of?
Manga are comics from Japan, but that is a desperately inconvenient definition for those people who want a brand that encapsulates “whatever we feel like doing.” Way back in 1983, the word was very clearly defined by Frederik Schodt in his book: Manga! Manga! The World of Japanese Comics. The title says it all! The ensuing 25 years have seen numerous attempts to redefine the word by vested business interests.
These days, there are those who argue that a manga is a comic book drawn “with attitude” (whatever that means), it’s a comic that’s dark, it’s a comic with elves in it, it’s a comic with dogs in it. But none of that works. You can’t define manga by a particular genre, or look, or subject, and if you try, you get tied up in silly semantic knots. But I’ve been here before, many times. Such people tell me that I am wrong, right up until the day that they have to clear their desk because nobody bought their big-eyed vampire comic. And then the process starts all over again.
The Independent article includes the artist Sonia Leong (another Facebook friend) saying that you don’t have to be Italian to make a pizza. Indeed. But to make a pizza, you first need to be able to say what a pizza actually is.