This article first appeared in NEO magazine #16, 2006.
Mr Ward was in a very bad mood with his class. He was angry that they were immediately flicking through their textbooks looking for the “fun” cartoon section, when they should be opening them at the first page.
“We don’t,” he said, with barely suppressed rage, “open our books back-to-front.”
In the front row, seven-year-old Jonathan Clements raised his hand.
“The Japanese do,” he said.
After which, all I remember is some screaming, detention, and the words “clever dick.” It’s probably why I have developed a lifelong aversion to right-to-left printing, that core value of modern manga that must be irritating Mr Ward every time he faces his class today.
Modern myth ascribes back-to-front printing to the 21st century, but it’s been in the English-speaking manga world for 15 years – the earliest example I can think of is Hideshi Hino’s Panorama of Hell from Blast Books in 1990. It didn’t really come to Britain, however, until 1995, when Bloomsbury Publishing’s Barry Cunningham decided to use it for Ironfist Chinmi. His reasoning was that it would save money in production, and that it would annoy parents. Kids, he argued, were resilient and adaptable, and reading a book “backwards” couldn’t be hard – after all, as any seven-year-old knows, the Japanese did it every day. Parents, however, would find the idea bizarre, and that would give the kids something on the adults. It would turn manga-reading into a secret club, like memorising the taxonomy of Pokémon or knowing the names of the Power Rangers.
So, no, there wasn’t anything mentioned about the artist’s “original intent”. There were none of the modern arguments about preserving manga in its original form – a position I have always found amusing, since a “100% original” would need to remain in Japanese as well. It was done because it saved a few quid by not flipping the pages, and because it would wind people up.