Comic books may be an American invention, but Japanese comic book culture has taken things to a whole new level. Manga,
Japanese for “comics”, is an international growth market and a cultural
phenomenon both in Japan and abroad. In Japan, not to mention South
Korea and Taiwan, manga is a huge, US$4.7 billion industry with local
manga rental stores set up like video rental stores. In the US, manga
is showing double digit growth each year, and comic book shops are
expanding the manga sections to keep up with demand from both boys and
girls. In fact, you may be familiar with a few manga titles that have
gone to the silver and plasma screens: Yu-Gi-Oh!, Neon Genesis: Evangelion, Cowboy Beebop, the cult classic anime movie Akira, the saccharin Sailor Moon television series, the disturbing Ghost in the Shell, and Pokemon: the Movie, cartoon, and the card game. But these comic books turned movie only scratch the surface of manga culture.

The
Tokyo comic book market is very different from the US market: Comic
book series launches, ad campaigns to hype the new hero, spin-off
character-based comics playing off flagships like Superman and X-men
are the norm in the US, but not in Japan. Instead of a major launch,
complete with ad campaign, comics in Japan appear in remarkably cheap
(US$2) and remarkably thick (upwards of 600 pages) paperback magazine
comic compendiums sold monthly or weekly out of news stands and
supermarkets. Ironic, really, that Japanese comic books never begin as
a comic book. Almost all Japanese comics lack the collectors’ Holy
Grail: the mint condition first issue. Rather they suddenly appear in
one of these trade paperback comic compendiums, and if people like it,
that comic gets a second episode. And so on and so on, until there is a
demand for a stand-alone, full-colour, old-fashioned comic book series,
followed by the extended graphic novel, the cartoon miniseries, the
cartoon show, the movie, the T-shirt, the backpack, the lunch box, and,
finally, the pyjama pattern.

The graphic novel is certainly a pop art form — Art Spiegelman won a Pulitzer Prize for his, Maus—but
comics are still mind candy. Every kind of mind candy has one thing in
common: a seeming infinitude of options. While US comics are infinite
because of the immortal characters’ infinite episodes, manga comics are
infinite in type and number. There is a manga for everyone, and I mean
everyone. Interested in the trials of high school girl volleyball
players with hostile families, who want their daughters to give up
their sport and carry on the family business? Try the sub-sub-genre of
girl sports in the sub-genre shojo manga, or love manga, mostly
marketed to girls. Interested in gay cops trying to make a living in
Tokyo? Try yaio manga, or (mostly) non-pornographic gay manga,
strangely marketed to women who want to enjoy observing a relationship
in which they can’t partake—marketers claim that makes the story less
threatening to women.

Ghost in the ShellBut be careful. Rating systems are hazy at best—with the notable exception of TokyoPop,
a leading manga publisher—and covers can be very confusing. What looks
like a harmless, family-themed comic on the outside can often have
pornographic themes on the inside. Fortunately, it’s a comic, so you
only need to speed flip through it to determine the “rating” for
yourself. Japanese cultural cues regarding sexuality are very different
from those in many other developed countries, so even very childish
looking manga can have themes and images that range from racy to
pornographic. Just browsing the titles gives you the distinct
impression manga is not just for kids: Handmaid, Heartbroken Angels, Oh My Goddess, Sensual Phrase, Vampire Hunter D, Voyeur, Tuxedo Gin, Socrates in Love, and Steam Detectives. Overtly pornographic Japanese comics are usually referred to as hentai, but manga seems to have a spectrum of content that blends seamlessly into hentai.
Even the steamy Harlequin romance novel publishers have begun releasing
manga versions of their books into Japanese and Anglo markets.

For
good or ill, manga is making and impact outside of Japan. Extremely
kiddie manga aside, as kids are dealing with more emotional trauma and
difficulty at earlier and earlier ages, market indicators show they are
turning more and more to the emotionally complex, generally less heroic
and more tragic plot lines of manga serial comics. The attraction to
manga is not so simply explained when one considers the incredible
variety of content in manga: what is it about manga that has it
attracting more and more readers?

Manga, like any
cultural art, has a distinct style. After brief exposure, most people
can distinguish US comics from their Japanese counterparts. Manga
usually features characters that are not in any recognisable way
Japanese; instead, manga characters feature very large eyes, small
pointed noses, lipless and tiny mouths, and simplified hair and
clothes. The art is not minimalist, but there is a distinctively
plastic feel to most manga art. Another dead give-away for manga, which
is translated into English for most international markets, is the
structure of these graphic novels, which often still conforms to
Japanese right-to-left reading, so the books read from the back
forward.

The father of manga is known by all comic buffs
by simply his last name, Tezuka. Osamu Tezuka developed the first
manga, and struck gold with Tetsuwan Atom, who later became the famous
Astroboy. Tezuka was a prolific artist, with dozens of thick Astroboy
volumes to complement dozens of other serial comics that he alone
scripted and animated. His works include a seven-volume graphic novel
(each volume is several hundred pages) of the life of Buddha to a
lengthy series about an opera singer. He set and broke the mould for
manga artistic form with huge eyes on most of his lead characters.

Astroboy was directly informed by Walt Disney’s drawings and animations. The plots of the Astroboy comics remind you of the Adventures of Tin Tin,
only nix the dog and add super-powers. But many manga plot lines are
loaded with a mishmash of childish and adult themes ranging from magic,
dating, nuclear war, reincarnation (a particularly prevalent theme),
abortion, gambling, making friends, alternate realities, ESP, druids,
demons, slavery, romance—you name it and some manga artist has mixed it
up into a cocktail and placed it in a 30-part animated series. With all
the varying tastes of modern children, and not a few modern adults, it
is no wonder that manga, in all of its mighty multiplicity, is flying
off the shelves.

Matthew T. Mehan writes, teaches, and meddles in the affairs of the world, all from Maryland.

Matthew Mehan is a poet, scholar, teacher, speech writer, and musician. He is dear friends with illustrator John Folley. He earned a Ph.D. studying Shakespeare's teachings on poetry as an indispensable...