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Back when I was buying issues of Monthly Afternoon to get my Genshiken fix, the magazines would occasionally come with packaged mini-manga. Each small book has one or two self-contained stories and it seemed like a pretty good extra. It wasn’t until kransom’s post about the Afternoon Four Seasons Award that I realized that these manga were exactly that: winning entries from the competitions.
Though anyone is allowed to enter, amateurs can still manage to win, as was the case with Winter 2005 when then-rookie manga artist Imai Tetsuya won the Winter 2005 Grand Prize for his entry, entitled Traveler.
Portable Four Seasons Winter 2005. Traveler is the one on top.
Looking at Traveler, it most definitely deserved to win. The basic premise is that a boy wakes up one day to find that he’s four months in the future and that apparently in those four months he’s turned into a complete jerk who left his band and broke up with his girlfriend. The story is less about returning back to the proper time and more about dealing with responsibility even when it shouldn’t have anything to do with you. It’s pretty intriguing, and everyone loves to say, “Fuzakenna!“
Imai makes mistakes. Some of the characters and plot development seemed tacked on and unnecessary. But what I find really interesting about this is that the faults of Traveler feel different from the mistakes that tend to happen in OEL manga.
When we look at criticism of OEL manga and the whole movement behind it, one of the factors is how much it just doesn’t “look” like manga. Artists try their best to live up to the series they love, but something typically feels off. In the past I’ve talked about some of the reasons why I think this happens, and Narutaki over at the Reverse Thieves pointed out the abuse of screentone in a lot of OEL titles. But I think there’s a more inherent cultural difference, one that’s not really a matter of talent or experience.
The art in Traveler hits bouts of inconsistency, particularly with the characters, as they sometimes suddenly look like they have no bones underneath their skin and muscles. I think you can see this in the image from earlier. Faces go out of proportion, too. A lot of western artists probably even have a better grasp of anatomy and motion than Imai, but the way in which the artwork turns out inconsistent is different from the way it happens in most OEL titles.
The story’s faults are also different from the issues that occur in OEL manga. In Traveler, some characters and plot threads sometimes seem unnecessary or perhaps given too much time, a problem when it’s just a 32-page one-shot, which are problems which occur in OEL titles too, but the plot issues with Traveler seem very much like the kind of mistakes that would happen in manga. There’s a sense that Imai and other manga-aspiring artists in Japan, when compared to their counterparts across the ocean, are simply aiming for separate goals; whether they reach them or not is another matter entirely.
I think the lesson here might be that when you judge two things, comparing the very best of one to the very worst of another doesn’t really get you anywhere. It’s far more interesting and fruitful to look at the middle ground; avoid the absolute greats for a little bit so you can see what most people are doing. There, you’ll find a good snapshot of the state of manga, or whatever it is you’re looking at.
I also know that “across the ocean” leaves out countries and products like Korean manhwa. I’ll leave that for another day though.
Long before Tokyopop started pushing the concept of “Original English Language Manga,” or “OEL” for short, something about western attempts at creating “manga” really bothered me, and not for any philosophical reasons. Something always felt off about the artwork, and I just couldn’t pinpoint why. Initially, I thought that it might be because the artists had no idea how to draw “manga characters,” but I realized that couldn’t be the case, because 100 people drawing big eyes and small mouths “incorrectly,” so to speak, should result in 100 different ways to look not-quite-right. No, the thing that bothered me was something more consistent across the idea of “OEL” before it was called OEL. It had to be a shared trait.
Then last year while looking at OEL, something hit me: for some reason I was being bothered by the screentones. Again however, I couldn’t quite put my finger on why. I just knew it was something having to do with screentones. In fact, the initial draft of this post is from May of 2009, where the only contents of it was the title of the post, which read “BAD SCREENTONES.”
Finally though, through the keen of eye of the Reverse Thief Narutaki, my suspicions have been confirmed, and I now fully understand why OEL screentones had been bothering me so. I really recommend you read the article, but for the sake of summary: According to Narutaki, in manga, screentone is generally used for patterns or to pull elements into the background of a panel with shading primarily done in ink, but in OEL screentone is more often used for shading and used to excess, which ends up flattening the image.
I feel so relieved!
But this information brought with it a new question: Why is it, if OEL is trying to be like manga (which we all know it is), that it does something that manga almost never does, i.e. use screentone to shade to excess? There are very few examples from manga that would fuel this mass assumption on the part of these artists, after all.
That lead to another revelation: maybe the source of this trend wasn’t “manga” at all, but something closely related. Anime!
Anime is where you will find manga-style characters with some degree of shading, even if it’s a single tone to show a simple fold in their clothing. I can only conclude that the reason OEL shading looks the way it does is because the artists were influenced by the shading methods seen in animation, and then applied these methods to manga where they are in actuality quite foreign despite the fact that anime and manga are so closely related.
Ogiue Chika RANDOM STRANGER AT A DOUJIN EVENT
This is no surprise to me, as anime and manga are often spoken of in the same breath. Heck, I’m no exception, and you will often see me choosing one word or the other when referring to both, as after a while it gets irritating to write “anime and manga” every time instead of just “anime.” Still, it is a very good reminder that as similar as anime and manga are, they also possess a number of unique differences beyond the fact that one is animated and the other is not.
I’ve never been able to pinpoint the exact causes for why drawing “manga” style typically doesn’t look quite right, but there’s some things I’ve noticed that I think point towards why this tends to be the case.
The artists did not grow up in the culture. I had a Japanese teacher who one day as part of a vocabulary exercise brought into class a drawing she made of a “handsome guy.” Now, my teacher was not an artist, but the picture she drew was clearly that of a manga-style character and nothing seemed out of place. It was just, when drawing a cartoon character who’s supposed to look stereotypically handsome, this is how it turns out. While I don’t think not growing up in Japan or Japanese precludes an artist from developing that style, I think you can see how growing up in different environments with different artistic influences can change how even a normal person draws or sees drawings, let alone a professional.
But what then are those stylistic differences? Why is it that a manga artist who draws super realistically can still feel naturally like manga? Why is it that even a lot of the non-Japanese artists who get the basic visuals right (i.e. understanding that it’s not just big eyes and small mouths) still tend to produce works that jar you out of the illusion?
The first big one is the different philosophies in paneling. Traditionally in manga, the flow of panels is very important to the story, with emphasis on the concept of “flow.” That’s not really an official term or anything, but it’s one I like to use. Manga are typically designed to have the readers’ eyes be guided smoothly through the page, from one panel to the next, with everything in the panel, art and word bubbles and all, facilitating this flow. While American comics for example also take care to utilize word bubbles in strategic areas to help move the reader along, traditionally the American comic has been about having self-contained panels, each of which encapsulates everything going on at the time, a perfectly stilled moment. I’m reminded of when Grant Morrison in an interview after Final Crisis said, “We talk about events all the time. Well, why can’t every panel be an event?” In a way, he’s not far off from the tradition of Western-style comics, whether it’s indie, superheroes, or newspaper gag strips. It’s also what I think is the real difference between “compressed” and “decompressed” storytelling.
Basically, think of manga as a river, and American comics as a series of ponds. While of course there’s more to comics than just America and Japan, I’m simplifying for the sake of what little claims to brevity I have left. And while there are exceptions on both sides, take note how a manga with not as much “flow” such as Space Adventure Cobra or Nausicaa do well in the west, particularly Europe where highly illustrative backgrounds tend to be emphasized, or how an American comic with a strong sense of visual “flow” in Little Nemo could be seen fondly in Japan (at least I believe it is, if someone can correct me, please do so).
And then there’s other smaller things. Scott McCloud in Understanding Comics for example talks about how back when romance stories in American comics were more common, they still tended to compose scenes as if all of the characters were figures placed in a room. Contrast this with shoujo manga, which tends to emphasize the emotional over the physical; it’s not as important that you know where characters are standing.
But that only applies to manga, right? What about all those cartoons that try, but don’t quite get it. Your Teen Titans and Totally Spies and what-not. There, I’m not as certain about it, but I think it just has to do with what’s considered common in Japanese Animation to the point of it being ingrained into the system. I think the most prominent example of this might be animating on the 3′s, which means changing the image on every third frame instead of every second one as is common with American cartoons. This was originally one of many necessary money-saving techniques for anime on limited budgets as far back as Astro Boy, and what ended up happening was that stuff like animating on 3′s and using lots of stills and closeups, stuff which had its origins in having scarily low budgets, began to be embraced and improved upon and mastered until it in essence became the style anime is known for. What’s important here is the way in which factors such as these influenced the sense of timing that anime tends to have, and if you don’t understand that sense of timing then it becomes difficult to replicate it. Anime has a unique sense of timing.
To summarize, what makes manga seem like manga and what makes anime seem like anime goes deeper than how the characters or backgrounds look, all the way to how the story is told through the visuals. Another important thing to remember is that this is less about quality, or why one is “better” or “worse” than the other, and more about why things are the way they are from the worst comics to the best ones. If you were to compare X-Men: Misfits, an American comic trying to be manga, and that Japanese X-Men manga I posted about a while back, a Japanese comic trying to be American, you’d see that neither one is able to fully escape their origins. Whether these are the most significant factors, I don’t know, but that’s what I’ve seen.
A few years back Tokyopop started advertising and promoting its own line of “Original English Language” or OEL Manga, and no one I know reads them. I’ve checked out a few here and there, but I feel something holding me back when I see a title in the stores. On the few occasions where I have picked one up to read, well, sometimes I’m pleasantly surprised and other times I’m not.
I liked Bizenghast overall, but the fluctuation in quality from page to page was very distracting. A well-done drawing would lead into a rush job into another nicely detailed drawing, and it seems like the product of someone with not enough time to really hone each panel.
Dramacon is another one I decided to take a look at, simply because Anime Jump and others had lauded it for being one of the better titles. I found myself unable to finish it, as it felt less like a heart-felt examination of the convention scene and the drama in it and more like wish-fulfillment on a level below Comic Party. What’s a mysterious love interest with a scarred face doing in a story where the focus seems to be Normal Anime Fans Doing Their Normal Anime Things? Maybe I’ll come back to it at some point, but it was like the pieces of the puzzle did not fit together properly.
I’m probably giving them a harder time than I should, but at the same time I’m really not, as it was Tokyopop’s desire to showcase these talents on a level on par with work from Japan. If there’s any OEL titles of merit that I’m overlooking, I’d like to know about them.