Friday, January 07, 2005

Hotspot #2: I thought Manga was a STYLE, not a Genre.

Just to prove that I'm really back, BAM! Two posts in one day. I can't remember when was the last time THAT happened.

My hotspot topic for today was triggered by a forum post (click on the title for the link). The thread topic was "Manga Versus Everyone Else". As you can guess, it certainly lead to a great deal of discussion... well you can read the topic for yourself. (Don't worry, almost everyone was pretty civil in the discussion.)

Anyway, post discussion, there's something about that discussion that's been really irking me , and I have a shrewd suspicion similar discussions are probably going on everywhere else, I might as well talk about it here.

Is it just me, or are comics being split into, or at least perceived as a few two narrow categories nowadays? You have the traditional comics, which is usually taken to mean the american (and european) super-hero/newspaper humour comics...

...and then you have 'the new japanese wave of comics'. Manga.

Much has been said about Manga. That it will rejuvenate the comics industry. That it will destroy it. I don't care for any of those discussions. I'm sure most of you are sick of all that by now.

What I'm curious is why Manga is being treated as a genre? Maybe it's just my ignorance speaking, but isn't it more of a style? A different style of art? Yes. A different style of storytelling? Yes. A different style of printing and distribution? Yes?

But a genre? Doesn't a genre relate to the type actual content and not just the presentation of the content? Isn't a manga about superheroes technically a super-hero comic?

Yet Manga is considered a genre. Look at the bookshelves in the stores. Oh hell... Let's look at a couple of case studies on the web.

To be fair, categorising all those comics must be a pain, but I can't help but wonder with categories like Gaming /Mature / Fantasy / Sci-Fi why is there one specifically for 'Manga'? Isn't it more relevant to dock the manga according to whether the story is 'fantasy' or 'sci-fi'?

I thought The Park and Barb Show's take on manga was quite interesting. The last part is particularly true, and I'm sure we all know of people who 'do' manga because they think it's going to be more popular or somehow 'better'. Or certain shows who ape the manga/anime look to make it more palatable to the 'modern day audiences' *cough*teentitans*cough*.

Personally I thought the reason good manga is good is not because it was manga, but because... you know... the story was good. Personally, all the mangas I've liked so far I've liked because the subject matter was different. The genres the stories are based on are varied and in most cases, new and refreshing to me. Not because they're drawn with big eyes and small mouths (In fact I'm not a big fan of the manga art style. I like certain mangas despite their art style, because the stories are good, not because they are drawn in a certain way).

Think about it. When I think of traditional american comics, the first thing that jumps to mind is spandex-covered superheroes and/or Tolkien-esque fantasy comics with a motley bunch of heroes on a quest. Next comes humour and slice-of-life comics like Garfield or Calvin and Hobbes or Dilbert and all that stuff.

But when I think manga, no single genre dominates the style. Giant mechas in space? Modern day witches and enchanted swords? Samurai and nuns with guns? There doesn't seem to be a limit to the possibilites of what genre you set your story in.

You know, maybe what we readers really want in comics is new stories in different genres, not new ways of drawing same old goddamn stories.

So let's stop treating manga as a genre already, people. It's not even comparing apples and oranges.

It's comparing the apples and the bloody crate the apples came in.


  1. I whole-heartedly agree. If I'm in a comic book shop and want to try something new I'll look through the normal comedy shelves or whatever takes my fancy - now I'm a fan of the manga style so instead of looking through the books (which is something which irks me, I don't want to read something you've already picked up!) I can choose one with an appealing piece of cover art and a title - yes always judge a book by it's cover!

  2. Thanks. We've been having a crazy discussion about this topic over the forums here.

    We're trying to define the defference between genres, schools and it's getting more and more mind-boggling. ;)

  3. While I appreciate the point of view, manga has long since developed the characteristics of a genre. There are standardized plots, a wealth of stereotyped characters, and a defining dramatic quality to most manga reads. Because we don't have a lot of exposure to them across the sea, we see the tips of icebergs and think they are widely scattered. Talking to some of my Japanese friends, the bases of these icebergs are practically fused together.

    The more exposure you get to manga the more you see that many of them could be superimposed on one another without much tweaking. The categories of manga have long since become indistinct, with "magical girl" crossing over into "heritage-spiritual", "sports-fantasy" and "martial arts", "giant robots" seeping into "bishounen" and "shoujou ai", and a million other seepovers and crossovers speckling TV Tokyo at 3am. Quack experimental is really the only genre that stays distinct these days as far as I can see... and only because it parodies all the others at whim.

    The thing is that no matter where the manga is set, or in what direction it travels, you can usually count on the same sets of heroic figures, the same kinds of villain. There are a lot more things you can DO with the manga genre, but the plots can usually be nailed down-- right down to the twists and which member of the main cast will be the traitor-- in the first few pages, just from what is telegraphed by visual presentation and mode of behaviour. The gruff rejection-happy emotionally unavailable male is usually the heroic love interest by the end of the first major conflict. He's just deeply hurt and carrying around some hidden guilt from a dark past. The tiniest cutest loveliest little character is the breakout villain or secret powerhouse, depending on a few sets of conditions. The reluctant normal guy is the only one who can save the world, and the klutzy little goof is going to come through in the critical moment and surprise everyone. The most obvious love interest will die or otherwise leave the hero free for the rebound love interest who has been quietly standing by suppressing his/her own feelings. The robot will learn how to love and sacrifice its life grateful to those who showed it this brave new world. The more a character eats the more important to the story they are. Etc, etc, etc.

    American manga is even more of a genre than manga, because it is often done from a perspective that takes elements of all manga sub-genres and treats them as indistinct. While there are always exceptions, the fact is that when you see those shiny eyes you are likely to meet the same things-- melodrama pouring through a few narrow channels and a few typified characters.

    Western comics are just as much a genre, rarely escaping a few exagerrated idealisms. The girl with the fullest lips makes the best villain. The guy with the broadest shoulders either wins the day, or loses to the scrawny pseudo-iconoclast hero championing the everyman. Every relationship is toast and if the worst that happens is she dies, count yourself lucky because she might just come back evil and wreck your life. No death is permanent and your mind is always in danger of being controlled and turning you evil. Either that, or you're going to get framed sooner or later and everybody will buy into it. Anybody without distinguishing figures but with a speaking part is dead by the end of the chapter. Etc, etc, etc.

    I don't think any style can escape genre, because when people see the style they have certain expectations of the artist. I think the ways we escape our genres sets us apart from the crowd and brings readers to the page. If we defy genre but adopt style, we have to fight to keep readers from being disappointed. Succeed, and you have a stand-alone creation that is unaffected by genre. Fail, and you disappear.

    That's my view, anyhow.

    --Aleph, "Malakhim" artist/creator

  4. Firstly, thanks for taking the time to write that thought-provoking post! It really brought up several interesting points.

    It's certainly true that most of us overseas probably don't see the full picture in terms of Manga, and what we do see is the few better series that have stood out and been deemed worthy for export. I'll admit I'm not manga crazed, and the works of manga/anime that I've seen have mostly been the good ones which have been recommended by multiple people. so presumably I've missed the poorer examples floating around.

    However, I disagree there is such a thing as a 'manga genre'. (Unless there's a genre for 'Western Comics' and 'Newspaper Comics', then I suppose that's widening the definition. But then again you never see those in a categorical listing). There are things such as mixed genres, admittedly, but I see that more as a hybrid rather than an overall genre.

    Maybe it's just me, but the points you've raised that identify manga as a 'genre' sound more like like 'cliched plots' to me. As with most things, the same plots can be reused in different genres (The same 'underdog saves the world/universe plot with help of friends' is used in both sci-fi and fantasy in Lord of The Rings and Star Wars, for example).

    Perhaps it's the tendency of lazy writers to use the same plots and archtypes (with infinite variations) for the same genres that the genre becomes stereotyped with the cliched plot. But this does not mean the genre is the plot. Or the style is the genre.

    I would say things like 'magical fantasy' and 'mecha' are genres. And maybe there is more mixing between genres than there would be in say, superhero and fantasy genres in European/American comics. But those still remain genres. You might say there are a greater variety of genres in manga, but I wouldn't say that that's what the 'manga genre' is. And I wouldn't say a genre is defined in terms of its plot. Although perhaps of its setting...

    Actually, come to think of it, perhaps the root of this problem is the poor definition of the terms. When you think about it, 'fantasy' and 'sci-fi' are actually not so much 'genres' but more of 'settings'.

    I mean, 'Humour' could be a genre' I suppose. 'Adventure' is a genre. 'Horror' is a genre. But most Sci-fi and fantasy stories are 'Adventure' stories in their respective settings. So in essence they are not genres at all.

    Ow my head. But Hallelujah, I think I just recognised the root of the problem.

  5. And I take what I said above about 'magical fantasy' and 'mecha' back. They're not genres either. They're bloody 'settings'.

    Man I have to write up another hotspot about this. Now if only that Dino Comics archive wasn't so giganormous. ;)

  6. I'm old school on this:

    "Manga" is nothing more than the Japanese word for "Comic" That it's been misused so badly like this irritates me.

  7. I think manga has attracted enough of a fanbase that, rather than go searching for their manga, they would want to have it in one area rather than go searching for it through various columns.
    But that's my opinion.

  8. Hee! Somebody pointed this out to me, I forgot to ever check back.. I agree, I think the idea of 'genre' is very poorly defined. As an autistic, I get very irritated having to take the zeitgeist as a source for it.

    There are "Western", "Traditional", "Print" and other "genres" but people are constantly arguing what those ARE. I will try to check back once in a while and see if you've managed to puzzle it out, because so far all I've been able to figure out is that genre is a generalization based on commonalities-- standardized plots, stereotyped characters, and a defining dramatic quality.

    Taking, for instance, "noir" as a genre. Plots in the noir genre revolve around intrigue, specifically intrigue involving betrayal and murder. Stereotyped characters are restricted to roles such as the 'hot dame', the 'innocent sweetheart', the 'hard-bitten dick', the 'shoot from the hip hero', the 'reluctant ally', the 'gangland villain', etc etc. Last there is a defining dramatic quality, the dark and brooding world interspersed with bursts of inevitable violence.

    I'd say that manga can be split into many sub-genres but as a whole it still bears these traits. Plots revolve around themes of friendship, redemption, love and revenge (what stories don't, but manga plots have very particular interpretations of these that have become signature). You could likely set down a set of a dozen or so plots that describe nearly every manga, though every genre has its black sheep. Characters are simplified and identified by their modes of speech and costume, stripped of these you really couldn't tell a character from one manga from another due to the typified drawing style. These touches are all that really separate characters from the basic palette of manga stereotypes, aren't they? The defining dramatic quality is usually either 'battle to the finish', 'journey of friends', 'protect the world', or 'best of the best' with very few exceptions, though I might be missing a couple of the standard plots.

    But then at the same time the fact that it CAN be split into so many sub-genres does support the point that it is too diverse to BE a genre, so it would sort of be a macro aggregate genre, and therein lies the problem you pointed out in your subsequent post. At what point is it overclassification... that's where I can't find clarity. There are things you know you can expect when you see the big eyes and the pink hair, but, then again, there are just too MANY things you can expect for it to be a clear call.

    Good luck finding it... make sure you let the rest of us know when you hit on the answer!

    --Malakhim artist/creator

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