An abridged history of manga

In its purest form, manga are Japanese comics created for a Japanese audience. Many of us North Americans will never have a chance to see, let alone read, manga as created for its intended audience. In Japan, manga is traditionally published in serialized form in anthology magazines that introduce new characters, stories and artists to the public. There are numerous anthologies such as this, and some of them have huge circulations. For instance, the most popular, Shonen Jump, has a circulation of more than 3.5 million copies per week. Fan support and feedback on the stories introduced in these anthologies will determine which series exist long enough to make it into trade paperback collections called tankouban. Manga, in magazine and in tankouban form, are available at malls and record stores– basically anywhere where a diverse group of people shop. In North America, comics are still struggling to gain acceptance in the mainstream. In Japan, manga is the mainstream.

Over here in North America, the term manga has been applied to a wider range of comics. The term is now applied to the various English translations of popular manga. These translated series are published as single issues, trade paperbacks, graphic novels and even anthologies modeled after the Japanese style. Super Manga Blast!published by Dark Horse Comics is an example of the latter. Publishing companies such as Dark Horse, Viz Comics and Tokyopop have been reacting to the increasing Western demand for manga, overseeing and releasing the English translation of many Japanese manga series.

The beginning…

A 12th century picture scroll such as this is an example of early Japanese sequential art
A 12th century picture scroll such as this is an example of early Japanese sequential art

The word manga was coined in 1815. The renowned woodblock artist Hokusai used two Chinese characters– man (translated as lax) and ga (picture)– to describe his illustrated doodles. Depending on who is doing the translation for you, manga literally means involuntary sketches or unintentional pictures.
 
Although the phrase manga first appeared in 1815, sequential art had been apart of Japanese culture for centuries previous. Like many early civilizations, the Japanese combined pictures with text to tell stories and record history. Only a few eyes would ever gaze upon these picture scrolls. They were for the educated upper classes.

Some time during the 18th century, however, a bustling consumer culture in urban middle class Japan proved to be a ripe environment for manga. Adult storybooks featuring text placed around ink-brush illustrations were produced and snatched up by middle class Japanese. Printed with woodblocks, these books were similar to modern manga in that they covered a wide range of genres, including humour, fantasy, drama and even pornography.

By the 19th century, Japan was experiencing a flood of knowledge, culture and technology from the western world. The earlier illustrated storybooks were soon replaced by a new manga that were a mish-mash of Japanese and Western cartoons. In the early part of the 20th century, Japanese and American comics were similar in popularity and style. As the years progressed, however, U.S. comics began to languish while Japanese manga flourished.

The Father of Modern Manga…

Most manga enthusiasts would agree that one artist deserves the title The Father of Modern Manga. That man is the late Osamu Tezuka. His most popular creation, Mighty Atom, is known around the world. Here in North America, we know Mighty Atom as Astro Boy.

The arrival of Tezuka paints a clear line between a pre-manga and a manga generation. Folks born before 1950 generally stopped reading manga when they reached junior high. For them, manga was children’s entertainment. Japanese born after 1950 were introduced to a form of manga influenced by Tezuka, a type of manga they were unwilling to abandon as they grew older.

“Most manga were drawn from a two dimensional perspective like a stage play. Actors’ entrances from stage left and right focused on the audience. I came to realize there was no way to produce power or psychological impact with this approach, so I began to introduce cinematic techniques from the German and French movies of my student days. I manipulated close-ups and angles and tried using many panels or many pages to faithfully capture movements and facial expressions that previously would have been a single panel. So I ended up with works more than 1,000 pages in length. The potential of manga was more than humor; using themes of tears, sorrow, anger and hatred, I made stories that did not always have happy endings.” — Osamu Tezuka, describing his approach to manga

The arrival of New Treasure Island changed manga forever
The arrival of New Treasure Island changed manga forever

Tezuka’s manga debut came in 1947. New Treasure Islandwas a story published as an akahon, which means red book. These comics were produced on the cheap and were given their name because of the awful red ink on their covers. These red books were a small niche industry, designed to provide children with affordable entertainment. This was postwar Japan, after all, and poverty was rampant.

His New Treasure Islandchanged manga forever. It sold an unprecedented 400,000 copies. Success allowed Tezuka to move near prominent manga publishers, and soon he developed a following of young manga artists eager to continue the momentum he started with New Treasure Island. Tezuka’s innovative styles and storytelling inspired these young hopefuls. The manga produced by Tezuka and his followers would broaden the manga market. The kids raised on Tezuka’s manga continued to read comics as adults.

Modern manga had been born.

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About caperaway

I’m a publisher writer of graphic novels and short fiction. Published works include Acts of Violence: An Anthology of Crime Comics, The Grim Collection, Black Salt, and Psychosis.

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