Manga by any other name is . . .

Do Japan's world-conquering cartoons have to be created by Japanese to be the real deal?

by Martin Webb

With the video-game business now outgrossing Hollywood’s box office, and anime being distributed to destinations as diverse as Patagonia and Phuket, the influence of Japan’s entertainment industry on young people worldwide has never been as powerful.

But it doesn’t stop there, because interest in “Cool Japan” now extends to the most low-tech media, too — its homegrown style of comics known as manga.

Literally meaning “whimsical pictures,” the much-used but little understood term is usually used in reference to Japanese comics characterized by a set of stylistic conventions that evolved in the postwar period. These include exaggerated physical features such as large eyes, big hair and elongated limbs; right-to-left panel sequencing; and dramatically shaped speech bubbles, speed lines and onomatopoeic, exclamatory typography.

The question of whether non-Japanese comics emulating this style can rightly be called “manga,” is one that exercises the minds of many the world over . . .

Whatever — according to pop-culture analysts ICv2, the market for this graphic art form in the United States has tripled in the last three years, from around $60 million at retail in 2002 to around $180 million in 2005. Mainstream bookstores now devote large sections entirely to graphic novels; the Los Angeles Times and other leading newspapers now carry English-language strips in their Sunday editions.

But while double-digit U.S. growth has been grabbing headlines, the world’s most receptive markets for Japanese comic magazines are in Asia. Twelve such magazines are published in Thailand, 11 in Taiwan and eight in South Korea. Meanwhile, the Hong Kong and Indonesia markets each support five, China has four, and Germany, Italy, Sweden, and the U.S. have two each.

This surge in overseas markets is not only boosting the coffers of the beleaguered domestic manga industry — which has seen sales in Japan fall for the past 10 years in a row, dropping by 5 percent to 24 billion yen in 2005 — it is also playing an increasingly important role in disseminating Japanese culture abroad. Much to the delight of politicians such as nationalist-inclined Foreign Minister Taro Aso, an avowed manga fan, a love of manga is cited as a popular motivating factor for many young people to study Japanese and visit Japan as tourists.

Ever-expanding readership

But as manga continues to find an ever-expanding readership overseas, its production and distribution is experiencing a parallel internationalization. As a result, more and more manga is now being created outside of Japan — and by non-Japanese artists.

Despite the genre’s origins as a fusion of ukiyo-e (traditional woodblock prints) and Western forms of sequential art, many purists insist that comics by non-Japanese should not be referred to as “manga” — preferring terms such as “manga-influenced comics,” “pseudo-manga” or “emulation manga.”

The current top-selling comics by non-Japanese artists with a manga bent are “Warcraft” from Tokyopop, based on the hugely popular “World of Warcraft” video game written by an American and illustrated by a Korean, and Fred Gallagher’s “Megatokyo,” which was originally an online comic but is now also published on paper by a subsidiary of DC Comics.

But unlike Japan-published series that can be translated en masse for overseas readers, manga-influenced comics are created from scratch. Consequently, it is difficult to publish more than one volume of these a year, which conspires to keep them off the charts.

According to Tom Flinn, vice president of content at ICv2, “[The top manga-influenced comic titles] do quite well — making the Top 15, but not the Top 10 — and sell better than many Japanese manga series released in the U.S., but not nearly as well as the top manga properties translated from Japanese, such as ‘Naruto,’ ‘Full Metal Alchemist,’ ‘Fruits Basket’ and ‘Tsubasa.’ “

Stu Levy, CEO and chief creative officer at Tokyopop, the firm credited with breaking manga in the mainstream U.S. market, is enthusiastic about what he terms a “new generation of multiethnic creators,” despite the fact that they have yet to match the success of their Japanese counterparts. Levy advocates a broad interpretation of the term “manga” — one that encompasses “more or less all sequential art.”

Epitome of success

“Ultimately, for manga to really become a mainstream part of global culture, there needs to be local creation,” Levy declared in an e-mail interview. “To me, that would be the epitome of success for Japan — to have exported a piece of global culture that sticks. We still have a while to show that this is possible — the Japanese creators are truly senpai [mentors] to a young generation of global creators, and we want to encourage them to help nurture and train their international kohai [proteges].”

According to Yoshinori Iwai, an industry veteran who is managing editor of the comics division of publishing firm Enterbrain, several Japanese publishers, most notably Kodansha, experimented with running strips by non-Japanese artists some five years ago — but met with only limited success. The principal vehicle for Kodansha’s experiment — “Morning” magazine — has since ceased to carry content by non-Japanese artists.

Nicolas Freeman, who runs the Japanese pop-culture Web site Junkmagnet.com, says that while publishers like Tokyopop are bringing out titles in manga style by non-Japanese artists, and Chinese and Korean comics are also becoming more prevalent, in the United States, at least, “Japanese work is still considered the gold-standard.”

While it has yet to gain the recognition of its Japanese counterpart, manhwa, the Korean version of manga, has made significant inroads into the market. Min Woo Hyung, author of “Ragnarok” and “Priest,” achieved international recognition in 2003 and 2004, but, according to Tom Flinn of ICv2, Korean artists are no longer among the top sellers, partly because they don’t have the TV exposure that many of the top Japanese series get. “Video and online game exposure may eventually change that, though,” says Flinn, “as the Koreans are very adept at producing MMORPGs [massively multiplayer online role-playing games] like ‘Warcraft.’ “

Back in 1999, Iwai’s firm Enterbrain found considerable success with Kyung-Il Yang, whose “Zombie Hunter” series was a big hit. He says, however, that there are various difficulties when it comes to working with overseas artists. Yang’s “Zombie Hunter” series, for example, had to be discontinued because two of his assistants were drafted into the army for national service.

Difficulties with communication are the more usual problems encountered by non-Japanese manga artists. Russian-born Canadian Svetlana Chmakova, whose work is serialized in Cosmogirl, the U.S. teen version of Cosmopolitan, says that some purist manga devotees are dismissive of her work. “Some people are really hostile to manga creators who are not Japanese. But there are a lot of people who are very supportive and just want to read my manga-style stories, no matter what my nationality is.”

Whatever, the problems, though, as manga achieves global popularity, more and more young people are setting out to learn the craft — and a few are seeking to do so in the land of its origin. Around 20 institutions of higher education and 100 vocational schools in Japan now offer courses in manga.

The most prestigious of these is run by Professor Keiichi Makino at Kyoto Seika University, which offers Japan’s only degree course in the subject. Currently, Makino has around 20 foreign students: mostly Koreans, but a few from China and Taiwan. With one of his Japanese proteges having won the Osamu Tezuka Award, manga’s most esteemed prize, he says it is only a matter of time before one of his foreign students goes on to achieve graphic art greatness.

Makino believes that the growing popularity of manga overseas is a positive development for Japan, but that there is a lot more room for growth. “Everybody in Japan reads manga — people of all ages and occupations — but it’s only a hardcore minority overseas. It is going to take a long time for that to change.”

Aspiring artists

Also involved in nurturing a new generation of non-Japanese cartoon creators is Glenn Kardy, president and CEO of Japanime, which is the exclusive worldwide distributor of the renowned “How to Draw Manga” series that has have sold more than 1 million copies worldwide. Kardy also runs an online how-to-draw course in which aspiring artists have their work critiqued by professional manga creators in Japan.

“The interest has been very strong,” he says over the phone from his Saitama office outside Tokyo. “We’ve had about 150 students in the 18 months the course has been running — one of our students is currently studying under a professional artist in Nagasaki.”

Kardy’s Manga University imprint also publishes “Kanji de Manga,” a series of books that teach the Japanese language through comic art. With sales topping 100,000, the series’ success is further evidence that manga is fueling popular interest in Japanese language and culture far beyond the shores of its birth.

But it looks like it will still be a long time before Japanese learn to appreciate foreigners’ reinterpretations of their peculiar homegrown art form.

Three of the best from abroad who honed their craft in the land of their mentors

Thai’s twee ‘toons as art

At 29, Bangkok-born manga-influenced artist Wisut Ponnimit has an impressive resume, which includes a book cover for renowned novelist Banana Yoshimoto and a slot at the upcoming 2006 Yokohama Triennale. The Kobe-based creator made his manga debut in 1998, in the pages of monthly magazine IKKI (left), and currently draws a daily cartoon for the Web site of Columbia Records. A collection of his works, titled “Everybodyeverything” is published by Magazine Five, and many samples of his work can be viewed at soimusic.com/wisut/

U.S. artist’s vibrant legacy

Seth Fisher, who died from a fall in January this year, worked as an illustrator and penciller for U.S. comic giants DC and Marvel. Besides his work on “Batman” and the “Fantastic Four” series, Fisher was best known for his artwork for the “Vertigo Pop! Tokyo” series (left; also published by DC), named one of the 10 best comics of 2003 by U.K. culture magazine The Face. Despite being a long-term Japan resident, Fisher’s style was not strongly influenced by manga, but in an interview with “Silver Bullet Comicbooks” he said: “I have big influences from Japan, too.” Examples of Seth Fisher’s work can be seen at www.floweringnose.com

French fusion with a twist

Frenchman Frederic Boilet is credited with having started the so-called Nouvelle Manga movement in Tokyo in 2001, seeking to fuse manga depicting everyday life with the artistic style of traditional Francophone sequential art. His unusual style (left) combines photography and video with illustration to create sequentially paneled comics. He is best known for his semiautobiographical stories with a notably humorous dimension, including his 1997 creations “Tokyo est mon jardin (Tokyo is my Garden)” and “Demi-tour (Half-tour).” His work can be seen at www.boilet.net