An Interview With Jason Thompson - Writer of Manga: The Complete Guide
Manga. What is it? Where did it come from? Why won't the people reading it in the aisles at the bookstore move out of the road? These questions and more will be answered (except maybe that last one) by Jason Thompson, author of Manga: The Complete Guide .
Comics in the Classroom - Scott: Welcome Jason. Before I ask the “tell us about yourself” question; define manga for us in layman terms. Pretend that the last comic I read was an Archie twenty years ago.
Jason: Manga is Japanese comics (although some people use the term to describe Japanese-influenced American comics as well). Unlike in America, where comic books suffered a huge drop in sales in the 1950s and never recovered, in Japan they've become one of the most successful entertainment media. They're typically printed in monthly or weekly anthology magazines which may be more than 400 pages long; the bestselling manga magazine at the moment, Weekly Shonen Jump, sells over 2 million copies per week. The favorite titles from the magazines are reprinted in book form, which is where we get the manga "graphic novel" format that's so popular in American bookstores. (With a few exceptions, the magazines themselves aren't directly translated.) They're aimed at all ages from elementary school to adult readers, at both men and women. Virtually all popular anime titles are based on manga, and many Japanese video games as well. As for the subject matter, it ranges from action-adventure stories not too different from American comic books, to four-panel humor strips not too different from what you'd see in the daily newspaper, to comics about romance, sports, cooking, mystery, horror, science fiction, fantasy….Essentially every genre that you might see in popular paperback books, or on cable TV, is available in manga.
Citc: Now, tell us a little bit about yourself and your history with manga.
Jason: I first discovered manga -- or actually manga-influenced American comics -- in the late '80s in high school. In college I saw the real thing, mostly through unlicensed translations and Japanese books people were passing around, and out of college I got hired by VIZ, America 's biggest manga publisher. I worked there for 10 years, during which I was the editor of SHONEN JUMP magazine, the English edition of Weekly Shônen Jump, Japan 's #1 bestselling manga magazine. I left VIZ to write Manga: The Complete Guide .
Citc: When you call a book Manga: The Complete Guide , you're not kidding! This thing is massive and very comprehensive. How did you even know where to begin with something like this?
Jason: I'm glad you like it...! I originally wrote a proposal for this book in 2000. At the time, manga was a much smaller concern, but I felt it deserved more critical recognition, so my original idea for the book was an encyclopedia of manga artists, similar to the "Manga" art book that Taschen released a few years ago. In the process of researching that, I looked up every manga which has been released in English, and when Del Rey contracted me to do "Manga: The Complete Guide" in 2006, that became the core of the book. It ended up mutating into a guide of titles rather than artists, partially because Taschen had already done a book of artists, and partially because it's easier to speak reliably on individual titles than on individual artists -- information on Japanese artists is often scarce, even in Japan, but the books are right there where people can read them.
Beyond that, I wanted to write something which explained manga as best I could for the casual reader. I know the misconceptions people have about manga. I looked out there and I saw a million books on "how to draw manga," and a lot of books on anime, but I was really surprised that no one had done a recent guide to manga: the genres, the history, the themes. Combining that with a list of every translated manga was perfect, because it allows me to make reference to a genre like fantasy or sports or four-panel manga, for instance, and then give immediate examples of translated titles. The book has a lot of material which I think even hardcore fans will be surprised by.
CitC: How up to date is it? Everything I have looked up is in it, but it will, eventually be out of date. I know it isn't even out yet, but are there plans for updates?
Jason: I'm contracted to do at least two updates, although in what form they'll be published, I can't say. The book contains everything that had been published or announced for English publication as of Spring 2007, which includes most of the Fall 2007 titles as well as a few 2008 titles. I still read essentially every manga which comes out in English, so I'm writing the updates right now. Of course, a book like this is inevitably a snapshot in time, but I was cramming titles into it right up until the deadline.
CitC: Who is the intended audience for this? Whose hands do you really want it in?
Jason: Everyone who's curious about manga, or who is already a fan and is looking to expand their knowledge. My model on the one hand was a Roger Ebert/Leonard Maltin style movie guide, and also a lot of the guidebooks I used to read when I was younger -- books like "The Visual Encyclopedia of Science Fiction" or "The Dictionary of Imaginary Places." Books that you could just flip open and discover titles and genres you weren't aware of. I don't assume any preexisting manga knowledge on the part of the reader, but going from there, I included everything I thought would be useful in understanding and exploring manga. I didn't downplay cultural differences between manga and American comics, and I do discuss things like censorship and age ratings, so it's aimed at adults and teens.
CitC: I think it would be perfect for public and school libraries. Librarians are unable to read everything and have to rely on other's ratings and comments. This would be one more useful tool for them.
Jason: I certainly hope so. My library card was maxed out with manga for about ten months while I was working on this book...! I actually borrowed a friend's card to be able to check things out in both Oakland and San Francisco...
CitC: What kinds of things should parents be aware of if their kids are interested in manga? Both positive and negative (“don't judge a book by its cover” comes to mind).
Jason: The main thing to remember is that there is no one "manga" style or subject matter; there's a million different kinds of manga, from fairytale romances for elementary school girls, to action beat-em-ups for junior high boys, to gritty crime and science fiction and relationship-themed titles for older teens and adults. Most of the material out there is pretty pop and escapist, like what you'd see if you flipped the dials on American TV, but there are some more literary, experimental and historical manga as well: a few titles from the major publishers like Viz, Tokyopop, Dark Horse and Del Rey, as well as most of the output of Vertical and Fanfare/Ponent Mon. If you seek them out, there are excellent translated manga about subjects such as World War 2, the life of Buddha , Vietnam , American politics, concert pianists, cooking, pet care, the elderly. Some parents I've talked to are cautious of violence and sexual content in manga, and it's true, standards of acceptable content are different in Japan —for instance, you wouldn't see someone get punched in the face in an American TV show aimed at elementary school students, but you might in a children's manga. Japan is also much more easygoing about things like religious imagery. But mainstream manga does have standards just like television; Japanese parents do have power and hold publishers accountable for content, and those publishers are sensitive to their concerns, as well as to how their titles are received in the U.S. The main thing to remember about manga is that there are many different manga which are targeted to many different age groups. Generally the problem is that, once it gets to America , it's not always clear what age group it was originally aimed at.
CitC: One thing that concerned me is that whole "don't judge a book by its cover" concept. I've seen some innocent looking covers on manga books that contained some very graphic sexual or violent imagery – or both together. Could you comment on this – how can parents, librarians and readers in general find books suitable for their tastes?
Jason: The target audience of manga isn't always clear from the art style; the Japanese "cult of cuteness" is such that you sometimes see fairly "cute" covers on material intended for adults. The first thing to remember is, you have to take the age ratings printed on the books seriously. Almost all manga publishers print age ratings on the front or back cover which generally fall into the categories of "All Ages, "13 and Up", "16 and Up", and "Mature." Mature and, in some cases, "16 and Up" titles are often sold shrinkwrapped. There is no central ratings system like there is for movies or video games -- manga are books, after all -- so there is some inconsistency in ratings between publishers. From an informal survey, I would say that VIZ and Del Rey have the most cautious, conservative ratings. Parents of teenagers might want to pre-screen any books rated "16 and Up" or "Mature"; for instance, some publishers might allow nudity in a "16 and Up" book. I mean, if you think about it, "16 and Up" is just one year away from the "17 and Up" guideline for R-rated movies. In the book I devote an appendix to content issues, and I list the material in each individual title -- whether it's got violence, sexual situations, nudity, profanity, and so on. For new titles coming out late this year and next year, the answer is to check the ratings.
CitC: What is the big draw for teens and other fans? I stopped reading comics in university (early 90's) and didn't come back until recently, and when I got back into it I could hardly believe the popularity that manga had. What happened.
Jason: Manga addresses a market that American comics had neglected: essentially, everything but superhero comics. Through a combination of factors, American comics had become marginalized. Part of the reason is that, with the exception of hard-to-find indy comics, they completely neglected the women's market; women make up a huge proportion of manga fans. Another reason, I think, is that (again with the exception of indy comics), American comics were not stories; the mainstream superhero comics are all franchises owned by corporations and they don't have endings, resolutions, or a creator's personal touch. Even the most commercial manga has a beginning, an ending, and a single artist associated with that title. Most manga are intended for entertainment, but as I say in my book, they have at least the dramatic continuity of a long-running TV series or a series of paperback novels.
Another stealth factor is that, for nearly 15 years, American kids have gradually become used to manga through Japanese anime and video games. Sailor Moon, Dragon Ball Z, Naruto (all based on manga, by the way)…video games like Pokémon and practically everything from Nintendo and Sony…these things have gradually familiarized people with the art style and storytelling conventions of manga. A generation that isn't prejudiced against anime and video games is a generation that isn't prejudiced against manga.
CitC: What are the most popular titles right now? For the youngest readers and up?
Jason: At this moment, the most popular artists of girls' manga are probably CLAMP (Tsubasa, Cardcaptor Sakura), Natsuki Takaya (Fruits Basket) and Ai Yazawa (Paradise Kiss, Nana). The most popular artists of boy's manga are probably Masashi Kishimoto (Naruto), Tite Kubo (Bleach), Tsugumi Ohba and Takeshi Obata (Death Note), and possibly Rumiko Takahashi (Inuyasha), who incidentally is a female artist. Among titles aimed at older readers (although Ai Yazawa is on the borderline of this category), it's harder to say, because manga aimed at older readers doesn't sell as well as manga for teenagers. However, to pick a few artists based mostly my personal tastes, I'd say Fumi Yoshinaga (Antique Bakery), Kentaro Miura (Berserk), Takehiko Inoue (Vagabond), Moyoco Anno (Flowers & Bees, Happy Mania, the children's title Sugar Sugar Rune), and anything by Osamu Tezuka (Phoenix, Buddha).
CitC: I just found out that Korean comics, called manhwa, are becoming more popular in North America . I know absolutely nothing about these, but I would guess that they are printed in a similar format to manga and have similar style art. Is there anything you can tell us about manhwa?
Jason: Most of the manhwa that have been translated into English have been highly influenced by manga, so it's difficult for the casual reader to tell it apart, aside from the fact that it reads left to right (Korean reads left to right, unlike Japanese) and the characters' names are Korean. In content and themes, they're pretty similar to manga. Sadly there hasn't been nearly as much written about the history and background of Korean comics as there has been about manga. Whereas many American manga fans are also interested in Japanese pop culture in general, there isn't much of a subculture of "manhwa" fans who are interested in manhwa and Korea specifically. Instead, it's easier to see Korean comics as part of a general movement by publishers to print "manga-style" comics from all countries, such as Tokyopop and Seven Seas' lines of American and European manga-influenced comics (OEL manga). For the moment, the foreignness and specific qualities of Japanese pop culture is a large part of the appeal of manga; but as American and Korean manga-style comics proliferate, it's possible that this foreign element will melt away in the melting-pot and that manga will truly become a "style" and lose the connotation of any particular country. Personally, whenever I read a Japanese or Korean or American comic, I always keep in mind that it's Japanese or Korean or American... but if you ask the upcoming generation of manga readers who are now in junior high, you might get a different answer.
CitC: Thanks so much for that. Check it out on October 9, 2007 folks.
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