Patriot that I am, I have always been a great fan of American comics — and by association that goes for various British authors as well. I grew up on superheroes primarily, though of course comics is a medium not a genre and there’s no reason I can’t read more literary and independent series along with the flying adolescent fantasies.
However, so far I admit to having been too Western-centric. There happens to be a whole other country with a tremendous comics tradition that dwarfs the whole of North America and Europe together. I speak of course, of that mysterious land of Japan.
Goodreads shelf: manga
The Eastern style is so different, and in many ways superior to the assembly-line system of writers, artists, inker and colorist . The cartoonist in Japan is almost always both author and illustrator, the he or she is helped by assistants. Black and white except for special occasions. Adaptations, usually made famous in anime productions, are word-for-word and shot-by-shot remakes extremely faithful to the source material. Comics being taken seriously by the literary world is fairly recent in the West, yet Japan embraced adult comics right after the post-war period as an efficient form of entertainment when they couldn’t afford to make films. They are produced quickly, read fast, and often stories come into hundreds of chapters (dozens of graphic novel volumes) for a story to be patiently completed by the auteur.
I recommend the brilliant essay/graphic novel Understanding Comics by Scott McCloud to delve deeply into the nature of East vs. West art forms, upon the subjects of minimalism and respect for words & pictures at once as well as studies on neurological effects of cartoons.
Let’s start with some history. Best place to begin is with Osamu Tezuka, the God of Manga. An insanely-prolific writer and artist, the mangaka drew over 100,000 pages in his lifetime! Originally inspired by Disney stylings, he soon found his own voice in the 1950s and 60s. Funny how Disney later ripped off his Kimba the White Lion with a certain lion king…
I came late to the party, but did all I could to read his best works in my late teens and early twenties in the 90s and 2000s.
You may know the character of Astro Boy.
Tezuka was originally trained as a doctor before he found his artistic calling, and his medical drama Black Jack comes highly recommended.
There was also Adolf, about World War II. Buddha, biography of the holy one. Phoenix, an epic tale that bounced from ancient Japanese history to the far future.
Here’s the Goodreads shelf for more:
Now, I wasn’t watching the Astro Boy cartoon in the 1960s. I got into anime in the 90s like everybody else starting with a VHS tape of Akira.
I was way too young to be watching a movie like that, and I was blown away. The most badass cyberpunk film ever made, still awesome today.
“Neo-Tokyo is about to explode.”
The comic was even better. While the film had the title character — the government pscychic test subject Akira — only as brain tissue in jars, the comic had the super child reborn. And, when Neo-Tokyo was nuked the film ended. That was only half of the comics series. Then it continued twice as long with in the post-apocalyptic wasteland of World War IV. With incredibly detailed art work by Katsuhiro Otomo, who also directed the film.
There were higher standards back then. When manga really blew up in the 2000s, we learned that Japan produces a lot of crap as well. But in the 90s only the best of the best was worth translating into English. Dark Horse Comics in particular was the quality publishing company of record.
Ghost in the Shell, by Masamune Shirow, took hard science fiction to a whole other level.
Masamune Shirow was never very prolific, but his books had a level of intricacy and know-how never before seen. Appleseed was more his opus, but Ghost in the Shell became his main franchise still going strong today. I enjoyed Black Magic and Orion equally.
But it wasn’t all seriousness and mindfuck scifi. A lot of these comics were more fun. Take the comics published by Viz:
I remember me and my sister bonding over Ranma, the gender-bending comedy of a martial artist who turns into a girl, with bunches of supporting characters who turned to animals. Challenging cisgender heteronormalcy before it was cool.
I wasn’t as into Sailor Moon as my sister, and most Shōjo is frankly crap. It was the works by top female mangaka Rumiko Takahashi that were so funny and so creative. I went further back, and discovered old Urusei Yatsura stories from the 70s about an alien demoness named Lum and her pervert ‘boyfriend.’
I never did get into Inuyasha though.