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What is Manga?

Used with permission of AnimeInfo.org. Originally by Frank Sanchez.

Manga, or Japanese comics, has enjoyed huge popularity both on its own shores and all over the world in many different language translations, but the concept of manga has been around far longer than even its earliest incarnation in the hands of anime and manga pioneer Osamu Tezuka. With a variety of genres and many budding manga artists, both professional and amateur, manga has been and continues to be a staple of entertainment for people all over the world. Many manga series are also eventually made into anime series, and serve to help bring to life the detailed drawings and pictures seen on the pages of countless popular manga.

This is a basic course in the concepts and traits of manga. Frank will take you through a short tour of the history of manga, what it's about and what happens in it, and put you on the track to read some manga on your own. Whether or not you read comics, this course is essential to understanding where much of today's anime comes from, and you'll definitely have an essential piece of the anime industry puzzle when we're through!

Origin of Manga
In the Western culture, comic books have been a staple in society for years. From the very first kids' comics to the varying-age comic books of today, the pictures and stories of this visual medium have entertained people for as long as just about anyone can remember. The comic book, though short in pages, makes up for its brevity with detailed, colorful images that, at their best, seem to leap right out of the pages. An exploding building, a team of superheroes charging the enemy, and a beautiful sunset all take form in the images that are depicted in comic books. The drawings of talented artists bring to life things that would otherwise be left to our imaginations to see. And as the drawings evolved, so too did the stories and situations shown in comic books, making it a medium well-recognized and respected even in an age of modern technology and entertainment.

The Japanese equivalent to the much-celebrated comic book, "manga", has enjoyed a similar rise to fame and enjoyment by its many fans. While the style, stories, and traits of the Japanese "comic book" are different, the same ability to bring to life drawings on a page is still present in its many variations. Manga commands a sizable portion of the Japanese publishing breakdown every year, and with its many genres, brings in readers young and old to its fold. Manga artists are among the most respected in the entertainment industry, and many popular anime today started out as an artist's vision in the pages of heavily read manga. Because the manga industry is so integral to the anime movement, it is definitely worth learning about. Many anime fans prefer manga versions of their favorite series over the animated ones. When you see the complexity that goes into manga, I'm sure you'll understand why that is too!

Ready to learn about manga? Let's start with a simple definition.

Manga (MAHN-gah or MANG-ah)
n. - From the Japanese, literally meaning "whimsical pictures". Manga has its roots in early drawings done in the 1100's, and it has since then evolved into an art form that has encompassed a significant portion of the Japanese culture. The equivalent of "comic books" in Western culture, manga is intertwined with anime due to the fact that many popular manga series are transferred onto video or the TV screens as animated shows. Japanese comics are usually released in black and white, small volumes containing several stories.

Sounds kind of confusing at first, but if you look carefully, just about everything I said before is in there. When we're done, you'll be able to know about every facet of the definition of manga.

One of the first things we've got in the definition is its roots. The concept of manga has been around long before even the rise of Western society. Buddhist monks used to draw pictures on scrolls using things such as cherry blossoms, symbols, and animals to indicate the passage of time (kind of like today's pictorial calendars that feature different images each month). These "picture scrolls" also sometimes featured monks played by animals. Later, it is said that an artist by the name of Hokusai was the first to coin the actual term "manga", which means, literally "whimsical pictures". Other depictions on wood blocks and scrolls were things that could be considered "whimsical pictures". But it wasn't until the late 19th and early 20th centuries that manga began to change into its current form. As with the anime industry, the rise of the Japanese "comic" began with Western influences, as the first comic strips were published in American newspapers. The Japanese picked up on this and began using these kinds of comics for many purposes, including war propaganda, entertainment, or expression of opinion.

But it was the so-called "father of anime and manga", Osamu Tezuka, that really got the manga industry going. Citing the limitations of current Japanese comics, Tezuka began to draw his manga with deep story, extreme expression, and exaggerated style (taking from Disney's cartoonish style of character design). His first manga, "New Treasure Island", and his later flagship story, "Tetsuwan Atom" (Astro Boy) were amazing successes and many artists began to tune into Tezuka's pictorial story-telling technique. By the 60's, several of Tezuka's works had been animated into what could be called the "ancestors" of anime, and many artists branched off from his influence to write stories of their own - some comedic, some romantic, and much more. As the anime industry developed its niche in Japanese society, so too did the quality of manga rise, and by the end of the 20th century, manga had evolved into anime's "sibling" in the evolution of anime in Japan and in other places in the world.

Now that you know a little bit about the origins of manga, let's take a look at some of the things you might see when looking at the manga drawing style.

The Manga Drawing Style
The manga drawing style is a unique one, influenced by the Western style "comic book", but yet adding in traits of its own. These items distinguish manga from its Western counterpart in a number of ways. What we're going to do now is look at some of the most glaring parts of the manga "style", and show you just how they contribute to manga drawing in general.

Large Eyes: By far the most prominent feature of typical anime characters are the large, saucer-sized eyes that they possess. In fact, a starting point for some anime/manga artists is the eyes, because of their importance in the overall presentation of the character. Specifically, there are several reasons why the eyes are so large. Originally, when the first anime/manga artist, Osamu Tezuka drew characters, he was influenced by the West's slight exaggeration on features such as the eyes. Tezuka mimicked this practice of Western comics, specifically choosing the large eyes as a way of conveying feeling and emotion. This is a trend that carries over into the latest anime today. With larger eyes, a manga character is able to display all sorts of emotions, from extreme happiness to burning anger, and so on. Another reason for large eyes on anime characters is to convey friendliness or openness in expression. Small eyes on a manga character usually are hostile and cold, without much emotion, and are sometimes employed on "evil" characters (villains) to increase their aura of "unfriendliness".

Cinematic Techniques: Manga is usually drawn in such a way as a movie storyboard might be designed. This follows the influence of Tezuka, who was the first to use cinematic-style techniques in his drawings. By employing things such as zoom, panning over or cutting to scenery drawings, and transitional story techniques (all done via series of panels), a manga becomes more than just a series of pictures. It becomes more of a story, and adds depth to what is already a visually appealing set of drawings. A manga artist's portrayal of a sunset, a training dojo, or the slow-motion depiction of a final blow can be just as beautiful as their character design. This shows that a manga artist is just as concerned with the "atmosphere" that is created for a reader as he or she is with drawing action scenes or characters in situations.

Extreme Expression: Hand in hand with the "large eyes" trait of the manga drawing style, extreme depictions of emotions or expressions is also a part of a typical manga. While this highlights the manga artist's ability to pay attention to detail also add another dimension to the manga style. While such expressions may seem to be unrealistic at times, these drawings have become a part of the manga style and are used to accentuate the character's emotion, helping readers to see not only what kind of feeling the characters have, but also the intensity of that feeling. Some genres of manga, such as the comedic ones, usually tend to use more of this technique than some of the other, more serious manga stories.

Black and White: You may have noticed that all the pictures you've seen so far are black and white. This is because the manga style, unlike its Western counterpart, is done completely in black, white, and grays. Part of this may be to improve efficiency - typically, the manga artist, or mangaka, does all of the drawing and most of the inking, proofing, and shading. Adding color to what is already very detailed would definitely be more work on the artist's part. Black and white is also typically cheaper to print than full color pictures, and the paper used is sometimes recycled paper as well. While there are a few cases in which a manga was colorized, for the most part, manga is done with no color. While this may be somewhat unnerving to some readers seeing manga for the first time, others find it refreshing because it makes the reader focus on the story rather than on the appearance of a manga.

Well, now that you've seen the things that go into drawing manga, we'll take a look at some common trends that happen in manga. These will help to know what to expect when looking at manga and reading it.

Common Trends in Manga
Along with its unique drawing style, manga also has several other things which make it an appealing and unique medium. While there are many of these traits or "trends" in manga (definitely too numerous to mention), I'm going to be focusing on several things which seem to recur again in specific manga series or recur in the medium in general. Knowing these will give you an idea of what to expect when you're actually reading manga. Here's some of the most important of trends in manga:

Manga Subgenres: Manga itself is not uniform in type - like many things, it can be divided into lots of different categories, or subgenres, each with their own properties and practices. Almost ever since the first manga were written, there has been more than one kind of genre out there. The reason why there might be many different subgenres of anime is probably because there are just as many, if not more, subgenres of manga. Manga subgenres are clearly seen in the type of story and plot action that is presented. For example, there is manga aimed at children (kodomo manga), young girls (shoujo manga), and young boys (shounen manga), among others. Because the differences are so clear in its pages, manga commonly is not misconceived to be just of one type, and manga fans can have an interest in more than one genre as well.

Recurring Plot and Deep Storyline: In the Western culture, many comic book series have recurring storylines or plots. This is also true of many manga, which contain stories that span several issues. The plots in manga can focus on any one character or characters, on the general theme of the story, or be a "one-shot" side story. While some manga are highly "episodic" in nature and contain many small side stories, others can be all connected and related in some way to the main plot. Combined with the many subgenres of manga that can be found, plots in manga can take many different forms, from a serious one, to a comedic one, to a romantic one, etc. There is, however, a difference in the stories of manga as opposed to the Western comics, in that action of manga tends to be laid out in parts and sequences, rather than as one continuous story. One may notice that story parts and action parts in manga may alternate or follow one another - much like a movie storyboard would. This ties in with the cinematic techniques that are typical of many manga.

Cultural References and Insights: If you're not originally or currently a part of the Japanese culture, than the many aspects of it that you will see in manga are definitely more intriguing. While they are usually presented quite subtly and as a part of the "normal" practice of things, someone reading a certain manga series may still pick up these cultural references and may or may not understand them. Some of these include why a person holds their hands in prayer briefly after eating a meal, why people take off their footwear before entering a house, and why a class misbehavior punishment involves holding buckets of water outside a classroom. While it's not necessary to completely understand all these little insights, it does help to know that they're there, as well as why they are done in the first place. Manga is also a good reflection of the Japanese culture in general and what is tolerated or not tolerated. For example, the Japanese are a little freer with the idea of nudity, and some manga have no problem showing a female character's breasts or chest. This isn't so say that this is part of all manga, but nevertheless it's there.

Bonus Stories (Omake): Some manga artists will include stories or mini-sections that are completely unrelated to the plot, which is placed in for the purpose of giving the reader more to read about the series. These bonus stories/sections are referred to as "omake" (meaning "extra"). Omake can take many different forms, whether it is a manga artist taking a section to describe interesting things about drawing characters, interviews, exclusive pictures, or, most commonly, completely unrelated comedy stories involving the characters (even the villains). Omake are just another way in which manga is made more entertaining for its readers.

I certainly hope that they will help broaden your manga horizon and get you started on the path of manga fandom. If you happen to like manga even more after reading these and other series, and check out the anime based on their stories. Anime/manga an intriguing and interesting medium, followed by many people around the world, and my hope is that someday it will be widely accepted as such.