Manga Mania!
Japan's Comic Book Explosion

My nephew and goddaughter love Sailor Moon, an anime (Japanese cartoon) based on a popular manga (pronounced "mahngah") series. At the science fiction conventions I frequently attend, anime screen rooms are always jam-packed with fans and much of the anime shown are also based on manga. In France, nearly one-third of the comics on the racks are manga, and manga are sold in most Italian bookstores. And as the recent best-selling status of Viz Comics' Pokémon shows that manga popularity is growing in the United States as well. In Japan itself manga accounts for nearly 40 percent of book and magazine sales. This seems as good a time as any for an exploration of the manga explosion.

It's no accident that comic books found a fertile soil in Japan. The roots for sequential, narrative story telling in that country spans back through the centuries when illustrated scrolls, recounting Buddhist cosmology, were the major form of reading material, combining brushwork art with narration and captions.

Scroll themes were not always religious in nature but also depicted stories about anthropomorphic animals, fantasies involving ghosts and demons, and even farting (!) contest accounts. Up until the 17th century humorous and religious scroll stories were limited to those who were wealthy, but due to an unusual growth in prosperity and the introduction of the cheap woodblock printing process, story-telling art became available to the broad masses of the population.

The most popular of the new woodblock prints were known as "ukiyo-e," or "the Floating World," illustrations featuring playful scenes in the red-light district of Edo (now known as Toyko). Gradually ukiyo-e diversified, depicting historical events, tourist attractions, fashion, and the latest Kabuki stars. There were also "shunga,"books (humorous pornography), and "yellow cover" humor stories that were collected in booklets.

Following Admiral Perry's pushy forced entry into Edo's harbor in 1853, Japan's isolation from the rest of the world came to an abrupt end. The country experienced a cultural and technological revolution that took it from feudalism to an industrialized state in five short decades. European cartooning was introduced to Japan by two eccentric western artists, Charles Wirgman, from Britain, and George Bigot, from France. In 1862 Wirgman a humor magazine, The Japan Punch, for his fellow expatriates.

The new style of humor and cartooning fascinated the Japanese, who promptly published a translated edition. So great was its impact that today Wirgman is considered the father of Japanese cartooning, and an annual ceremony is held at his burial-place in Yokohama. Bigot also published a magazine, featuring cartoons that satirized the government and society of Japan. The publication frequently got him in hot water with the bureaucrats, but such irreverence was a breath of fresh air for Japanese artists. Aided by the new printing press technology, Japanese magazines began to rapidly spring up. The new magazines were popular with the public but not always with the authorities; there were impudent editors who experienced that displeasure by paying fines or spending some time behind bars.

By the 1920s American comic strips began appearing in Japanese newspapers. The first to break the national barrier was George McManus and his Bringing Up Father, quickly followed by Mutt and Jeff, Polly and Her Pals, and Felix the Cat. Japanese editors responded by hiring local artists to produce their own original material like Adventures of Little Sho and Easy-going Daddy,both big hits that inspired a wave of merchandising frenzy, as well as radio and film series.

As the twenties progressed militarism grew, resulting in an ultra-nationalistic government that began a war with China in 1937. Left-wing cartoonists were beaten, jailed, and sometimes murdered by the authorities, and by 1940 most dissident cartoonist associations had been destroyed.

After Pearl Harbor those cartoonists who hadn't been banned or drafted were put to work drawing patriotic strips from domestic consumption, or propaganda strips to be dropped behind enemy lines or distributed in occupied zones. When the war ended in 1945 there were years of deprivation and paper shortages, but the comics began to emerge. Science fiction comics enjoyed a boom, perhaps because the Japanese public preferred to forget the grim war years, focusing instead on the promise of a brighter future.

Due to postwar conditions, publishers dropped their old formats of hardcover comics and began turning out "red cover" comics, so called because the covers were printed on cheap paper with red ink. Pay rates were low but creators now had much greater freedom. One future star of cartooning, Osamu Tezuka, launched his first work in these comics with two classics, Jungle Emperor and Mighty Atom. Years later Tezuka would animate his two strips and Mighty Atom migrated to the U.S. as Astro Boy, the first anime to achieve success in this country.

Tezuka was a prime influence in Japanese comics, creating story lines that ran for hundreds of pages, and employing cinematic techniques that had never been used before. Many of Japanese leading cartoonists of today count Osamu Tezuka as the reason they got into the field.

By 1959 the first weekly comic in Japan was published, quickly expanding to 300 pages. Seven other weeklies quickly followed, five for boys and two for girls. From that point on circulations began to skyrocket into millions. The rest is history.

By 1980 over a billion manga were produced, and by 1995 that figure nearly doubled. There are now manga not only for boys and girls but also for college students, mature men and women, as well as senior citizens. The comics are aimed at a wide variety of subjects and interests, from sports to high finance. Three of the earliest categories of manga are "Shoujo," or comics for a female audience, "Shounen," for the guys, and "Hentai," X-rated titles that account for about 25% of the industryís output.

Why such a widespread interest in comics in Japan? Naturally comics are fun to read, but there are also cultural reasons for their success. Japan is a relatively small and overpopulated country; forests and parks have been crowded out by development, resulting in fewer playtime activities for children. By necessity Japan is also a very disciplined society, with a highly demanding educational system that produces stress ("examination hell") and eats up students' spare time.

Comics are cheap, highly portable, and provide a much faster read than magazines and novels. The fantasies that comics provide are also a welcome anecdote to the rigors of constant study. Naturally reading habits begun in youth tends to extend to adulthood, where life as an employee in Japan'sí corporate culture can be just as demanding, if not boring.

With Japanís home market now stretched to the saturation point, manga have now spread to Europe, Asia, Australia, and the Americas, their success a tribute to the diversity and energy of Japanís culture of comics.

--Steve Stiles