Eyes turned eastward...

*Comics on the Newsstands Dept: Good ol’ Suehiro Maruo is the cover feature of the latest issue of Juxtapoz; he gets a fairly short profile inside, with much space devoted to his gorgeous, atrocious color work, a frothing stew of classic manga influence, fascist design chic, pulp magazine cover and horror movie poster design, and general debauchery. Someone in the bookstore gave me the evil eye while I perused this feature - truly the seal of approval as far as Maruo goes! The whole issue is devoted to Japanese art, so expect some stuff by Junko Mizuno and others too.

Dreamland Japan: Writings on Modern Manga

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Far and away the most worthwhile of my comics-related Christmas reading thus far has been this collection of prose essays by Frederik L. Schodt, which (I most shamefully admit) I’d never before obtained, despite having loved, admired, and indeed utilized (in my Golgo 13 special) Schodt’s landmark 1983 tome Manga! Manga!: The World of Japanese Comics (later updated for 1988) in the past. This is Schodt’s other manga book, from 1996 (with some sources revised for 2002), and I can’t believe I put off reading it until now. I plowed through all 360 pages in only three days, yet there’s more pure information contained in this book than any other contemporary or semi-contemporary book on manga I can think of. There is no doubt in my mind that this is required reading, one of the core texts on manga in English.

Much space in Manga! Manga! was taken up by historical study; this was valuable, indeed necessary information, particularly when viewed in light of today’s manga scene, where the popularity of ‘manga’ as whatever brand you take it as is greater than ever before in English, yet works from before 1985 are rare sightings on our shelves - the history of Japanese comics is a rich and complex one, a half-century of development and expansion, yet only a fragment is available for our eyes, with the more contemporary examples of certain favored genres dominating your local Borders and Barnes and Noble. Schodt performed a service (in 1983!) by chronicling the past, but he performs another, perhaps equally splendid service here - freed from the confines of producing an expansive introduction, Schodt throws his focus onto the myriad incarnations of the then-present, and his taste for the offbeat and unique in Japanese comics emerges, bringing us dispatches from places we still haven’t heard much of, living now in Fat City. If this book was too esoteric for 1996, it is absolutely ready for today.

There are seven chapters here, each with a different theme and a different approach. The first of them is very short, a reiteration of the introductory drive of Schodt’s prior book, with insights added as gleaned from the passing decade-plus. But the rest of the book spins out into fascinating new territory; perhaps my very favorite is the brilliantly simple third chapter, in which Schodt picks up twenty manga anthologies (these being the dominant form of manga serialization) from off the newsstands of Japan, ranging from the ultra-popular Shukan Shonen Jump (which at the time was among the best-selling weekly magazines on the planet, with a circulation of between five and six million) to the beloved alternative monthly Garo (now defunct) to the tanbi mandate of June (that which spawned a hundred knockoff male love mags) to the razor-focus demographic targeting of Yan Mama Comic (intended solely for young mothers) to the likes of Manga Pachinker (nothing but comics about pachinko, 200+ pages, every month). Schodt provides plenty of hard data, like publishers, prices, and circulation numbers (yes, apparently in the Japan of 1996, you could sell 180,000 copies each of three separate anthologies devoted to mahjong comics every damn month), along with editorial mandates, histories, and popular features.

But Schodt doesn’t stop there. He interviews the editor-in-chief (or some equivalent) of every one of these anthologies, asking them about current trends, plans for the future, the demands of the readership. He puts these magazines in their proper context among the comics serializations of Japan, and the picture he paints isn’t always pretty - there’s rampant pressure to conform to popular styles, cutthroat competition, fickle readerships that often demand (and get) changes based on all-important reader surveys, and countless alternative media concerns; Schodt’s telling of the creation of Sailor Moon, a procedure more akin to designing an automobile or refrigerator than producing an artistic work, is particularly eye-opening. But he remains sensitive to the cultural mores of Japan, the nation’s unique trends; as time-delayed as much of this insight is today, the particulars remain of vital interest to today’s reader.

Even more vital is the fourth chapter, consisting entirely of short profiles of twenty-four creators, books, or particularized genres, all of them joined by their uniqueness, even in today’s manga-saturated comics market. Some of the folks profiled will be somewhat familiar to 2005's readers: there’s that scamp Suehiro Maruo, increasingly-recognized alternative pioneer Yoshiharu Tsuge, Kazuichi Hanawa of the excellent Doing Time (in fact, Schodt’s profile of him concludes with the incarceration that would provide the raw material for his best-known-in-English work), and Akimi Yoshida of Banana Fish, which would soon after be picked up by Viz for English release. But still, you’ll want to learn about Akira Narita and his autobiographical comics about cruising for sex in ‘telephone clubs,’ a shojo manga titled Emperor of the Land of the Rising Sun that reimagined Japan’s legendary founder as a psychic homosexual transvestite, manga released by the Japan’s Printing Bureau of the Ministry of Finance to educate the public on the nation’s legal system, Shingo Iguchi’s altogether hallucinogenic Z-Chan, and the incredible-sounding Henshu-O (King of Editors): manga about editing manga. And even all that pales in comparison to Schodt’s quest to obtain the infamous manga produced by the AUM Shinrikyo cult, members of which launched a deadly sarin gas attack on Tokyo subways in 1995; merely entering a cult-affiliated building elicits police attention, but the author brings home some telling samples of the work.

And there’s so much more fascination to be had. Even the more time-sensitive passages, like the seventh chapter’s exploration of manga in English, work well as snapshots of the era, viewed from a time in which so much has changed. Learn how Viz made a good deal of money off of early, low-selling English translations by reselling the rights to them for utilization in once-removed translations by other countries. Thrill to the coverage of the 1996 OEL manga scene (complete with prophetic words from Carl Gustav Horn, reasoning that the manga influence “might create a renaissance in the otherwise ailing U.S. comics industry.”). Become enlightened as to the very existence of Mangajin, a magazine devoted to the learning of the Japanese language, that ran for seventy issues and wound up utilizing samples from myriad (otherwise commercially poisonous) manga as translation exercises, providing a boon for fans; I’m reminded of Pulp’s occasional advocacy on behalf of Japanese-produced English-learning editions of various titles as an inadvertent shadow industry of good reading for English speakers.

Plus, there’s vintage examinations of the impact of computer technology on manga creation and fandom (charmingly, ‘the Internet’ is defined), an appreciation of the works of Osamu Tezuka, thoughts on the semantic implications of the very term ‘manga,’ and a visit to Japan’s enormous comics conventions (virtually all of it centered around amateur dojinshi). There’s really just too much here. Never mind that it’s written with wit and style, always kept accessible and engaging. There are some good books written very recently on the topic of manga (let this be the hundredth of this site’s recommendation of Manga: Masters of the Art; I’m also enjoying Taschen’s image-heavy Manga Design, which succeeds mainly through sheer force of breadth, occasional attribution faux pas aside), but few have left me feeling so full, so educated. I wonder if I’m only behind the times. Maybe everyone reading this is slapping their foreheads and mumbling “Jesus Christ, Jog” as they eye the well-worn copies on their bookshelves; that would be good. That would be a nice reaction to prompt, as I’d know that more people have already read this book. Because it's just the book we need right now.

Buy this.