Form vs. Content and the “Othering” of Manga

Fruits-Basket-vol-2-Tohru-and-MomijiThere was a lot of talk going around about the “manga boom” of the late 90’s/early 2000’s a week or two back, spurred mainly by this thoughtful essay by Chris Butcher of The Beguiling and TCAF. I don’t have any first-hand experience with the anti-manga attitude he details there1 nor much to say about the larger issue he directly addresses2 but it did tangentially bring to mind a conversation I had with some comics students a while back.

I’ve taught summer comics classes for high school students at our local community art center, The Sawtooth School, on and off for several years. The students who sign on for this program have historically skewed heavily female and (not unrelated) heavily toward manga as far as their comics interests go. That’s been the case pretty much across the board from when I began teaching there (2004, maybe?) through to the present. I personally read a fair amount of manga, but it’s part of a broader range of comics I read including general fiction GNs, collections of old newspaper strips, webcomics, translated European comics, the occasional superhero comic, etc. The examples of comics I use in class are accordingly across-the-board: some manga, but lots of other stuff as well. Partially I do this in order to expose the students to things beyond what they already know, but also it’s because I’ve always felt that “comics is comics.” Meaning: despite variations in drawing style, genre, length, and format, all these things are all a single medium.

I was making exactly this case for “comics is comics” in a class years ago, though, and was taken aback by how vigorously the students rejected the idea. I’m always interested in my students’ take on comics, so I decided to probe a bit further. According to them, comic books, graphic novels, newspaper comics, etc. were one sort of thing, and manga was another, different kind of thing in another category all together. They couldn’t tell me exactly what this category was, but it contained manga, anime, and video games-related stuff. I remember at the time being pretty baffled by this idea and pointing out all the things that manga shares with other types of comics–They all use panels, right? And you read the panels in order to get a story, right?–but the students weren’t buying it.

At the time I chalked the conversation up to a generational disconnect and just moved on. In recent years, though, I’ve found myself thinking about that conversation a lot. It happened in maybe 2005 or so and at that point I wasn’t too long out of art school. I was very much under the influence–as were a lot of folks who were studying comics at the time–of Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics. McCloud’s very much into categorization and in that book he very famously defines/categorizes comics based on their formal properties–the sorts of things that I cited to my students: “juxtaposed pictorial and other images in a deliberate sequence,” as he says.

The more involved I get with comics, though–and with teaching comics–the more sympathetic I am to Dylan Horrock’s critique of Understanding Comics, which points out that in focusing entirely on the form of comics, McCloud ignores content and aesthetics. As Horrocks says, “In one fell swoop (McCloud) has removed all other considerations – genre, style, publishing formats…” And I think this is precisely what my students were responding to in our discussion: they resisted grouping manga with, say Krazy Kat, because of the obvious aesthetic differences between them. Just based on how they look, Vampire Hunter D sure seems have a lot more in common with the video game Final Fantasy II than to The Katzenjammer Kids… or Jimmy Corrigan: Smartest Kid on Earth. (And, further, The Katzenjammer Kids, shares a lot more aesthetically with The Family Circus than the Bayeaux Tapestry, yet McCloud would say the former is not a comic, but the latter is.)

For what it’s worth, I still pretty much think “comics is comics.” Manga, newspaper strips, comic books, graphic novels–they’re all the same medium: comics. And I think that’s a particularly good way to think about things if you’re teaching the basic mechanics of the comics-making craft. But I also recognize that because I teach comics and make comics, I gravitate toward the aspects of the art form that I deal with as a teacher and a comics-maker–their formal properties–and not necessarily the aspects that readers of certain types of comics (like my students, in this case) may be responding to: aesthetic properties.

Anyway, what does any of this have to do with Chris Butcher’s essay? Not much, really, but the article reminded me of this incident and that some of manga’s natural, positive “otherness”3 can be a part of its appeal.


1. I’m sure there was plenty of manga hostility going around at various “Android’s Dungeon”-type places during this period. During that time, though, I was in the Masters program in SCAD’s Sequential Art department and as such was hanging out with people who were heavily immersed in comics–including tons of manga. Manga seemed to me just another really exciting, interesting thing going on in comics in the late 90s.

2. OK, I will add this one thing: if you’re listing successful important types of comics from that era that have been roundly ignored or even derided by the comics industry status quo, you should add so-called “goth” comics to the list. Comics like Johnny the Homicidal Maniac, Lenore, Gloomcookie, etc. sold like hotcakes and were–and still are–incredibly influential, but you’d never know they existed by the way they’re discussed (or not discussed) at the time they were published or now.

3. As opposed to the jerky “this is a fad,” “these aren’t real comics,” othering that Chris B. addresses in his essay.


  1. Wai-Jing says:

    Very interesting.

    I’ve had conversations with a friend about what differentiates ‘comics’ and ‘manga’. He insisted that manga must be made for a Japanese audience; but then that discounts so many European and American manga which, I feel, are better defined as such than as comics.

    I think the key thing here is not to confuse medium with genre. The best analogy I can think of is to compare it with film. We would not say, for example, that ‘The Hangover’ and ‘Casablanca’ have anything much in common, in terms of genre; yet both can interchangeably be referred to as ‘movies’ or ‘films’ (one term implied to be more serious than the other, but both still more or less equally accurate.) In the same way, directors in America and France both make films, but each follows a different set of conventions, makes different creative decisions, and produce very different films. Yet both are certainly films, and are referred to as much; you can have ‘foreign-language films’, but they are still called films.

    Of course, you can also categorize films by their genres – you can have as many ‘rom coms’ and ‘chick flicks’ as you want. But you wouldn’t call Sex and the City (the tv series) a ‘chick flick’, because it’s not a ‘flick’; that distinction is saved for the movie adaption.

    Confusion occurs when you start to refer to things as ‘comic-book style’, and start to refer to these other things as a sub-category of ‘comics’ by default. I wouldn’t call a coffee mug with a picture of Batman on it a comic, just because it has something in common with comics; I would call it a coffee mug. But I would call Love and Rockets a comic, even though it’s content is nothing like The Dark Knight.

    On one art forum I went on, ‘anime’ as a category or style of art, when I would maintain that this is a style of animation, not artwork. Yet we easily confuse terms like ‘anime’ and ‘manga’, or ‘cartoons’ and ‘comics’, all the time, because they are so aesthetically similar; which is a bit like referring to both a metal-work garden seat and the Eiffel Tower as ‘furniture’, just because they are stylistically similar.

    Basically, I think ‘comics are comics’ as well; but while they are both communicated in the same language (ie. panels and speech bubbles), they are very different dialects of the same (sweat marks, anger marks, etc.) which each deserve their own distinction. Yet manga shouldn’t be demoted to a mere sub-genre of comics, because they are more than that. They are, at their core, the same media by a different name.

    At least, that’s what I think :)

  2. Ben says:

    Thanks for the thoughtful comments. Yeah, I think “dialect” is a very apt term to describe it.

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