Making Manga is Hard—and Funny: Manga Dogs Reviewed
Ema Toyama (mangaka); William Flanagan (translation); Jennifer Skarupa (lettering); Phil Balsman (cover design)
What do you think of comics artists and writers? Okay, I can probably answer some of that: if you’re reading this, you’re probably not among the camp who thinks of them as weirdos. Or maybe you do, but you like to read about comics anyway. Never mind, what I’m getting at is: what are they really like, these creators who hatch the story and artwork that engrosses and entertains you? How do they do what they do? What muse do they follow? What magic do they work to produce page after page that you turn so diligently? Who are they?
Artists—and by this I mean all of them, painters, sculptors, writers, illustrators, dancers, poets, musicians, designers, et cetera et cetera—have long been granted qualities that, in the minds of the general public, set them apart in some way. What are artists? They’re creative, obsessive, odd, crazy, snobbish, misunderstood, strange, independent, rebellious, talented. Sometimes they’re put on pedestals: geniuses, visionaries, luminaries.
You know what artists really are, though? They’re people. People going through a strange, painful thing called the creative process. If they’re trying to make a living off of what they do, they’re probably also embedded in one of the consumer-driven industries that surround the products of their chosen muse.
Kanna Tezuka is one such creative person. She’s a 15-year-old manga artist who has already debuted; her manga “Teach Me ❤ Buddha” is currently being serialized in a shoujo magazine. However, not only does Kanna have to keep up with the grueling deadlines the magazine demands, but she also has to attend high school. So when her high school announces the creation of a manga major, Kanna is overjoyed—she’ll be able to do classwork and manga work at the same time!
Unfortunately for Kanna, the teacher is lousy and the only other students in the class are three handsome (but dense) manga fanatics. That would be fine but for the fact that once these three discover Kanna has been published, they beg her to teach them about creating manga. That might also be fine except that the three boys (whom Kanna, upon request, dubs Prince Burly Dolt, Specs Delusion, and Weirdo Dreamkid) really just want to become famous manga artists without doing any of the work to get there. You’ve probably guessed it by now: this is a recipe for disaster.
Thus begins Ema Toyama’s Manga Dogs, a clever satire of the manga industry. And yes, Toyama pokes fun at the entire industry, from artists to fans to publishers. No one is safe from her irreverent, perceptive jibes—not even, I suspect, herself. (I can’t help but think that Toyama bases Kanna’s sleepless nights, filthy living space, and chronic aches and pains on personal experience.) It’s hilarious.
What Manga Dogs is not, however, is a manga for beginners. That is, beginners could read it, but the puns and inside jokes—which comprise the majority of the humor—would largely be lost on them. There are great translation notes in each volume, but endnotes can only go so far. If you’re new to manga and want to learn a bit about the industry (albeit through a satirical lens), this series might be of interest, but I still think it would be a bit too obtuse for a beginner.
The other thing that makes this a better manga for those already hooked on the medium is that the artwork is packed. Crammed, even; each page of this three-volume series is chock full of action and jokes. In part, I think this is because each episode is short (10 or 12 pages, generally), which means that Toyama had to squeeze a lot of content into each page. I also think it adds to the humor, though. You’ll squint and bury your nose further into the book—especially if you’re nearsighted, like me—to read the small type and catch the chatter in the background of the scene. It’s like a reward for those especially dedicated (or sharp-eyed) readers.
My favorite part of Manga Dogs, however, isn’t the humor, it’s the discourse on creativity and the artistic process that is woven throughout. From the get-go, Prince, Specs, and Dreamkid have no idea what it takes to produce a manga. In volume one, they discuss entering a manga contest by first deciding how to use the winnings, then exclaim “Okay!! Now that we know how we’re gonna use the prize money… Let’s get started on drawing our debut manga!! All we gotta do is get serious, and we’ll be shoo-ins!!” (p. 54). While they exhibit a deep knowledge of manga artists and stories, and even provide advice and criticism to Kanna when she’s struggling with her work, the three (if you will) Manga Musketeers appear to believe that an artistic product and subsequent success simply occur through a flash of creative inspiration.
As Kanna exhibits time and again throughout Toyama’s story, artistic work is hard. It’s exhausting. It can take a long time, particularly for a manga artist to go through all of the non-digital steps. And, if success is defined as published and appreciated by fans, it’s far from guaranteed to be successful.
The character development in Manga Dogs is slight—after all, this is a satire, and it’s not really about the characters as such—but by volume 3, Prince, Specs, and Dreamkid have grasped at least something of what it means to be a manga artist. When tasked with creating a manga in a week, Specs gasps, “To draw the ever-expanding story within my mind… will take, by my estimates, 45 months and two weeks, at least…” to which Kanna exclaims mentally, “You aren’t building a skyscraper!” (vol. 3, p. 27).
A creative project can seem like just that, though: impossibly tall and hard to climb, let alone build. What Kanna, Prince, Specs, and Dreamkid learn by the end of the series is that it is possible, particularly with the help and support of friends. Even after all that sharp humor and satire, Toyama ends the series on a positive, encouraging note.
And now, I will leave you with a quote. I like to think that the main point behind Manga Dogs is encouragement for any and all artists, including Toyama herself. Recognizing the humor in any situation is one tactic for getting through it, after all. Even though Prince, Specs, and Dreamkid are still learning to follow their own advice, they do give some pretty energetic encouragement. In response to a student’s query about what magazines their (nonexistent) manga are running in right now, they turn the question around on the asker and exclaim, each in turn:
Prince: “You fool!! What good is it to even care about what other people are doing?”
Specs: “A manga artist’s daily struggle is a constant battle with one’s own heart!! Concentrating on others does you no good at all!!”
Dreamkid: “Pour all your efforts into yourself alone!! And that will be your sustenance!!”
–Manga Dogs, vol. 3, p. 64