Manga are Comics. Comics are Manga.

Atoman Feb 1946 by Jerry Robinson and Tetsuan Atom (Astro Boy) by Osamu Tezuka 1951.

In the world of visual storytelling, there exists a divide. You see, there are manga fans, and there are comics fans, and seldom the twain do meet.

Love at Fourteen Volume 1 Fuka Mizutani 2014 Yen PressAmanda: Okay, okay, I’m exaggerating for dramatic effect. But the fact remains that the “comic fandom” and the “manga fandom” don’t mix all that often. Take, for example, conventions. In Seattle, where I live, two conventions happen each year within weeks of one another: Emerald City Comicon and Sakura-con. Both fill Seattle’s downtown corridor with hoards of brightly dressed, costumed individuals.

Of course, you see attendees cosplay as Studio Ghibli characters at ECCC, and of course you see Wonder Woman and Wolverine at Sakura-con, but really: not a lot of people go to both conventions. Not a lot of vendors set up booths at both conventions. Why? They’re considered different markets.

The thing is: what gives? Claire Napier and I have been talking about this a lot, and we finally decided to put together this post. At first, I was reluctant. I like categorization, you see. Things should be neat and tidy and all tied up and labeled for ease of comprehension. (It’s my art history background, maybe, and I’m trying to get over it. That kind of thinking leads to all sorts of systemic problems.) Then Claire said, “But manga are comics!” And then she said it again and sent me a stubborn emoji face.

Claire: Allow me to tarry a moment on the subject of word versus concept.

Back in July, I sent out this tweet in a string of several from the WWAC twitter account:

In popular vernacular, the word “comics” carries its common invisible prefix “American.” More specifically, comics often contains the concept American superhero comics. This is one of the ways in which language is versatile; words can mean more and less and different things depending on their contexts and the perception of their speaker and audience.

Amanda is perfectly right—taking an objective view, comics and manga have a nominal difference. Pretend for the moment that we, the reader, don’t have a personal cultural perspective or a language we use primarily. Given that, it’s fair to suggest that manga is different to comics, because the Japanese word manga is being used to denote Japanese-language work (and the culture that implies), and the English word comics is being used to denote English-language work, and the perhaps airier sense of culture that that in turn evokes. In this hypothetical sense, “manga isn’t comics.”

Of course, even there things get murky, because artists and storytellers of all nationalities have been borrowing and thieving and riffing on each other’s work, even collaborating, since forever. You want a blunt example? Ikegami Ryoichi‘s Japanese Spider-Man. Stan Lee visiting successful mangaka of the 60s and 70s, each benefiting from the other’s cultural, and individual, source books. Or for a more recent example, Shaman King‘s Takei Hiroyuki counting mecha anime and American comic books as among his wide range of influences during work on that book. More recent still: Takei and Stan Lee, again, teaming up for Karakuri Doji Ultimo. Even Dragonball, for goodness’ sake, is a Superman pastiche as much as a Journey to the West redux. Goku is What If … Superman Wasn’t an Intellectual?

Amanda: In the vast world of comics, why do we put Japanese comics—manga—over here and comics from the English-speaking world over there? Aren’t they all just visual storytelling? So what if you read one from left to right and the other from right to left?

Are there cultural distinctions? Of course. Are they completely separate things? No. Manga and comics are the same thing. I turned to my Kodansha Furigana Japanese Dictionary for confirmation. When I looked up “comic,” the dictionary obligingly provided the corresponding Japanese word: “manga.”

Batgirl Vol 1Claire: Setting aside cultural bleed and creative nuance, hypothetical arguments aren’t enough to support the stone-cold argument that manga is different to comics. Because just as “comics” can mean more than “any sequential combination of images and probably text that expresses a narrative,” it can also mean exactly that. Just as “manga” can mean “Japanese comics,” it can also mean “any sequential combination of images and probably text that expresses a narrative.”

And while “manga is different to comics” is true on one contextualised level, it’s false on too many to keep. Arguing for the right to say that a manga is not a comic is more than arguing for the right to semantic vagueness. It’s arguing for the right to deaden the rainbow of meanings inside of two words that were created to let us share, with some specificity, our enjoyment of this medium of communication.

Amanda: Agreed, Claire. There need be no artificial divide. Nevertheless, fans of manga and anime remain conceptually and socially separate from fans of comics and cartoons. It’s like, if you love baby otters you can’t also enjoy baby seals. Or, wait, that’s not quite right. Comics and manga are not separate species. They’re more like … hmm.

You know what? In our next installment, we’re just going to tackle this in visual form. There’s more to come, WWAC readers!

Check out the next post in this series!

Amanda Vail

Amanda Vail

Amanda is a staff writer for WWAC. She is also a developmental editor and copywriter in less-than-sunny Seattle. She likes to poke her nose into things, mainly manga, graphic novels, sci-fi & fantasy books, and art galleries. Then she writes about them. She also drinks a lot of coffee. Tweet her @amandamvail.

4 thoughts on “Manga are Comics. Comics are Manga.

  1. Lijakaca: My history is kinda the same, except that don’t read superhero comics, but the whole growing up with manga -> then getting frustrated with the separation of readers. I can still see why people want to address manga as “manga”, but… then comes the big “but”.

    If you divide all comics into “comics” and “manga”, then what about all the people who are increasingly clearly between the two? Western artists who have grown up with manga and have strong influences in their style?

    Seems that at the moment best options are
    1. Make a webcomic, you’re maybe not considered as a professional, but might get readers from both sides
    2. Get published but you must choose your side: is the style too “manga” for the comics side? Should it be marketed for manga people and if so, is it considered as an uninteresting fan comic and a fake?

    With both there’s the chance of falling into a gap between the worlds, without a chance to get a place in the market and readers like “real” comic/manga artists do. Obviously things can’t stay like this forever.

  2. I do like that my local library system shows no distinction. All sequential art (not in an art book) falls under “Graphic Novel”.

  3. I’m a longtime manga reader and pretty new superhero comics reader. As I get older, I have less and less patience with the distinction people try to force between manga and comics. When I was young it was useful because I ONLY liked manga, and primarily shoujo manga, so to call myself a comics fan felt wrong, like people would expect me to care about batman or superheroes when really I like romance a lot more (superhero+romance tho? All good)

    Now I feel like its an excuse for people to ignore one or the other, especially in criticism. There are so many comics that aren’t either that it makes even less sense – what about webcomics? Manga style western comics like in Sparkler? French comics like Tintin? Just accept that they’re all comics, and if you want to focus on, say, marvel and DC, say it up front instead of pretending that you cover all comics. There’s no shame on it, comics is too broad for one person/team to cover everything!

  4. Very interesting post. In trying to figure out how to organize my goodreads tags I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about just that. Especially when it comes to what is a graphic novel vs what is a comic (different discussion but similar). The direction I am leaning in at the moment is that we need more specific language rather then less.
    Using just the term Manga does little service to the variety of comics that come out of Japan. There might have been a binding similarity at first, but the more I read manga the less I think of it as just one thing. Currently I refer to them as their demographic titles, but that still seems rather backwards since I don’t believe in traditional gender rolls.
    To look at the more American side. Not only does referring to American comics as just comics seem rather old-fashioned, it does little service to the diversity of comics in the American market. People talking about comics seem to generally mean super hero stuff, and there’s so much more then that. But then we run into the graphic novel vs comic debate again…
    That said, you are definitely right. We should be using the generic term comic much more inclusively. At the same time more people (including myself) need to learn more specific jargon so we stop generalizing so much.

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