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.
Amanda: 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:
You know what “manga” means? It means “comics”. Because Japanese is a language — like English is. Words to describe objects & concepts.
— WWAC (@wwacomics) July 30, 2015
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.”
Claire: 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!