A while ago artist @skimlines retweeted a thread from another Asian-American artist. In that thread, the artist described that when they were growing up, they gravitated toward a manga style. Their art teacher (quite abusively, I think) told them to quit that style; it’s part of a larger stigmatizing of a Japanese medium. We all know the stereotype of course, and we make fun of weeaboos (a term that originally meant over-enthusiastic, ridiculous white anime fans but which has gained broader definition: over-enthusiastic anime fans of any color), especially the ones who want to go to Japan and become a manga artist. But when applied to an artist of color, especially an Asian one, there’s a racist overtone: Rian Singh was made to feel ashamed and turned to looking for French and British cartoonists to emulate, because this–according to the art teacher–was legitimate; Japanese styles are not.
The implication doesn’t need belaboring.
There’s the obvious. Dismissing an entire medium that’s culturally tied to an Asian country (however, relatively speaking, powerful a country) while elevating all (usually white) European and American styles as automatically legitimate is nasty. Manga is not a pan-Asian cultural artifact, but as an industry anime and manga has commanded a cultural penetration in much of Asia that superhero comics from the west still do not match today, despite the regrettable saturation of superhero cinema. I don’t think it is of any surprise that Asian-American artists, even those without ties to Japan, are drawn to it. (Manga does not center the white gaze, as a rule, and that helps.)
But when I read that thread I was also surprised–not really surprised, because the teacher’s xenophobia and racism are predictable, but surprised on an aesthetic level. As someone who grew up on Japanese media, when I first came across American comics (Vertigo titles of old, mostly) my immediate and visceral reaction was that they were absolutely, disturbingly ugly.
So let’s hear me out and really think about why that art teacher so badly wanted to stunt an Asian-American artist’s development.
Some panels from the original Sandman comics. One of the tendencies I noticed right away was that the text was very dense, with the script frequently written like narration in a novel. So much text that then had to be squeezed into a lot of text boxes.
Something newer, from a very different imprint and genre, and it suffers from the same issue. Speech bubbles are absolutely everywhere, absolutely littering the panels; what passes for sophistication in American comics seems to be ‘stuffing 500 words in per speech bubble’. What’s odd is the bolded words for emphasis: this is a visual medium. We can tell if someone’s angry or emphatic, on account of being able to see their expressions and body language. It reminds me of a different comic where, essentially, the text box takes pain to describe the sky as blue in a panel where we can clearly see the sky (it is clearly blue). Very little is left to the imagination or the implication, and it almost feels like comic writers don’t trust the visual part of the comic to do the telling (or showing, as it were).
Let’s look at some manga.
Textless. The linework is crisp and clean. This is a page from Fate/Strange fake, pretty text-heavy for a manga, but the text never overwhelms the art. There aren’t a hundred text boxes per page, fifty speech bubbles per panel.
How about this iconic page from Otoyomegatari? It’s beautiful, the detail is tremendous–the patterns and jewelry on Amir’s clothes are incredible. But! None of this becomes visual clutter. It’s precise and elegant.
Backtracking to superhero comics.
What’s going on here? I have no idea. Superhero comics are as subtle as their cinematic counterpart, which is to say it mostly involves a hundred (superheroic) people screaming in unison. Lots of sound, lots of fury, and somehow people are holding full conversations while smashing cars or what have you. It’s absolutely busy. A hundred characters are crammed into every page, and all of them can’t shut up for a minute (nearly every single one endowed with fantastical amounts of latex muscles). There is no space for breathing room, communication through things implied and unsaid, there’s only room for a very American love for sound, fury, all-caps SCREAMING, HULK SMASH.
Here’s Claymore, a fighty, gory manga where people get dismembered at considerable frequency and body horror is just another Wednesday for Claire and friends. But even in speed line-heavy, blitzy panels everything is delineated clearly, you can tell characters apart (and usually there aren’t a hundred of them on the page at once), and more importantly you can easily tell–at a glance–what is going on.
Then there’s all the negative space. Negative space is a wonderful tool, and good manga makes use of it. It can go a long way to emphasize a moment, enhance emotional flashbacks with heft.
And then there’s… those. Some of it is meant to be emotive, I think. Possibly. Look, the expressions are hilarious. Why is Superman grabbing his own face like… uh, whatever he’s doing. Even setting that aside (but what a big aside) there is no sense of emotional relevance, for lack of better words, no sense of pause. It’s a lot of talking and for all I know they could’ve been discussing stock options. While Superman makes incomprehensible faces in the background. There is, again, the sheer amount of speech bubbles, all of them filled with superfluous, inefficient script. It’s bad art accommodating even worse writing. But these are the conventions of American comics: lots of text, lots of bizarre contorted expressions, lots of muscles and an endless amount of noise.
Is manga perfect? It’s a medium, and like any medium it’s diverse (yes, in style too; if you can’t distinguish Cesare from Vinland Saga then nobody can help you. Yes, ‘all of it looks the same’ absolutely stems from the same branch of racism that goes ‘all Asians look the same’–a dismissal of Asian creativity as inherently nonexistent, conformist, robotic) and it has its flaws. But the immediate tarring that the style receives is inevitably racialized due to who does it the most, and who it is done to.