It is part of the furniture now, isn’t it, manga? Walk into any bookshop and there will be at least a bay devoted to Japanese comic thrills. Venture into a Forbidden Planet store and there will be a whole wall of the stuff. Over the last 20 years the very language of Japanese comics culture – whether it be otaku or cosplay, shonen or shojo – has found its way into English. Even if you’ve never read Lone Wolf and Cub or Dragon Ball, you might have a vague idea of what they might contain.
That's not to say it's accurate, though. Because if the image of manga in your head amounts to fuzzy notions of Astro Boy and comic book versions of Studio Ghibli movies, it’s quite something to pick up the new edition of Julius Wiedemann’s 100 Manga Artists (Taschen) and be reminded of quite how wide-ranging the term manga can cover.
In this brick of a book you will find, yes, cutesy, suitably kawaii art, but also artists who specialise in ultraviolence, eye-squirming body horror, broad comedy and even gay porn. From Tomomi Abe to Fumi Yoshinaga, all manga life is here.
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To celebrate its publication Graphic Content asked Scotland’s very own Japanese-based manga writer Sean Michael Wilson to gives us his insider’s lowdown on the status of the form and how to get started in the industry:
Osamu Tezuka, who is often referred to as "the father of manga," once said that we had entered the era of "manga as air." Perhaps meaning it was everywhere, all pervasive, just part of the environment. I think that is not quite right and has contributed to an over-exaggeration of the place of manga in Japan. While manga is very important in Japan and the manga industry here is the biggest comic book market in the world, it is not all-conquering, it’s not universally respected.
Let me give an example of a Professor of Literature, here in Japan, who came to see me give a talk about Scotland. He was in his sixties, a well-travelled Japanese man with excellent English. After my talk I mentioned a manga book of mine about Lafcadio Hearn, an Irish-Greek writer who taught in the same Japanese university, 120 years before. The professor said: ’I don’t read manga, but your work looks interesting’.
I was surprised then, having recently arrived in Japan, and expecting a professor of literature to know all about the more literary Japanese manga. It became clear that he looked down on manga as a rather lowly form of literature, not the kind of thing a professor bothers about. I was a bit disappointed by that. Since then, it’s quite common for me to meet Japanese people who don’t read manga and think of it with a measure of disdain.
On the other hand, that professor was open-minded enough to buy a copy of my book about Lafcadio Hearn. And for every person who reacts with disinterest there are three people who are very impressed when I tell them I am a manga creator. It’s considered to be cool here. And recently I’ve been lucky enough to get an award from the Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs, for the book Secrets of the Ninja.
They give out some awards every year to international manga creators, and I’m the first British person to get one, from Japan’s version of Boris Johnson - the Foreign Minister, Fumio Kishida. It’s hard to imagine the Foreign Office of the UK giving out a comic book award.
The award itself was established by Taro Aso, who went on to become the Prime Minister, as a way of promoting Japan and furthering cross-cultural connection. So this is, despite what I say above, an example of how much manga is regarded in Japan.
Therefore, I suggest a new analogy. Rather than "manga as air", I prefer to think of it as being in a state of "manga as water" – by which I mean it's cheap, easily available, but very good for you.
As I happen to be the only British professional manga creator living in Japan, quite a lot of people ask me about getting into the Japanese manga industry. So, this is what I tell them:
1. You will need to come to Japan if you want to do some work for publishers here. Japanese companies prefer to meet people, face to face, especially for new business. The 'western' way of just sending an email is not enough here, most of the time. The good thing though is that if you do come over to Tokyo then you probably will be able to meet some editors. Just call the publisher’s office and ask for a meeting. They are easy to meet, but very difficult to win over.
2. Most Japanese people don't speak much English, even amongst editors at big publishers. So, it’s better if you can speak and write Japanese. No easy task in itself. But please also remember the cultural stuff that you need to consider in order to cooperate with Japanese successfully. In my experience Japanese think and do business in a very different way to that of the British or the Americans. So, it helps to both speak Japanese and know how to behave in a way that suits them.
3. Another major obstacle is that there is not a large demand for seeing any non-Japanese comics in Japan. It would be great if there was, but for various cultural reasons there isn’t. So, if you want to get published by them you need to ask what can you bring to the Japanese publisher that would make you useful/interesting for them? Show them something that you can do that they don’t have in their comics yet. Again, no easy task - but it’s worth a go!
Drop me a line if you decide to come over.
Sean Michael Wilson has written more than 20 manga books. His manga Secrets of the Ninja, illustrated by Akiko Shimojima, has been awarded the International Manga Award by the Japanese government.
100 Manga Artists, edited by Julius Wiedemann, is published by Taschen, priced £12.99.