One of the groups of which Jelena and I are members is altcomix, and one of the stipulations of joining was that we not post manga to the group’s page; you’ll notice that this is one of the rules for Serious Comics as well. The founder of altcomix (and now a member of Serious), naha-def, said (I’m paraphrasing) that he thought there was very little in the way of good manga produced in the United States, and that, therefore, he thought it advisable to limit the amount shown through that group. By simple coincidence, in the two weeks that followed, I purchased two comics that I think speak to the issue of how manga has been influential in US comics, and how the better side of that influence is often unnoticed. The comics were Paul Pope’s Batman, Year 100 (I know it’s a bit late for me to be commenting on this, since it was published almost three years ago – but I’m only talking about it because it pushed me to write) and GB Tran’s VietnAmerica. These are both very good comics (although Pope’s Batman is certainly not his most interesting work, and “great” is a better word for Tran’s book) and they both demonstrate how manga might profitably influence the creation of comics in other traditions.
Let’s say we make an arbitrary distinction, just for the sake of convenience, between the “surface” of manga and the “structure” of manga, where its surface is the generic style in which any object might be represented and the structure is the set of patterns according to which the sequence of panels are arranged. Examples of the surface would simply be something like wide eyes and small mouths on all human beings, a generally “cartoony” figuration set against often incredibly detailed backgrounds, etc. Structure is a bit harder to explain with only one or two examples. Basically, it can be said for structure that it’s not the direct appearance of any single element, but what makes the connections among a set of elements meaningful – things like the way the connection of two or more panels paces the story, or the way a cartoony style allows for greater extremes of expression than a more “realistic” style – you can put spirals in the eyes of a cartoon character, as Tran does, and it will read naturally, whereas in a realistically drawn character it looks weird. I’m going to say, simply, that manga best influences American comics on the structural level, and the surface influence tends towards the banal. It’s not always bad – there are plenty of good draftsmen who work in the style – it’s just not really something that advances the medium as such. And because the structural level is less obvious, it mostly goes unnoticed, and therefore becomes something other artists don’t take up and advance. There’s a reason it isn’t obvious in American comics, and it has to do with basic principles used to make them: it happens in the connections between panels as much as it does within any panel, and, in the ordinary compositional mode of American comics, there tends to be an extreme focus usually on one or two panels, and not their sequence. So it seems to me we can explain the persistence of bad American manga simply by virtue of the fact that most American comic artists imitate the surface, and, when we say “American manga,” we’re usually referring to a surface phenomenon – artists like Paul Pope are “influenced” but we don’t call his work “manga” because it’s not a surface imitation.
Outside of the strictest imitations of the surface of manga, we have also had a growing stylistic influence on American comic art, at least since the 1990s. An example of this would be Joe Maduriera, who seized on manga at a fairly early stage of his career, and thereby developed a somewhat idiosyncratic style that pulled him away from the weak Jim Lee/Rob Liefeld imitations he was doing at the outset of his career (I’m thinking here of the first works he did, for Marvel Comics Presents). To be blunt, and not to say that Maduriera’s love of manga wasn’t earnest, but his creation of a style from an imitation of manga’s surface qualities mainly served to save his work from the oblivion of the Marvel 1990s house style. It didn’t necessarily create better art – you could leaf through his pages and not be turned off, but he wasn’t really deserving of a closer look (sorry, fans – his work was kind of cool, but he’s not even in the top 50 comics greats).
Pope and, now, Tran, are different stories. Again, to review Pope needs some apology; he’s been working for over fifteen years and the Batman series is a few years old, so it’s not as if anything I’d say wouldn’t apply just as well to any number of his works, going back to things like THB and The One Trick Rip Off. But his innovative use of structures he discovered reading manga are more interestingly palpable in a work when you find them in the quintessential American comics genre, the superhero comic. To adapt the structural principles of manga to a conventional four-issue miniseries format with 22 page issues requires an enormous amount of condensation. It’s only a slight exaggeration to say that the creators of a Japanese manga have an endless amount of time and space – series can go on for years with a single plot line. Superhero comics go on for years only because they constantly retcon, and thus only because they have ostensibly the same “character” (I’m putting this in quotes because I really don’t think Grant Morrison’s Batman has anything to do with Bob Kane’s except the name and the costume). Whether this is an effect or a cause of the industry assumption that conclusions should come in 22 pages standard, I’ll leave for you to decide. The point is that American artists have to think within the parameters established by the 22 page issue, whereas Japanese comics have room to develop structures for pacing – so these have to be totally retooled before they can be used for American comics, and what makes Pope so great is that he’s been able to do that.
Pope is really all about the pacing. Just look at the sequence of panels in the first pages of the first issue – no panel is taller than a third of the page until the end of the chase (when Batman escapes the dogs by leaping to another building), there’s only one direction to the action of all of the panels for four pages (and it’s toward the right, so in the order of reading, and thus transitioning from one page to the next), and even the splash page isn’t a traditional American one (where the character would probably be facing toward the reader, not in the same direction as all of the other panels). The point is that, unlike with a typical US superhero comic, the panels are considered mainly as a connected sequence. In more typical US comic, the artist would alter the different angles of the “camera” so that the dramatic effects would be internalized to each panel, and thus kind of separate them from each other. But Pope only changes the angle at the very last panel, where he faces the dogs toward the viewer’s and to Batman’s perspective, to punctuate the end to the chase. The Batman Year 100 storyline isn’t that great in and of itself (compare it to Frank Miller’s Year One seriously – it’s not a bad story, it’s just nothing special), and Pope has a nice design sensibility, but when it comes down to it, it’s the exceedingly smart way he arranges the sequences of panels and pages that makes his work stand out. He always knows the correct size to make the panel containing each step in a single action, and he always knows which direction to face the character with respect to the page. These are the real compositional problems with comics anyway – what makes “comics” a different form of art than painting, novels, or even movies. If you think about the real problem, you’ll see why Pope’s solutions are so great, and often go unnoticed (or at least uncommented): you have to think about how many pages you’re allowed, which gives you a very limited space in standard format, then you have to think about each page, and only then should you be thinking about any given panel. That’s where it’s hardest, because you have to manage the page-to-page transitions while maneuvering the differently shaped and sized panels to fit them all in while giving each the right size (in comparison to the others). And then all of the different scenes have to be chosen so that each has maximal dramatic effect as a self-contained unit while it’s simultaneously balanced against each other panel (how does panel two look when juxtaposed to panel four?) and the whole page (how does panel two look in relation to the frame of the whole page?). Again, Pope manages to draw out long series of pages and stops at exactly the right moment. Somehow we’ve been moved along quickly enough that we can compare the last panel to, not only the other ones on the page, but each panel in the whole sequence, which, somehow, we can remember (I don’t do this when reading lesser artists’ work).
Essentially, what Tran offers in the way of adapted manga-structures is the opposite of what Pope offers. Pope adapts manga’s pacing of multiple panels and even pages, so that a simple shift in the character’s orientation of the page abruptly ends a smooth but speedy flow of action – this can happen entirely within the panel, with no change in the relative proportions of panels on any given page (Pope actually does use relatively few splash pages, and rarely has great size disparities among his panels, at least when compared to most DC or Marvel artists – since the Liefeld revolution in the 90s, most superhero comics average about 2-3 panels per page, but, just hazarding a guess, I’d say Pope averages 6). Tran, instead, suddenly enlarges a single character on the page so the immediacy of the emotion is enhanced by the sudden disparity in scale. So what you get is a visual effect that changes emotion – even the kind of emotion. Pope’s emotions are the emotions of speed, of moving characters, whose individual actions are all absorbed into the larger flow of whatever is taking place. The emotions are even interactive; in other words, they’re the emotions produced by a shared experience (even if that experience is a battle – everyone moves at the same pace, even though they’re moving against each other). Tran’s emotions are ultimately individual, and internal – sudden shocks that resonate inward, distancing the characters from their fellows (this is especially useful given the subject of VietnAmerica: the culture-shock experience of the only member of a Vietnamese family to have been born in the USA when he visits the old country for the first time). Some things are incredibly difficult to show in comics, which, for the most part, is a sequential medium. Certain kinds of emotions stop time altogether, and turn us away from their source in the real world. Tran has adapted some of the principles of manga in order to show these.
Tran’s work is genuinely subtle, and displays a serious practical knowledge of the craft. His visual style isn’t really “manga,” per se, despite being cartoony – it’s pretty much in line with standards of iconic cartoon drawing typical of comics everywhere. What’s really significant about his work is the way he uses some of the methods of pacing invented by Japanese artists for the purposes of greater emotional expression. This technical factor works in tandem with his frequent narrative recursions to maximal effect (it’s funny that most people to have reviewed his work on Amazon (always a good cultural barometer) have complained that they have to remember too much from earlier episodes – art doesn’t have time for your laziness!). You have to read VietnAmerica twice to decide if you’re remembering that an event was already drawn because Tran actually did put it several pages before, or because you saw it when you were first leafing through the pages – it’s often the former. It would be hackneyed to call this “Proustian,” but that is what it is. And it works with the “internal emotion” pages in cool ways – the pages punctuate the storyline to let you know that the basic emotional tone has changed, and the recurring panels bring the past that’s been broken off back into the new emotional arrangement.
And to conclude abruptly, none of this could have happened simply by imitating the way the Japanese greats drew. Now let the arguments begin!