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Jasper Sharp reviews Helen McCarthy’s intro to Japanese comics

For curious dabblers and those wishing a glimpse of the bigger picture of how Japanese comics began and their key development points, the sheer size and diversity of the field can seem pretty daunting.

Helen McCarthy’s A Brief History of Manga, published by ilex, is by no means the first book on the subject – Frederik L. Schodt’s Manga! Manga! The World of Japanese Comics first introduced the West to this intrinsically Japanese form in in 1983, some years before anyone thought of publishing any of its key titles in translated versions, while ten year’s ago, Paul Gravett tried to bring things more up to date with his Manga: Sixty Years of Japanese Comics. Both of these were fairly hefty tomes, expansive in their scope and, as much as they possibly could be given the size of the market in Japan, rich in their detail.

The chief virtues of McCarthy’s book, as the title spells out, are its brevity and consequently its incredibly reasonable cover price – £7.99 doesn’t get you a lot nowadays, so you can hardly baulk at paying it for a hardcover pocket book with 96 full-colour illustrated pages.

The text is fairly sparse, but highly focused, making this a perfect entry point for casual readers and also a quick and handy reference guide for those trying to dig out information or pointers.

The book is laid out in timeline form, with 43 entries of a couple of hundred words each, charting the key developments and turning points, from the lewd caricatures unearthed on the ceiling beams of Horyu-ji temple in Nara, dated from around the 8th century, to 2013, with the manga adaptation of the  BBC TV series Sherlock leading to a spate of Japanese spin-offs based around Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s legendary sleuth.

It was not until the introduction of narratives and in-frame dialogue in the late 19th century that we can really pinpoint the birth of the modern manga. The impetus for what would evolve into a very Japanese cultural form came from overseas, from two crucial foreign pioneers. Charles Wirgman, a Yokohama-based English painter and correspondent for the Illustrated London News founded Japan Punch, which ran from 1862-1887 and featured political cartoons and numerous in-jokes concerning the foreign expat community. Georges Bigot, a French illustrator and cartoonist also based in Yokohama, published the shorter lived Toba-e from 1887, illustrating and satirizing scenes of everyday Japanese life, politics and the excesses of Japan’s Westernization process.

The titles of the ensuing entries alone demonstrate how quickly the Japanese adopted and adapted such early innovations: ‘1895: First Japanese Magazine for Children’, ‘1902: The “Father of Manga” Publishes his First Comic Strip’ (nb. this is Rakuten Kitazawa) and ‘1907: First Children’s Manga Magazine Shonen Puck Launches’.

What is particularly valuable about this history is that is it so exhaustively illustrated, with the covers and frames from the manga under discussion demonstrating how the various graphic styles evolved over time. Two 1930s entries are really fascinating: ‘Manga Pup Debuts and Meets Mickey Mouse’, about the adventures of luckless pooch Norakuro, as he rises through the ranks of the army, published in Shonen Club magazine from 1931 onwards, and ‘Tank Tankuro and the Rise of the Robots’ about the first appearance of the proto-robotic human encased in a ball of iron that could produce whatever necessary for the story from its belly.

Much of this history concerns itself with the post-war period, after Osamu Tezuka shook up the form with his long-form narratives after the publication of the book-length New Treasure Island in 1947. In fact, over half the pages are devoted to what happened after the appearance of Katsuhiro Otomo’s original Akira manga in 1982 and the rise of cyberpunk.

The final couple of entries don’t point to a particularly auspicious future for the form. In 2010, the artist Yana Toboso hit out at the readers she’d discovered illegally downloading scans of her manga and rips of its related anime, pointing to the fact that, as with so many in the creative industries, incomes for its practitioners have radically diminished with a new free-for-all culture encouraged by the internet – and as McCarthy points out “unlike musicians, artists don’t have lucrative live gigs to make up for lost download income.” And of course, the Great East Japan Earthquake of 11th March 2011 provided an even more tangible shake up to a whole way of life for the Japanese, and this particular entry manga details the way authors and artists across the whole world responded to the tragedy.

It is with such wonderful details that McCarthy’s bullet-point history of the form really triumphs, and while the abundance of colour illustrations would be better served by a larger page size, given the price, one can’t really complain.

A Brief History of Manga is published by ilex.

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