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Jonathan Clements visits an exhibition of manga’s pioneers

Helen McCarthy’s 2009 Tezuka season at the Barbican introduced London’s literati to the “God of Manga”, but talk at its opening had already turned to the question of what was next. Tezuka was acknowledged universally as the medium’s greatest pioneer, but he was also a fervent self-publicist, and continues to enjoy a legacy managed by an impressively pro-active company that bears his name. What about everybody else, particularly outside the realm of boys’ comics…? Hundreds of artists laboured in his shadow, a shadow that has arguably lengthened through the years as others’ legacy diminishes through attrition – one thinks of Mitsuteru Yokoyama, dead in a house fire that presumably wiped out most of his papers, or Shotaro Ishinomori, tarred with the brush of sentai shows abroad, and whose museum in Ishinomaki was washed out for months by the 2011 tsunami.

Running upstairs at London’s Cartoon Museum until 29th November, Gekiga: Alternative Manga From Japan charts the evolution of truly adult comics, both in terms of content and style, in the post-war period. The emphasis is on the scene that arose around Yoshihiro Tatsumi, Masahiko Matsumoto and Takao Saito in the 1950s as they fought to escape from the cartoony images that pervaded what was then still a kids’ market.

Their successes, including Tatsumi’s Drifting Life, are on display here, along with glimpses of hits-of-the-day like the famous Star of the Giants and the entirely forgotten Turkish Bath Guy, the latter of which sits insouciantly on the cusp between a cartoony look and a sexy subject.

The inattentive visitor can all too easily wander in at the deep end of the 1960s, rather than what I presume to be the actual start on the far side of the gallery, which is the still-cartoony 1950s. Part of the problem faced by the organisers is anchoring the visitor in the context of the post-war industry, when few of the subjects are known in English, and few of the panels are immediately comprehensible to non-Japanese speakers. A somewhat confusing chart attempts to map out the graphic progress of adult manga from New Treasure Island in 1947 to Akira in the 1980s, but it begins with a massive onslaught of arrows invoking the influence of Osamu Tezuka on absolutely everybody. One wonders, as ever, how much of this is diligent lip service to a prevailing belief – books like Go Ito’s Tezuka is Dead have challenged the Tezuka-led assumption that Tezuka is everything. But the Gekiga exhibition is a welcome part of that ongoing exercise in manga discourse, showing what else was going on in the field during a time that many manga histories gloss over. It offers a persuasive account of the vibrant, multi-nuclear medium that flourished after Tezuka’s New Treasure Island showed Japan what comics were truly capable of. Original manga pages are on display, some with the sketch lines still intact and neatly glued repairs and letterings that are invisible on the printed photomechanical transfers.

The curators have also not shied away from the means that manga artists used to actually pay the bills when manga was not a goldmine, including film posters by Seiichi Hayashi, drawn in a beautifully evocative style – one wonders what the chances are of getting a whole exhibition of those, as they would look nice on many a manga-fans wall.

The Gekiga exhibition is certainly worth the price of admission, not just for the glimpse it affords of entire fields as-yet unplumbed in manga studies, but because the £7 entrance fee also buys access to the much larger WW1 cartoon exhibition downstairs (closes 20th October), which ended up occupying me for twice as long.

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