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MANGA: Parents Just Don’t Understand!

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Chances are, if you’re reading this, your kids are crazy about Japanese comic books and animation. They’re probably begging you to buy them the next book or DVD that you’ve never heard of. “What’s going on here?!” you might ask yourself. “We’re Americans! Why do my kids love this Japanese stuff?”

Hopefully, I can help make a little sense of the appeal of Japanese comics. I am a comic book artist and Manga fan that lived in Japan for 2 years. My wife is Japanese and after several years of studying I can say that I’m pretty good at speaking the language. Whether you’re a parent or just someone interested in what all the fuss is about, I will do my best to explain.

First of all, the word Manga means comic book in Japanese. Most Manga are a lot smaller in size than American comic books but each issue’s length will be about 200 pages per compared to our 24-32. In Japan, these long comic books are put out every month! You usually have one main artist who gets top credit for the penciled and inked art (usually the writing of the story too) but don’t be fooled. It would be impossible for one person to do all of the work on a 200 page comic book each month. Trust me, as a comic artist myself, I know. The majority of Manga-ka (comic book artists) in Japan have several assistants working with them. They usually take care of drawing backgrounds and inking panels on all of the pages.

Before living in Japan, I thought that Japanese comic artists never slept! I had no idea that they usually have between 3-5 assistants at one time. Yes, they still have to work hard to keep on schedule but they are not the robots I once thought they were! Why are their comic books so long? Manga is meant to be read quickly as an escape from everyday life. I was amazed to see so many Japanese businessmen on trains reading Manga on the way from work. Students reading Manga during class (I know that’s hard to believe for some of you!). The stories usually focus on dynamic action, drama or off beat humor.

I felt very strange living in a society where everything runs smoothly and people are serious about following rules and respecting others. In a place where what’s good for the group is better than what’s good for an individual, reading Manga seemed to be one thing people could do to just please themselves. People of all ages from 7-87 read comic books in Japan. The comic book stories are much more creative than what is done in America. There are few rules in what kind of story or how crazy an idea should be in Manga.

I think this is one reason people here are buying Manga like it’s going out of style! I am a teacher and many middle and high school students tell me that they are bored with the same old super hero stories. They are predictable and tend to get boring because few things work like real life. Super Characters die and come back to life, the bad guys never really get defeated and the idea of a muscular man in tights just looks silly. You won’t find superheroes in Japanese comic books. They prefer to show that you don’t have to be able to lift a building to overcome a difficult situation and still be self-confident.

Manga tends to have more sympathetic characters that tweens and teens can relate to. There are comics of every genre known to man, such as fantasy and ninja action but there are plenty of romance comics and soap opera style stories. The stories can be more complicated with twists and turns that actually lead you to the real end of the series. Most Manga run for a certain amount of time and then end. They don’t go on forever because there is a story to tell and when it’s done, it’s done.

This leads me to one of the main reasons people love Manga, the art style. Those characters with big eyes and spikey hair! They don’t look like the Japanese (or any other ethnic group) but they have energy and life. Their style looks so different than the American comic book art style that kids are drawn to it! Its simple animated look draws them in and the energetic page layouts keep them hooked. One thing to remember though! There is no such thing as a Manga style of art. Japanese comic artists are encouraged to find their own unique style. Believe me, when I would go to the comic shops in Japan, I would see some wild art styles that broke that stereotype that we have of Manga here in the states.

Even though I love Manga and my style has a slight Japanese influence, I hope that young people will grow to appreciate Japanese and American comic books. True, now American comic book art is greatly influenced by the Japanese but I feel like we have a great deal to say. So, if your kids love Manga please encourage them to read. Hopefully, they will be inspired by the creativity of the art and story and begin a love of reading. This will grow and expand into American comic books, Graphic novels and literary novels.

I will plan to post more on different genres of Manga and my suggestions of good books to read. It would be great to hear some questions that you may have so that I can create more posts that help you understand the wonderful world of Manga!

Khalid Birdsong/Cartoonist



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