A Funny Thing Happened While I was at Comicon….

This weekend, at San Diego Comicon, I found this interesting thread that both reflected on the state of the graphic novel/local manga industry and tied together the whole convention for me.

The graphic novel is a mysterious animal.
A few weeks ago, I interviewed Kazu Kibuishi, editor of the comics anthology Flight. He’s also working on, among other things, a graphic novel, Amulet, that will be published by Scholastic Books. If you check out his blog, he’s got running commentary on how difficult the process is for writing a GN, something that was also discussed during our interview.

At the heart of it is the obvious: graphic novels are incredibly difficult to make. And Kazu debates whether comics are meant to be created in a long, 200 page format when he’s found the short format, the 32 page pamphlet, to be the strength of this medium.

Which brings me to manga and Comicon. (Stick with me for a minute.)

Japanese comics (manga) are super popular with young people all over the U.S., Europe and South America. So much so that it’s made these readers want to use comics, specifically the Japanese format of comics, to tell their own stories.

I say the Japanese format but for most young artists, it’s conveyed in the art style of big eyes and school girl uniforms and the desire to focus more on conveying the emotions of their characters. Some artists are rather adept at using a cinematic style in their work that is one of the foundations of Japanese comics, as well as constructing a strong narrative that carries the plot. But then, there are a lot of American manga artists that are still learning this.

The interesting thing is that “manga” that is created outside of Japan (Original English Language manga – OEL manga) is being produced as a graphic novel, say 200-250 pages at a time, released in book format. This serialized novel format is what’s caught on outside of Japan

Meanwhile, back in Japan, the format that manga is released is similar to that of American pamphlet comics. No one (or very, very few artists) is creating graphic novels in Japan. Their stories are serialized in weekly Japanese comics anthologies. Once a certain number of issues have been published, the story is then gathered up and bound in book format.

One fan asked Rurouni Kenshin cartoonist Nobuhiro Watsuki (who’s series is all of 28 volumes) how he kept his focus and momentum in creating Kenshin. His response was that he creates for his reader, that knowing his work will be read and enjoyed by fans every week is what kept him going.

Which brings me to my real question: Why is OEL being created in a vaccuum? That’s not to say that editors aren’t hands on or involved in the process, but basically, OEL in America is being created without audience participation, a very important part of the development of a graphic narrative.

Creating a graphic narrative is so labor intensive that it seems counter productive to shut away an artist for 200 pages at a time with only the attention of an editor.

Another element that was brought to light was the way stories are conceived. In the Q&A with Yoshihiro Tatsumi, Tatsumi said currently, in Japan, stories are conceived by a team of editors. “These days, storylines are collaboratively developed in huge editorial meetings – not just by the author.”

Which means there is a certain focus and narrative in place that the writer/artist then executes. That means the difference between an entertainment industry run by a machine, and an entertainment industry that seems like it’s placing too much responsibility on one person: the author and creator.

Ultimately, I think this will be the downfall of OEL and why it will take longer than most publishers anticipate, for a strong demand for OEL manga to develop. In my interview with Kazu, who’s work I consider comics, not “manga”, he talks about how he’s had to go from cartoonist to writer, and from the sounds of it, it’s a difficult, difficult transition.

For me, I guess this post is a long winded look at the importance of serialization and the small steps that need to be taken to create something mamoth. The short form is short changed in many respects – it’s just not profitable. But without the short form, the long form is virtually impossible.

It makes me think that the graphic novel, as mysterious an animal as it is, has become this monster. Tatsumi, who is reported to have produced as many as 50 pages/day, says that for a long time, creating comics was like being in a war. I’m sure many, many young artists feel the same way.


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