March 07, 2007

The power of the line

With the exception of "four-panel manga" (pretty much the same format as the newspaper comic strip), Japanese manga and American comic books evolved along quite different aesthetic lines. They have begun to converge recently, with the "graphic novel" (nee, "comic book") pretty much being taken over by the manga school of comic design.

(There is great irony in this, in that, as described below, manga-ka essentially adopted the "Hollywood style" of storytelling that has come to dominate movie-making around the world.)

The pre-manga, American comic book was a thin, four-color, text-heavy, paneled style (lifted from comic strips), with a limited number of genres and a fairly narrow target audience. Manga, on the other hand, breaks down into dozens of genres and hundreds of sub-genres. And because manga still only use color printing in promotional and special editions, all the artwork is B&W pen and ink.

In terms of artistic technique, it is the pen and ink style that has allowed manga to dominate the traditional four-color American comic book. It permits more a nuanced "line" that can't survive the (budget) four color printing process. The "line" in American comics gets lost in the coloring and shading. And on a very practical level, it simly allows manga-ka to produce more material at a lower cost.

Roland Kelts argues that this minimalistic style offers "more freedom, both for the viewer and the artist," by essentially forcing the reader to "read between the lines" of the manga style. Kelts isn't wrong, but he's missing a larger point. The human visual cortex is amazingly efficient at pattern recognition, and requires only a small amount information to identify the referent.

Compare these two frames from Kei Tomei's Lament of the Lamb. As Kelts point out, it is left to the reader to fill in details such as color, texture, and contour. But other nuances surprisingly stand by themselves, independent of context. From the simple lines of her mouth in the first frame, we not only know that Chizuna is smiling, but that it is not a cheerful smile. There is even a touch of maliciousness in it.

The human visual cortex is particularly adapted for facial recognition, and manga-ka focus particularly on the area of the face circumscribed by the triangle between the eyes and mouth (using oversized eyes as visual anchors)--when physically describing their characters. The simplicity of design in turn paradoxically imbues the slightest of changes--the brain seizing on the delta between frame one and frame two--with great meaning.

Again, the difference in total information between these two frame from Lament of the Lamb is very slight but the differences in Chizuna's mood is immediately recognizable.

The second key element of the manga style--cost--made possible what's known as "decompression." Decompression arose out of post-war manga-ka adopting techniques from Hollywood cinema (multiple cuts, pans, wipes, slow motion, zoom effects) and transferring them to static frames. This requires a lot more panels and paper, but since manga remained a B&W format it was affordable.

It's hard to overemphasize how important cost is. The reason American comics were traditionally so compressed was that they only had a few pages in which to tell the story, which in turn greatly limited how stories could be told.

Manga start out as serial novels published on a bi-weekly or monthly basis in thick magazines that contain a dozen running stories. The stories that prove the most popular will later be bound and sold in numbered volumes called tankoubon. The magazines are published at a loss, the profit realized in the tankoubon, the same way Hollywood studios often don't realize a profit on a television series until syndication.

A 200 page tankoubon (such as the aforementioned Cheese! manga) typically retails for around 400 yen. That's only $3.25. (Japanese CDs and DVDs, to compare, typically run at a 50-100 percent premium over their U.S. counterparts. This economic phenomenon alone is worth a dissertation.) The tree falling unheard in the forest doesn't make a sound, and media becomes "mass" only when the masses can afford it.

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# posted by Anonymous Anonymous
3/07/2007 12:40 PM   
Haha. Yeah. That's why I usually buy the japanese manga without any doubts instead of the graphic novel english equivalents published here. But for sure, I usually buy versions of japanese soundtracks that they published in China. It is incredible how expensive japanese games, dvds, and music are.