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Review of Toni Johnson-Woods’ MANGA

By Caleb Simmons

Johnson-Woods, Toni. MANGA: An Anthology of Global and Cultural Perspectives. New York: Continuum, 2010. Print.

This collection is a diverse and eclectic group of essays that display multifarious perspectives on the world of manga by authors from around the United States, Canada, Europe, and Australia. The authors, who come from various academic disciplines, present an array of academic and non-academic approaches to the global phenomenon that manga has become. Because of the great diversity in the style and approach, this anthology is a great introduction to the academic study of manga, and is suitable for anyone interested in learning more about the history, influence, and implications that manga have on media and popular culture. The book is arranged in order to educate those less familiar with the genre and provides a section (“Manga and Genres”) on the history and subgenres of manga that are primarily instructive before proceeding into more specific case-oriented studies that deal with in-depth analysis of specific manga-ka (“Manga in Depth”), manga as a particular expression of language and art (“Reading Manga”), and the global emergence and role of manga (“Manga in the World”).

Though this gives a broad view of the field of manga studies, while remaining interesting and engaging, the resulting collection lacks the unified voice that is expected in a collection of essays, especially an anthology. Each different section of the text has a unique texture that is disjointed from the previous sections in tone, approach, and content. This is definitely an indication of the state of the field of manga studies. As the field grows, as I am sure it will, and more scholars begin to investigate the manga as literature, art, scripture, etc., more focused collections can be published. But for now, Johnson-Woods’s collection provides a crucial step toward building the critical study of manga.

I will follow the arrangement of the collection and discuss one article from each of the sections that I have found the most engaging, interesting, and in some cases problematic. I begin with Angela Drummond-Mathews’s chapter on shōnen (boys’) manga “What Boys Will Be: A Study of Shōnen Manga,” which is all three.

In this essay, Drummond-Mathews argues that shōnen manga narrative arcs differ from American superhero comics that are targeted at a similar audience demographic in the United States because titles from the Japanese genre focus on the protagonist’s struggles that develop that character into the hero instead of the heroic messianism of American superheroes. In the first half of the essay, she presents shōnen as a fanciful reproduction of the reality of the lives of adolescent males by discussing several examples of shōnen that introduce the reader to well-known titles and the narrative themes in them.

In the second half, she attempts to more systematically discuss the contexts for the narrative discrepancy. In order to argue this point, the author attempts to salvage Joseph Campbell’s theory of the universal hero by applying a structuralist approach to the narrative motifs in shōnen manga. While this is an interesting approach to the topic, it poses two interwoven problems. First, Campbell’s theory is one of the universality of the hero narrative. Thus, the author is using a theory that undermines her thesis. Certainly, American superhero comics provide growth and development; however, these are mostly found in “back story” narrative arcs and not in the linear chronological production in most shōnen manga. However, there is something very different in the focus of the narrative that Drummond-Mathews’s structuralist approach cannot account for. This is precisely why Campbell’s theory has undergone a great deal of critique from scholars in almost every academic discipline—the vagueness and superficiality of the motifs. Which leads me to the second problem: the author does not provide any detailed evidence on the cultural (e.g. post-WWII Japan) or practical (e.g. longer story arcs) elements that influence the different emphases. In the end, Drummond-Mathews poses an interesting research question (Is there a difference between Japanese and American comics aimed at adolescent boys?) and offers an interesting thesis (The difference is the emphasis from heroic acts of salvation to the protagonists’ development into heroes). However, she provides no conclusive evidence to support that claim or why the difference exists. While it serves the purpose of instructing the reader about the genre, it falls short of providing novel information to those familiar with shōnen manga.

Marc Hairston’s essay “The Reluctant Messiah: Miyazaki Hayao’s Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind Manga” is a very close reading of the text in relation to the context of its creation. The author argues that Miyazaki’s creation of the serial’s protagonist Nausicaä reflected his own development as an animator and Marxist. The majority of the essay is used to boil the series’ fifty-nine installments down to several key narrative elements that highlighted the reflection of Miyazaki’s life drawing only on secondary sources for Miyazaki’s explanation of his creation. The author is quite effective in his presentation of the material; however, I was left wanting more discussion of the “reluctant messianism” for which the essay was titled and how it is reflected in Miyazaki’s relationship to nature and ecology. Is Miyazaki reluctant to produce this narrative? Does he see himself in Nausicaä? Though beyond the scope of this essay, perhaps because of practical reasons, it would have been interesting to read Miyazaki’s input or reaction to Hairston’s analysis of Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind.

Neil Cohn’s “Japanese Visual Language: The Structure of Manga” is perhaps the best essay in this collection. In this essay, Cohn, drawing off of much of his previous work, succinctly presents manga as a precise visual language that has a distinct grammar. He produces helpful visuals (much like Scott McCloud used in Understanding Comics but with much more text) that aid the reader’s understanding of the linguistic elements of manga as a distinct Japanese visual language. He draws on a wide variety of disciplines in his essay that bolster his argument by demonstrating how manga is acquired and functions within a cultural context as do written, spoken, or performed languages. In his conclusion, though, Cohn leaps beyond the frame of the essay and makes several claims that the visual language of manga, which has been presented quite well, must mean that ancient scrolls and Takugawa prints are unrelated to the language of manga, which is derived from American comics. While this might be the case, it is thoroughly unsubstantiated and warrants much more discussion than concluding allusions.

The last essay that I will discuss is Emma Hayley’s essay on the creation of “Manga Shakespeare.” I have chosen this essay because of the unique perspective provided by its author, who is also the creator of the series of titles and the founder of its publisher SelfMadeHero. The author provides detailed information on the context of the idea, the formation of the production team, and the sources of inspiration for the various titles. At some level, this history of the Shakespearean manga is ideal because it comes straight from the source, which suggests comprehensive knowledge that a historian could only dream of. However, the essay displays a lack of the critical analysis that one expects from an essay in a scholarly anthology, and at times it could be interpreted as aggrandizing publicity material (i.e. all fourteen suggested readings are titles from SelfMadeHero). This is the inherent problem within the insider/outsider and emic/etic debates that scholars of any tradition or culture continue to struggle with, but in a collection on different perspectives Hayley’s essay provides a crucial viewpoint.

MANGA is a crucial step in the field of manga studies and should be read by everyone researching the genre. Though at times the collection might fall short, it provides many avenues for future research and a variety of interesting case studies, arguments, and perspectives. It would also benefit the broader audience of comic studies and could produce a greater dialogue between scholars of different genres of sequential art and text. It is also easy enough to read that it is accessible to manga enthusiasts or those with casual or growing interest. Despite its flaws, MANGA: An Anthology of Global and Cultural Perspectives is a valuable resource for understanding manga and how it relates to the world around us.

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