Labelling manga: semantics and branding

Comics inspired by manga, but created by non-Japanese outside Japan, are one of the success stories of the global comics industry in the last few years. They’re selling well and heavily in demand in libraries all over the developed world.

The Japanese government is naturally delighted with this outcome: it’s evidence of the huge success of the Cool Japan brand. Japanese embassies all over the world are doing everything they can to support and encourage artists who call their work manga, regardless of origin. That’s their job – to promote Japanese business, arts and culture and encourage the world to rate Japanese products and Japanese methods highly. They aren’t going to let semantics get in the way of their mission.

Many fans and creators seem to believe that a work is somehow better and more desirable if you give it a Japanese label. Publishers, seeing the success of the Cool Japan brand, naturally want to link their products to it and share that success. They’ve even created a sub-brand of the manga brand that has contributed so much to the Cool Japan brand. They call it ‘Original English Language manga,’ or OEL manga for short.

Fans have been lapping up OEL manga. Would-be creators can label their work ‘manga’ without having to leave their own country or study a foreign language. From the publishers’ point of view, such creators are easy to do business with. They’re local, they can write directly in the local language so there are no translation costs, and being young and hungry they are usually easier and cheaper to deal with than, say, a major Japanese company licensing a proven hit.

Students of semantics and global culture are ecstatic. A highly visible current in world popular culture that is shifting linguistic and perceptual norms within a specific age band on several continents is a researcher’s dream. Flocks of doctoral theses on fan culture and semantic shift are gathering all over the world. It seems everybody’s happy. So why does it bother me if someone uses a Japanese word for non-Japanese comics? It’s just a matter of semantics, after all.

And that’s the reason. Semantics is the study of meanings, and to writers and historians, meanings matter. Fans and businesses exploiting the power of the word ‘manga’ are tapping in to one of the oldest magics known to man – the belief that real names have real power, and that attaching a name to a thought or act can give it weight, can bring it into being. But to me, attaching the word ‘manga’ to non-Japanese comics doesn’t change anything important about those comics, and  may well dilute and weaken the power of the word in its original form.

‘Manga’ isn’t some mantra guaranteeing success if chanted with enough enthusiasm. It’s a functional Japanese label, like bandes dessinees or b.d. is French for comics and manhua is Chinese for comics. If a label doesn’t tell me what’s in the tin, there isn’t much point in using it. The label doesn’t matter in terms of the art and story – they’ll be good or not so good, regardless of country of origin –  but it matters to me.

Of course, the Japanese use the word manga for all comics, and also use comics interchangeably with it. As far as they’re concerned, what the Malay Lat or the Americans Jack Kirby and Robert Crumb created can be called either manga or comics (or komikksu, if one happens to be working in a context where transliterating the sound of the Japanese syllables is more important than conveying their meaning.) That’s reasonable – they speak and write in Japanese, after all. But I don’t, and nor do the majority of the people I write for.

Calling Lat’s or Crumb’s work ‘manga’ is fine if you’re in Japan or speaking Japanese. In that context, the label does its job, implying no closer connection with the work of CLAMP or Monkey Punch than the comicbook format. But nobody calls Robert Crumb’s work manga when speaking English. It would sound strange, even pretentious, because ‘manga’ isn’t English for comics and he’s not a Japanese artist.

To me, using a Japanese word to describe something in a different language is either a statement that this is a uniquely Japanese product or concept,  or a harmless but confusing affectation. This might not seem much of a problem, unless you too are interested in the history and development of art forms in particular regions.  Then, it’s important to know that things labelled manga come from Japan, that manhua are Chinese and manhwa are Korean.

The term ‘OEL manga’ tells me that this is a comic made outside the Japanese industry by someone who wants to associate their work as closely as possible with it. Semantically,  its development is absolutely fascinating, a triumph for Japanese global branding. But if I’m interested in Japanese comics, a different brand piggybacking on their success isn’t what I’m after, and the OEL manga can will stay unopened on the semantic shelf.

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4 thoughts on “Labelling manga: semantics and branding

  1. This is a subject I find myself speaking about multiple times (most recently here: http://tr.im/rH3B ), and I’m completely in agreement with you as far as the value of words having meanings that are useful and applicable. Indeed, if “manga” as used by English speakers truly was a mere synonym for “comics,” then there would be no impassioned defensiveness in response to my oft-repeated suggestion “why not just call them ‘manga-inspired comics’?

    But there is something I’m not so sure I agree with you on, and that’s the notion that manga-inspired comics sell well and are heavily in demand. As recently as this past Anime Expo but a few weeks ago, an entire industry panel was devoted to the fact that is decidedly NOT the case, and I must confess that I’ve never actually seen anyone purchasing (or even discussing online!) these comics on any sort of significant scale.

    This may simply be a matter of geographics: I live in America, where the situation may possibly differ from how this material is received in the UK, Germany, France, and so on. But over here, I think most people on some level can discern that there’s something not exactly “100% authentic” about these particular titles which are marketed to us as “manga,” and spend their money accordingly.

    • I think you’ve hit the nail on the head with that observation on defensiveness. As for sales, I would love to believe that markets really do evaluate quality and respond accordingly – but I suspect it’s just that sales of most things are slumping at the moment.

      We should probably ask why did these comics sell at all? I don’t think it was a question of the fanbase being deceived that they were Japanese – but if I were a teenager who desperately wanted to emulate my manga making idols, I’d probably buy OEL manga. I’d think that the idea that someone else had managed to skip the difficult bits (being born in Japan, learning the language etc) and get a publisher to call his/her comic ‘manga’ was worth buying into and supporting, because if an all-American/British kid like X could do it, maybe I could too. People can be persuaded to buy all kinds of fictions apart from the ones in books.

  2. Pingback: Manga Xanadu » Blog Archive » This Week in Manga For 7/11-7/17/09

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