Normalising manga: now part of the mainstream

I’m going to Cambridge in October to speak at a conference on Women in Comics. It should be a really interesting day – the organisers have mixed academics, critics and writers with comic-makers, both male and female, and the range of topics sounds like fun: Trina Robbins on Nell Brinkley, Asia Alfasi on cultural dialogue and self-representation, Dr. Laurence Grove on French women in 1950s comics, Woodrow Phoenix and Corinne Pearlman on autobiography, and many more. I’m talking about Osamu Tezuka’s view of women.

Looking at the list of topics and writers, I remembered a panel at a British anime convention way back in the 1990s. The topic was the future of anime – then a very small cult interest. Jim McLennan, editor of the long-lived (and now web-based) film zine Trash City, was one of my fellow-panellists. He said that he was looking forward to the day when nobody would need to define himself as an anime fan any more, because that would mean that anime had moved out of the niche and into the cultural mainstream, becoming accepted as part of the general cultural background.

When movies were new, film was a small niche interest and people called themselves ‘film fans’ – now, saying “I’m a film fan” is unnecessary because almost everybody likes some kind of film. In 1991, when the theatrical and video release of Akira kickstarted the British anime and manga market, the whole of British fandom could fit in one smallish meeting room. American fandom consisted of Star Blazers fans at conventions, and scattered clubs and fanzines reaching about 100 people each. A few manga had been translated into English, but they too occupied a small niche. Jim was dreaming aloud, and it sounded like a crazy dream. Now I can see it coming true around me.

I’ve  had information from quite a few comic and literary events lately, and at most of them, nobody makes a big deal out of including manga and anime on the programme. Increasingly, they’re included as just another area of interest, like 1930s cartoon strips or Czech animation. When I do comic-making or writing workshops in libraries, I find manga racked and read alongside all the other comics.  They haven’t quite lost their exotic tag – some people still choose them partly “because they’re Japanese” – but most readers are more attracted to the style than the origin.

In the same way,  a manga-related topic was a hard one to sell to supervisors in UK and US colleges fifteen to twenty years ago, because the likelihood of one of your tutors being familiar with manga was  small, and the supporting literature in English was limited. (In fact, it was pretty much limited to Frederik L. Schodt’s Manga! Manga! The World of Japanese Comics plus brief and vague references elsewhere.) Manga studies have become far more serious, more inclusive and more accessible, and the supporting literature is growing fast.

There are many more conferences and symposia, in many languages, where you can discuss, analyse and debate manga. If you’re not an academic, there’s no need to feel left out. At a host of comic and literary events around the world, Japanese comics are now accepted as part of the global media mix. To scholars and fans alike, they are no more or less exotic than France’s bandes dessinees or Italy’s fumetti.

Manga are becoming normal, going mainstream, reaching the masses. Anime’s going the same way. And I still feel the same way as I did when Jim McLennan spoke at that convention: it’s about time.

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