Did Manga Take Over the World, or Did the World Take Over Manga?

Last month the results of the Morning International Comic Competition were announced in Tokyo. Kim Daejin, a South Korean artist working from the Bucheon Manga Production Studio, won the grand prize for The Unreverberating Echo. Briton Michael Aubtin Madadi’s Starfields tied for second place with Apple Baby Cat, by a Taiwanese artist, already published in Hong Kong and China, working as little thunder.

You can read the winning works online; five finalists are also spotlighted. The diversity of their styles and stories is impressive and encouraging. To judge from this bunch, comics are alive and well and have plenty to offer readers all over the world. In the era of the 3D screen, the individual imagination can still compete with mass technology. The winning comic is both original and clever, merging the classic ‘nobody-understands-me’ slacker trope with a globalisation conspiracy theory reflecting recent speculation that a whole Chinese generation is at risk of forgetting how to write Chinese characters as a result of growing dependence on celphones.

The official announcement, on Kodansha’s Morning website, says as much about the current manga industry as it does about the winners and their work. Although this is the fourth annual competition, it’s the first one under the current name. It was launched as the Morning International Manga Competition. Representing the M.I.C.C. Selection Committee, Koji Tabuchi wrote:

“Throughout the previous three competitions, we found ourselves keenly noticing something. While in Japan the word “manga” (マンガ) encompasses many broad genres and is still home to innovation and freshness, the term “manga” abroad refers to works of fantasy that are drawn in a specific style, and further confined to a small genre.”

After changing the word “manga” in the title to “comic”, he says, the Committee saw an immediate change. Not only did they get more entries suited to the magazine’s target audience,  but the entries included many  “stories and visual designs that we could not imagine ever seeing from creators within the Japanese industry.” Half the works that got through the second stage of judging were by Western authors, including some from regions where manga is not widely sold. (Mr. Tabuchi says “not widely read”, but given the spread of illegal downloads, manga is far more widely read than it is sold.)

Alongside the announcement of the fifth competition, with rules in seven languages, is the statement that Kodansha are not seeking “to “import” manga authors from around the world”, but “to “export” the joy of reading manga.” To a native Japanese speaker, manga includes Jackie Ormes, Philippe Francq and Garen Ewing as well as Naoki Urusawa or Junko Mizuno. To most non-Japanese, as Tabuchi noted, it means something much narrower. And if you publish a magazine aimed at adults with diverse tastes, you want to attract diverse art and stories, not just regurgitations of a few Japanese originals.

This is a major international comic art competition. A first prize of US$3,000 and guaranteed publication in Japan is good enough to attract serious professionals, despite the restrictive rights clause in the rules. Yet it took a change of name to broaden the entry base.

I have never liked the use of the word ‘manga’ by non-Japanese people to describe non-Japanese comics. This stems from my liking for clear, unambiguous labels, because they make my life easier. All comics are manga in Japan; outside Japan, if any comic can be manga, how is one to place a work in its proper historical and social context? But we’ve arrived at the point where linguistic drift has become linguistic norm, and unfortunately it seems that our re-definition of manga has restricted, rather than widened, the possibilities of the medium.

Just as the polymath Osamu Tezuka, a teenage superstar turned industry leader, was reduced by US exposure to “the guy who made Astro Boy and Kimba”, so our view of manga seeks to confine a medium that embraces both King Terry and Waki Yamato to a far more restricted range. Only by calling it “comics” – which is exactly what it was all along – has Kodansha been able to persuade non-Japanese artists to embrace all the possibilities of manga.

If you’d like to enter the 5th M.I.C.C., rules in English are here.

One thought on “Did Manga Take Over the World, or Did the World Take Over Manga?

  1. Pingback: Tweets that mention Did Manga Take Over the World, or Did the World Take Over Manga? « A Face Made for Radio: Helen McCarthy's Blog -- Topsy.com

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