Direct from a little watering hole in Manhattan’s Greenwich Village neighborhood, comes the second installment of our interview with Paul Gravett, one of the UK’s most respected comics’ authorities, conducted with help from our buddy, The Salon artist, Nick Bertozzi. This time out, we delve a bit deeper into the world of manga, the subject of Gravett’s 2004 book, Manga: 60 Years of Japanese Comics.
Part two also touches upon the world of superhero books—the other largely forbidden topic in the realm of The Daily Cross Hatch. But hell, when talking comics with Paul Gravett, you’ve got to go where the conversation takes you, and as is always the case with the man who has passionately championed the medium for more than two decades, everything he discusses is sure to keep you on the edge of your seat.
Is there a lot of academic study of manga going on in Japan?
Oh, very much so. In my research for the manga guide, I did see an amazing number of books about manga. They come in so many different kinds. One book, for example, is a look at all of the manga artists who worked for a very short period, and just gave up—dissapeared.
A bit like the Fletcher Hanks book.
Yes. They produced extraordinary work that was often never put into book form. Another book that was out there looked at the history of the rental libraries. In Japan, they’ve historically had a rental library system, where, for a certain amount of money, you could have access to certain products that were not available in newsstands or bookshops, so they were often darker, more dramatic, more serious books, called “gekiga.”
It was really the equivalent of pre-code crime or romance [comics]. Basically, they were quite tough real-life books, definitely not aimed at kids. They were aimed at students and older readers. There’s one book about one person’s memories, running one of these incredible libraries in the 50s. And the discussion about the academics and aesthetics of comics is very much alive. Very much so.
It’s interesting—I haven’t seen too many books over here discussing the subject from a vantage point more on the periphery, as opposed to a straight study of the form.
Yeah, exactly. There’s a lot of room to do a lot more with it. For example, I just picked up this book of essays about Astro Boy by Frederik Schodt—it’s his new book about Tezuka, and it’s not just a summary of Tezuka’s career, which is huge. In fact, there’s a wonderful biography of Tezuka, not done by him, but done subsequently by another artist, in four volumes. It’s not in English, yet, but it’s a great study of his life story and how he came up with his ideas.
Do you think the explosion of manga in the western world—the UK and US—has worked to legitimize the style? It seems as if most of what hits the market here is the more pulpy work—stuff like Dragon Ball.
One of the ways that most people get into manga, frankly, is through anime, whether on TV or DVD. That’s been the way, wherever it’s gone. And of course you need an audience that sticks with it, and says, “well, what’s the next thing, moving along?” And, as we know with manga, you’ve got series even for kids that are really quite sophisticated.
A lot of manga we see translated here magical quests, fantasy fighting and fun stuff like that , but a lot of kids are getting into series like Death Note. It’s an astonishingly sophisticated comic, being done in Japan for the boys’ weekly comic Shonen Jump. In the US, Shonen Jump has to put it in their ‘Advanced’ line for older readers, whereas in Japan in Shonen Jump itself, everything is put together in the same anthology. The less advanced and the advanced is all together. And then you have a series like Nana, a subtle, character-driven girls’ romance comic. Like Death Note, it’s been made into a big hit live-action movie. These more advanced manga are taking kids into a higher level of comics already.
Bertozzi: Paul, I’m interested in your take on this. A couple of friends of mine have worked for Kodansha: Paul Pope, and Tom Hart, and Jon Lewis. I think we make the mistake of equating comics and manga exactly—“‘manga,’ that’s just the Japanese word for comics.” But it’s not true—it’s a subtly different experience. It’s not comics as we know it.
Gravett: The sheer scale of variety and audience on the one hand, you cannot equate with comics. Comics here are a very niche thing. They’ve got set audiences and limitations, because of their format. It’s interesting talking to this Japanese artist that I know, here in New York, Misako Rocks. She’s been in the Japanese market, and there’s a good and bad side to it, because it’s very editorially controlled.
In terms of content?
In terms of a lot of input from the editors. I’m sure this happens to an extent in America. If you’re looking in mainstream comics, editors are relatively hands-on. But in Japan, it can be almost too much. You’re not as free to create. You’re having to create a product that definitely fit expectations of the formula that they know will push the buttons for the readers. It’s definitely not as ideal a setup as you might think.
I know we probably want to get away from setting too many parallels between the two, but this seems similar to what occurs here, when working with a well-established licensed character.
Yeah, well that’s another difference. While there are characters—Astro Boy has been revived, and there are other characters that go on well past their creators deaths—but there aren’t that many like that. It’s nothing like America, where no one’s had the nerve to say, “actually, Superman—we’ve done all we can with him. What can we do with this character?” You can’t keep on telling the origin story, over and over again, and you can’t say, “we haven’t told you about his second cousin, twice removed, or Jimmy Olsen’s secret transvestite lover’s child.”
Bertozzi: Isn’t that in the Grant Morrison version?
Gravett: Exactly. And the point is, these characters—there’s nothing in Japan that’s been artificially kept alive this long, well past their sell by date, and this is one of the ways that manga has kept alert, saying, “what’s going on now in the culture? What do we want to talk about?” It doesn’t have to be completely topical an socially engaged, though. It can also be fantastical. Death Note is a good example. Clearly the stories very often get stretched on, way too long—we all know that Dragon Ball just kept going. We all know that they’re going to keep stringing it along, but we also know that eventually, in one form or another—maybe not successfully—it will come to an end, and there will be no one saying “we’re going to do a sequel,” because the artist has a relative freedom to do something for another audience. Another concept will come along.
Do you think the American underground would be as exciting as it is, if there weren’t that dichotomy? If there weren’t mainstream characters to work against?
Yes, and certain superhero characters have got something beyond just franchises. There’s a book comic out, called Our Gods Wear Spandex. It’s a great title, but it’s not what you think—it’s not another one of these Christian books that use comics to convert you over. It’s actually quite a serious academic religious book.
It sounds like a New Yorker article.
Yeah, it is kind of like that. It’s saying, along the way, that many kids today are thinking of these characters as a pantheon of gods. They are taking on that role. And I think it is impressive what can be done. [Pointing to Bertozzi] You’ve done some things in the Superhero Showcase. There’s so much that can still be done, if you have fun with a superhero. I love Kochalka’s Superf*ckers, for example. It’s a wonderful book.
Bertozzi: It is, but the audience for superheroes—the “mainstream”—they don’t enjoy it as much.
Gravett: Of course not. You’re not respecting the stuff.
But the only reason it works so well is that we were all weaned on those classic stories.
As much as I love this characters, and I think people like Bendis can do amazing things with them, it becomes problematic to really engage with these characters, and I don’t understand how fans do engage with them, if you realize that nothing major is ever really going to have an impact.
Well, sitcoms do incredibly well over here, too.
Yeah. It’s that endless momentum of story, without any change, though of course there’s been stuff like waking up in Dallas, where the entire seven seasons were a dream. It’s almost as bad as Spidey and the “Clone Saga.” It’s because these characters have been artificially perpetuated, but on the postive side, people like Grant Morrison have said, and I think he’s absolutely right, that they are an extraordinary endlessly expanding legend. The Superman story is a massive thing that can’t end—people just keep adding things to it. There’s isn’t anything else like it.
Well, how long would you say the average superhero fan reads comics? Maybe five years, tops? That must help the perpetual cycle. You don’t really remember what happened the last time.
That’s true, yeah, if you do give them up, but a lot of people do become extremely attached to what happens to these characters. They become quite important to them.
[Concluded in Part Three.]