So why are manga so popular, anyway? Looking for answers, people have pointed to Japan’s high literacy rate, the relatively late introduction of TV, and in the past the large number of commuters in cities such as Tokyo, who used to read manga magazines on the train. (In recent years, cell phones and handheld video games have eaten up people’s commute time, and now readers are more likely simply to buy their favorite graphic novels at the store.) The true answer is as much about publishing smarts as it is about artistic techniques.
Two Facts About Manga
1. Manga are stories. Long stories. With endings.
Outside of the small presses, the American comics market isn’t about stories; it’s about franchises. The classic superhero comics, from Superman to Spider-Man, have beginnings but no endings; they focus on one-shots, collectibles, and novelty items; they are owned by corporations and designed to be reinvented endlessly by “new creative teams.”
By contrast, while not many manga are as tightly plotted as novels, they have at least the dramatic cohesiveness of long-running TV shows. In a typical manga, the first chapter is something like a pilot episode, which establishes the basic premise and the main character. If the story is a flop, it may end hastily, but if it is a hit, the author is invited (or pressured) to keep it going until the intended ending (or until readers grow sick of it). Thus, the most popular, and some of the best, manga tend to be the longest. Popular manga often run for ten or more volumes. Dragon Ball/Dragon Ball Z (forty-two volumes total) and Ranma ½ (thirty-eight volumes) are among the longest series that have been translated, but they don’t have anything on Kochira Katsushika-ku Kameari Kôen-mae Hashutsujo (“This Is the Police Station in Front of Kameari Park in Katsushika Ward”), an untranslated comedy series that celebrated its 150th volume in 2006. (A pure sitcom rather than a story manga, KochiKame is a bit of an anomaly, but many story manga have run fifty volumes or more.)
Sometimes it’s clear when manga have run past their expiration date, but other manga manage to keep it together for their entire run. How can manga be so long? Don’t readers get tired of it? The typical Japanese reader skims a manga page in three seconds, and given such furious speed, most manga focus on quick, cinematic storytelling, as pioneered by Osamu Tezuka in the 1940s and 1950s. By contrast, the classic American comics of the same period are dense, text-heavy stories rarely more than eight pages in length. At some point, American comics chose fancy production values and detailed draftsmanship, while Japanese comics chose cliff-hanger stories and cheap black-and-white printing. There are exceptions, such as Katsuya Terada and Akihiro Yamada, but they’re not the rule.
2. The artist is more important than the property.
Most manga artists, except for those doing spin-offs of existing games, novels, and anime, own at least part of the copyright to their work. This stands in stark contrast to American comics, which until the 1990s were almost totally dominated by corporate-owned properties that viewed artists as interchangeable cogs. (Blade, Spider-Man, and X-Men were all created as works for hire.) Manga artists occasionally switch publishers, as when Weekly Shônen Jump artists left to form Comic Bunch (known in America as Raijin Comics), or when numerous Enix artists left the company in 2002, forming new magazines such as Comic Blade. (They took their manga series with them, but for copyright reasons they had to change the names slightly.)
Japanese publishers are besieged by applications from manga artists, but not just anyone will do. To find the best, publishers run new-talent contests, often printing the winning entries in zôkan (special editions) of their magazines. Other artists become famous through dôjinshi (self-published comics) and are later picked up professionally. When an artist is selected, he or she is assigned an editor, who oversees the artist’s work and frequently steers it in a more commercial direction. In the 1980s, editors started taking a heavier hand in manga production, and in the higher-selling magazines, they have major input regarding plots. But it is almost unheard of for a manga artist to be dropped from the series he or she created and replaced with somebody else.
Manga artists work under rigorous schedules. A typical weekly title is twenty pages, or a stunning eighty pages a month. Some artists draw more than one story at a time. In the artist’s notes for YuYu Hakusho, a weekly manga, Yoshihiro Togashi calculates how much free time he has, based on a formula of four hours per page (not counting time spent scripting) and five hours of sleep per night. He comes to the conclusion that he has nineteen free hours per week (“subtract time spent for eating, bathing, biological functions, and other necessities, and I’d only be left with three to four hours”). Some manga artists go days without sleep to meet their deadlines, and burnout horror stories abound. In the 1990s, the magazine Quick Japan ran a series of stories about manga artists who had gone crazy as a result of their work.
To manage their workload, most manga artists employ multiple assistants, who lay down screentone (the black-and-white dot patterns used in manga), gather reference materials, draw backgrounds and crowd scenes, help with the inking and computer effects (if any), and generally do whatever the artist asks them to. Unlike in American comic books (but like many American newspaper comic strips), there is no shame in using assistants; most artists do not credit their assistants, but some do, and some even allow them to show off their own work in the extra pages of their graphic novels. The system serves as a sort of mentorship, allowing aspiring artists to practice the skills they need to go pro. Some artists, such as Takao Saito, have vast studios with dozens of assistants. Others do not; Akira Toriyama lived in his parents’ house while drawing the megahit Dr. Slump, and Mihona Fujii, artist of Gals!, used her mother as her primary assistant.
A few manga artists create “art for art’s sake,” whether in self-published dôjinshi or in underground magazines such as Ax and the now-defunct Garo. But for most creators, manga is both an art and a business: a mass medium that, unlike TV or movies, can be created by one person with the most basic tools. While the art shines through, the business finds new ways to thrive; many publishers are now experimenting with online manga, e-books, and other new media.