The ascent of manga: Japan's hottest export goes global

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We used to know what 'manga' meant – it was Akira, or the violent comics read by Japanese teens. But now the eye-popping artform is infusing Western culture, from Hollywood to the Vatican. Archie Bland enters a fast, furious, and lucrative world

Where but Japan would aficionados of comic books with titles like Reluctant Soldier Princess Nami and Atomic King Daidogan congregate in their tens of thousands to celebrate their hobby? Where but Japan would an illustrator dressed as a warrior priest from the Vatican be feted as the guest of honour at something called the Grand International Cosplay Ball? And could there be anywhere in the West where comics are read from back to front, and right to left?

Well, yes, there is – all this manga-inspired madness is happening right here, in Britain.

With its legions of futuristic space robots, demonic feudal lords, and outrageously cute goggly-eyed school girls, it's hard to see how manga's surreal set of comic-book conventions could possibly translate away from Japanese shores. But manga comics have become as familiar as The Beano, and, to go by the sales figures, rather more beloved by the British public. Enter a comic book store here and you are just as likely to find an enthusiast devouring a volume of grittily realistic gekiga stories or super-cute kawaii strips as an edition of Superman; what's more, that enthusiast may very well be a woman, and she may even be reading a title published in the UK. Until not long ago, either of those possibilities would have been unheard of.

"A couple of years ago, the comics scene here really felt stagnant," says John Aggs, an established comic-book artist based in Brighton whose work is heavily influenced by manga. "You would go to events and there would be the artists and a few 30-year-old nerds. Now you go and there are thousands and thousands of manga kids, and scantily clad anime girls wielding giant plastic swords, and they're all jumping up and down and screaming and buying stuff."

Sure enough, a recent comics fair, London's Movie Comic Media Expo, attracted a whopping 31,000 attendees, compared with 20,000 in 2007, and organisers mostly credit that rise to the growth of the manga market. Comic-book stores have experienced a heavy increase in demand for manga titles, with London's Orbital opening a new specialised branch last year to cope with the increased volume. According to market researcher Mintel, the British market has seen a 72 per cent rise in comic sales since 2003, to £136m, with manga a significant part of that increase.

Manga's influence on the mainstream has been obvious for years, and it continues unabated, detectable in everything from egg-headed avatars on the Nintendo Wii to a raft of forthcoming Hollywood live-action blockbusters (most anticipated are a Leonardo DiCaprio-produced remake of Akira, and Steven Spielberg's version of Oldboy, starring Will Smith) that take manga and its animated sibling anime as their sources. Even in that context, though, it's hard not to be taken aback by the flowering of a home-grown British manga culture, whose (mostly female) creators borrow the idiosyncratic visual style of the Japanese originals and infuse it with an unmistakably British attitude. One series, by Laura Howell, follows the bumbling adventures of Gilbert and Sullivan, as they endeavour to avoid trampling Japanese sensibilities with their production of The Mikado; another, by Mary Beaird, infuses anthropomorphic animal drawings with what manga critic Helen McCarthy calls "the comic spirit of Morecambe and Wise". It seems safe to say that neither of these illustrious duos would be likely to crop up in strips from anywhere but our own dear land.

According to Sonia Leong – she of the Vatican warrior priest costume, and among the most successful of the new crop of British manga artists – eccentric humour isn't the only distinguishing trait of native manga subculture, which is much less prone to the perils of excessive action and fantasy than some of its international counterparts. "I'd say we lean towards the slice-of-life school," she says. "Our work is much more down to earth than the American-published stuff. You might get a slightly fantastical setting, but mainly what we're interested in is how people relate to each other."

Leong and Beaird are part of a manga collective called Sweatdrop, founded in 2001 as a means of promoting and publishing their work. Fellow member Emma Vieceli, who writes and illustrates a strip about an invincible schoolgirl called Violet for the kids' comic The DFC, says that move was the result of desperation. "The group was set up because no one was willing to publish the stuff," she says. "And now you walk into any bookshop and it's all there. The last few years have been mad. I think we're past thinking of it as a niche now – it's definitely in the mainstream."

The British Association for Japanese Studies says that the rise from 532 applicants to study the language in the UK in 2002 to 1,126 last year is at least in part thanks to manga bestowing new credibility on Japanese culture. "It just comes from the land of cool," says Helen McCarthy. "To a kid growing up in an Essex suburb, Tokyo in these comics looks impossibly cool, and Tokyo kids sound impossibly cool."

And that cool quotient is the result of one title: Akira, a comic book and later anime movie that tells the dream-like story of a telekinetic biker's battle with his own destructive tendencies in 2019 Neo-Tokyo. While there were plenty of great animes and mangas before Akira in 1988 – most notably those of Osamu Tezuka, the form's pioneer, who first borrowed that distinctive wide-eyed look from Mickey Mouse – this was the work that made the rest of the world gape at just how visually thrilling the form could be.

For foreign devotees, however, it did have one unfortunate side effect: the film's remarkable commercial success led to long years in which violent science-fiction titles dominated the print and video markets, after publishers and producers made the sensible judgement that no audience is so reliable as those teenage boys who want to see something disgusting explode but will settle for a bare pair of animated breasts. "Youngsters getting into anime and manga today should be very grateful for what they've got," says Sonia Leong, 26. "It was very difficult to get into it if you weren't a teenage boy back then. Everything was either violent or erotic."

But things have changed. The growing success of a hyper-cute manga style – manifested, for instance, in the obnoxiously adorable Pokemon creatures that star in the Nintendo game and TV series of the same name – has made people aware that the form is not exclusively devoted to X-rated fare. More important still was the decision of manga publishers to start selling in bookshops. "In the mid to late Nineties," says Jonathan Clements, who has written a book about the industry, Schoolgirl Milky Crisis, "the manga reader was a man, and he probably liked science fiction, and he may have been a student. But then they decide: let's sell these things as books. And so girls could walk into a bookshop and pick up their angst-ridden pretty-boy vampire comics and not feel intimidated by the smell or the staff. And so now, demographically, it's changed a lot." (Female readers' favourite genre turned out to be yaoi, or "boys' love", comics, which tell the stories of gay teenagers searching for companionship and rough sex in an intolerant world, and which have a readership composed, depending on where you get your figures, of 75 to 85 per cent women.)

For contemporary readers, split roughly evenly along gender lines, manga is a far less exotic thing than it used to be. Indeed, it is ubiquitous in popular culture. These days, the safety animation on your British Airways flight draws on manga; so does the visual grammar of the Matrix trilogy, or the artwork on Kanye West's last album. With such a pervasive presence, some artists now think the term "manga" is useless. "I've grown up being influenced by comics from everywhere," says Emma Vieceli. "I didn't like calling my stuff manga before. I like Marvel [the US comics publisher], I like Italian comics, I like Japanese comics, too. It doesn't mean I set out to be a manga artist. I guess I find it surreal."

If manga is just the Japanese word for comics, and if the form incorporates a range of visual styles, and if there is no limit on the kind of subject matter that might count as manga, then what is the point of the term? To Clements, it's a waste of time to apply it to British artists. "Manga are comics by Japanese people," he insists. "Anyone who tells you otherwise is trying to sell you something." He is sceptical of the reasons that some British comics artists have embraced the term. "You can draw a substandard comic and call it a manga," he says, "and it has a better chance of being published than if it was a substandard comic and called a comic."

Still, if nothing else, this tells us something about the cachet that manga holds: indeed, so great is the demand for Japanese comics in the UK that rates for translation have typically dropped by around 65 per cent over the past 10 years, as publishers have attempted to nudge their contractors towards a faster turnaround. "Which," Clements says drily, "is a nasty side effect." (The same efficiency drive explains why Japanese comics, formerly flipped into the usual Western left-to-right format when translated, are now left in the original running order.)

That said, there is something that most fans mean when they talk of manga: not the specifics such as the radiating speed lines that frequently denote movement – but a coherent narrative approach different from anything seen in conventional western comics.

For one thing, manga editions, produced on cheap, disposable paper as opposed to the glossy editions typical of their American rivals, can afford to run at much greater length – around 200 pages, as opposed to 30. Accordingly, says Helen McCarthy, "Manga takes more time over the little stuff. People are in the habit of taking as long as they need to show what they want to be seen." American superhero comics are often obliged to devote entire spreads to a crowd of talking heads, gabbling through the sort of knotty plot development that will always be necessary in such a compressed story; manga, by contrast, can allow itself the luxury of vast swathes of space without a single caption. "That pacing, that storytelling, has a lot more to do with a cinematic feel," says Tim Pilcher, co-author of The Essential Guide to World Comics. "They can have 20 or 30 pages of nothing but silence."

With so much space on offer, the artist can do whatever he or she likes, and manga artists frequently do. Osamu Tezuka, known as the father of manga, adapted Dostoyevsky's Crime and Punishment early in his career. "In Tezuka's day, comics were pulp entertainment for kids," says Helen McCarthy, who curated an exhibition of his work at the Barbican in London recently, and who will run a short season of his films there to mark the 20th anniversary of his death in February. "He wanted to say, look: comics can handle this big serious story." In 1984, at the request of the Vatican, he began work on a version of the Bible, but couldn't complete it before his death.

Today, something of the same spirit is at large in the British manga scene. A manga Shakespeare series has won its publisher, Emma Hayley, the Young Publishing Entrepreneur of the Year Award, and another two plays will appear next month; following in Tezuka's footsteps, former 2000 AD illustrator Siku published a manga Bible last year, and will shortly follow it with a more detailed account of the New Testament, The Manga Jesus. Sonia Leong, meanwhile, has entered uncharted territory: she has just published two self-help books. Not even Tezuka hit on that one.

All of these projects would, of course, be perfectly possible in a more ordinary comic-book style, but they would be less interesting. Hard as it is to pin down exactly what it is that makes manga so appealing, there's surely something irresistible about the idea that it can give way to the demands of the story, expand and contract exactly as its subject requires, in stark opposition to the endless compression of Western forms. The only limit is the creativity of the artist. "Most British people who try to produce manga think they get something out of it they don't get out of the Western tradition," says McCarthy. "They want to say: Western comics have done nothing for me. This is a tradition where I feel at home."

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