Tag Archives: storytelling

Why Manga is the Greatest Form of Story Telling

16 Oct

Manga (mahng-guh) specifically means a Japanese graphic novel. The style has grown out of Japan into other Asian countries and around the world; they are called: Manhua, Manhwa, La Nouvelle Manga, or even Amerimanga, or Original English Language Manga (OEL Manga).

I believe there is a misconception in the term “manga,” a term that I will be using for the rest of the essay despite there being other kinds. Manga is not an art style, it is not a story telling style, not a genre, and now it is not necessarily Japanese. “Manga” is no more descriptive than “comic,” the traditional American word for the same concept.

Both comics and manga are now being scientifically classified and picked over and the official term for them is “sequential art.” Sequential Art is defined as a series of images that convey a story or a sequence of events. We will continue to call manga and comics manga and comics though, as sequential art is new and such a mouthful. It is much more pleasing to say, “oh hey man! Check out this great new manga!” As opposed to, “oh hey man! Check out this great new Sequential Art!”

Back to manga and why it is the greatest form of story telling. It surpasses television, movies, and can surpass books. In this essay I will take each aspect of manga and deconstruct its preconceptions and misconceptions; then build it back up again in the way that manga should be viewed and understood.

“Manga is a genre.” This is the biggest misconception about manga. People think that manga is either for children, or is too adult. This is like saying books are a genre, but I believe The Cat in the Hat and 50 Shades of Gray are both books. Manga only describes the sequential art nature of the stories; though also because of this comes the misconception that they are for children. In the United States people see drawn or animated and dismiss it as childish, for kids. Manga has children’s genres, it also has adult genres, and genres for everything under the sun. Just like movies, books, and TV.

Because manga is illustrated and relatively easy to manufacture it is diverse. Its diversity is what lends itself to the flip side of this misconception; that it is too adult. Manga has no actors or special effects so it’s easy to do things with characters that cannot be done in movies or TV. Manga is also visual, so things like violence and nudity can be expressed more vividly than with the written word.

Manga has an ease of entering any genre in the extreme, because of this it was embraced by Americans who wanted darker and more twisted tales. In the early days of Americans getting to know manga this extreme kind was most alluring because we did not have anything very similar. Sure we have comedy and romance, but twisting and gory tragic tales were not worth the time of major producers in any entertainment field because it was not accessible to the mainstream. Most attempts at these are what we call B movies. Now the people who wanted to could indulge in high quality tragedies that weren’t cheesy or poorly made. This seems to be the official stance on the subject. I looked up the word “manga” in three separate online dictionaries. The definition included “adult themed” Japanese comic books, when this is certainly not the case.

So at first glance manga looks like it’s for children. It’s illustrated, cartoons, kiddy. At second glance manga is for adults, it’s lewd, it’s gory, and it’s a-moral. On a third look you will see manga is just a story telling device, and it covers every genre. There is even non-fiction manga; manga that depicts a time in history and tells it like a story.

However manga does get the reputation for being more science fiction, fantasy, or horror themed, and rightly so. As I said earlier with an illustrated work there are no limits. Because of this the manga experience lends itself to more fantastic plots. We all know how a serious alien movie or horror flick can be instantly turned comedy by terrible acting or seeing the strings holding up the UFO. I know several science fiction TV shows that have a perfectly good concept but are executed so ridiculously they are laughable.

In manga you can draw outer space, you can draw alien races, massive explosions, flying body parts, mutations, and more with ease.  You can draw anything you want and make it look good. In the movies all you need to make a good romance are a few good actors and one setting. A good fantasy takes so much more. This is why the simple manga, ones revolving every day people or less epic plots, like romance and non-fiction, are overshadowed by the big long series involving magic and robots.

The diversity of manga plot is part of what makes it the greatest form of story telling. I have cried at sweet and touching romances and been blown away by the sheer epicness of the final battle in a fantasy. Of course movies, TV, and books can do every genre as well, but I believe it is not as accessible as in manga. Manga will nearly always be well drawn. If it is not it will not be likely to be published. So in manga it relies solely on the story. Now not every manga story is good, but that means it will not suffer the same fate of movies with a great story ruined by poor actors or bad special effects.

“Manga is an art Style.” This is another big misconception. The style of the manga is dependent on the artist. Yes, manga is all mostly black and white, and use speech bubbles, and can be structured the same, and may have similar trends between them. Saying manga is an art style is like saying painting is an art style. Just because Picasso and Van Gogh both used canvas and paint, would you say their art is the same style? At most I could be convinced they are as similar as say, two different impressionist artists. For an example I will use “The Big Three” this refers to the three most popular current action genre manga that are running today. This includes One Piece by Eiichiro Oda, Bleach by Tite Kubo, and Naruto by Masashi Kishimoto. Below are links to a page from each.

One Piece



In analyzing these pages we can see that the styles are quite different, even if not apparent at first glance. If a whole chapter or volume is read the differences become even more distinct. We see style deviating not only artistically in the environment and characters, but in the direction of the manga. Like direction in a movie; How often are close ups used? When do they tilt the angle for tension? How do they plan panel size and layout? Each of these is distinct to each manga.

Let’s look at this page in One Piece, The paneling is fairly uniform, the shots are either close up or far away, the bubbles and font show expression and bleed into the empty space between panels. One Piece is also known for it’s original character designs; faces and bodies of many different proportions are the norm. In the last panel we see a few people riding the half-man/half crocodile creature. That man is supposed to be a normal person who got crocodile legs as a transplant. Yet his head is as big as the two people riding him. We also see expressive symbols coming off the characters in many forms. There are also detailed and well-drawn backgrounds in many of the panels.

On Bleach the paneling is mostly quite large and angled with extremely close up or upper body shots. The speech bubbles are very sharp to show yelling, but do not bleed into the empty space. The character design is also different; Bleach has much more realistic features and proportions. It’s usually the outfits that are so different in Bleach, and can often disguise or amplify a characters body type. The mouths are realistically opened, and their skin is shaded and drawn to show skin cracks and wrinkles. There are also no expressive tidbits around these characters. Here, and usually in Bleach, there is a distinct lack of background and setting in the fight.

Finally in Naruto we see a very uniform paneling with the speech bubbles confined to their barriers. The characters are proportionally similar, though have smaller mouths and noses than in Bleach. The eyes in Naruto are also different; they have a swirling and cat-eye look that is not seen in Bleach or One Piece. There is a background, but it’s simple. The hair in Naruto is also more outrageous than the other two.

So we see in a thorough analysis that manga offers many different art styles. If this is not enough to convince you, and you still think all manga is is this, I have a few other quick examples to show the difference in manga art:



Hayate the Combat Butler

Great Teacher Onizuka

I love books, I do, but it’s hard to beat visuals for imagery in a story. This is why movies and TV are so popular and more accessible than books. They involve less imagination and thought process to construct a scene.

Some may argue not using your imagination is a bad thing, but seeing something can be very powerful, and an image can convey many different states and preserve them for observation. As the saying goes, “a picture is worth a thousand words.”

Particularly visuals are important for action, and I don’t mean the entertainment term for action but the dictionary one, “the fact or process of doing something.” Characters movements, facial expressions, and fighting can be difficult to convey in words. I know in books that I can often times forget the setting while I’m absorbed in the dialogue; while setting is very important.

For example in a book the bad guy may have someone tied in a chair, interrogating him. In the book this is set up then they talk and dialogue takes over. Unless you are reminded the fact one is tied down and one is not may escape you.

In text the difference between dialogue and action is great. An author can always add descriptions but since text is so linear the presence of it in your mind can never be simultaneous. You read things like, “picked up his torture devices as he asked questions,” or “he nervously tugged at his bonds as he answered.” Yet these happen after a line, so your mind must overlay what you just read into the action. It can subtract from the experience, when in a manga imagery can be used to simultaneously convey words and action. Even if you are focused on and reading the words your vision picks up on the panel that contains the text.

Or manga can just use action. Words could not be spoken if you see the interrogator finger a nasty looking device then see a drip of sweat going down the captives face. Without words these images don’t need to be interpreted and can convey an atmosphere and emotion with a single glance.

There is power in a static image. Slowing time to a stop so you can absorb a single moment. This is why slow motion is used in particularly dramatic moments in movies so viewers can take in what just happened. From the closeness and blush of two lovers faces to the sword slice coming a hairsbreadth away from cutting someone’s neck; these scenes in stasis can be more powerful than a thousand things happening at once in a movie. In this sense manga is better than film.

Manga has an automatic rewind and pause, all controlled by your brain. As a reader you can stare at a single panel or page to absorb what’s happened, or reread sections at will, you can speed up or slow down. In film this is harder to do, and it takes away from the experience of watching. Some might say it takes away from the experience of reading, but our minds can do it so flawlessly it does not matter. I’m sure if you could be as seamless while watching TV people would do it just as often.

You have to pause, rewind, try to find the exactly spot, interrupt the sound, not accidentally shut it off, and are probably among other people so it is hard. When reading it is simply a movement of the eyes to relive a particular dramatic over and over before you move on.

So, manga takes the best aspects of watching TV/movies and reading and puts them into one medium. We have the easily accessible dialogue and text of books, with the limitless potential to do any genre well; combined with the visual power of film without the inherent limitations of the medium like acting, special affects, and the downside of a constant stimulation of the senses.