The world of manga is something that the North American audience tends to disrespect on many levels. Often manga is overlooked and the nature of its exaggerated features drives the “cartoon” haters away. But the reality is that in terms of literature and illustration, manga outshines every publishing media to date in the modern world. That may seem like a bold statement, but I assure you that the proof is in the pudding.
An average manga in Shonen Jump Magazine, geared toward young boys and action lovers, runs a weekly 18 pages. Each page goes through typical editing in terms of plot, concept, dialogue, and composition from both the creator(s) and the editor of that particular series. Typically, a series will have a writer, an artist, and an editor with a few assistants hired on to do touch-ups and background work. Popular manga creator Masashi Kishimoto, who crafted Naruto, has 4 assistants that all specialize in certain detail work like blackening frames, whitening frames, crowds, speed lines, and other decorative effects. The main portions of the illustrations come from Kishimoto himself as well as the complete story and plot breakdowns each week. Now, 4 people may seem like a lot (most creators have around 2-3 assistants with 4 being the most) and you would expect to see no problems in meeting deadlines, but the quality of the final product changes that outlook. Each drawing is precise in both style and line quality with the most professional drawing tools and skills used on every panel. Quilled ink pens (often Nib G-Pens), brushes, and stencils are required to make a good manga work and stand above the rest of the works in the realm of illustration.
Also, a weekly schedule makes this very complicated in the periodical business. The North American audience is used to seeing monthly to bi-monthly comic books at most where a book may come out at the beginning of the month and then again at the end. Manga creators press harder to release a chapter of higher quality in both story and illustration EACH WEEK. That means that every week 16-18 pages of an ongoing series will come out with precise inking, dynamic paneling, a compelling story, a cliffhanger ending, and every now and then they get to do a 3 page color spread. The color will come directly from the creator—tones and application. No digital–we’re talking pens, brushes, pencils, inks, paints, etc., literally the works. Sometimes they even get the cover of the magazine which will require them to do a completely separate colored page.
From the outside looking in, this still may strike you as something possible and not a problem for a good artist to do, and you’re right because people like Kishimoto are just that. But the business is demanding and a weekly schedule can wear you down. With only a few holidays in-between an ongoing series’ creator will work every day of their life crafting and planning the series in hopes that it will continue to run in the magazine. Unlike the North American publications, Japanese manga can be pulled off the shelves quickly because the fans get to decide what is printed. In Shonen Jump, polls are mailed in from the magazine where readers vote for the series that they like and its popularity is rated in the editorial department. Stats are calculated based on age and gender of the readers and if a series scores poorly there is a very good chance that it will be discontinued. In North America, we tend to let series go on or we allow them to at least finish up their work. In Japan, a conclusion is forced to the best of the creator’s ability and they are compelled by the staff to come back after cancellation with an even better idea than the last. And missing a deadline? That doesn’t fly for manga. If you miss a deadline, you missed your chance and your series will be considered for cancellation. In America, there are comics still waiting to come out. I’m looking at both of you, Frank Miller and Kevin Smith.
Primarily throughout this post I’ve only mentioned Shonen Jump, but there are several other magazines for all genres, genders, and age groups. Some publish weekly while other may publish monthly or quarterly. In the quarterly manga magazines, a series may not come out but once every 3-4 months, but the page count is upped to 40-60+ pages. This balances out the divide between them and the weekly chapters and produces in one fell swoop the same amount of content. Tack onto all of this the ability to tell a good story, maintain pacing, keep the art fresh, and meet deadlines and a manga becomes a difficult way of life.
And that’s the difference between manga and all other illustration—it becomes a way of life. It consumes every waking moment and is your life’s work. If you don’t make it that way, then you will not succeed. Mediocre artists come and go all the time in America, but in Japan a standard of quality is constantly maintained. Now, more so than ever, Japanese creators are becoming one person stars who write and illustrate their own stories. The classic pairing of artist and writer is still around, but more and more individuals are rising up to show determination and passion that the rest of the world may be lacking. If you are ever in a book store where manga is sold, don’t be put off by the stylistic approach so much and give the manga volumes a try. Each volume, or tankoban, from Shonen Jump contains around 7 chapters of a story for literally half the price of seven issues of an American comic. Give it a shot and see what you think of the story and development. Ask someone to help you find a genre that would appeal to you the most—I promise you won’t be let down with as much quality and hard work that the creators put into it.
Below I’ve listed some recent series and their creators based on the genre and target audience of their work. Feel free to click them to go to their Wikipedia pages and see if it’s something you’d be interested in.
Yellow Tanabe’s “Kekkaishi”—young adult/supernatural/ action—boys and girls
Masashi Kishimoto’s “Naruto”—young adult/fantasy/action—boys
Tite Kubo’s “Bleach”—young adult/supernatural/ action—boys
Ito Ogure’s “Air Gear”—young adult/ modern/ action—boys and girls
Kaori Yuki’s “Angel Sanctuary”—young adult/ fantasy—girls
Natsuki Takaya’s “Fruits Basket”—young adult/ humor/ fantasy—girls
Nobuhiro Watsuki’s “Rurouni Kenshin”—young adult/ historical/ action—boys and girls
Tsugumi Ohba/ Takashi Obata’s “Deathnote”—young adult/horror/ mystery/suspense—boys and girls
Tadashi Kawashima/ Adachitoka’s “Alive: The Final Evolution”—young adult/ horror/ suspense/ action/ fantasy—boys and girls
Yuichi Kumakura’s “Jing: King of Bandits”—young adult/ fantasy/action—boys and girls
Atsuchi Ohkubo’s “Soul Eater”—young adult/ action/ fantasy/ horror—boys and girls
Yoshiki Nakamura’s “Skip Beat!”—young adult/ romance/ humor—girls
Matsuri Hino’s “Vampire Knight”—young adult/ horror/ fantasy–girls