Manga vs Comics: Does it matter? Felipe Smith in Japan

Posted by on December 10th, 2010 at 11:45 AM

Peepo Choo mashes East and West

Japan’s ‘Galapagos syndrome,’ a phrase first used to characterize the nation’s highly evolved but globally incompatible cell phones, is lately being applied to its other isolated industries, and even to its people. “The Galapagosization of Japan continues,” trumpeted one US newspaper this fall when a survey of Japan’s white-collar workers revealed that a full two-thirds of them never want to work outside of their homeland.

Such attitudes won’t surprise anyone involved with Japan’s native producers of popular culture, whose minimal and often blinkered efforts to capitalize on the global appeal of their products have resulted in the downsizings, pinched margins and scant optimism pervading Tokyo.  Most anime studio employees are overworked, understaffed and underfunded; they don’t have time to look up from their desks, let alone pay attention to the rest of the world.

Each time the government announces a new overseas venture to promote “cool Japan,” most artists and producers at home merely shake their heads.

Of course, Galapagosization is a two-way roadblock: Insiders can’t survive outside, and outsiders can’t get in.  Almost every one of those overburdened studio staffers and bosses is Japanese. “We have nothing to offer [foreign artists] here,” said Shogakukan’s Masakazu Kubo, veteran manga editor and the Executive Producer of Pokemon, bemoaning the insularity and inaccessibility of Japan’s manga and anime companies. “And that’s shameful.”

Manga agent Yukari Shiina set out to change that—or at least breathe new life into an industry she saw growing stale with self-absorption. In 2007, she founded an agency called with the goal of introducing non-Japanese artists to domestic manga publishers, negotiating contracts and publicity between them. “I really wanted to bring some diversity into the Japanese industry,” she says.  “I saw the manga world slowing down, and diversity is one of the keys to an industry’s survival.

“Also, it’s strange that we have tons of translated novels and films here, and Japanese love those works, mystery novels and Hollywood movies and Disney.  But for some reason, we don’t like superhero comics the way others do.”

When she surveyed the US comics industry, she found plenty of diversity: Titles by non-American artists are commonplace on the shelves and at conventions, and numerous non-native born artists and employees work for US publishers. So why not create a similar scenario in Japan?

It hasn’t been easy. The language barrier, Shiina says, is huge, “much bigger than I thought.”  In addition, the domestic manga business is strongly driven by fads and trends with rapid turnover. The Internet may provide the illusion of greater proximity and transparency for overseas fans and aspiring artists, but so-called ‘trend spotting’ from thousands of miles away doesn’t really cut it.

“People think that with the Internet, you can follow everything,” she adds, “but that’s just not true.”

Thus far, the number of non-native artists has managed to import and publish matches its years of operation: exactly three—hardly a trend of its own.

Nevertheless, at least one of them has garnered considerable attention and praise, and his resume reads like a roadmap of diversity.

Felipe Smith was born to a Jamaican father and Argentine mother in Ohio, raised in Buenos Aires, trained at Chicago’s Institute for the Arts and discovered while living in and creating comics about Los Angeles. At 32, he has lived in Tokyo for two and a-half years, publishing his series, Peepo Choo (Pikachu satire noted), in Japanese with Kodansha.

It helps that he walks the walk: Smith is an autodidact who learned to speak Japanese fluently in Los Angeles via a Japanese roommate, a job in karaoke bar, and sheer will. Now he read and writes at least some of the original text of his manga in the language, the rest of which is translated by Shiina.

American mangaka/comics artist Felipe Smith in Japan

Smith discovered manga in a Japanese bookstore and was immediately drawn to the size of the books and the scope and range of the stories, though he’s hardly an avid fan.  “What attracted me to manga and anime was that there wasn’t this template,” he tells me. “It wasn’t so much the content, but the diversity of styles.  There is no drawing style for manga. That’s why I’m here. What’s being sold to the rest of the world is very limited, but here [in Japan], you can do all kinds of things.”

In 2003, Smith won the “Rising Stars of Manga” contest, the brainchild of US publisher and distributor TokyoPop’s CEO and founder, Stuart Levy.  “Felipe’s art really stood out,” Levy recalls. “Each and every page was filled with details, from the backgrounds to the characters’ facial expressions, and the line-work was polished.”

TokyoPop published Smith’s first series (which he now describes as a seinen, or young man’s, manga set in LA), the three-volume MBQ, in 2005, which caught the attention of agent Shiina, who helped him land his current editor at Kodansha.

Smith’s is an exceptional story, to be sure, as is the story of Peepo Choo itself—a US-Japan culture clash comedy that both mocks and celebrates fans of comics and manga, illustrated in riveting and sometimes surrealistically violent detail. His achievement would seem many a foreign manga fan’s dream.  But the artist remains frustrated by the us-vs-them mentality pervading the manga industry in Japan and overseas.

“We have to get beyond these silly classifications of manga vs. comics and whatever,” he says. Smith even objects to English speakers using the term ‘manga.’

“There’s a word for them in English—‘comics.’ Just call them comics.”

TokyoPop’s Levy emphatically agrees, disparaging the ‘OEL’ (original English language) label applied to manga/comics first written in English.

“Manga is created by many storytellers in many languages – why pigeon-hole it as ‘English language’ in origin,” he says.  “Does that mean there’s OGL manga for German creators, OSL manga for Swedish, OIL manga for Italian?

“It’s a silly distinction but indicative of the challenges of manga not created entirely by Japanese people in the Japanese language – there has been a prejudice against this type of manga storytelling from the beginning.  Fans question the ability of non-Japanese creators to tell ‘legitimate’ manga stories.  But where does one draw that line?  Is it geographical?  Based on DNA?”

Levy cites a personal favorite of his, the manga Zombie Hunter, authored by a Japanese, Kazumasa Hirai, and illustrated by a Korean, Kyung-Il Yang. “Does that qualify as manga?” he asks.  “These distinctions are like splitting hairs.  In Japan, ‘manga’ as a word is simply the term for ‘comics,’ but overseas manga has come to mean a particular style within the overall world of Japanese-originated sequential art.  This narrow definition of the term tends to rely on the more commonly-used character design and stylistic approach found in many Japanese manga—but by no means found in all manga.  So, there has been unfortunately more of a closed-minded view of manga in the West.”

Unlike the salarymen in his adopted homeland, Smith is determined to both transcend Japan’s Galapagos mentality and penetrate Western prejudices.  He wants his work to be read and appreciated worldwide “But the hardest thing is trying to make it a global thing, not just for the reader here, but everywhere.  It’s definitely possible, and I think it’s necessary.  It’s just really hard.”

At least he, Shiina and Levy were willing to leave home to make the effort.

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3 Responses to “Manga vs Comics: Does it matter? Felipe Smith in Japan”

  1. […] at The Comics Journal, Roland Kelts finds a new way to look at an old, old topic, “Manga versus Comics.” Kelts talks to Felipe (Peepo Choo) Smith, agent Yukari Shiina, and Tokyopop’s Stu Levy. (That […]

  2. […] The Comics Journal, Roland Kelts talks to Peepo Choo creator Felipe Smith about manga and […]

  3. […] to the voice of reason! Comics, manga, OEL, Japanese, not-Japanese, manhwa, manhua, DC/Marvel, […]