The strengths and weaknesses of Paul Gravett’s latest book are neatly encapsulated in its title. Though the book purports to be a “definitive guide to Asian comics,” Gravett’s true aim is to trace the influence of the Japanese manga industry on comic book traditions across the Asian continent, from China and South Korea to Bhutan, India, Indonesia, Malayasia, Mongolia, and Vietnam.
Gravett’s thesis rests on two core assumptions. First, he argues that manga is Asia’s dominant comic book tradition, as evidenced by its “cultural influence and its extraordinary sales figures” (24); even Japan’s dojinshi (amateur) scene, he observes, “has more participants and publications than entire national markets” (31). Second, Gravett argues that colonialism played an essential role in extending manga’s reach beyond Japanese borders. The first wave of colonization was physical: as Japan invaded and occupied neighboring countries, manga proved “an ideal medium for spreading propaganda about the benefits of Japan’s leadership” and painting the Japanese as liberators, freeing Asia from Europe’s tyrannical grasp. The second wave of colonization was virtual: in the years following World War II, a demilitarized Japan reinvented itself as an industrial powerhouse, exporting consumer goods and pop-cultural products — manga, anime, and video games — in what Gravett characterizes as a “soft cultural invasion” of Asia and the West (14-15).
Gravett eschews a strictly chronological or geographical approach to the material, instead grouping his examples under six suggestive headings: “Mapping Mangasia,” “Fable and Folklore,” “Recreating and Revising the Past,” “Stories and Storytellers,” “Censorship and Sensibility,” and “Multimedia Mangasia.” This thematic approach gives him the freedom to explore parallels between manga and other Asian comic traditions in a creative — if non-linear — fashion. In his introductory chapter, for example, he traces the influence of Western comic strips across East Asia, showing how syndicated cartoons such as George McManus’ Bringing Up Father (1913-2000) and Oscar Jacobsson’s Adamsson (1920-1953) helped popularize the comic strip format with artists in Japan, Korea, China, and the Philippines, inspiring them to develop their own characters who were wrestling with “the allure of affluence, the desire for upward social mobility, and the nostalgia… for simpler past pleasures,” just as McManus’ Jiggs and Maggie did (28).
Two later chapters — “Recreating and Revising the Past” and “Censorship and Sensibility” — offer Gravett an opportunity to examine the complex dynamic between nationalism, censorship, and comics. Using the Phillippines as an example, Gravett explores the changing way in which komiks artists depicted Japanese colonialism. His analysis focuses on three series: The Kalibapi Family, a wartime comic strip created at the behest of the Japanese Propaganda Corps; Kalawang sa Bakal (Corrosion of Steel), one of the first postwar comics to grapple with the horrors of Japan’s invasion of the Philippines; and Suicide Susy, a long-running series that pitted a spunky Filipina saboteur against Japanese soldiers. Over the course of forty years, Gravett observes, Japanese characters evolved from benign overlords to symbols of foreign oppression, reminders of Filipino collaboration, and — in the Marcos era — bumbling villains whose foolish antics distracted from the Marcos’ ruthless treatment of their own people.
“Censorship and Sensibility” also delves into gender politics, both in Japan and other countries. As one might expect, Gravett addresses genres such as yaoi, recognizing them as both a form of pornography and resistance. “Manga about male-male romance,” he argues, “offer women an expressive playground in which to question and customize the alternatives to the oppressive heteronormativity of the powerful male and the weak female” (217). Gravett examines the legal complexities of obscenity laws as well, using Rokudenashiko’s protracted battle with the Japanese government to expose the inherent misogyny in many such regulations. He notes that she was convicted of distributing digital pictures of her vagina, but not for hanging manko (pussy) art in a gallery that only admitted women. “In the Japanese court’s eyes,” Gravett drily notes, “only men can be aroused by a vagina” (218-19).
For sheer visual beauty, Mangasia‘s stand-out chapter of is “Fables and Folklore,” which focuses on comic-book adaptations of such important national texts as the Romance of the Three Kingdoms (China) and the Ramayana (India). The imagery runs the gamut from the merely functional to the photorealistic, with some genuinely striking selections. Zhang Guangyu’s wordless treatment of Journey to the West (1945), for example, is a unique synthesis of Chinese, Persian and Mexican influences, yielding a series of images that are at once playful and somber, rendered in a muted palette similar to Diego Rivera’s most famous murals, while Anant Pai and Ram Waeerkar’s Hanuman (1971) strikes an elegant balance between classical Hindu depictions of the popular deity and contemporary portrayals of superheroes and martial artists.
As one might expect from such a wide-ranging book, Mangasia‘s chief fault is its ambition: Gravett discusses examples from nineteen countries over a 100-year period, a tall order for a single volume. Important texts and artists get a few sentences each, making it difficult to fully appreciate their impact on the comics medium in their own countries or elsewhere. Likewise, historical contexts are rendered in broad strokes, through timelines and generalizations. In “Stories and Storytellers,” for example, Gravett asserts that “In the aftermath of World War II, the next generation in Japan strived to make their lives better,” a sentence that only hints at the incredible devastation caused by American bombing, or the economic hardships faced by ordinary Japanese citizens in the 1950s (164).
The title itself points to another drawback of Gravett’s approach: some of the examples in Mangasia bear only a tenuous visual connection to manga. In the absence of a clear, specific discussion of how manga influenced comics outside the immediate sphere of Japanese colonization, the reader is left to wonder whether a comic book retelling of the Mahabharata owes a debt to Shotaro Ishimonori, or if the story borrows more heavily from Indian sources. Some attempt to demonstrate the size of the international manga market, identify the countries where manga is most popular with readers, discuss the global piracy of manga, or examine manga fandoms across the Asian continent would have provided useful context for understanding how manga has insinuated itself into such a diverse array of comic traditions.
Whatever the limitations of a pan-Asian survey, Gravett recognizes the enormous cultural, religious, and historical differences that separate Muslim Indonesia from Hindu India, Buddhist Tibet, and the Catholic Philippines. If these differences are sometimes glossed over in service to his thesis, Gravett nonetheless does an admirable job of balancing discussion of Asian comics as a singular phenomenon and Asian comics as a set of discrete but overlapping traditions. The book’s design complements Gravett’s curatorial approach with evocative juxtapositions that reveal how certain themes and storytelling techniques manifest themselves across cultural lines.
The real star of the show, however, is the 1,000 images that grace Mangasia‘s pages, allowing readers to see the transformation of a rough pencil sketch into a finished page, savor the richly saturated color palette and dynamic flow of a martial-arts adventure, and note the growing influence of digital technology on comic art. Whether you’re a manga reader or a comics scholar, the best way to tackle Mangasia is to follow Park Chan-wook’s advice, which appears at the very beginning of the text. “There’s the joy of simply taking in the art,” he observes (13), an apt assessment of this fascinating, flawed book’s appeal. Recommended.
Thames & Hudson provided a review copy.
Gravett, Paul. Mangasia: The Definitive Guide to Asian Comics, foreword by Park Chan-wook, Thames & Hudson, 2017.