A Brief History of Manga is an odd duck: it’s too short and impressionistic to be a reference work, but too focused on historically significant titles to appeal to a casual Attack on Titan fan. That’s a pity, because Helen McCarthy’s generously illustrated book provides an accessible introduction to manga, from its prehistory to the present.
A Brief History of Manga begins with Toba Sojo’s famous Choju-jinbutsue-giga, a twelfth century scroll depicting frogs, rabbits, and monkeys engaged in human activities, then jumps ahead to the nineteenth century, when European ex-pats helped popularize new cartooning styles via influential publications such as The Japan Punch (1862). The rest of the book explores the emergence of longer-form storytelling, from the newspaper-style comics of Rakuten Kitazawa (1876-1955) to the cyberpunk manga of Masamune Shirow (b. 1961). Sprinkled throughout the book are callouts highlighting specific artists’ contributions to the medium, as well as summaries of famous series, thumbnail histories of important magazines, and milestones in the globalization of manga.
For a reader familiar with Frederick Schodt’s venerable Manga! Manga! The World of Japanese Comics (1983), many of McCarthy’s insights are old news. Schodt covered the early history of Japanese print culture in considerably more detail, painstakingly connecting the dots between Sojo’s frolicking animals, the birth of the Japanese publishing industry, and the emergence of the post-war manga market, bringing his narrative up to the 1980s. The final section of McCarthy’s book is a useful coda to Manga! Manga!, however, offering insights into more recent trends and titles, some well known–Boys Over Flowers, Death Note, Hetalia: Axis Powers–others less so–51 Ways to Save Her, Field of Cole, XX.
A Brief History of Manga has a more fundamental problem, however: its layout. Although the book’s designer has taken great pains to group images thematically, and link each entry with a timeline, the visual presentation is sometimes misleading. The 1931 entry, for example, pairs images of “manga pup” Norakuro with robot cat Doraemon without acknowledging the forty-year gap that separates the two characters. (Norakuro’s first story appeared in Shonen Club in 1931, while Doraemon debuted in 1969.) A caption informs the reader that Doraemon creator Hiroshi Fujimoto was born in 1933, but the main text never explicitly establishes the influence of Suiho Tagawa’s series on Fujimoto’s; even a simple, declarative sentence stating that Fujimoto had grown up reading Norakuro would have made this entry more valuable by demonstrating the role of pre-war children’s magazines in popularizing certain character types and storylines.
The first mention of gekiga–“1959: Manga’s Punk Movement Takes Root”–is similarly confusing. Although the text introduces gekiga pioneers Takao Saito (b. 1936) and Yoshihiro Tatsumi (1935-2015), the featured images are drawn from Fukushima Masami (b. 1948) and Kai Takizawa’s ultra-violent Prince Shotoku, a fascinating oddity from the late 1970s. While these images are among the most striking in the entire volume, they are not representative of early gekiga; it’s as if someone saw the word “punk” in the manuscript and set out to find the most visually outlandish artwork to emphasize McCarthy’s word choice. Complicating matters further is that the text never mentions Fukushima or Takizawa, or explains how their work built on the legacy of Saito and Tatsumi–no small oversight, given the pronounced differences between Prince Shotuko and Baron Air (1955) and Black Blizzard (1956), Saito and Tatsumi’s debut works.
I’m less bothered by McCarthy’s omissions than earlier reviewers were*; though it’s easy to cavil about missing works, McCarthy has chosen a representative sample of titles and authors across a wide spectrum of genres, demographics, and time periods. A manga newbie would find enough here to pique her interest, and perhaps steer her towards more comprehensive treatments of manga’s history. Knowledgable readers may find the quasi-encyclopedic format and emphasis on familiar material more frustrating, though they may be pleasantly surprised to discover new names and series through a careful scrutiny of the timeline. I did.
The verdict: A Brief History of Manga would make a swell gift for a new reader looking for information about the P.N.E. (that’s the Pre-Naruto Era).
* It’s worth noting that I heartily agree with Prof. Kathryn Hemmann’s concerns about the dearth of female creators in A Brief History of Manga. As Hemmann persuasively argues, this omission effectively silences some of the medium’s most influential and interesting voices. Click here to read Hemmann’s thoughts on the subject.
A Brief History of Manga
By Helen McCarthy
Ilex Press, $12.95
This review originally appeared at MangaBlog on August 14, 2015.