.Art Lover's Manga article published in Animerica Extra Vol. 5, No. 2, January 2002
This article was written by and is copyrighted to Patricia Duffield and may not be reproduced in part or whole without permission."Art enables us to find ourselves and lose ourselves at the same time." -Thomas Merton, No Man Is an Island
When Bill (the editor of Animerica Extra) came up with the idea to write about artistically exceptional manga, I was at once intrigued and intimidated. How do you select a handful of titles out of the countless wonderful manga out there? Choosing based on art alone would be impossibly subjective. Art is in the eye of the beholder, and there are far too many manga artists who draw beautifully. Choosing based on the story and characters would be equally futile. Comics are a combination of story and art; they have their own unique structures which make them tick. Skilled layouts control the pacing and flow of information in a story, making storytelling more effective. Here a number of artists begin to rise above the seas of manga talent. But masterful visual storytelling alone does not make a manga exceptional. It is a synthesis of these qualities --well-crafted art, engaging story and characters, skillful layout and composition-- which makes a manga exceptional. Using these criteria, I chose one manga per decade --'60s, 70s, 80s, and 90s-- as artistic gems out of the hundreds of manga I've had the pleasure of experiencing.
It would have been exceedingly easy for this article to contain only stories by Osamu Tezuka. Tezuka's innovations in graphic storytelling have made his work the cornerstone of modern Japanese manga, and he has over 150 titles to choose from, covering all age groups and genres. But I limited myself to one, the series considered his life's work, Hi no Tori (Phoenix). This timeless series is a collection of stories revolving around the Phoenix, the mystical bird who is always reborn through fire and whose blood can grant immortality. Sometimes the Phoenix is a character in the stories; sometimes she is little more than a plot device. But by using this thread to string the stories together, Phoenix can and does explore any time or topic of Tezuka's choosing. Social issues, scientific theories, aspects of religion --all are examined in Phoenix. From reincarnation to DNA, Tezuka's masterful graphic storytelling makes even the most difficult of concepts accessible to any reader. He does all this and makes the stories profoundly engaging and meaningful at the same time. It's with good reason Tezuka is called the God of Manga.
Following a Tezuka title isn't easy, but Riyoko Ikeda's Beruseiyu no Bara (The Rose of Versailles, see Animerica Extra 4.1) is no featherweight. From street urchins to the Queen of France, Ikeda brought the years preceding the French Revolution to life by drawing on historic characters and grounding her fictional characters with historic details. But The Rose of Versailles does more than offer an objective, if dramatic, portrayal of this period, it also challenges societal norms. One of the lead characters is an aristocratic girl raised to be a soldier. Oscar's beauty, nobility, and courageous heart find her admirers among both men and women, allowing Ikeda to willfully embrace the sexual ambiguity introduced by one of the earliest shojo series, Tezuka's Ribon no Kishi (Ribbon Knight/Princess Knight). Oscar's struggle with the duality of her masculine and feminine sides is echoed in the conflict between her duty and sense of justice. In the end, Oscar rejects the limitations society has placed on her, both as a woman and as a noble, making herself an eternally magnificent role model. Ikeda also challenged artistic norms, liberating herself from the confines of panel-to-panel storytelling, which dominates shonen manga to this day, and creating any number of graphic storytelling structures which have since become standards of shojo manga. Ikeda did all this, yet she had to persuade her editors that her historic fiction could hold the interests of female readers. In the end, it had garnered the interest of female readers, male readers, academics, the media and the world. The Rose of Versailles is not only a remarkable comic, it is also responsible for legitimizing the medium of shojo manga.
Having been introduced to anime and manga in the 1980's, it's impossible not to respect the talents of Katsuhiro Otomo. Unlike his sprawling, cyberpunk epic Akira, Domu (Domu: A Child's Dream) is a tightly controlled modern thriller. Set in the Tsutsumi public housing complex, Domu begins as a murder mystery, with police investigating a long string of suspicious deaths. Through careful dialog and pacing, the suspense builds. Various unusual locals are introduced, but there seems to be more at work than the usual suspects would suggest. Otomo deviously deviates from the detective story he's convinced the audience to believe in by revealing the villain to be a senile old ESPer who takes the lead investigator off the case and onto the victims list. The housing complex becomes a psychic battlefield when a young girl named Etsuko moves in and challenges the old man. Rarely has the force of good had such a young face in such a gruesome story. It's ingenious to have conventionally weak people --a girl and an old man be the most powerful characters in the story. The reversal of the tradition of age representing order and youth representing chaos is also intriguing. To set the story in a monolithic housing complex both cleverly encapsulates the story and adds impact to it, for what could be more horrifying than the destruction of one of the era's aging, familiar symbols of progress. Domu is simply a masterfully conceived, expertly crafted thriller, and it's the only one of the four which is currently available in English.
Based largely on the undeniable aesthetic appeal of their lavishly illustrated stories, CLAMP's whirlwind success stemming from fannish origins has been unprecedented. Of all their entertaining, engaging series, I feel Tokyo Babylon (see Animerica Extra 3.11) is their most exceptional. This supernatural tale involves essentially only three characters: Subaru, a kind-hearted young Japanese exorcist; Hokuto, Subaru's exuberant, eccentric, devoted twin sister; and Seishiro (long o), their veterinarian friend with a questionable interest in Subaru. The limited cast allows for the intense scrutiny which makes this series so captivating. While the story is originally light and episodic, the series becomes darker as their true natures and the relationship between the three of them becomes slowly distorted and complex. One of the exceptional qualities of this series is CLAMP's cunning use of shadows, perspective and reflections. Initially, these elements seem no more than artistic whimsy, but they actually suggest there is more lurking beneath the surface of the story and characters than what is being shown. The multi-layered nature of Tokyo Babylon can be seen in the dialog as well, making this story an intricate puzzle box of dialog, plot, and emotion. That Tokyo itself is almost a character, exuding a personality and empathy through the stories, is also unique, especially considering CLAMP's non-Tokyo origins.
There have obviously been more than one exceptional title per decade over the past forty years, these were just ones I thought excelled. Despite a sincere wish to be completely objective, ultimately any list such as this is relative --relative to the number of manga I've read and my interpretation of the criteria. Which manga do I like best? I have many favorite artists and stories, each with creative qualities which make them uniquely enjoyable. To be honest, the manga I like best depends on which one I've read most recently.