The critically acclaimed book, Mangasia, has begun its five-year world tour. So we sat down with its creator, Paul Gravett. Having started its journey at the Palazzo delle Esposizioni in Rome, Italy, in October last year, the tour now resides at Le Lieu Unique in Nantes, France. Barbican Centre have organised the tour and exhibition. While dates haven’t been confirmed, it will be stopping in the UK during its journey. Expanding the idea of manga and the comic art form as a whole, it covers and connects Asia’s unique creativity. In our chat with the leading mind behind the vast project, we find out about more than just sensory innovations in the comic world, the rise of webtoons and Paul’s favourite series at the moment.
Congratulations on the release of Mangasia – The Definitive Guide to Asian Comics. Could you give us a brief synopsis of your book?
Mangasia is obviously a word you haven’t come across before. It’s the words ‘manga’ and ‘Asia’ combined, implying that the book is 50% manga and 50% Asia. The idea is to show how Japanese manga has affected many regions within Asia and also to broaden the Western sense of it. It also highlights the fact that there are distinct and special kinds of comic cultures in other places like China, India, Philippines or Mongolia, where even though they may have been influenced by manga, they have their own deeper, sometimes earlier forms of comics that come through. Even though manga is the Godzilla in the room, these cultures have new styles that are innovative and exciting. The main problem for these other cultures is that none of them have been able to sustain their golden ages of incredible creativity and success. There hasn’t been a golden age for manga. Whereas Filipino comics had theirs in the 1950s/60s and to some degree the 70s.
I don’t see it as being definitive. It’s very hard to be with such a huge subject. The book is at least a helpful introductory, orientating (not to be making puns about it) book to help you navigate your way around what’s happened in comics in that region. Above all, the goal is to get people who say, “oh, I know manga, maybe I don’t like manga,” to explore a bit more, because there’s a lot more to Asia than manga.
What brought you into the world of comics and manga? Was there a specific piece of work you fell in love with?
Well the thing for me, of course, is that I’m interested in comics that come from everywhere. I mean, if they come from the moon, or dimension X, or wherever, I want to see comics that I haven’t seen before. I have this slightly mad thing where I want to see every comic that’s ever been made, ones that you can’t imagine have been made. So, my interest in world comics I guess took off during the 70s, after I got beyond reading Marvel and DC. I was lucky to be growing up reading French. I studied French and German in school, so whenever I went on holiday I would discover new comics.
It’s been a continual process of building a network of friends, collectors and artists I’ve known internationally, to the point where I can do a show like this. My name is on the cover, but the show and the book rely on a team of about 20 experts from most of the major Asian countries who have given me a lot of advice and suggestions. Obviously, I’m still filtering – the little dictator that can say thumbs up, or thumbs down. I need, we need, to discuss things. These are amazing people, the experts in their fields, who can bring a lot of information. I want to maintain my enthusiasm for comics. It could be difficult if I was just a marvellite, or if I only read DC. I feel those are a little bit limiting and repressive. I will never get bored of comics because it’s an extraordinary field, an extraordinary area of creativity; the wider the better.
How did you earn the nickname, ‘Man at the Crossroads’?
It was because, I guess, I was trying to connect people and take comics outside of their rather enclosed, specialist, inward looking culture. I’m a geek – like many people are – but at the same time I wanted to find a way of connecting to other kinds of comics and to see comics connect to other art forms. They can speak and interact with every art form you can imagine, because they can deal with any subject matter. They can be turned into plays, music or performances, for example. You can even get comics for the visually impaired.
Recently, a thing called Shapereader has come out of Finland and Greece by a guy called Ilan Manouach. With a whole new system of symbols that blind or visually impaired people can learn and read, he’s created incredible, tactile comics. A whole graphic novel’s been done in this format. So, its a very innovative medium. more now than ever, especially internationally. My role is to be a person that can connect and give people their epiphanies, their wake-up moments, when they go “Oh my gosh! I didn’t realise comics were like this!”
With graphic novels becoming more mainstream as a genre in the UK, do you think that this has aided the popularity of manga? Or do you think the popularity of Western comics is separate to manga’s popularity?
I guess there’s some overlap, but I imagine some people would say, “I don’t read manga, I only read graphic novels,” and then go ahead and read something that actually is a manga without realising it. And obviously the graphic novel format – often black and white, around 200 pages, paperback – is a lot like manga. It’s a shame that we demarket manga as somehow separate from graphic novels, because they are clearly all comics, just in different terms of the same thing. I think many people have difficulty getting into manga. Its success has obviously been helped a huge amount by anime. For many people, that’s their entry point. For some it may be their only access point.
That can be a problem in a sense, because anime, while it’s diverse and great, doesn’t always cover as broad a spectrum of content and graphic styles as manga. Manga has a much bigger spectrum. Of course, many anime are original and not based on manga. But I think if your own terms of reference are “I’ve seen the anime, I didn’t realise that Naruto or One Piece was also a manga,” and then you get into the source material, then you’re missing out on things that haven’t been adapted and that don’t have an anime version. In a way, Italy and France are the right countries for our Mangasia Exhibition to open in Europe. It would’ve been nice to have it here in London, but Britain is a bit sleepy when it comes to manga and anime. We’ve got it, but we haven’t had the big presence on TV.
Why is that?
I guess because we haven’t got enough channels. Maybe the deals weren’t worked out at the right time. There were always bits of it, but never in a very substantial way. Whereas there was a whole generation in France that grew up on Dragonball and other series on French TV in the 70s. And in Italy as well, during the 1970s and 80s, there was an explosion of TV channels. Lots of channels were like, “OK, what are we going to put on? what can we get that’s cheap? We’ll buy anime!” So, a lot of people have grown up with Fist of the North Star, or Doraemon, or other characters in a way that hasn’t happened here in Britain.
Do you have any favourite stories at the moment?
Ahaa! There’s a few I’m very keen on, in terms of manga anyway. One’s called Inuyashiki, which is written and illustrated by Hiroya Oku, who made Gantz as well. This new series has got me gripped. It shouldn’t really, because I know that if I watched a live action of it, I would probably go “Urgh, this is really just too much!” But as a comic, somehow you can accept the extremes, outrage and excesses of it. It’s told with such a heightened kinetic energy and emotion.
Here’s the basic premise: the main protagonist is a dad is in his late 50s who hasn’t had much of a life or career. He’s got a wife and kids who despise him. He’s just managed to get himself his first flat for the family, but it’s this tiny place and the son says, “we’re always gonna be a family of hobbits.” It’s brilliantly observed. This old guy gets prescribed with cancer; it’s not getting better for him. Then he gets blown up by aliens. And then (there’s no spoiler alerts here) the big twist is that he gets rebuilt as this extraordinary ceramic – he still looks human – ultra-powered, robotic kind of cyborg creature. He can suddenly make a difference to the world and he’s just an elderly guy, not your Peter Parker or Clark Kent; he’s not beefy. From thereon it just gets more and more amazing. It’s just tremendously good. It’s what manga does well. It pulls you in and you think, “Oh my god, I don’t know where this is going. It could go anywhere!”
I think I’m afraid with a lot of superheroes that they’re never gonna do that much, because they’re always gonna reset themselves, or Steve Rogers will be Captain America again, or whatever, and its kinda like, no big surprises ever really happen. Nobody stays dead for a start.
Another series I loved (it’s finished now) is Sunny by Taiyo Matsumoto, which is about a children’s foster home. Although it’s not autobiographical, the writer was in a foster home as a kid. Its just so beautifully observed, with the kids all longing to be back with their parents and not being able to get away. And, in terms of the more Shojo Manga genre, I love A Bride’s Story by Kaoru Mori. It’s a story set in the past, on the silk road. Its about a bride and her underage boy husband and it’s full of incredible evocation of the culture, history, and the times. Its just beautifully drawn and its amazing stuff.
What do you think the future holds for manga, in the UK and in general?
Well obviously, my perspective from Mangasia is manga and it’s an interesting state of interplay at the moment. One perspective of this whole thing is to see it as a war. It’s a war of culture, export, properties and so on. You know manga has essentially conquered Asia, and also united Asia in a sense. Manga can also be a threat when it arrives in a country because it can wipe out the local production, as it’s done in the Philippines and other places. But then the local production responds and makes their own versions of it, their own stories that are culture specific. They can benefit from that.
But the big question hanging over Asia is how it responds to digital changes. In many countries and places, it’s the biggest avenue for getting your work discovered. People don’t necessarily read print as much anymore. In Japan there’s still a big question mark, because they’ve had such a huge print culture. They’re still selling a million or two in some cases, but not maybe 5 or 6 million. Book sales are up in Japan, but magazine sales are a nose dive.
The most interesting model is South Korea, who have pretty much abandoned print. Print died much earlier in Korea, certainly for comics in the early 21st century. Around the same time, because Korea is so wired up, a whole new form of comics could begin, which was given a different name. That’s important, because previously ‘manhwa’ was a very negative term. It was seen as being for kids, as well as being violent and subversive. The new things are called ‘webtoons’, and they’re basically vertical scrolling comics you read on your smartphone. I’ve heard figures of somewhere like 10 or 12 million Koreans (maybe more now) are downloading new episodes of these serialised stories every day.
They’re gripping. They’re very edgy. They’re often topical and deal with difficult matters. Generally speaking, the rather bland state controls the mass media, which doesn’t talk about what the public want to read about and see: corruption, scandals, industrial giants and the kind of stuff they’re getting away with, stuff that doesn’t often get out. They’ve had a big issue of corruption for a long time. The comics have partly been a space for that to be voiced and I’m looking at this going, “this is a fantastic medium, if you can get the Wi-Fi to work.”
Its working financially for the artists too. They get money from every single click. Also, they’re being made into movies and tv shows, which are massively successful blockbusters. I think the biggest hit recently in Korea was called, Secretly, Greatly. It was about North Korea trying to plant cool South Korean kids, teenagers, who are cool spies.
This was a web comic – a very funny web comic – made into a massively successful movie. So, it’s a model that might happen elsewhere. The digital question is the big one – where will we go next?