Making a Living in Manga: Part 2

"Real" or "Fake" Manga: The OEL Dilemma

Daemonium Volume 1
Daemonium Volume 1. © Kosen / TOKYOPOP

In Making a Living in Manga Part 1, I spelled out nine reasons why the manga-making economy in North America is broken. One aspect of the currently dysfunctional system is that there are lots of up-and-coming Western creators who want to draw comics inspired by manga, but they're finding it difficult to get their original works picked up by publishers and getting their stories read and accepted by manga readers.

Now that manga has been available in English for over 30 years, it has not only created several generations of readers who love reading manga, it has also created several generations of comics creators who write and draw stories that are strongly influenced by Japanese comics that they read and enjoyed as fans. But has the 'manga' label helped or hurt these homegrown comics creators?

TokyoPop wasn't the first publisher to put out comics with manga influences by Western creators (see Wendy Pini's Elfquest, Ben Dunn's Ninja High School, Adam Warren's Dirty Pair to name just a few), but they were the first to publish so many original works by this a new generation of manga-influenced creators, and sell them alongside their translated Japanese manga and Korean manhwa titles.

Sometimes referred to as 'Amerimanga' and 'global manga,' this hybrid breed of manga-inspired comics also came to be known as 'original English language manga' or 'OEL manga' for short.

But this label has proved to be problematic for numerous reasons, but especially because it has contributed to a climate where many manga readers snubbed what they considered to be 'fake' manga. This, and a market that was flooded with titles with uneven quality were just a few of the factors that lead to many TokyoPop original manga series being cancelled in mid-run due to low sales.

Are manga-inspired comics made by Western creators 'fake' manga trying to mimic Japanese stories? Are they doomed to be snubbed by American readers and publishers? Or are fans' attitudes toward homegrown, creator-driven comics evolving as we speak? Here's what you had to say on Twitter.

THE OEL DILEMMA: READERS SPURN 'FAKE' MANGA

"OEL had the stigma of being 'fake manga' so a lot of both American comic fans and manga fans wouldn't go near them. They should have just called them 'comic books' or 'graphic novels.'
- James L (@Battlehork)

"I am interested in what you say re: room for manga-influenced comics in USA (UK for me though)... but isn't there a worry that readers will just think 'un-original manga-influenced', and see them more as parody?"
- David Lawrence (@DCLawrenceUK), UK-based illustrator

"Manga was this whole other thing that got grouped in with Anime and video games. OEL Manga seemed 'contaminated,' I think."
- Ben Towle (@ben_towle), Eisner Awards-nominated comics creator / webcomics creator of Oyster War

"I wonder if the term OEL was never used in manga publishing, would more people give N. American manga/comics a try?"
- Jeff Steward (@CrazedOtakuStew), Anime/manga blogger at OtakuStew.net

"The curse of being a manga-inspired creator is that you are an outsider in EVERY sequential art-related industry."
- Fred Gallagher (@fredrin), Webcomics / comics creator, Megatokyo (Dark Horse)

"Most comments about OEL, on either side, seem to involve unfair generalizations about Japan/America/teens/amateur comic artists."
- Jennifer Fu (@jennifuu), Comics creator (Rising Stars of Manga) and illustrator

"One of Tokyopop's greatest sins is creating an asshole generation of readers obsessed with 'authenticity,' hatefully pointing out 'fake' manga. There is an audience for work influenced by manga and Japan. It was at TCAF this weekend. We just gotta ignore the haters and press."

"I don't buy the 'fans are always haters' argument, fan behaviour has changed dramatically over the 20 years I've been watching. I credit a lot of cool current American yaoi/BL (boys' love manga) fans for looking past the "authenticity" issue and supporting work they like. I don't believe in the 'American creators influenced by manga are fake manga' discussion. It's dumb. Artifice had 1000 backers spend $36,000." (Note: Artifice is a boys' love webcomic by Alex Woolfson and Winona Nelson, which had a very successful Kickstarter campaign)

"There is an audience for this material. People making it need to support each other, work together to find fans and purchasers. And haters need to step all the way to the motherfucking left."
- Christopher Butcher (@Comics212), comics retailer at The Beguiling, comics blogger at Comics212.net, and director of Toronto Comic Arts Festival

"I think yaoi/boys' love has embraced 'local' creators a lot faster than other genres, and that's really only happened in recent years. I had a hell of a time getting people to read OEL yaoi when I first started blogging. Now it's the norm."
- Jennifer LeBlanc (@TheYaoiReview), Boys' love manga reviewer/blogger for The Yaoi Review and Editor for Sublime Manga

"Never try to win the 'you shouldn't call it manga' argument. Get over it. Those will never be their readers."
- Kôsen (@kosen_), Spanish comics creator team Aurora García Tejado and Diana Fernández Dévora, Dæmonium (TokyoPop) and Saihôshi (Yaoi Press)

"Interestingly, I recently spoke to a high school class who asked me how they could break in to the industry. I asked them how many manga they bought by American artists and they told me 'none.' But they didn't see the connection."
- Erica Friedman (@Yuricon), Manga publisher, ALC Publishing and manga/anime blogger at Okazu

"Looking back on Manga: The Complete Guide, I regret not including any OEL titles (or manhwa). They needed the support. But had I included OEL, I would have had to include EVERYTHING even vaguely manga-influenced, going all the way back to the '80s."

"On the other hand, I'm glad I never made any arbitrary decisions about which OEL artists were 'real' and thus worthy of inclusion. I would never have wanted to exclude Ben Dunn (Ninja High School), or Chynna Clugston-Major (Blue Monday), or Adam Warren (Empowered), or even Frank Miller (Daredevil, Sin City) & Colleen Doran (A Distant Soil) etc. Many of those artists couldn't have gotten published by Tokyopop because their work doesn't look 'manga' enough. Super lame."

"I've always seen manga and comics as one coin and it's sad that the 'color line' of Japanese/non-J is such a big deal for some fans. On the other hand, I don't think there is really so much a distaste for OEL among fans, as much that it's collapsed as a publishing phenomenon."
- Jason Thompson (@khyungbird), Author, Manga: The Complete Guide, comics creator (The King of RPGS and The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath and Other Stories), former Shonen Jump editor and Otaku USA Magazine manga reviewer

NEXT: Does OEL Manga Try Too Hard to Be Japanese?

One complaint that some fans have leveled at OEL manga is that it can be imitative rather than innovative; that the story and art settles for mimicking Japanese stories and settings, and does so poorly compared to its Japanese counterparts. Is this a fair assessment, or is it based on faulty, outdated assumptions? Here's what you had to say.

DOES OEL MANGA TRY TOO HARD TO BE JAPANESE?

"One of the potential issues with OEL manga is that the artists are trying too hard to work in Japanese settings/culture, when the only way they know that setting/culture is through what they have read and Japanese manga. It comes across as not genuine. They should stick with what they've experienced/know. The story and setting would be miles better than trying to fake it."
- Sean Mitchell (@TalesOfPants), Writer at GamerTheory.com

"I look at OEL, and the first thing I see is schoolgirl uniforms, my brain shuts off..."
- Lea Hernandez (@theDivaLea), Comics/webcomics creator and illustrator, Rumble Girls (NBM Publishing)

"If you're American, use it to your advantage. Only set the story in Japan if you're gonna follow all the rules and it's relevant."
- Shouri (@shourimajo), Argentina-based comics creator, Fragile

"Japanophilia comes in the way of 'making good comics.'"
- Evan Krell (@bakatanuki), Manga/anime blogger – AM11PM7

"I also think that some 'Amerimanga' creators try too much to emulate 'manga' style, instead of focusing on creating their own. It makes it seem like they are more creating comics as a fan than trying to be creators themselves, if that makes sense?"
- Jamie Lynn Lano (@jamieism), Expatriate American comics creator, now living in Japan, former assistant on the Tennis no Oujisama (Prince of Tennis) manga

"They use the same basic story that most (Japanese) manga follow, which drives me crazy. If I found (an OEL manga) that had a original idea, I would buy it."
- Jeff Steward (@CrazedOtakuStew), Anime/manga blogger at OtakuStew.net

"It seems North America comic artists want to be mangaka and write manga instead of making their own version of the genre of comics."
- Nyanman (@nm_review), Anime, manga, and visual novel reviewer for Blog of the Hawk

"I think sadly, many OEL creators see themselves as the 'only' non-Japanese person sophisticated enough to REALLY do manga."
- Jason Thompson (@khyungbird), Author, Manga: The Complete Guide, comics creator, manga editor and reviewer

"If a Japanese comic artist is influenced by American comics (many are), no one should think they're unoriginal/trying to be white."
- Jennifer Fu (@jennifuu), Comics creator (Rising Stars of Manga) and illustrator

"Wasn't (Osamu) Tezuka influenced by American films? He's the god of manga influenced by the USA, (so) can't it go both ways?"
- Brandon Williams (@Stupidartpunk), Webcomics creator, Dedford Tales​

"You're trying to argue an irrational argument rationally. Everyone's influenced by everyone, move on."
- Christopher Butcher (@Comics212), Comics retailer, The Beguiling; comics blogger at Comics212.net, and director of Toronto Comic Arts Festival

"(This) French dude with manga influence doesn't get the same heat tho, you are RIGHT. He's awesome."
- Brandon Williams (@Stupidartpunk), Webcomics creator, Dedford Tales

"I think N. American manga-ka need to not try too hard to imitate manga. Nothing wrong with a manga style of drawing, but use your own voice, not someone else's, to tell your story. That goes for anything creative."
- Heather Skweres ‏(@CandyAppleCat), Artist, toy collector, and photographer.

"I agree with peeps chiming in that what matters is your own creative voice and a lot of hard work to polish it and get it out there"
- Jocelyne Allen ‏(@brainvsbook), Manga translator, author, book reviewer

NEXT: "Hey, I Grew Up With Manga. This IS My Style."

It must sting for creators who grew up reading and being influenced by manga to have their work called 'fake' when it's the kind of comics they've read and enjoyed for almost their entire lives. When many mainstream comics, video games, animated TV shows and films show stylistic artistic and storytelling influences from Japanese comics too, are the distinctions between Japanese manga and American comics becoming harder to clearly define?

In Japan, manga just means 'comics.' So are North American comics readers/creators/publishers/pundits simply over-thinking the whole manga vs. comics divide, creating divisions where they're not necessary? Are we headed toward a future where there East/West/cross-culturally-influenced comics will be the norm, or is this already happening? Here's what you had to say:

'HEY, I GREW UP WITH MANGA - THIS IS MY STYLE'

"I think we've come into a generation that has grown up imitating that style. I grew up reading manga, not comics."
- Danny Ferbert (@Ferberton), Comics creator

"I also grew up that way -- so my Undertown original graphic novel was labeled manga (although having TokyoPop publish (it) reinforced the manga-ness). MOST people think artists who draw in manga style are drawing that way on purpose. But I find it's mostly just how they draw -- and that's it! It's probably more fake to try to draw more like American comics if that's just not the way you draw, despite the label."
- Jake Myler (@lazesummerstone), Comic book artist, Undertown, Fraggle Rock & Finding Nemo

"If the creator is American and telling stories about American life, what makes it manga?"
- Johanna Draper Carlson (@ johannadc), Graphic novel, manga, and comic book reviewer and blogger at Comics Worth Reading

"Calling your (very much American) comic 'manga' is kind of asking for trouble."
- Kim Huerta (@spartytoon), Webcomics creator, The Odyssey of Llamacorn)

"Only from people who use manga/anime as lazy shorthand for 'comics from Japan.' That being said, it is indeed a better term than 'I make comics that are primarily influenced by comic creators in Japan who tend to share similar storytelling and visual tropes' -- the latter doesn't really roll off the tongue, you know?"
- Steve Walsh (@SteveComics), Webcomics creator, Zing! and Negative Zen

"Almost everyone starts with a hodgepodge of their influences and, over time, some move past that to their own work."
- Jim Zub (@JimZub), Comics creator/ writer/ artists Skullkickers (Image), Makeshift Miracle (UDON) and Sky Kid (Bandai-Namco)

"I draw in manga-style. It's not because I'm a Japanophile/ want to copy manga -- its an honest conglomeration of my influences. When i was 12, Sailor Moon & Ranma 1/2 was the most amazing thing I had seen. Comics.. about girls! About gender-bending! America has always been a nation of merging cultures and identities -- why should it be any different for comic books?"
- Deanna Echanique (@dechanique), Webcomics creator, La Macchina Bellica

'MANGA' JUST MEANS COMICS, GET OVER IT

If you've ever been inside a Japanese bookstore, you'd see that there's no one style of manga. There's manga for kids, there's manga for adults. There's manga that has the familiar ninjas, giant robots, and magical girls with sparkly eyes, but look around at the rest of the shelves, and you'll see comics that look very much like what we call 'indie comics' in the U.S. There are dark, violent, gritty manga that would look perfectly at home with Vertigo or Dark Horse titles.

There are mind-blowing, avant-garde manga that any indie publisher would be proud to publish, and sophisticated, stylish manga that look more like fashion illustrations. There are cute comics, erotic comics, weird comics, romantic comics, sophisticated comics, downright dumb comics -- just like there are in most better-stocked Western comics shops.

In Japan, manga is simply another word for comics -- not a single style or genre. Yes, there are distinct stylistic approaches to storytelling and artistic expression, and there are uniquely Japanese cultural/societal norms expressed in manga. But there is no single thing that makes one comic story more like "real" manga than another. So what does the 'manga' label mean, when it's applied to comics made in America? Is it useful or meaningless? Here's what you had to say.

"I think there's this misconception about what manga actually is in N. America. Much more range and depth than most here assume. In the end, all of those diverse styles in Japan get tagged 'manga' because they are all stories told with words and art."
- Jocelyn Allen (@brainvsbook), Manga translator, author, and book reviewer

"Lots of indie manga look like indie American comics. Even in mainstream, there's too much variety to call manga a genre."
- Jennifer Fu(@jennifuu), Comics creator, Rising Stars of Manga and illustrator

"Seems weird to talk manga vs U.S. comics since so much of what each is is because of separate geographic/cultural/industry constraints. Manga isn't some stylistic choice so much as specific product of Japanese culture, Japanese mind, Japanese print industry, etc.; same with U.S. superhero stuff (or underground stuff)."
- Gabby Schulz(@mrfaulty), Comics creator, Monsters and webcomics creator, Gabby's Playhouse

"Don't understand value in differentiating between OEL and 'comics.' Manga = BD (bandes dessinées) = comics = manwha. Not genres, different words for same thing."
- erikmissio (@erikmissio)

"Oh yes, I wish we all leave the comic vs. manga nonsense in the past."
- Raul Everardo (@losotroscomics)

"I think they need to just break out of that mindset. Comics are comics. Make comics in whatever style you want. Do it anywhere."
- Joseph Luster (@Moldilox), Editor for Otaku USA Magazine, and Crunchyroll News.

Now that you've heard what others have had to say, it's your turn! You can add your comments about this article on the blog post introducing this article in this series. You can also tweet your comments to me at @debaoki or @aboutmanga.

Coming up: Making a Living in Manga Part 3 - The Skills to Pay the Bills: The Manga Training Gap