Merits of Manga Art

I’ve never really thought of manga art as a specific subset of style, probably because it’s so varied in style itself. From girly romance manga to butt-kicking shonen to underground comics, in terms of scope and availability in Japan, the world of manga is less like its American counter-part and more like the variety of written novels we have around us. One of my (non-manga-reading) friends, however, recently told me about a conversation she had with another (manga-reading) friend. While one (who reads shojo manga like Ouran High Host Club) believes that manga can be truly beautiful, the other claimed she couldn’t imagine manga art that would take her breath away – although she’s seen American comics that can.

I mean, honestly, we have some true greats in the mainstream American medium, I’ll be the first to admit:

I can see how the mainstream manga selection may compare poorly (ok, I know the below is anime, but I couldn’t find a comparable color manga image):

Not to pick on the Host Club or anything…

Not to pick on the Host Club or anything….

But judging all manga by Kitchen Princess or Tokyo Mew Mew is like judging all American novels by Twilight or Hunger Games (yes, I said it: Hunger Games. I mean, premise=well and good. Writing=NOT Hemingway, clearly).

One of the problems with the current mode of mainstream manga art that my friend had is that they all look alike. I can’t really disagree on that.

And they’re all pretty simple:

Yes, for fairness’ sake, I’ll even list my beloved Ranma 1/2

Notice the lack of shading, lighting, texture, etc. Now, that’s not to say that the selections I’ve highlighted never feature detailed illustrations – but why spend time detailing pictures when that’s just not what the kids are into these days? All they really want are drawings that illustrate their fantasies, be it saving the world while scoring that girl of your dreams, becoming an actress while scoring that boy of your dreams, or being a master martial artist while being the boy AND girl of everyone’s dreams.

For example:

I really like how this scene from Crimson Hero illustrates the character’s clothing. The trees and buildings are detailed and look good (and are actually depicted in the background). Prince of Tennis, similarly, has some shading and really excellent detail for such simple work. But, though well drawn, the hands, faces, and even the hair in Crimson Hero lack interesting shading and texture.

So I do see my friend’s point that it seems as though all manga art is simplistic, quickly drawn, and churned out quicker than a McDonald’s hamburger for the pleasure of the masses. It doesn’t help that really, a person doesn’t even need to draw all that well to become a published manga author. Passable is fine. Anatomical impossibilities are accepted – after all, they have DEADLINES to meet! They can’t be bothered to draw joints in place!

I love you, Sailor Moon, and you’re basically what taught me to draw. But come on! With a head that big and that downwardly-tilted, she would not be standing!

But that’s overlooking a vast array of manga that either A) We don’t receive here in America, B) We receive but that haven’t entered the mainstream, or C) Have read and you’re predicting, right now, some of the works I will point out.





Homunculus (which is a totally freaky manga, by the way):

Battle Angel Alita:

Really, anything by Ryoichi Ikegami:


But I admit, I read (or have read) regularly approximately none of the ones that I know have fantastic art as listed above. One reason I find is that the art often overshadows the story. Perhaps more so for me and others who, like me, draw and therefore like to examine art – but the detail is overwhelming. I come to view the manga more as art books past a certain point.

With manga depicting simple figures in basic backgrounds, or even artists whose styles I really enjoy (such as CLAMP or Yuu Watase) despite them not being the most detailed/realistic, I feel overall more immersed in the world. I begin to skim the images and focus on the basics: the dialog, emotions (helpful due to the exaggerated expressions) and story – the goal of most youth-aimed manga. This is the same benefit Barefoot Gen reaped with its clear, direct images.

While the American Maus dealt with similar issues, and has been noted for its “simple style,” I feel that overall it’s more cluttered and therefore less easy to digest.

Simple art, in this case, thus serves a two-fold purpose: it is quicker to produce – a great benefit for serials – and it is easier to identify with – a great benefit for stories appealing to youthful fantasies or capturing imagination to immerse people in a really personal tale. Less detailed images seem to allow our imaginations to fill in more gaps, thus enabling us to interact more personally with those stories than others. It’s similar to how Young Adult novels use a sparse narrative voice and have blank-slate protagonists. It’s really a more developed reader that appreciates a strong narrator such as Nick Caraway – and a great story helps, too. Manga with more striking art, therefore, needs a more striking story… or it would be just too easy to get caught up in the aesthetics of the piece and not really think about what is said.

In my own works, I try to have a balance. Part of that is because I’m simply not an Ikegami – I don’t have the skill, or patience, to be too detailed.


On the other hand, I hope that it will not be too simplistic.

What do you think? Do you prefer manga for the art? Do you like a balance? Who are some of your favorite manga-ka?


2 thoughts on “Merits of Manga Art

  1. I like manga art, which is probably why I initially got into anime. I think your friend is being harsh. The examples you have shown prove than manga artwork can be top notch. On the flip side there are plenty of American comics with gorgeous art, but there are also many that look ugly to me. As a reader I prefer simpler drawings if it means a title comes out on time as opposed to stunning titles that regularly get delayed.

    • Yeah, my friend was really only exposed to a select few. When she saw others, she recognized the technical skill involved. I definitely agree, though. Even the manga I listed as simple have great examples of really lovely art in them.

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