Selling ice to Eskimos
I just finished teaching an intensive course on American comics culture geared at our humanities students at Kyoto Seika University. It's not the first time I'ｖe taught a course on the subject, but it's the first time I'ｖe taught it in this way: eight hours a day for three days straight. By the end of the last day, I could barely speak above a hoarse whisper. But this "immersion" seemed to draw students into this alien topic to a degree that I haven't seen in a regular semester-long course.
Trying to interest Japanese students in American comics is like trying to sell ice to Eskimos. Or to be more precise, it's like trying to get Americans to watch subtitled foreign films. This is because Japan is indeed the Hollywood of comics. Why should the Japanese bother looking to foreign comics when they have thousands of domestic titles to choose from? And the popular image of American comics - musclemen in tights duking it out in technicolor - doesn't inspire many Japanese to actually read them.
When they do have an opportunity to read a translated American comic, most of them give up in confusion after just a few pages. Their first reaction: "Why is there so much text!?" For the past 30 years, manga have become increasingly streamlined; they are designed to be drawn fast and read fast. But American comics are very different.
To help students understand these differences (and hopefully learn to actually enjoy them), I have to trace the history of the medium. Many are shocked to learn that comics (in the modern sense) were not invented in Japan by Osamu Tezuka, but rather were born in American newspapers more than 100 years ago.
What my students learned over those three intensive days is that American comics have a rich and complex history that is deeply intertwined with the social, political, and economic developments of the 20th century; that the development of manga both before and after World War II was more influenced by American comics than most Japanese realize; and, most importantly, that there are many American comics out there that Japanese might actually want to read!
Some of them are available in Japanese: Adrian Tomine's "Sleepwalk," Daniel Clowes' "Ghost World," Mike Mignola's "Hellboy," Alan Moore and Kevin O'Neill's "League of Extraordinary Gentlemen." But if you want to enjoy Craig Thompson's sweet reminiscences of youth in "Blankets," or Linda Medley's warm and beautiful "Castle Waiting," or Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell's chilling and thought-provoking "From Hell," you'll have to get out your dictionaries and sit down with the original English editions.
Shukan ST: March 4, 2005
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