Manga - it's all the rage. It's dominating the comic sections of bookshops, or rather the graphic novel sections. Actually, they're now called the manga sections. While the West's love affair with all things Japanese is not in doubt, neither is the fact that there is a small but vocal group of comic creators and readers who hate manga (most notably from parts of the webcomic community).
I am not one of those people. I don't read a lot of manga - I am rather bewildered by it all and wouldn't know where to start, though the seven volumes of Nausicaa and a few volumes of Astro Boy do sit as favourite reads on my bookshelf, and I'm sure I'll be reading more in the future. Added to that, my affinity for things-Japan goes back to the mid-eighties when I started studying karate and harboured an ambition to eventually study under a high-ranking Japanese instructor (which I eventually did). Before I knew manga even existed I would spend ages studying and drawing from old Japanese prints of samurai - an important contribution to my love of the clear-line style. Another reason I'm in favour of manga is the amazing injection of enthusiasm it has given to the world of comics. It has helped revive the industry, and now not only do we have hundreds of thousands of new young readers of comics, but aspiring creators too, not to mention the range of publishers wanting to get in on the action. It's healthy and it's positive.
There's a lot of argument and confusion over what manga is. I'm sure if Corto Maltese or Freddy Lombard stories appeared in Japanese in a Tokyo bookshop, they'd be called manga, that is, comics. But when we say manga in Europe or the US a certain image comes to mind - big eyes, pointy chins and all the rest of it. In other words - a certain style of drawing. I'm a good enough artist, that if I chose to, I could draw in a manga style - quite possibly fairly well (though mastering it would be another matter entirely). If I did, I'd boost my readership, and could even possibly have a quicker chance at publication with a book publisher right now. In fact, in the early 1990s, comic artist Alan Davis actually told me I should look at some of the popular Image artists at the time and take elements of their style to help me get a job in comics (I didn't take his advice).
It's interesting that those who dislike manga, tend to focus on the fact that a lot of it is drawn by non-Japanese who 'imitate' the 'manga style'. One reason I have an interest in this view, is because the main criticisms I have received over Rainbow Orchid have been to do with my echoing of Herge's style. Having said that, that is also one of the major reasons many people like The Rainbow Orchid. Sometimes I'll get a compliment about Orchid which will run something like "I hope you don't mind me saying this, but it reminds me of Tintin", as if I was hoping no one would notice.
In 1997, when Rainbow Orchid had its first false start, I made a conscious decision to take on elements of the European clear-line style, as I wanted to invoke the atmosphere that I myself got from Tintin, Blake and Mortimer and Yves Chaland, so I don't mind people saying it reminds them of Tintin - that's the point. It reminds me of Tintin too. I don't mind this coming as a criticism, or as a compliment. I'm confident there's enough of 'me' in there, especially the writing, that I can take it all with a nice cup of tea. (Though I have to admit that I was very pleased when one of the first people I showed Orchid to, a well-respected professional designer, said 'it's lovely, it looks like Winsor McCay!').
So are young American, British and French manga webcomickers wrong to take on elements of the manga style in their drawing? I don't think so at all - the style is part of the message. People know what manga is, it invokes a certain atmosphere, it's the style of the age, just like in music we had prog rock in the early seventies and punk in the late seventies. And are gaijin manga-ka the only ones invoking a style? There are many people using what might be termed an 'animation style' in their work - especially looking to the classic American cartoons, whether that be Disney or Warner Brothers or Ren and Stimpy! This tends to be more in the area of illustration than comics, but it's still there. Generally speaking, American superhero comics have a certain house-style too. It changes with the years, but you can look at many US comics and say "that's a US comic". I'll also mention the area of childrens' book illustration, awash with watercolours and the spirit of Quentin Blake. And let's not get into the reasons for Japanese manga having a certain look (generally) in the first place!
You can't easily escape the overcoat of style. Artists are inspired by art. When your flame's burning low, it's other people's art that can re-ignite it and fan the flames. Comic art is especially prone to stylistic inheritance - partly for reasons of nostalgia, partly for reasons of inspiration, and partly for reasons of conveying a particular tone for the story. All artists are influenced. Most quickly outgrow imitation, as the mix of influences widen and a voice is found and developed. But certain works will push our buttons and we'll go and hope to find something similar. In the end, it's all about telling a good story with pictures.