Manga in Theory and Practice: the Craft of Creating Manga by Hirohiko Araki

Manga in Theory and Practice: the Craft of Creating Manga
by Hirohiko Araki

The creator of JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure has written a book which, he claims, reveals the secrets of creating manga. He calls these secrets “the golden way” and his book is a map pointing us along that way. Are you excited to peel back the curtain and see what it really takes to be a great mangaka? Me, too! Let’s take a look…

One hard-earned secret that Araki shares with us is that we should write good dialogue. And how should we go about learning how to do this? What are the guidelines? What are the things to watch out for? Araki says: “look at the dialogue on many manga’s front pages and think about why they make you want to read further” (25).  In other words, we figure it out for ourselves. Thank you, master!

Another step on “the golden way” is to make good characters. How does one do that? According to Araki, a budding mangaka must ask themselves “am I making good characters” (42)? So you make good characters by intending to make good characters. That’s a great trade secret that will surely make you a famous artist! He also tells us that when we have a hero and a villain that we should make them different. He says that he often bases his characters on “the duality of light and shadow” (56).  I don’t know about you, but I have never considered thinking about the fight of good versus evil as a metaphor of light versus dark. Such a useful secret!

And did you know that “characters and setting are indispensable” (43)? I’m sure a lot of you, like me, were intending to create an entire story with no characters and absolutely no setting. I’m glad Araki set us on the right path!

Then Araki tells us the secrets of storytelling. He boldly proclaims that “manga need stories” (84). Okay, but how do we make a story? Well, there are four parts: the introduction, the development, the twist, and the resolution. You know that story structure stuff you learned in your high school English class? Exposition, rising action, climax, and resolution? Remember? Basically, do that and you’re on the golden way. Thank you, sensei!

Et cetera, et cetera. You get the point.

Look, I don’t care what you think about JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure. A lot of people love that manga and it has been going for a long time. But this book is crap. Either it says nothing (to make good characters, make good characters!) or it tells you stuff you’ve heard a million times before. As a guide for creating comics this book is almost completely useless. It is just too vague and too lacking in depth. This book may be of interest to fans of Araki’s work because he talks a little bit about what he was thinking about when he was creating his various manga. But even that doesn’t tend to go much deeper than “I thought that this would be a cool idea.” And there really isn’t that much artwork in here, at least not enough to justify buying the book for that reason alone.

All that being said, I found a few things interesting. One, Araki has very diverse influences. At one point he talks about how much he loves a book-length interview between François Truffaut and Alfred Hitchcock (13-14). In another, he praises the dialogue of Ernest Hemingway (107). And later he tells us that he got the idea for the crazy character poses in JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure after seeing Bernini’s Apollo and Daphne in Rome (140). The point, which he does make, is that we should look for influences everywhere and that manga is an art form like any other. Like the rest of this book, these aren’t new insights, but I liked seeing them confirmed. The other thing I really liked was seeing two pages of Araki’s rough layouts (186-187). What struck me was how loose and unprecious they were. They were basically squiggly lines, dialogue, and sound effects divided up into barely delineated panels. Except for one panel, there wasn’t any figure drawing at all. Really, all he was doing with the roughs was working out how he was going to divide the story beats up across the two pages. It was about planning rhythm, not worrying about how things were going to look. To make an odd comparison, this is similar to Alison Bechdel’s approach to creating Fun Home. Seeing Araki’s roughs next to the carefully drawn finished pages (192-193) provides more of a lesson than anything else in the rest of the book.

I know I’m being pretty harsh, but I was excited to read this book. I always like to hear about how comics artists think about their craft, even if I disagree with their thinking. But this book was so bland that there really wasn’t much to agree or disagree with. It was like going to listen to the director’s commentary on a DVD, excitedly hoping to get insight into a film you loved, only to have the director say stuff like “I just like the color blue.” And then the intro was so overblown, claiming to reveal secrets and demonstrate a “golden” way that halfway through the whole thing I thought it had to be an elaborate joke. I mean, at one point he talks about “the golden ratio” of beauty. You know what that is? You draw a line in the middle of the head and that’s where the eyes go (127). That’s it. A line in the middle of the head. Not only is it bathetic to the point of absurdity, it’s basically just the same advice given in every drawing book ever written. Maybe Araki actually believes that creating manga can’t be taught and we all have to figure it out by ourselves. But if that’s true, why make us pay for this book? Just to be a jerk? No, I think Araki really believes in this book and believes he is providing a service. And looking at reviews of the book on-line, maybe he is. My question is: did the U.S. readers who loved this book never pay attention in English class?

Here is a brief list of books that are infinitely more useful than this one:

Drawing Words & Writing Pictures

Making Comics

Draw Out the Story

Pen & Ink: the Manga Start-up Guide

Even a Monkey Can Draw Manga.

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