Tag: comics

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.

Panther by Brecht Evens

A lot of children’s books are pretty creepy when you think about them. Many of them involve child abandonment or characters who seem whimsical on the surface, but reveal themselves to be agents of chaos. Think of The Cat in the Hat. He’s funny, but also incredibly destructive and unsafe. The new graphic novel by Brecht Evens takes the unsettling nature of many children’s books and turns that up a notch. But interestingly, he never tips it over into pure horror. Everything remains unnervingly ambiguous. It’s a horror story told as a children’s book.

Panther is about Christine who lives alone with her father. Her sickly cat, Lucy, has just been put to sleep. Into the midst of this childhood sorrow, held by a larger sorrow connected to her missing mother, steps the spotted form of Panther. Panther charms Christine and seems to be the answer to her loneliness. But from the outset, his predator’s eyes and ever-changing visage let us know that things are far from okay. Then Christine’s stuffed animal Bonzo goes missing, obviously connected to the appearance of Panther. Bonzo returns, but is it really Bonzo? And why doesn’t he corroborate Panther’s story? Events culminate in Christine’s birthday party, where Panther invites a few more of his friends into Christine’s world. Like the new Bonzo, none of them seem to know what is appropriate to say and do in front of a young girl.

The art here is really gorgeous. The color choices harken to the primaries of children’s books, but they are often paired with murky blacks. The effect is art that is both vibrant and unsettlingly dark. The focus in Panther is much tighter than in Evens’s previous books, so there is not as much breadth of setting and character. Yet in some ways, the character of Panther makes up for that by his constantly changing form. He is usually recognizably a cat, but the style shifts. Many times, the style echoes that of some children’s book artist, but it also changes to match the mood of the dialogue. The changes are beautiful, but also unnerving. They make you feel early on that Panther is not a creature to be trusted. There is something dishonest about his very appearance. Then there’s Panther’s dialogue. The sickly green cursive shows both his desire to sound refined and the rotten, ingratiating nature of his speech. He is desperate to charm Christine. Whenever he says something that she doesn’t like or that disturbs her, he changes his story immediately. And yet, we get the idea that he truly cares for Christine in his own way. The question is: what is his intention? But this begs another, deeper question. From whence does Panther come? Is he from inside Christine herself, or her version of a real person in her life, or is he a denizen of some fantastical world?

Panther shares a bit in common with Evens’s earlier short story “Bad Friends” in Night Animals. That story also involves a young woman, though older and just entering puberty. It also involves a growing cast of fanciful characters who become increasingly bestial and lecherous. Yet Panther doesn’t follow a clear trajectory. While things definitely get more and more out of hand, the character of Panther seems to want to try to keep control of events and protect Christine even though he is the one introducing the chaos into her life. Also, “Bad Friends” is more obvious about what happens to the main character. While Panther does show things, it still remains ambiguous.

This ambiguity means that Panther is less satisfying in terms of plot. The story opens up more possibilities than it answers. On the one hand, this lets the reader figure things out. Again, is Panther Christine’s creation or the mask of an abuser? On the other hand, this ambiguity means there’s less to hold onto. Yet the beauty of the art makes me want to pick up the book again and again and try to unlock its secrets. If they can be unlocked. What Evens has managed to do is create a tone that hovers between the creative joy of childhood imagination and the unfathomable terror of barely contained amorality. The fact that most the book walks that line without falling too heavily into either camp makes for a captivating, if completely unsettling, reading experience.

(written May 20, 2016)