Paul Gravett’s Mangasia opens our eyes to comic industries, histories and cultures we didn’t know existed. Shame it’s saddled with a silly, tasteless and cynically commercial title that’s the worst thing about it.
Comic expert Gravett begins by defining ‘Mangasia’ as “the collective term for all the comic art produced in Asia”. Japan is the largest Asian comics industry, but Gravett also surveys China, India, South and North Korea, the Philippines, Malaysia, Hong Kong and others. His 300-page coffee-table softback largely consists of galleries of comic art, organised around transnational issues, introduced by meaty, interesting and accessible essays.
The pictures – there are hundreds – are generally high-quality reproductions and sometimes glorious, especially when they cover one or two pages. A minority are too murky, but the main issue is many of the images are just too small, forcing you to squint or turn to a magnifying glass if you want to enjoy the small details. More frequently, you wish there were fewer and larger images on a page; two instead of four, for instance.
But the content’s still admirable. For many people, ‘manga’ means Japanese comics, so calling Asian comics ‘mangasia’ suggests they’re all quasi-Japanese. Gravett himself says ‘manga’ is a style, but that’s little better. It suggests Asian comics have a generic homogeneity, but the book shows they’re fascinatingly diverse. Clearly the name is designed to attract fans of Japanese comics, much more than a book titled Asian Comics would have done.
There’s lots about Japan in Mangasia but it is set in a refreshingly wide context. Japan’s Osamu Tezuka and Akira Toriyama both adapted the Chinese epic Monkey (Toriyama’s very loose version was called Dragon Ball), but Gravett puts them alongside other versions; for example, a long-banned satirical Chinese strip where the heroes find a three-headed dragon with the faces of Hitler, Mussolini and General Tojo.
Another chapter takes on politicised history comics. The controversy over Japan’s Barefoot Gen (which lambasted the country’s wartime leaders) is put beside works like Munnu: A Boy from Kashmir. Drawn by Malik Sajid, an artist from that territory, Munnu depicts its Kashmiri characters as deer, bringing a non-Asian strip to mind; Art Spiegelman’s Maus.
Other chapters consider the working conditions of comic artists (whose lot is rarely happy in any country), as well as censorship – yes, there’s hentai, including a few X-rated images. Gravett mentions cases like the ludicrous arrest of a female Japanese sculptor, Megumi Igarashi, who created a ‘vaginal’ kayak and other artworks – you may not have realised she’s a manga author too.
However, this chapter is dubiously spun, talking of “progressive creators striving to tackle complex adult themes” versus censorious moral guardians. This view ignores the fact that while there are serious, adult-minded creators, there are also many, many smut merchants pushing limits for lulz and bucks. Reviewed by Tom Arden
Author: Paul Gravett
Publisher: Thames & Hudson
Release: Out Now
Price (RRP): £29.95