Sunday, March 30, 2008

Talking Theory - The Art of Comics Storytelling - 6/05

Talking Theory


by Bill Morse
June 1, 2005

There are times I come close to hating the word manga. I hear far too many people going on about "the manga style”, or various titles being plugged as “American Manga”. When I Manga, the Japanese word for comicstrawl the art section of bookstores for the occasional useful tip I find many books, demonstrations of Sturgeon’s law, telling me how to draw "The Manga Way,” which seems to mean how to draw large eyed busty girls in miniskirts. It sometimes seems that anything that deviates from these cliches does not even count as manga.

Let’s make something utterly clear… It’s Just The Japanese Word For Comics!!! I look forward to discussing many excellent Japanese titles and talents, but here at Talking Theory we follow the words of Maurice Sendak: “that’s just marketing, books are books.”

Having gotten that out of my system I would like to start us off with one of the first, and one of the best, Osamu Tezuka.

Osamu TezukaOsamu Tezuka, 1928-1989, has frequently been called the father of Japanese comics, as well as, thanks to his contributions in both comics and animation, the Japanese Disney. Before Tezuka Japanese comics were cramped, flat, and static – not far removed from traditional woodblocks. Tezuka brought in a dramatic sense of depth, space, and story lines with dynamic pulsating rhythms. His stories have an incredible epic scale and he was equally proficient in all genres – from fantasy and period pieces to horror and science fiction. He left his mark on the entire medium, leaving Japanese pop culture with such classics as Tetsuwan Atom (Astro Boy), Metropolis, Ribon No Kishi(Princess Knight), Jungle Tatei(Jungle Emperor (Kimba the White Lion to all us GenXers)), Hinotori(Phoenix), Black Jack, Adolph, and influenced countless other artists – including Reiji Matsumoto, Shotaro Ishimori , Fujio Fujiko, Hideko Mizuno and Shinji Nagashima.

Tezuka finished his career with an output of about 150,000 pages. I’ll focus on only one of his titles, created at the height of his powers, Buddha.

Buddha is a graphic novel in the most literal sense. It is a self-contained narrative in comic form, and not a collection of comics bound together in book form. In it Tezuka mixes mythology, history, philosophy and religion with a large dollop Animals in a ringof comic relief to make a truly entertaining biography. Throughout this biography he intersperses the story of the Buddha with the lives of others who, in one way or another, affect or witness the life of the Buddha. In fact Siddhartha Gautama is not even born until page 264 of the first volume.

Tezuka uses a whimsical, almost childish, style in his drawing, resembling the style of an animated short from the thirties and forties. Tezuka uses this style throughout his career – you definitely expect it in a sweet juvenile work like Astroboy, but you also get it in his grim tale of World War II, Adolph. It has always fascinated me that a “cartoony” style is frequently better for conveying realism then a realistic style. I think that in a realistic style, say Bolland, Perez, Jimenez and Ha, you notice every wrinkle in the spandex and your mind is 'set too scrutinize' – you notice and question everything. With a style like Tezuka’s you already have a suspension of disbelief, enabling the artist to focus more on the story.

Tezuka also has a bit of a repertory theater going on. He uses many supporting characters over and over again in different roles throughout his works. Their level of stylization varies depending on what Tezuka wants us to focus on. One of the best examples of this is the character Asaji. He is usually used for comic relief and most of the time he looks like a human caterpillar in monks’ robes. However, when the need arises, most notably in the third volume where he is deathly ill and carried by Siddhartha, he temporarily becomes a realistic boy.

In Buddha Tezuka uses every trick in the book…but he wrote the book. At first glance Tezuka’s narrative style seems unassuming; a good number of the pages hardly look different from any American comic… But quickly the basic template of a 4 x 3 panel grid changes. The size and length of the panels change, as we are required to focus on certain objects, increasing and decreasing in number to denote the pacing of the action.

From these basics Tezuka becomes increasingly creative. He does not stop at merely rectangular panels. Tezuka will make panels that are a series of vertical columns across the page, allowing for a slow view of scenes and actions in a long cinematic pan. He will angle panels in action scenes to add to Astroboythe dynamism. In the most extreme example Tezuka shatters the panels into a scattered mosaic, giving the story a sense of frantic desperation. The variety of these successful experiments seems truly endless.

Tezuka's panel experiments bring us to his panel transitions. In most mainstream western comics there are three primary forms of transition. First there is 'action-to-action', the panel switches from one action to the next – for example a baseball player swinging his bat. The next is 'subject-to-subject', the transition goes from one image to another related image – in one panel someone looks at her wrist and the next panel show a close-up of the watch. Finely there is 'scene-to-scene', such as in Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds when Tippi Hedren has seen the flock of crows gathering behind her, as she slowly gets up to leave we switch to the interior of the school house where Suzanne Pleshette is leading the class in song. In most western comics action-to-action makes up nearly 75% of the transitions.

In Japanese comics things are different. There are two more forms of transition: 'motion-to-motion', an 'action-to-action' transition in stop motion; and 'aspect-to-aspect', as in Lawrence of Arabia when we see the unrelenting sun and then Lawrence and Prince Faisal’s army slowly trudging through the desert. With these two additional transitions there is also a change in the use of transitions, 'subject-to-subject' is used nearly as frequently as 'action to action'. For a more comprehensive explanation I suggest you check out Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics, pages 70 to 81.

Tezuka uses these transitions to their full potential, frequently mixing them in unique ways. My favorite trick is when he mixes a 'subject-to-subject' transition with a 'motion-to-motion' transition. He divides the page vertically. On one half (more like two thirds) we are shown an establishing shot of the setting, a scene, event, or a crowd. The other section of the page is a vertical strip of five to ten 'motion-to-motion' panels showing the character participating in or watching the proceedings.

For Tezuka pacing is everything. Depending on the story he may have pages with as many as 15 panels in an especially active scene and then slow to a series of pages with only two panels. He has no problem with casually spending ten pages Buddhaestablishing the setting in stunning visual montages. The opening of chapter three of the third volume: Devadata starts with an eight page vignette of prey being caught by predators, who in turn die to be eaten by ants, which are washed away in a deluge to be eaten by a fish, which is caught by the boy Devadata.

I have barely scratched the surface of Tezuka’s art here. No doubt one of you could write a full doctoral dissertation on the subject and still barely scratch the surface. Reading Tezuka’s work, Buddha especially, reminded me of the first time I saw a production of Hamlet. My first reaction was “they’re talking in clichés” and five seconds later realized that this was where all of those clichés came from... One last note is that Buddha is definitely what a religious comic SHOULD be. Pity us poor Christians who have to suffer Tim LeHaye adaptations.

Bill Morse is a freelance illustrator and the creator of the webstrip Rhapsodies, his portfolio can be found at

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