Colleen Doran on the joys of manga
Colleen Doran and Barry Lyga’s Mangaman is a fascinating crossover in which a manga character arrives in an American high school, with the twist being that the high school students don’t realize that they are also characters in a comic book until the outsider points it out to them. It’s fascinatingly meta and at the same time a fun read—Lyga and Doran have a lot of fun importing manga tropes, such as speedlines, going chibi, and talking to oneself, into the more literal world of western-style comics. I interviewed the two of them for the SLJ Teen newsletter, but I saved one bit for Robot 6 readers: Doran’s account of how she became interested in manga in the first place. It’s an interesting bit of comics history, and she kindly supplied some of her original art to go along with it.
Here’s Colleen, who went on to write the well-received Girl to Grrrl: How to Draw the Hottest Shoujo Manga, on how she discovered manga:
When I was a kid I saw anime on television and had no idea it was from Japan. I used to watch Star Blazers and Battle of the Planets every day. I did a comic strip called B-Force for my band nerd friends. The heros flew around in a giant bass clarinet. It was nutty.
But I didn’t know about the existence of manga until I went to New York City in 1984. This was after one of my first books, A Distant Soil, came out. I was getting a lot of flak from some quarters for my visual aesthetic sense on the series. I met underground cartoonist Leslie Sternbergh via Legion of Superheroes apazine Interlac. She said to me “Your work reminds me of this” and handed me Yasuko Aoike’s From Eroica With Love, which was a major shojo title at the time. I absolutely loved it, and there was everything there that I was trying to do in my own work. I was amazed that this sensibility, both in terms of the look and the storytelling style were so similar to what I was trying to achieve. Leslie sold me her whole stack of From Eroica With Love, then took me to Books Kinokuniya, and I went shopping. For years after, I would fly to New York every few weeks with an empty suitcase and buy up all the manga I could afford. Then I’d fly back that evening.
Back then, you could get a round trip ticket to New York City for only about $56. It was almost as cheap to fly to New York and deliver a job to a client by hand as it was to ship it via Federal Express. So, I’d get editor face time, and spend $50 on manga and walk out with a full suitcase. They were so cheap, sometimes you could get brand new books for only $2. I’d be home by dinnertime with all kinds of manga.
Fred Schodt’s Manga Manga: The World of Japanese Comics had recently been released, and I discovered Riyoko Ikeda’s The Rose of Versailles, for which Schodt included a partial translation in his book. Just fell in love with Ikeda’s work, and was amazed at the fact that there were all of these beautiful books being produced overseas with a style and content that appealed to me. They were drawn by women, they were successful. But women artists were often scorned in the US, and no one wanted romances or historical dramas. From Eroica with Love was this hybrid dramedy about spies and a flamboyant gay thief. The story swung wildly from serious to silly in a way I loved. No one was doing that sort of thing in the USA.
I got a few jobs doing some anime/manga related work on things like Robotech, but there just wasn’t a solid market for a lot of manga material in the comics business. Some of the major publishers tried books like Akira with great success, but no one was doing the shojo manga I preferred and the few attempts to bring it to the USA went nowhere.
Of course, I was a cartoonist before I ever saw any manga. I don’t consider myself a manga artist in the way a real Japanese artist would understand the term. People have actually published articles about my work and called it “Amerimanga.” I don’t agree. I incorporated some of the things I learned from manga in my own work later, but I think there’s a specific meaning to the term “manga” when used in Japan. I was still fascinated by the manga business, and was delighted to see more and more manga trickling into the US market. I like studying it, I like the style. But manga artist or artist who likes manga? I think the latter applies to almost all Western artists working with manga tropes. So much confusion about what is manga and what is not. Basically, manga means comics. But when speaking of a storytelling style, it means a lot more than that.
Anyway, my family hosted a Japanese exchange student in the early 1990’s. He went on to work for Bandai/Plex, which was the company behind properties like Sailor Moon. They were having a devil of a time breaking the US Comics market, and they were getting terrible time slots for their cartoons. They came to me to help navigate the US marketplace. I was doing a lot of consulting work back then. I’d spent years self publishing and was more plugged into the technical details of the marketplace then than I am now. I remember sitting at dinner with Bandai, and they explained that they’d been told that a barrier to the success of Sailor Moon was the big eyes of the characters. US cartoon fans didn’t like that. I thought that was nonsense. I also had a copy of industry trade magazine “The Licensing Book” with me, and on the back cover was a big picture of The PowerPuff Girls, with their enormous eyes. Everyone thought that was funny. Big orbs OK for Powerpuff girls, but not OK for Sailor Moon? Whatever you say…
So, I’ve done more work behind the scenes as a business consultant than I’ve spent drawing manga style, I think. But in a funny way, what happened with my long, quiet association with manga, mirrors a lot of what we’ve done with Mangaman – created a US/Manga hybrid about a western girl who falls for the eastern aesthetic.