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American Mangaka

The way that many young Americans discover Japanese culture is through its cartoons and comics. While many Japanese people may be discovering American culture today through Disney, “Adventure Time”, and “SpongeBob” (all quite popular among my students), the same cannot be said for our comics. Japan has the world’s largest comics industry, and indeed, comics in Japan account for 40% of all books published. Here comics are read by people of any age, and it is common to see bookshelves of them in restaurants, barbershops, and doctors’ offices. When I tell Japanese people about friends of mine from Chicago that are comics artists, they ask if they are famous and where they are published. I think this assumption of success isn’t simply a lack of information about the challenges of being a comics artist (the tendency to self-publish or work day jobs, etc.). It also reflects the different opportunities for comics artists in Japan. Here, where the annual sales of comics is an estimated ten times the size of that in the US, I imagine it’s easier for young artists to find professional opportunities.

Jon Wolfe. Untitled 2, 2013. (Image credit: Zachary Johnson)

With comics’ popularity in Japan and the many stylistic and narrative differences between manga and comics in mind, I decided to organize an exhibition of young American comics artists. Titled, American Mangaka, it ran during the first week of June at the Amakusa Cultural Exchange Center, located in Hondo, the largest town in Amakusa (pop. 40,000). Ten artists exhibited work, several of which — Jon Wolfe, Sean Dove, and Joseph Lambert, — live in or have lived in Chicago. Curiously, nearly every Japanese person I spoke with about the show asked me how I had discovered the ten artists, and was surprised when I answered, “through the internet”. The two prefectural newspapers and the local publication that interviewed me about the exhibition all asked this question and subsequently published my response. I’m still not sure where the interest came from.

Those whom I spoke with at the exhibition and who left comments all expressed that the work was very different from Japanese manga. The reporters commented on the simpler panel layout, and others mentioned that the comics showed influences from fine art. “I was surprised at how artistic American comics are”, one visitor wrote. My personal theory on that reaction is that in Japan the manga and anime industries are the main outlets for visual culture, rather than contemporary visual art, a much smaller world. So I would guess that fine art exerts less influence on comics artists’ work as a result. In the US, on the other hand, because comics artists generally attend art schools and interact more frequently with the visual art community, I believe their work shows more influence from fine art. I think this can also contribute to greater stylistic differences between artists, another comment expressed by visitors of the show. “Each manga feels very different from Japanese manga. They each have their own feeling and world,” one visitor wrote.

The work was accompanied by bios and process descriptions by each artist, along with photographs of them and their studios. By including those materials with the pieces, I hoped to not only give visitors a view of the work of American comics artists, but an idea of their lives as well.

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