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Taking manga to the masses

AX Collection
“AX Collection”

TOKYO (TR) – The recent popularity of English versions of Japanese manga overseas is not news. Yet for many artists and fans, the selections made available have generally not breached the mainstream, rendering the output to be far from cutting-edge.

That might change somewhat with publisher Top Shelf’s release later this year of “AX Collection,” a compilation of works taken from the small but influential Japanese bimonthly of the same name. “It will be a unique book that extends the range of manga available in English into more mature themes, experimental art styles and highly original stories,” explains the collection’s co-editor, Sean Michael Wilson. “This is very much needed, as the vast majority of the manga that’s available so far is of a relatively narrow range of styles and subjects.”

The collection, also edited by Mitsuhiro Asakawa, brings together 400 pages, spanning 10 years, of gekiga, or mature manga, that often focuses on dire themes wrapped within bizarre worlds and quirky settings. For Wilson, an artist from Edinburgh, Scotland, now living in Japan, it represents just one of a number of projects that he is involved in to educate people about manga. “Manga is a way of telling stories with visuals and text,” he explains, “and any level of story can be told that way — for children, teenagers or adults.”

In spreading the word about gekiga, Wilson has lectured in New York, San Francisco and back in Britain, using rare images by some the genre’s key creators, such as Yoshihiro Tatsumi, Yoshiharu Tsuge, and Masahiko Matsumoto, in his presentations.

A Christmas Carol
“A Christmas Carol”

Though he has authored, drawn or edited the content of more than a dozen titles, the 38-year-old, who resides in Kumamoto on the southern island of Kyushu, is reluctant to describe himself as solely a manga artist. “What I am, first and foremost, is a creator, a writer,” he says. “When I write a script I am rarely thinking, consciously, anyway, of any manga techniques or of any famous manga artists or stories—I’m just focusing on how to tell one particular story.”

Many of Wilson’s works are not set in Japan. The graphic novel “Iraq: Operation Corporate Takeover,” which he authored, profiles a young Iraqi man who returns to Basra after studying medicine in London, only to find his homeland torn apart by war. While “A Christmas Carol” is an adaptation of the Charles Dickens classic.

Wilson admits that he is no manga expert, crediting the likes of Asakawa for sharing their knowledge. Instead, his main influences are British and American comic-book creators like Alan Moore, an English writer whose works include the graphic novels “Watchmen” and “V for Vendetta,” and Grant Morrison, a Scottish author known for his nonlinear storylines.

Works by such creators have helped raise the standard of subject matter and storytelling in manga, according to Wilson. “On an unconscious level, pretty much all the comics I’ve ever read, including manga, will influence the way I write the script in subtle ways,” he explains. “This will impact the pacing of the story, what to include or not include in the panels, how many panels are on the page, how much text is in each balloon or whether to use angles, close-ups or wordless panels.”

In some ways, parallels can be drawn between Wilson, who arrived in Japan in 2004, and Lafcadio Hearn, the foreign writer who a century ago dazzled overseas readers with grim and fantastical tales set in his adopted home. “He lived in Kumamoto, very near the specific location where I live now,” says Wilson, who, like Hearn, is part Irish, “and he was a writer. He [was] one of the first Europeans to write extensively about Japanese culture and was a very interesting character.” Wilson’s book “Lafcadio Hearn’s Japanese Ghost Stories” combines 10 of Hearn’s classic tales, such as “Mimi-Nashi-Hoichi,” with an account of his life in Japan in a manga format.

Another book based on a foreign perspective is his collaboration with Sakura Mizuki. “The Japanese Drawing Room” recounts the true story of the seven-month journey by Merton Russell-Cotes and his wife Annie to Japan in the late 19th century. With many of the Japanese artifacts they collected, the couple would later open what is today the Russell-Cotes Art Gallery & Museum in Bournemouth, U.K.

Iraq: Operation Corporate Takeover
“Iraq: Operation Corporate Takeover”

Despite the pending publication of “AX Collection,” Wilson says that the biggest challenge is securing such projects. Fortunately, though, 2009 promises to be a busy year with the release of Buskers, a 120-page book with award-winning Japanese artist Michiru Morikawa, in the summer and the 100-page The Story of Lee with Chinese-Malaysian creator Eve Yap.

Manga’s global reach has never been wider. A 2006 market report by JETRO (Japan External Trade Organization) indicates that the licensing of titles for overseas publication amounts to a significant twenty five percent of total domestic licensing income.

Manga’s ever-growing popularity, Wilson believes, is owed to the comic form’s ability to make young people feel as if they belong to a select subculture, “But also manga [are] from a culture that is still exotic for most of those fans,” he adds. “It’s very different from their own life in Glasgow or Arizona or wherever. So it’s interesting and captivating.”

Note: This article originally appeared in the February issue of iNTOUCH, the magazine of the Tokyo American Club.