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Shojo Beat's Manga Artist Academy

Hiroyuki Iizuka, editor
Viz Media
200 pages, $14.99
ISBN-10: 1421507692
ISBN-13: 9781421507699

It's not often you find a book that demonstrates both the best and worst about manga-industry culture in a single volume, but Shojo Beat's Manga Artist Academy does just that. On the one hand, it's a good primer on the necessary steps an artist should know in order to create a comics story, with an emphasis on conceptual underpinnings and craft, and much of what it has to teach is both essential and explained with beginners in mind. On the other hand, it doesn't explain its core concepts in enough depth to make it an essential, go-to volume, and contains so many clichés about how to tell a story that it's also an good primer on how to be a mediocre, eminently forgettable cartoonist, and the very beginners most likely to read this book are also the ones most likely to take its less worthy instructions to heart.

The former first: Each of Manga Artist Academy's nine principal chapters are written by a different cartoonist and cover a single portion of the creative process, beginning with drawing basics, then moving on to character and story creation, panel construction, the rough draft and so on, following each of the steps needed to turn ideas into pages and pages into complete stories. To make all of this more palatable to the reader, the book itself is a story, with its heroine (an anthropomorphic panda named Satomi) visiting the creator of each chapter in turn, learning the process through a mixture of declarative instruction and copious humorous asides. That done, Satomi then returns to her mentor (an abusive editor named Mr. Manga Star) and explains what she's learned... inevitably getting it only half-right at best. This gives Mr. Manga Star a chance to do a quick comic double-take before recapping the lessons learned in the previous chapter.

 

Read excerpt from right to left. Yuu Watase does a good job of explaining the rules and demonstrating why they work. Sequence from Shojo Beat's Manga Artist Academy, ©2000 Hiroyuki Iizuka, Amo Sumoto/Shogakukan Inc.; New and adapted art and text ©2006 Viz Media, LLC.

 

Each creator contributing to the book uses her chapter not only to instruct but also to entertain, and it's fascinating to watch each one approach the same task from her own artistic design. Many of the chapters fulfill both functions admirably: Esteemed cartoonist Yuu Watase in particular is excellent at explaining the process by which a first draft is assembled and turned into finished pages, encouraging simplicity in the former and a meticulous attention to detail in the latter. It's a lot of ground to cover — by all rights, this section should have been at least two separate chapters — but the results are nonetheless coherent and instructive, a tribute to Watase's skill and thoughtfulness.

Unfortunately, the books very reason for being — a complete, step-by-step guide to the creation of shoujo manga from concept to publication — is also its biggest weakness. Lacking the page count or the nuance to offer thorough explanations, Manga Artist Academy often explains just enough to give readers a bit of a leg up when following better and more comrehensive books on the subject. It's not as bad in this respect as, say, Stan Lee and John Buscema's definition-of-perfunctory how-to book How to Draw Comics the Marvel Way, but it's close enough to be sullied by the comparison. Miyuki Kitagawa's chapter on perspective and background illustration is particularly bad in this regard. The standard diagrams for one, two and three-point perspective are presented, but not examined in any real, errr, depth. And how are the characters inhabiting your drawings affected by perspective? The chapter never explains — there's passing reference to bodies in shared perspective with their surroundings in a subsequent chapter, but this doesn't explain the process, either. It isn't entirely Kitagawa's fault; you can't expect anyone to explain the intricacies of perspective in just sixteen pages, especially if your page count is partly eaten by explanations of screentone and humorous asides. Still, excuses for ineptitude don't make an instructional volume any better.

 

Read excerpt from right to left. Shoko Akira offers dubious advice in this sequence from Shojo Beat's Manga Artist Academy, ©2000 Hiroyuki Iizuka, Amo Sumoto/Shogakukan Inc.; New and adapted art and text ©2006 Viz Media, LLC.

 

Worse, the book takes seemingly every last cliché of shoujo manga and transforms it into gospel. All along the creative path, lazy shortcuts and common practices are presented simply as the way things are done, with alternate creative choices never mentioned. Shoko Akira's chapter on character creation in particular is an exercise in bland stereotypes treated as ironclad artistic rules. Your characters should be exaggerated! You should be able to describe their personalities in one word! Why not just say "Copy what everyone else does and treat your readers like idiots," and be done with it? It's not that these rules are necessarily bad when taken individually, but stories often have different character requirements to accomplish different things. If the heroine is shy and timid, does the love interest have to be aggressive and overbearing? This is convention given precendence over creativity, which is not only the death of art but also the trivialization of entertainment value, which after all requires a certain amount of novelty to remain fresh. It's the first step down the road to "If you've read one, you've read them all." Better artists stand out precisely because they follow their own muses and present their own worldviews to the reader, rather than merely trading in stock concepts organized with minimal rearrangement. Shouldn't this at least be mentioned in passing?

Manga Artist Academy isn't a bad book, and actually works fairly well as a (very) introductory primer, but cannot possible serve as an primary source of instruction. Indeed, it contains much that will have to be unlearned later, if one seriously wishes to succeed as an artist. These aren't bad first steps, but they're miserable final steps.

 

This essay appeared on the then-website of The Comics Journal sometime between 2006 and 2008.

 

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