Manga: Masters of the Art

I finished reading Timothy R. Lehmann’s Manga: Masters of the Art (Collins Design) this week. I’m glad I did. It’s a beautifully designed collection of interviews with a diverse group of contemporary manga-ka (CLAMP, Erica Sakurazawa, Takehiko Inoue, Jiro Taniguchi, and others). There are lots of interesting nuggets on the creative process, and it was money well spent.

But I have to admit that some of the entertainment provided by the book may not have been intentional.

Lehmann’s aims are unimpeachable. Inspired by Mark Salisbury’s Artists on Comic Art and Frederik L. Schodt’sDreamland Japan, Lehmann has attempted to craft “a book for artists who love art, not just comics.” He states that, “Even if you’re not an artist but are interested in cross-cultural studies or eavesdropping on colorful personalities, you are likely to find something of interest here.”

He wants to celebrate the creative process, from inspiration to mechanics. At the same time, he wants to give a glimpse of the range of styles manga offers. He wants to do for Inoue, Sakurazawa, et al, what Salisbury did for Brian Bolland, J. Scott Campbell, and Bryan Hitch.

Yes, you heard that right — Bolland, Campbell, and Hitch. It’s the first glimpse of Lehmann’s mainstream aesthetic, and it might be a bit jarring to the manga-centric reader. It’s not the last glimpse, either. In the profile of Kia Asamiya, there’s an unmistakable undercurrent along the lines of, “Dude drew Batman… and Wolverine!”

As the profiles are arranged alphabetically, Lehmann leads things off with Asamiya. He deviates from the order to close with Mafuyu Hiroki, who provides an original short story to the book. Hiroki is a rather odd addition, as he’s favored book illustrations over narrative manga, unwilling to compromise his work to meet publishers’ deadlines. As Lehmann notes in the interview, Hiroki’s work bears a striking resemblance to that of seminal American super-hero artist Neal Adams. So Manga is book-ended by two manga-ka with strong spandex influences.

Fortunately, there’s plenty of variety in between. In addition to the aforementioned creators, there’s alternative up-and-comer Usamaru Furuya, ero-guru stalwart Suehiro Maruo, and shôjo innovator Reiko Okano. There’s a nice mix of the well-known (CLAMP, Inoue), the not-yet-famous-enough (Taniguchi), and even the obscure (Yuko Tsuno, a part-time creator of dreamlike manga with only a handful of credits).

Illustrations have been chosen well. The images that accompany profiles of Okano and Taniguchi clearly demonstrate their evolving, story-driven visual styles. The gallery of full-color plates in the center includes some lovely stuff.

But the profiles themselves are where some of the unintentional entertainment comes in, though. Lehmann seems to have gone into each interview with a fairly rigid set of starting questions. It’s a solid approach, and it generates an interesting cumulative effect, even if some of the stock questions aren’t necessarily appropriate for every subject. Lehmann makes a point of asking each what they think of defunct, alternative Garo, and sometimes the answer equates to “Almost never.” It’s also kind of strange to see millionaire creators like CLAMP and Inoue asked about the restrictions of working in mainstream manga. When he asks if his subjects are influenced or inspired by movies or books, the responses can get a little frosty.

But the questions about technique and process can yield fascinating responses. The CLAMP piece is particularly interesting for the way it reveals some of the mechanics of that international hit factory. There are diverse views on the merits of digital illustration technology, interesting thoughts on the usefulness of storyboards, and insight into the ways the different artists use assistants. The conversations explore schedules, tools, and techniques, providing a nice view into the subjects’ working lives.

Some of the prose can be a little purple, though, and Lehmann has a tendency to gush. There’s the sense at times that Lehmann was overwhelmed by the honor of talking to these creators. While it’s understandable and even endearing, it leads to some awkward moments.

In his introduction to the Hiroki interview, Lehmann mentions “pencils sharpened like a Zen archer’s darts.” During his visit with Sakurazawa, he was “surrounded by sophisticated refinement, and Sakurazawa was its personification – reed thin and exotically beautiful.” Upon hearing CLAMP describe their demanding schedule, he exclaims, “You are devoted to your work!” The interview with shy, reserved Maruo is hilariously terse. Lehmann adds a coda: “Sensei is a man of few words, but your work speaks for you.” (It kind of has to.)

The design of the book is exquisite, but it could have benefited from more rigorous proofreading. There are a number of typographical errors. Some of the question-and-answer formatting is off, as when a third party suddenly appears in the conversation with Sakurazawa. It sounds like I’m nitpicking, but these kinds of glitches undermine the book’s authority.

Despite its weaknesses, though, the cumulative effect ofManga: Masters of the Art is engaging. It doesn’t strike me as essential reading on manga, but it is informative and entertaining, intentionally and otherwise.

Reading Lehmann’s book reminded me of another flawed but worthy piece of manga reference, Taschen’s Manga, by Masanao Amano and edited by Julius Widemann. This is a breathtaking visual reference featuring the work of around 140 manga-ka and a glorious range of genres and styles. Each creator gets a short profile. While the text pieces can be somewhat facile (and the typo frequency is a bit alarming), the quantity of eye candy simply can’t be beat. And for the multi-lingual reader, the narratives are printed in English, Japanese, French, and German.