OEL Screentone Revelations!

Long before Tokyopop started pushing the concept of “Original English Language Manga,” or “OEL” for short, something about western attempts at creating “manga” really bothered me, and not for any philosophical reasons. Something always felt off about the artwork, and I just couldn’t pinpoint why. Initially, I thought that it might be because the artists had no idea how to  draw “manga characters,” but I realized that couldn’t be the case, because 100 people drawing big eyes and small mouths “incorrectly,” so to speak, should result in 100 different ways to look not-quite-right. No, the thing that bothered me was something more consistent across the idea of “OEL” before it was called OEL. It had to be a shared trait.

Then last year while looking at OEL, something hit me: for some reason I was being bothered by the screentones. Again however, I couldn’t quite put my finger on why. I just knew it was something having to do with screentones. In fact, the initial draft of this post is from May of 2009, where the only contents of it was the title of the post, which read “BAD SCREENTONES.”

Finally though, through the keen of eye of the Reverse Thief Narutaki, my suspicions have been confirmed, and I now fully understand why OEL screentones had been bothering me so. I really recommend you read the article, but for the sake of summary: According to Narutaki, in manga, screentone is generally used for patterns or to pull elements into the background of a panel with shading primarily done in ink, but in OEL screentone is more often used for shading and used to excess, which ends up flattening the image.

I feel so relieved!

But this information brought with it a new question: Why is it, if OEL is trying to be like manga (which we all know it is), that it does something that manga almost never does, i.e. use screentone to shade to excess? There are very few examples from manga that would fuel this mass assumption on the part of these artists, after all.

That lead to another revelation: maybe the source of this trend wasn’t “manga” at all, but something closely related. Anime!

Anime is where you will find manga-style characters with some degree of shading, even if it’s a single tone to show a simple fold in their clothing. I can only conclude that the reason OEL shading looks the way it does is because the artists were influenced by the shading methods seen in animation, and then applied these methods to manga where they are in actuality quite foreign despite the fact that anime and manga are so closely related.


This is no surprise to me, as anime and manga are often spoken of in the same breath. Heck, I’m no exception, and you will often see me choosing one word or the other when referring to both, as after a while it gets irritating to write “anime and manga” every time instead of just “anime.” Still, it is a very good reminder that as similar as anime and manga are, they also possess a number of unique differences beyond the fact that one is animated and the other is not.

12 thoughts on “OEL Screentone Revelations!

  1. Yeah I’d noticed that too. But I think it has to do with the Japanese aesthetic vs. the American one in general. In Japan there’s beauty in simplicity. Here more is better which really isn’t the case, but it leads to an overuse in things like screentone.


  2. I don’t think halftone problems in a lot of OEL is as much an anime influence as it is the idea of halftone as a surrogate for what you could do in colour, which technically, it is. This is actually the first time I’ve seen a dissection of halftone as a graphic technique rather than black and white fiat or a derivative and quaint stylistic choice.

    Ultimately, I think it’s more a matter of ignorance or lack of experience than not having enough manga influence instead of anime influence. I’m sure you didn’t intend this, but your post gives the impression that you view OEL manga artists as barely able to tell a DBZ cartoon from a Naruto comic let alone ever having gotten a hold on a western indie comic (which show that the some of the west has been grasping simplicity and black and white for decades.) It’s too bad that some great insights into halftone techniques have been packaged with the old OEL < Manga debate.


    • Conflating an episode of the DBZ anime with a chapter of the Naruto manga, no.

      Conflating an episode of the NARUTO anime with a chapter of the Naruto manga, far more likely.

      While I agree with you that lack of experience is a very significant factor in why it doesn’t seem to hold up, there are a few things I want to address.

      First, halftones and screentones are closely related but are not quite the same, mostly in the sense that the former comes from a history of printing color comics on newsprint while the latter comes from printing black and white on newsprint, and while halftone printing in comics tends to be, as you say, a “quaint stylistic choice,” screentone in manga is alive and well.

      Second, while there are plenty of examples of black and white art in the history of the indie comics scene (especially something Cerebus), I will wager you that the majority of anime and manga fans, and by extension a good deal of “manga-style” artists and fan artists, do not look towards Dave Sim or Robert Crumb or even Art Spiegelman or Gary Larson for inspiration. I may be assuming much here, but I always got the feeling from talking with other anime fans and reading posts and such that a lot of them would rather separate themselves from non-anime and manga, or things that don’t look enough like it. I wish I could say otherwise, though.


      • Right, I hope I didn’t come across as too argumentative; I agree with what you’ve said. I just didn’t feel that an examination of screentone/halftone usage was quite fair or as useful as it could have been when used to point out failure in OEL

        Going with the inexperience point, in either article, this is the first time I’ve seen anywhere near this level of insight into halftone usage. The creative and fan communities in the west just haven’t done much to explore what actually works or not in that regard, so OEL tone usage is just shots in the dark, no pun intended…An explanation of proper usage of screentone also can’t influence an OEL artist to actually do something decent if it follows the revelation of ‘how I justify my dislike of OEL manga.’

        Reading it in the right tint, someone might just wonder whether you’d want OEL manga to actually improve or if you really just dislike it in and of itself.

        By the way, what you said about screentone and halftone raises a good point as well. Instead of screentone textures or contact sheets, you see a lot more digital methods of halftone filtering and gradients in western manga-influenced art. I’d say this was almost wholly responsible for what you’d mentioned about the gratuitous shading. My own experiments with this sort of thing has produced a fairly steady stream of muddy over-worked mess.


  3. I’ve noticed this a while back myself while doing a bit of self-research on OEL manga. I’ve been experimenting quite a bit on trying to reverse-engineer this particular style for a project I’ve been kicking around in the back of my head for a while. I feel the two most important things to consider are really knowing how to work well in black and white and knowing the inconsistencies of digital with regards to working with that particular style.

    :I I need to experiment more.


    • Ahaha, I totally agree XD I loved those books as a kid–had a huge collection. Now I look back and laugh. Not that they’re bad. They’re good for general practice and just drawing–but relying heavily on them an be negative if you intend to actually move into manga (eastern style) as opposed to western comics, in the future :D


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  5. When I read your post, I immediately cracked open a One Piece manga (it was the nearest to me) and you’re right! I’ve noticed that simplistic shading in Naruto but never thought it carried throughout the rest of the Japanese produced manga world. Thanks for bringing up that point. I’m currently making a manga but still studying the style at the same time.

    Also, just a food for thought. I think manga has simplistic shading because originally, digital wasn’t available and the screentones had to be overlaid, crafted and all that stuff. Keeping it simple was not just aesthetics, but practical too! I guess that carried all the way into the digital world. ^_^


  6. Just took a look at the handiest things on my shelf, Fullmetal Alchemist and Sengoku Nights, and I see what you mean: lots of elegant lines and toning used to emphasize the foreground character, who is generally just line, in most cases. The very heavily-toned panels (of which there are quite a few in Sengoku Nights) tend to contrast on the page with panels emphasizing line. Maybe in OEL the temptation does become to overdo it, because (it being digital) we can, as the above comment said, and so we get carried away “colouring in” when we should be letting the shape speak for itself.


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