New York Anime Festival, much like the teenagers who attend it, is a fairly young convention especially when compared to other cons. This year saw it merged with its sister convention, the New York Comic Con, and while I did not attend, a number of reports have stated how the Comic Con side so dominated the Jacob Javits convention center that the Anime Festival became relegated to what has now been commonly referred to as the “anime ghetto.” There is no word as to why the ghetto formed, or whether the sharp delineation between comics (and everything else) and anime was a sign of disrespect towards anime fans, but regardless of intent, it is quite clear that things were Different. Dave over at Colony Drop writes:
Far from the exhibition floor, there was an invisible line in the Javits Center that weekend: one that denoted where the comic con ended and where the anime con began. I marked this line down in my mind late in the first day, when I stopped to make a phone call and saw my first pack of running, screaming Hetalia cosplayers. This display was immediately followed by a creepy girl who was going around the hallway alone and serially glomping any character she recognized. It had taken me all day to get there— NYCC offered me more as a gamer than NYAF offered me as an anime fan— but there was no mistaking that I was now in Anime Country.
That invisible line that Dave mentions is largely social; all the con did was greatly exaggerate it through the structure of the convention center itself. Anime fans want to be seen as anime fans. They want to be different and special. Others are glad to oblige, doing so by expressing their disdain for “those damn anime kids.” In either case, a division is formed, between “anime and manga” and “not-anime-and-manga.” Meanwhile, others are quick to step in and give the message that “it’s all just cartoons and comics anyway.”
The trouble with both the acknowledgment and disapproval of such categorizations is that each side has its own fair share of pitfalls. By regarding manga as special (and from here on out I’ll be sticking to manga for the sake of convenience), supporters can end up tying it down, obscuring (or even willfully ignoring) the fact that one of manga’s real strengths is its sheer diversity in style, content, and tone. Instances of this can be seen in the way that early iterations of the Morning International Comics Competition (back when it was called the Morning International Manga Competition) were less aesthetically diverse than the more recent ones. This is further compounded when its detractors regard manga as being narrowly defined by negative traits. And yet, while it is in no way disrespectful to refer to manga as “comics,” doing so becomes problematic when the traits that have developed as the result of a unique comics history are intentionally brushed aside for the sake of generalizations. A person who regards manga as being no different from other comics inadvertently disregards the histories of comics cultures the world over.
One mistake people commonly make when they talk about what separates one form of comics from another is that they start at the visuals first. Some never get beyond the surface, and they define a form of comics entirely by the look of characters and details. Others can look beyond the first layer and delve deeper, finding meaning behind those images. Now taking the top-down approach is actually perfectly valid, but it only provides half of the total picture. By also taking a bottom-up approach, you can begin to see how the various non-visual contents of stories in comics manifest themselves on the pictorial level. It is good to not only see how the river-like flow of panels in manga affects storytelling for instance, but also how the storytelling can influence the panel structure in manga. From there, you can really begin to see what makes manga special, and at the same time discover its connections with the greater category of “comics.”
It can seem like a complete contradiction to say that manga should be seen as both unique and like all other comics, but that’s only the case if you define it in black and white terms. Look carefully, and you’ll see that the actual lines which separate manga from other forms of comics are actually quite nebulous. Rather than having manga’s identity be frozen in time, forever unwavering and unchanging, it is important to see manga as the result of decisions made over the years, trends that ebb and flow, and the combined efforts of people who dared to pick up a pencil and merge words with images in sequential format. Even as comics creators increasingly take notes from their peers two continents away and the divisions begin to crumble, they do not automatically wipe out what has come before. Just the same however, manga is not beholden to its past, and can grow in unpredicted ways. The past provides a foundation for the unseen future.