Do we really need another book-length history of manga? Especially so soon on the heels of John Lent’s excellent Asian Comics, published just a few years ago? Turns out, yes. Mangasia: The Definitive Guide to Asian Comics, by comics expert Paul Gravett, is a very important addition, with a great deal to recommend it.
Mangasia is an expansion of a traveling art exhibition of the same name. It’s also a progression of Gravett’s 2004 Manga: Sixty Years of Japanese Comics, where he analyzed the form in relation to its American and European counterparts. On this go-around, he concentrates on the entire continent, and deftly chronicles the richly diverse transformations of manga as it spread, meeting and merging with the cultural and comics traditions of eighteen or so other countries, including China and Hong Kong, Vietnam and Cambodia, North and South Korea, Malaysia and the Philippines, and even India.
I’ve been a fan of Gravett since the early 1980s, when he co-founded and co-edited the landmark comics magazine Escape, Britain’s small press version of Raw. The other books he’s written include the nearly thousand-page 1001 Comics You Must Read Before You Die and my personal favorite, the handsomely designed, concise, and most informative Graphic Novels: Everything You Need to Know … also prior to your demise, I’d assume. And as for his latest, Mangasia should be considered a companion to, not a rival of, Lent’s Asian Comics. Both are basically covering the same geography, both have 300-plus pages, and both are masterfully written. But that’s where the similarities end.
Lent investigates comics cultures and changes regionally, from East to Southeast to South Asia, while Gravett explores its subject thematically within a loose chronological timeline. Visually, Asian Comics has a textbook vibe, with its university press-style workmanlike cover and amateurish layout, while Mangasia comes across as an eye-popping coffee-table book, from its screaming cover starring Star Punch Girl to pictures on every single page, beckoning you to keep flipping through. And while Asian Comics has less than 200 images, all in black and white, Mangasia is in full color and packed with more than a thousand. And while there are a few by familiar names like Osamu Tezuka, Sonny Liew, and Nestor Redondo, many are wildly experimental and most have rarely, if ever, been seen in the U.S. However, in this case less images would have been more, inasmuch as a handful are either undersized or unsharp.
That aside, the impressive volume of stunning pictorial material, thoughtfully arranged with helpful juxtapositions, is Mangasia’s strongest attribute, especially to the graphic design-inclined. Here’s just a very small portion of what you’ll find therein.