What Belongs in the Manga Canon?

Back in 2006, I stumbled across this entry at Otaku Champloo, reflecting on the need for a manga “canon.” The author noted that books in the Western literary canon (e.g. Aeschylus, Dante, Shakespeare) were not the “most popular” titles, but titles that “reflect[ed] the progress of humanity” from classical antiquity to the machine age. She then posed several intriguing questions:

[W]hat really struck my head was the idea of a canon for manga. Could we come up a list of mangas that would best represent humanity and the manga genre? Another interesting question would be… what good would a manga canon bring? Does the world of manga need one?

When I first responded to her essay back in 2006, I hadn’t read very much manga — just enough to be dangerously opinionated and scornful of shojo* — and my knowledge of “classic” titles was limited to a few works by Osamu Tezuka and Kazuo Koike. I thought it would be an interesting challenge to revisit and revise that initial response to reflect where I am now, three years and hundreds of series later.


As I noted in my initial response, I used to teach at a university that organizes its undergraduate curriculum around the idea that certain works of art, literature, music, and philosophy represent the acme of Western civilization. You might think that the list of canonic works would be fixed, but in fact, the canon is constantly evolving. When the university first mandated its “great works” curriculum in the 1920s, for example, Mary Wollenstonecraft didn’t make the cut; only with the rise of feminist scholarship in the 1970s was her groundbreaking Vindication of the Rights of Woman added to the canon. The 1980s prompted a similar round of revisions to the curriculum: realizing that its emphasis on Western culture excluded some of the oldest and most influential literature in the world, the university developed courses about the canonic work of Eastern civilizations: The Art of War, The Tale of Genji, The Shahnameh.

I cite these curriculum changes because they remind us that defining a canon is a tricky business. There’s a veritable cottage industry of think-tanks and self-appointed cultural guardians who view the inclusion of new voices as a threat to the integrity of the literary canon, as if the recognition that women and blacks have written important books might undermine the point of the whole exercise. (They generally fuss less about Great Art and Great Music, though more conservative scholars in those fields police these canons with a similar zeal: Clara Schumann, hit the road!) In their eyes, the canon is a super-exclusive night club open only to a few “universally” recognized authors; they reject the notion that scholars might have valid historical reasons for admitting a few more folks past the velvet rope.

Then there’s that pesky issue of relevance. My students were always shocked that our music survey didn’t include familiar composers like Tchaikovsky: if we were still performing The Nutcracker and Swan Lake, why wasn’t he taking his rightful place alongside Hildegaard of Bingen and Anton Webern, two composers that 98% of them had never heard of before taking my class? As a music historian, I could rebut their arguments, but my students had a point: sometimes we become so obsessed with the idea that a canon represents the best, most timeless products of a culture that we forget the extent to which taste and connoisseurship play a role in deciding what to include — and what to exclude. (Poor old Tchaikovsky is just too tacky for some scholars, I guess.) We ignore that distinction at our own peril, however, as a canon can become a self-perpetuating list impervious to criticism or revision. Anyone intent on making a list of manga masterpieces, therefore, should bear in mind these observations about how and why we create canons — observations drawn from own experiences studying one of the most canon-centric fields, music.

First, historians play a major role in deciding what works make the cut. This is what I call the “Bach” rule: by the time J. S. Bach was writing his best-known works, his style was seen as old-fashioned, even a little stodgy, and not something an up-and-coming composer would want to emulate. Yet 250 years later, Bach is a household name. Why? Because Bach was “discovered” in the nineteenth century by prominent historians and composers who admired the rigor of his counterpoint and the beauty of his compositions. As a result, he became one of the most studied and posthumously influential composers in Western history. I say this not to slight Bach, or to perpetuate Romantic notions of genius (“they only appreciate you after you’re dead!”), but to remind any would-be canon-builders that an artist’s role in advancing the medium is often the most important rationalization for including his work in a canon.

Second, scholars tend to be suspicious of artists whose work is genuinely popular. This is what I call the “Rachmaninoff” rule: audiences may flock to performances of the Second Piano Concerto, but the canon’s gate-keepers treat Rachmaninoff as “just” a tunesmith whose crowd-pleasing melodies lack the harmonic or structural sophistication of Stravinsky and Wagner’s best work. Rachmaninoff’s tenuous membership in the canon reflects our lingering skepticism about popularity: if everyone likes Rachmaninoff’s music, could it really as worthy of study and emulation as music that aspires to greater levels of compositional complexity (e.g. The Rite of Spring, Parsifal)? It’s the same impulse that might lead a manga scholar to include Tezuka’s Buddha in the canon while excluding Kishimoto’s Naruto or Takahashi’s Ranma 1/2 — we wouldn’t want the “merely” popular taking its place alongside bonafide masterpieces, would we?

Third, there is no such thing as a “universal” canon. This is what I call the “Gershwin” rule. From the perspective of an American historian, George Gershwin is a canonic composer, profoundly influencing the development of American music with his distinctive marriage of black vernacular styles to European art forms. But from a Russian or Italian perspective, Gershwin is a local anomaly, a decent American composer who enjoys a far greater reputation among his fellow countrymen than in the international community. (Translation: he ain’t no Stravinsky or Verdi.) As such, Gershwin is less likely to be mentioned by an Italian musicologist in the same breath as Rossini, Verdi, or Beethoven. Undoubtedly, there will be artists whose importance to Americans may make them obvious candidates for inclusion in a manga canon, but who may not be viewed as favorably on the other side of the Pacific (and vice versa, I might add).

Finally, there is no such thing as an opera or a novel or a manga that is timeless. This is what I call the “Don Giovanni” rule: we still perform Mozart’s opera 200+ years after its initial premiere, but our experience of Don Giovanni is utterly different than that of audiences who heard it 1787. Most of the opera’s musical “in jokes,” for example, are lost on us—how many of us would recognize Mozart’s shout-out to fellow composer Martin y Soler? And how many of us would grasp the subtle musical gestures that Mozart uses to indicate his characters’ social status—gestures that were old hat to his audience? It’s a safe bet that Osamu Tezuka’s current audience experiences his work differently than its original readers, even though we may admire some of the same qualities in his work as the first generation of Princess Knight and Astro Boy fans.

Is there a need for a similar “canon” of manga masterpieces? The growing body of literature on influential artists such as Osamu Tezuka suggests that scholars already entertain some notion of a manga canon. As we begin labeling works “masterpieces,” however, we need to be mindful of the way in which these labels can trap us, preventing us from critiquing or questioning, say, Tatsumi or Tezuka’s greatness. We also need to remember that whatever canon we devise will be flawed from the outset, revised many times, and say as much about our own tastes and values as it will about the inherent quality or relevance of the manga it includes.


Having identified several potential pitfalls of canonization (if I might re-purpose that term for non-Vatican usage), I’m curious to know (a) whether it makes sense to talk about a manga “canon” and (b) what titles and authors you think belong in the canon. I’m particularly interested in the issue of gender: what female manga-ka belong in a canon and why? Do we have an innate bias towards seinen works, to the exclusion of shojo and josei titles? Inquiring minds want to know!

UPDATE, 9/15/09: Over at Extremely Graphic, librarian-blogger Sadie Maddox offers a thoughtful response to the question of whether or not Americans even have any business talking about a “manga canon.” She notes:

By being translated the integrity of the original work is compromised.  Of course, I’m all for translating because it means I get to read manga and I know that most translators do an excellent job.  But still, that’s one layer removed from the original intent. Are Americans really the ones who should be making a canon out of completely foreign material?

I didn’t get into the issue of translation (obviously one that would need to be addressed, if we were going to take this exercise to its logical conclusion), so go, read, and join the discussion at Extremely Graphic.

UPDATE, 10/6/09: Scholars John E. Ingulsrud and Kate Allen, authors of Reading Japan Cool: Patterns of Manga Literacy and Discourse, posted an interesting response to the question, “What belongs in the manga canon?” Their argument hinges on pedagogy: they note the original purpose of a canon was “to teach and test,” citing the New Testament as a body of literature compiled, in part, to answer the question, “Who was Jesus?” They suggest that any manga canon will arise from a similar need to teach and test. I think that’s a valid argument for the Japanese academy, but is more problematic in a Western context; it’s simply too early to know whether manga will be a permanent part of the American cultural landscape or just a passing fad. I also think they’re too quick to dismiss the question of artistry, as one of the most important contemporary functions of the so-called Western canon — by which I mean literature, art, and music — is to teach aesthetics. Whatever my philosophical differences with Ingulrud and Allen, I found their historical arguments compelling, and encourage you to read their essay for a different perspective on the issue of canonicity.

* I got over it, so don’t paint me as a shojo-hater. Anytime someone wants to license The Windows of Orpheus or The Poe Family, I’ll be a very happy camper.

43 thoughts on “What Belongs in the Manga Canon?”

  1. librariantom says:

    the first manga I ever read was Lone Wolf and Cub, but to me there were just “comics”.. I’m pretty sure that title belongs.

  2. Katherine Dacey says:

    From an American perspective, I’d say Koike is very important. I know less about his reputation in Japan, so I’d be curious to hear what his fellow countrymen think about his work.

  3. Ed Sizemore says:

    Well, top of the list is Tezuka’s entire catalog. First, because everything he wrote influenced someone that went on to become a manga artist. Second, he helped create new genres of manga, like shojo. Third, manga artists began to write in reaction to his works and whole new genres of manga were created because of this. Fourth, he began exploring new genres himself in reaction to the new directions manga was taking. So his entire catalog is a great foundation to study the history of manga from the 1940’s until the 1990.

    The entire catalog of Moto Hagio. Again here is another influencial artist that constantly explored new directions in her own work. It’s a shame how little of her material is English.

    That would be a good start.

  4. Katherine Dacey says:

    Tezuka is like Beethoven; we can’t ignore him or deny his influence, so yes, he definitely belongs. I agree with your suggestion that Moto Hagio is a canonic writer, too. I might broaden the list (no pun intended) to include other Magnificent ’49ers, too; it seems like Riyoko Ikeda and Keiko Takemiya should probably be included in any “greatest manga” lists.

  5. Ed Sizemore says:

    I agree, but I’m not as familiar with the other 49ers so didn’t want to suggest what I couldn’t define/defend.

    The hard part is moving away from these huge luminaries and getting down to people who you would only suggest one or two of their works. For example, I think that Ghost in the Shell has stood the test of time and shown itself to be very influential not only in Japan, but in the US too. However, it’s probably the only work of Shirow’s that I’d but on the list. Appleseed is tempting, but I don’t think it’s been as influential, even though it is still widely loved.

    Doraemon should definitely be on the list. It’s become a cultural institution. I mean Norbita has become synonymous with crybaby in Japan. It reminds me of a lot of Peanuts in that way.

  6. Katherine Dacey says:

    I’m glad you mentioned Doraemon, Ed — it’s really easy to overlook children’s literature when talking about “masterpieces,” but Doraemon is unquestionably one of the most ubiquitous and influential manga characters in the medium’s history. As for Shirow Masamune, I agree that he’s a bit of a one-hit wonder: some of his less famous work (e.g. Orion, Black Magic) is pretty awful. I guess everyone has a Wellington’s Overture in their catalogue!

  7. Kae says:

    Excellent points on the pitfalls and nature of “canonization”. To answer your question, though, I think that there will always be a need for a canon in the different forms of literature, even with its flaws. Perhaps awareness, then, might be a good start? I’ve always been under the impression that the primary purpose of a “canon” in any form of literature is to serve as a guide – a sort of list of what one “ought” to read. The politics behind that are inevitable, of course, since, as you mentioned, taste does end up playing a big factor in the discussion. Still: it is, the “need” to discuss a canon is very real, at least for critics, who seek to make some sort of sense and somehow evaluate the work that scholars of the field have put in.

    Readers may also find a “canon” valuable as well, since with the way things are going, there is (and maybe always has been) only so much time to read everything. It’s only natural for some readers to want to be selective, and therefore choose to privilege works that are worth their time.

    As to your second question, I don’t feel confident enough to make suggestions. I’m only really starting to read outside of my comfort zones with manga now, I think.

  8. Khursten says:

    lol. I was transferring servers today, but hopefully the post will be back up in time to open more lively discussions.

    I’m totally loving you for presenting all of these points (and in hindsight, seeing you point all those musicians remind me of Nodame.) and I suppose it’s a good food for thought eventually for manga readers. Thanks a lot for giving it some thoughts years after I have posed the question.

    I was thinking, in retrospect to your notes, that a manga canon in Japan would entirely be different to what us English readers would consider a manga canon. They’d possibly put Slam Dunk and Captain Tsubasa in their list. While us would probably put Real or maybe Prince of Tennis. Or maybe none at all.

    They’ll have a Hagio Moto in their list while we’ll have Natsuki Takaya in ours (Fruits Basket was quite an eye opening manga for many, wasn’t it?)

    It’s hard to choose. And I’d like to think that the list will not consist of chiefly seinen mangas. Doraemon’s got to be there. Same goes for Sazae-san.

    It’s hard to draw up a list when a part of me is even tempted to actually put Antique Bakery there.

  9. Katherine Dacey says:

    @Sae: Excellent points! I agree with your observations about the role canons play in shaping curricula and fields of study. I’m a little focused on the politics, I guess, because my primary areas of musical research tend to be marginalized.

    @Khursten: Thanks for taking the time to respond… you must have felt like you’d dug up a time capsule from your backyard!

    It is interesting to think how different an American otaku canon would be from a Japanese one. I had a Korean student once tell me that “I wouldn’t be a real manga fan until I’d read Slam Dunk,” a comment I shrugged off until I learned how well it sold throughout Asia. When I actually got around it reading it, I was surprised: I thought it was a pretty ho-hum shonen series. (In the spirit of disclosure, I’ve been a Celtics fans since the Red Auerbach glory days, so I felt like I was reading a Dick-and-Jane primer on the inner workings of a zone defense.) Intellectually, I understand the importance of including it, but aesthetically… not as much. Your example of Fruits Basket is equally instructive: it helped pique a lot of American girls’ interest in shojo, but it never rated more than a “meh?” among Japanese acquaintances.

  10. Daryl Surat says:

    Don’t worry too much about not caring for Slam Dunk, as it happens to be absolute garbage that is by and large known to US fans for its integral role in establishing yaoi fandom.

    Kazuo Koike is actually the single most respected living manga author in Japan, noted not only for his own creations—I’m still pining for a US release of The Starving Man—but also for the many manga creators whom he has taught, the most commonly cited example being Rumiko Takahashi.

    Certainly Osamu Tezuka gets his well-deserved due, but while Astro Boy may be his most famous work, if I were forced to pick one title to best demonstrate his contribution to the medium, there is no question that it would be Phoenix.

    But there are many others aside from Tezuka who deserve equal praise. Go Nagai invented the genres of manga/anime that either were or are currently the most popular ones. Shotaro Ishinomori’s output exceeded even Tezuka’s and helped establish the Japanese analog to our American superheroes. Mitsuteru Yokoyama’s long-running titles helped lay the foundation for the genre demographics of manga still used today. Yoshihiro Tatsumi and the other various authors that comprised the gekiga movement are starting to get the recognition they deserve in the US, but are still almost entirely forgotten about despite having an influence that can be seen to this day. And the list goes on and on: I didn’t even mention the Showa 24 group, Katsuhiro Otomo, and such.

    Establishing a “canon” is indeed a tricky affair. That’s probably why I prefer to not think about it.

  11. Michelle Smith says:

    In terms of the simple “beloved factor,” I think a case can be made for including Yoko Kamio on the list. Or, if not all her works, at least Boys Over Flowers. But again, this is another case where a series that’s extraordinarily loved in Asia has had less of an impact here.

  12. Katherine Dacey says:

    @Daryl: Tezuka tends to dominate the American discussion of manga’s origins, so I’m glad you acknowledged other artists’ contributions; reading some English-language histories, it’s easy to conclude that Tezuka was the godfather of all manga innovations, period. I’m not denying his importance — or the incredible, Wagnerian sophistication of Phoenix — just agreeing that the story is far more complex and messy.

    @Michelle: I’m embarrassed to admit that I still haven’t to read Boys Over Flowers… it’s on an ever-growing list of classic shojo titles that I need to read.

  13. Evan Minto (Vampt Vo) says:

    I think that a discussion of a manga canon is definitely relevant and necessary, as long as we remember to look critically not only at the manga that we choose, but the way in which we choose them. For example, putting all of Tezuka’s body of work into a canon might sound like a great idea, but when you get down to it, not everything he did was an amazing masterpiece of Japanese comics. We should look critically not just at newer titles, but also at the catalogs of affirmed master manga artists like Tezuka.

    Additionally, I think it would be very interesting to get an idea of what newer works would be fit for the canon. Picking out manga by Moto Hagio or Osamu Tezuka is simple, since they are already widely recognized for their work, but making a choice about something like Me and the Devil Blues or Monster is much more complex. In the “heat of the moment” (so to speak), how can we decide if recent series like these are relevant for a canon?

    And finally, I don’t think josei is at any risk of being left out of the canon. What I fear for are modern shonen and shojo, which many “scholarly” critics put down as being immature or worthless works of literature. (Kate, you touched on this with the discussion of a work’s popularity.) To leave these genres out of a manga canon would represent knocking out the very foundation of the medium we are trying to explore.

  14. Michelle Smith says:

    Evan, your comment reminds me how I once got steamed by reading an interview with a representative of a major publisher who made some remark about readers who “graduate from shojo.”

    “Graduate from shojo?!” I cried. “Has this guy *read* NANA? Basara? Banana Fish? Please Save My Earth?”

    As you may likely surmise, this is a pet peeve of mine. 🙂

  15. Jason S. Yadao says:

    Having just assembled my own “canon” of 50 series for the upcoming Rough Guide to Manga, the issue of which series to include was one that I had to wrestle with in the process of writing the book. I like to say that if you came up to me every week for a year and asked me to give you a “canon 50” list, I’d come back to you with 52 different lists. Sure, there would be some series that would remain consistent throughout, but there are others about which you could debate their inclusion until you keel over dead from exhaustion.

    Still, though, it’s an interesting discussion to entertain. This post certainly would’ve helped two years ago when I started drafting my list! I ended up using the following criteria as a start: (a) How much of an impact did it make in Japan? (b) How much of an impact did it make in the U.S. (and other English-speaking territories, too, since my editors were encouraging me to include two other major Rough Guides markets in the discussion in the U.K. and Australia/New Zealand)? And the wild card factor, (c) Did I love this series so much that (a) and (b) don’t really matter and I want to tell people about how much I love this series anyway? So with a combination of those three factors, that’s how I ended up with a list that has, for starters, Doraemon, Lone Wolf and Cub, Love Hina, Naruto and Love Roma.

    Oh, yes, and, umm, Slam Dunk is on my list, too. *ducks all the tomatoes being lobbed my way*

    As for the question of manga-ka gender and whether certain types of manga get picked more than others, I think sphere of influence has a lot to do with that. Someone choosing a “canon” who’s well-versed in manga history, particularly the dynamic growth periods of the 1960s and 1970s, likely will have a canon with a heavy dose of the Showa 24 group and may tend more toward those gritty seinen titles. I’m more an adult who blossomed into a manga fan during the Tokyopop “100% Authentic Manga” era, so my list of influential female manga-ka skew more toward Rumiko Takahashi, Yuu Watase and CLAMP, with all of them regularly having material licensed and subsequently embraced by the English-reading public. And the nature of the market during this time has been “SHONEN! SHOJO! Seinen! … oh yeah, and josei,” so there will be some bias from that. It’s when you start stepping out of your sphere of influence and exploring other spheres that you really start getting a sense of the true range of material out there. It’s something I tried to do in writing the Rough Guide to Manga, but I know from experience that it’s not a perfect process.

  16. Katherine Dacey says:

    Evan: Some great food for thought in your comments!

    One of the things about a canon is that it tends to be backwards-looking — think of it as a book museum. Museums, by their nature, tend to be conservative, preserving works that their curators deem historically valuable. Some museums do a better job of responding to current artistic trends than others, but it is awfully hard to know which works will endure and which ones will scream “2009!” to future generations. I can think of a few shojo and shonen series, though, that might still seem relevant in 10, 20, or 30 years, e.g. Hikaru no Go, X/1999. What are your candidates?

  17. Katherine Dacey says:

    Jason: Thanks for stopping by! I’m looking forward to reading The Rough Guide when it’s released in October.

    I like the formula you used to determine what to include in your book, as it strikes me as a good balance between scholarship and fandom: you pay tribute to the important stuff while still acknowledging the role that your own personal taste plays in choosing what makes the cut. I’m also glad to see you mention more recent shojo artists alongside Year 24 Group members. I tend to put on my historian’s hat when I get interested in something (classic movies, manga, jazz), so my first impulse was to “canonize” Hagio and Ikeda to the exclusion of more recent female manga-ka.

  18. Ken H. says:

    I think US readers in particular are prone to a Seinen and Shonen bias due to how manga was introduced to us here. For a long time the only manga that was being translated and released were things like Lone Wolf and Cub, Appleseed, Gunsmith Cats, Akira and the like. Personally I was 18 before I encountered my first Shojo series in the form of Sailor Moon.

  19. Khursten says:

    I’m quite amused at the slight distaste for Slam Dunk on some areas. In my country, beyond Barefoot Gen, Slam Dunk was one of the earliest mangas sold here. Basketball’s rather popular in Asian countries, so it’s something close to our hearts. I’d have to admit that there were some moments that we’re close to tears when things aren’t going well for Shohoku. orz.

    As for the yaoi fangirling that came with it, well… that’s possibly just an after-effect. I’m quite surprised that sports manga don’t exactly have a large following in the US (beyond perhaps the fandom community who largely supports works like Prince of Tennis). Or is this simply my impression?

    I’m actually glad someone mentioned Sailormoon. I think Sailormoon had a great impact over both shores. Another notable title is Versailles no Bara (Rose of Versailles). I don’t think it’s been released in the US, but when I went to Europe last year, when I mention manga, some people their first reply is Versailles no Bara. It was a strange exchange of “Yes! Yes! Oscar! and Andre! and Antoinette!” But for sure that’s another strong title.

    How about Kazuo Umezu? He’s also contributed some interesting horror manga.

  20. Dolores (Defunkt) says:

    Highly enjoyed your blog post. Although I am reading comic books
    for 35 years I only recently started reading manga. So I am looking
    forward to a manga canon by fans and readers who know what they
    are talking about.

    As I mentioned, above, I only recently jumped on the manga train I did
    read manga before, yet, it didn’t feel like manga. Being from Europe
    our first encounters with manga were with artists like Taniguchi,
    Tezuka and Urasawa. Also artists like Tatsumi, Hayashi and Asano
    are popular, over here. Artists who fit better in the European
    graphic novel tradition and inspire many European masters especially artists like Edmond Baudoin, Keramidas, Marini etc.

    In other words, a manga canon made by an European reader would
    be different and reflects the cultural influences of the
    way we create comic books.

    Looking forward to a canon from an American point of view.
    Why manga is gained ( and still gaining) so much popularity
    in The States is because,I think, you are used to long
    running ongoing comics. Plus, manga has so much genres that
    not only the traditional superhero fan is served but also
    ( and the most impartant reason ) a large audience of female
    readers. American) female comic readers who don’t care for
    super heroes but, do have an interest in comic books very often
    only have the option: Vertigo or indie titles. The other end
    of the comic book spectrum. Manga is the perfect bridge.
    Especially the more lighthearted shojo titles. At my comic book
    forum I am amazed that besides the X-Men books my female members
    totally adore Nana and everything Clamp! (btw my female members
    are from all over the world, an indication that female
    readers are slightly different readers than their male
    counter parts…)

  21. Katherine Dacey says:

    @Ken: That’s a good point you raise: Dark Horse and Eclipse Comics (one of Viz’s earliest imprints, I think) were responsible for introducing American readers to manga, so I think there’s a bit of a bias towards the manly-man stuff: Akira, Lone Wolf and Cub, Ghost in the Shell. Not that those works don’t belong in the canon, of course, but they loom large over the rest of the field.

    @Khursten: A few volumes of The Rose of Versailles were released in a bilingual English edition 10-15 years ago, but it never enjoyed a wide release. It’s a pity; it just seems like one of those titles every manga fan ought to read at some point.

    I’m glad you mentioned Umezu; he seems like the William Blake of manga, a strange, one-of-a-kind figure with a unique vision. The >Scary Book series that DH used to publish is filled with some incredible material.

    As for sports manga, I don’t know why it hasn’t caught on here in the US. I adore Real and Crimson Hero, but often find the extended game play in a lot of sports series kind of tedious, I guess.

    @Dolores: Thanks for stopping by and adding a European perspective to the discussion! I’m very jealous at how much access y’all have to great, adult-friendly titles. I’d KILL to have an English edition of Igarashi’s Witches (I think the French title is Sorcieres?), not to mention more Taniguchi, Hino, and Asano.

    Your experiences running a comic forum jive with my own experiences as a female comic fan: many of the women I know are beginning to branch out from manga after falling in love the comics medium. That was certainly my experience. I’m still not much for superheroes, but I’ve been reading a lot more widely than before.

  22. Sara K. says:

    “… Eclipse Comics (one of Viz’s earliest imprints, I think)”

    Nope. Eclipse Comics existed before Viz, putting out independent comics. Then Eclipse Comics launched ‘Eclipse International’, which they co-published with a brand new company called Viz Communications. The relationship only lasted a couple years, after which they parted ways, with most (all?) of the manga projects going to Viz. Of course some of the people who worked for Eclipse (Fred Burke, for example) got a job at Viz after Eclipse went under.

    To be fair, while the Eclipse International line was entirely shonen/seinen, they did try to reach out to the girls. One of the issues of Area 88 ran an article about shojo, and there were ads for a comic called ‘California Girls’ (which I should really get because I am one) that presented itself as a comic for girls.

    When I use the word ‘canon’ I usually use it in a very specific and well defined sense – such as ‘Shakespeare canon’, or in some fandoms, a distinction is made between ‘canon’ and ‘fanon’. I know people talk about ‘the canon of Western literature’, but I’ve never liked thinking about it in those terms, because that is such a subjective judgment, and to me canon is a term used when not much subjective judgment is needed. I would call every manga published in America part of the American manga canon.

    What you’re talking about seems to me to be more about what I would call selecting the classics … and I don’t think that’s something that can be forced. When people keep on coming back to the same works for something more than a passing pleasure … then it has a claim to being a classic.

  23. Katherine Dacey says:

    Thanks for clarifying the relationship between Viz and Eclipse Comics, Sarah — I knew there would be someone who could school me on Viz’s early history!

    I would disagree about the word “canon”; as we use the term in musicology, it designates only a certain part of the repertory (usually what we deem most influential to the development of Western musical practice), and part of what we do as scholars is determine what belongs to the canon. The word “canon” can certainly be used as you suggest (as in referring to the authentic works of a particular artist/author/composer), but isn’t as helpful in answering the question that Khursten posed in her original post.

    I shy away from the word “classic” because I find it more subjective than the notion of a canon. But that’s also because the word gets tossed around so much it has less meaning (for me, at least). But I definitely understand where you’re coming from, and appreciate you taking the time to offer a different perspective on the issue.

  24. Sara K. says:

    Well, I am most definitely not knowledgeable on musicology. And while the word ‘classic’ is used very much, and can mean many different things, I prefer it because to me picking out the finest manga has to be a very subjective enterprise. However, I had lost sight of Khursten’s post.

    The best way to learn about Viz history is to buy old Viz stuff, which is how I got 99% of the information in the previous post. It’s very affordable these days, as many old titles sell far below their original retail price.

  25. Melinda Beasi says:

    We also need to remember that whatever canon we devise will be flawed from the outset, revised many times, and say as much about our own tastes and values as it will about the inherent quality or relevance of the manga it includes.

    Your whole article is brilliant, but this sentence here struck me as particularly so. Yes, yes, YES.

  26. Helen McCarthy says:

    What an interesting discussion this is – I’m glad it acknowledges evolution as a force in building the history of a medium. I think, though, that we’ll also have to acknowledge creative unevenness. Few great creators’ catalogues contain only great works, or even only significant ones. Those who work the coalface of comics for a living tend to produce at least some slag among their best-quality fuel.

    I’m 100% with Ed Sizemore on the importance of including Tezuka, but I don’t think even the most partisan among us could write all his works into the canon. ‘Dari the Robot Nurse’ and ‘Gum Gum Punch’ are undoubtedly charming, but undoubted charm and distinguished lineage doesn’t give them automatic entry. Works like ‘Tonkaradani’ have a lot to offer, but they’re not on the same level as “Ayako” or “Barbara’. All Tezuka’s work is honest and well-crafted, but the man was so prolific, and working under such pressure, that not every title is a masterpiece.

    By the way, am I alone in wondering why so many Americans call him the ‘godfather of manga”? His own countrymen just call him the “god of manga”. I know Americans have to consider the sensitivities of the Bible Belt, but “godfather’, the title usually given to a Mafia don, might not seem like an honorific to anyone Japanese, especially not of Tezuka’s generation.

  27. Helen McCarthy says:

    And sorry Ed, but I have to take issue with another of your points on Tezuka. He changed the face of girls’ comics and invented many of its tropes, but he didn’t create shojo manga. Girls’ manga existed before him.

  28. Katherine Dacey says:

    Thanks for the kind words, Melinda!

  29. Katherine Dacey says:

    Helen: Thanks for adding your voice to the discussion — I apologize that your comments were stuck in my spam filter for so long, especially when you raise such important points about the quality of Tezuka’s work and his role in raising shojo manga’s visibility. I look forward to reading your book when it’s released next month.

    And no, you’re not alone in wondering where Tezuka’s “godfather” nickname came from. Perhaps it reflects some kind of Judeo-Christian bias/preference.

  30. Ed Sizemore says:

    I still stand by including Tezuka’s entire body of work, because no one single artist best illustrates the highs and the lows of manga better. Also, Tezuka was very reader conscious and tried to craft works that would have the widest appeal, so including all his works is a helpful way to track the changing tastes over the years. I would use his body of works as the skeleton of my canon and build up from there.

    Helen, to be corrected by such a luminary is flattering indeed. I apologize for saying Tezuka created shojo.

    By the way, as an Eastern Orthodox Christian I have no problem with saying Tezuka is the god of manga. In the same way I have no problem saying Posiedon was the god of the sea.

  31. Travis McGee says:

    I think there is a major, major limiting factor to the English speaking world trying to construct a canon of manga – most of us aren’t able to read Japanese.

    I say this because the manga market in English translation is still very limited when it comes to historical scope. We get a healthy chunk of the most popular shojo and shonen of the past two decades, and a very light smattering of signifcant historical works – basically Tezuka, and a few others that have managed to be published through the particular enthusiasm of people attempting to get the work over to the west (Tomine with Tatsumi, for instance). In the absence of these historical antecedents, it’s very difficult for us to have the appreciation of continuity and development of the art form that would allow us to construct a canon that would be at all plausible to a Japanese reader. For instance – a canon without Tsuge? From the third-party reports I’ve read, this would be ridiculous, but there’s so little of his work in English that it’s hard for us to make the kind of critical evaluation that would allow us to include him in it (or at least give him the proper place he deserves – it’s hard to deny the power of his work, even with the few short pieces we are able to read in our language).

    In other words, it’s like we’re trying to construct a literary canon when we’ve only read half of Shakespeare, a single novel of Dickens, and haven’t even skimmed Milton, Johnson, etc (hackneyed examples I know, but I opted for the most obvious). That just sounds a little absurd to me.

  32. Katherine Dacey says:

    Travis, thanks for raising the issue of translation — I’m amazed it hasn’t come up yet! I don’t know if you trekked over to Extremely Graphic for more discussion on this issue, but Sadie Maddox takes a similar position to yours. It’s definitely worth a look.

    On the one hand, the Western canon is polyglot. It contains works by Aeschylus, Dante, Flaubert, and Tolstoy (to name a few non-English speakers whose work is considered “canonic”), and no scholar could possibly be expected to know every language necessary to experience all these canonic works as they were originally written. We could use the word “canon” more proscriptively to limit it to works by English-speaking writers, but then it wouldn’t reflect the important role that French, Russian, and German writers played in the development of, say, the modern novel.

    On the other hand, I agree with your basic point: as English-speakers, there are many, many manga that are off-limits to us, making it difficult for us to appreciate the medium’s history the way a native Japanese speaker could. As I note above, any list we devise will be very flawed, and will be missing titles that Japanese historians would view as essential reading. As long as we don’t entertain any notion that our “manga canon” would be definitive, I think it might be an interesting and worthwhile exercise.

  33. Rod McKie says:

    Ken H makes a very good point and it’s very likely that the people who would fashion a Canon of manga are the male Seinen readers who first championed manga in the West and probably haven’t read any recent titles – beyond the Western reprints of Death Note and Monster and 20th Century Boys. The new manga readers and the new younger critics, many of whom are, for the first time, females, would cast a brand new set of canonical works that might include a number of creators the very male-centric Seinen-obsessed older crowd – like me -would overlook.

    I’m also mindful that we have no business trying to create a Western-centric Canon of Japanese literature, as there is already an established pecking-order of greatness in Japan where the creators of manga still work in apprentice/master environment. But as you say, it would be an interesting experiment to see what we would add. For me, Go Nagai is a given, along with Dr. Osamu Tezuka, Kazuo Umezu, Naoki Urasawa, Junji Ito, Fumiyo Kouno and …well, the list goes on and on doesn’t it?

  34. Katherine Dacey says:

    Great points, Rob! But don’t worry; folks like me recognize the important role of Otomo and Koike and Tatsumi, we just want to expand the canon a bit to include innovators like Moto Hagio, that’s all.

  35. Evan Minto (Vampt Vo) says:

    Great point, Travis! I agree that we face a major limitation because of translation, though I’m concerned more with a different facet of the translation problem. Namely that we can so often lose meaning and (more importantly) emotion from scenes in manga due to the translation into English, and that will significantly color our particular view of the manga canon. Even if we had translated every single manga ever published into English, we would still miss out on some of the subtle ideas being expressed in many of the works through the prose of the Japanese writers behind them. It’s sort of similar to the way a haiku loses some of its power when it is translated into English.

    Now this is certainly not a huge limitation, but I definitely think that it is something to consider when we make judgments about the literary merit of manga works (even if we are already admitting that our judgment is inherently biased).

    @Ed: I still would have to agree with Helen. Tezuka is a great manga author, no doubt about it, but I would hesitate to induct everything that he has ever made into the canon. Most of it deserves a spot, but we cannot expect all of his works to stand up to comparison with modern masterpieces. Yes, Tezuka’s contributions do indeed represent much of the scope of manga, but certain parts of that scope might be even better illustrated by looking to his contemporaries. If nothing else it would add variety to the canon, which makes for a better representation of the medium.

  36. Tegan says:

    This is definitely an interesting project.
    I think a big challenge with this would be that very few people just start reading manga cold turkey. Manga has a lot more specific a definition than music or prose, and there have been a few intermediate steps that, while not manga, would normally be considered very important to any manga fan.
    Case in point: how many manga people do you know who didn’t watch Sailor Moon as a kid or read Nausicaa or Akira without seeing the movie first?
    It’s really more of a western thing; and since they’re outside of the medium, I wouldn’t count them as part of the canon, but I think that kind of thing deserves at least a footnote somewhere, n the same way that one might discuss how the development of photography influenced painters.
    Maybe these things could be included on a list of supplements?

  37. Katherine Dacey says:

    Good point! Anime has played a major role in introducing Americans to manga, giving us a very different perspective on what series are “masterpieces” or most important to the medium’s history.

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