On July 22, Comic-Con International announced the winners of this year’s Will Eisner Comic Industry Awards. And, for the first time in the history of the Eisners, the award in the Best Academic/Scholarly Work category went to a book on sequential art in Japan – Comics and the Origins of Manga: A Revisionist History, by Eike Exner. Anime and Manga Studies extends ours congratulations to the book’s author. We are particularly excited to be able to ask several questions about the book, the challenges of actually conducting the research that went into writing it, and the kinds of reactions both publishers and readers have had.
Japanese comics, commonly known as manga, are a global sensation. Critics, scholars, and everyday readers have often viewed this artform through an Orientalist framework, treating manga as the exotic antithesis to American and European comics. In reality, the history of manga is deeply intertwined with Japan’s avid importation of Western technology and popular culture in the early twentieth century.
MK: Just for an introduction, can you give us a bit about who you are and your background?
Eike Exner: I’m originally from Germany and like most Germans grew up with the works of Wilhelm Busch, so it was wild to learn during the research for my book that Busch’s work was quite popular in Japan as well. I started studying Japanese because my German high school offered classes in it (no Italian, no) and I liked languages, so I took every language class available. Without that I probably would have never started studying Japanese and hence would have never written this book, which is strange to think about. I came to the U.S. for college and grad school, with several years spent in Japan in between. Since leaving academia I’ve been financing my research with translation work for the most part.
MK: Along the same lines, how would you describe or promote the book that you just wrote to someone who is not really familiar with the subject?
The book explains (with plenty of images) how comics – as in “stories told via successive panels that include dialog between characters (usually in speech balloons)” – took root in Japan in the 1920s. Many manga histories try to establish some kind of connection between Japanese comics and centuries of older Japanese art but the biggest origin point of modern manga was American comic strips hugely popular in Japan between 1923 and 1940. There’s also a chapter on how and why those comics came about in the U.S around 1900 and why it took two decades for them to become popular in Japan as well. If someone wants to really understand how manga started, they’re going to enjoy the book. I spent two years going through early Japanese comic strips in newspapers and magazines at the National Diet Library in Tokyo, so everything is carefully documented with lots of evidence.
Many manga histories try to establish some kind of connection between Japanese comics and centuries of older Japanese art but the biggest origin point of modern manga was American comic strips hugely popular in Japan between 1923 and 1940.