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.
MK: What inspired you to study this particular topic, and to write the book?
I always thought it was odd that “comics” and “manga” are basically the same medium but supposedly evolved from two completely different traditions. That never made sense to me. I started out mostly interested in the translation of visual media more broadly but when I saw how many translated comics there were in Japan in the 1920s and how the first Japanese comics looked like a direct reaction to them, I realized I had stumbled on something really interesting. Because the idea that manga and comics are actually the same thing, with the same origins, is so different from the established narrative – Japanese public schools literally teach middle schoolers that manga is an ancient Japanese tradition – I knew I had to be very thorough and specialize in manga history to make my case as convincing as possible.
MK: How did you go about conducting your actual research?
80% of it was sitting in libraries and archives and scrolling (using a literal hand crank) through microfilm reels for hours, looking for comic strips. Newspapers were the primary vehicle for comics back then, but they didn’t index them or anything, so you basically have to go through newspaper pages one by one to stumble upon them, which is a big reason why this history was lost. There’s an excellent book by a Chinese scholar who wrote her dissertation on children’s manga and who documented a lot of them, but she focused on just five newspapers, so there was still lots to do. There probably still is a lot more material to be found, but I had to stop at some point once I had more than enough evidence. A big chunk of the other 20% was reading autobiographies by people active in cartooning back then, scanning for relevant bits, like a mangaka casually mentioning that he started drawing comics because of Bringing Up Father (the most popular of the American comics in Japan back then and the longest-running prewar manga period).
MK: Were there any things you learned during your research that you were not expecting to find?
Eike Exner: The biggest holy **** discoveries for me were just how popular and long-lived Bringing Up Father was in Japan, how frequently its characters showed up in ads and popular culture more generally, and how many foreign comics were read by Japanese people at the time (I almost screamed when I came across Krazy Kat in Japanese), plus various random finds like coverage of the Japan tour of a circus from Hagenbeck’s Zoo in Hamburg, which I used to go to as a child, or a Japanese comic strip about Babe Ruth. It was also interesting, though perhaps not that surprising, to witness the shift in content from cosmopolitan and liberal towards fascist and militaristic over the course of the 1920s and 1930s. The most popular children’s manga of the 1930s, Norakuro, explicitly taught children that it would be noble to die in a suicide bombing for their country, very different from the more lighthearted comic strips of the mid-1920s.
None of the major academic publishers was interested, one publisher focusing on comics lost interest for unspecified reasons and another took so long to complete the peer review process that I withdrew the manuscript. One peer reviewer tried to sabotage the book by grossly misrepresenting its content, probably because it contradicts something they’ve written.
MK: Did you have any difficulty finding a publisher who would be interested in the project?
Definitely, yes. None of the major academic publishers was interested, one publisher focusing on comics lost interest for unspecified reasons and another took so long to complete the peer review process that I withdrew the manuscript. One peer reviewer tried to sabotage the book by grossly misrepresenting its content, probably because it contradicts something they’ve written. In retrospect it’s funny that a senior academic really wrote “this manuscript does not fulfill minimum standards for publication as a scholarly work,” now that the same manuscript has won an award for “Best Scholarly/Academic Work,” but at the time I was genuinely worried that I might never get the book published because it contradicts too many established academics. I’ve definitely learned from the process how petty and childish academics can be. But everything went smoothly after I approached Rutgers. My editor there, Nicole Solano, thought the book had potential and got it through peer review in record time.
I’ve been branded as anti-Japanese by a Twitter mob of netouyo (Japanese online right-wingers) that called my book racist and cultural appropriation, including the cover image of Bringing Up Father, which they assumed was Japanese in origin.
MK: What kinds of reactions have you received in Japan, from your colleagues, or from others in the comics studies community?
Eike Exner: I’ve been branded as anti-Japanese by a Twitter mob of netouyo (Japanese online right-wingers) that called my book racist and cultural appropriation, including the cover image of Bringing Up Father, which they assumed was Japanese in origin. Their relentless tweets actually helped sell a few copies of the book that very day on the Japanese Amazon site, so apparently it’s true that any publicity is good publicity.
A group of Japanese comics scholars who had already helped me a lot with my research have been very supportive and have organized a Zoom event to talk about it later this month. People familiar with pre-1945 manga generally know that the history of manga as an ancient tradition is nonsense, but given that that narrative is actively promoted in schools and elsewhere (don’t get me started on a recent tech company project), it’s been difficult to correct. Kinokuniya started stocking the book in Tokyo after it won the Eisner and I hope there’ll be a Japanese translation some day.
In general the reaction has been positive, but you can often predict someone’s reaction based on whether they like manga for being Japanese or for being comics. Comics scholars around the globe have been overwhelmingly supportive and I’ve received some extremely kind feedback, whereas some Japan studies people familiar with the book are either ignoring it or have been openly hostile to its core argument.
MK: Do you have any personal advice you could give to someone who is interested in studying either comics or manga, or Japanese literature/culture in general.
Eike Exner: Always look at primary sources as much as possible!
Double-check fundamental assumptions, don’t take conventional wisdom for granted. Look up footnotes; they sometimes don’t support what they’re cited in support of.
Other researchers are often your greatest resource. Don’t be afraid to contact them out of the blue if there’s something you cannot find out on your own. Likewise, if you come across something that might be useful to someone else, share it.
Language skills are essential. One peer reviewer suggested I should include more English-language scholarship but virtually all original scholarship on early manga was in Japanese.
If you’re working on something that runs counter to the Japanese government’s preferred narrative, hide that in your applications for funding from the Japan Foundation (or any other organization that might be ideologically opposed to your research; I learned this the hard way).
If you’re doing a PhD, look for alternatives to a career in academia. Academia is an absurd rat race already and the dwindling jobs are getting worse, with no improvement in sight.
If you’re just starting, consider what kind of department would be best suited to the research you’re interested in. There are extremely few comics studies departments in the world, and expectations will vary greatly between an art history department and a literature department, for example.