Imagine you’re a comic book fan, browsing for something new to read. Intrigued by what you’ve heard about Japanese manga, you pick one up and open it to the first page. And wow, there’s a dead body in the first panel! What an intense opening. But wait, why is the corpse getting stabbed again, then suddenly standing up and running about? Is the character a zombie or something?
No, you’re just reading the panels out of sequence. Unlike the left-to-right flow of comic panels in the English world, manga are designed to be read from right to left, then top to bottom, starting on the right-hand page before continuing to the left.
Confused? Manga creator and critic Kentaro Takekuma says you shouldn’t have to be, and he has a plan to change all that.
Long ago, when manga first began being translated and sold in English-speaking countries, the standard practice was to change the original artwork to a mirror-image of itself, giving the visuals a left-to-right flow, and the stories an unusally large number of left-handed protagonists.
But as manga caught on around the world, a number of Japanese artists started to grumble about their drawings being retouched for overseas release. These complaints eventually reached the ears of overseas licensing companies, some of whom started releasing English versions of manga in their original layouts. Often times they included diagrams of how to read them, such as this one from Los Angeles-based manga publisher Tokyo Pop.
Make that now-defunct Los Angeles-based manga publisher Tokyo Pop. While manga has gained a foothold in the English-speaking world, it still hasn’t achieved the success there of locally-produced comics from companies like Marvel and DC.
Takekuma, whose credits include the Super Mario comics run in Nintendo Power in the 1990s, recently engaged in a lively Twitter debate with other industry members as he called for manga artists to arrange their panels in a left-to-right flow in order to attract more overseas readers.
Known for his outspoken apprehensions about the future of the manga industry, Takekuma feels the best way to boost overseas sales is not by focusing on preexisting hard-core fans, but instead by creating works that are appealing and accessible to ordinary readers who aren’t necessarily Japanophiles. To that end, he has been pushing for a shift to laying out panels for reading from left to right, even in their Japanese-language versions. Takekuma points out that English and Chinese, the two most-used languages on the planet, are commonly read from left to right.
▼ Takekuma, looking just a little like Mario himself
Takekuma goes on to say that in recent years many talented students have been coming from abroad to study Japanese comic production techniques. Within the next ten years, Takekuma feels, their ability to couple the manga look and feel with local sensibilities will make it increasingly difficult for titles by Japanese creators to find readers abroad.
Of course, after decades and decades of right-to-left layouts, not everyone is onboard. Takekuma decries how many manga producers have become set in their ways, resting on their laurels while clinging to what he says is the false belief that manga is so superior to other forms of comics that new readers abroad will put in the time to remap their reading patterns. “I’d go so far as to say the industry is being insanely short-sighted,” he remarks.
On the other side of the debate is manga critic Go Ito, whose rebuttal is that there’s nothing wrong with simply laying out English versions of manga by using a mirror-image of the original artwork. Ito holds that the best way to promote manga abroad is by focusing on quality translations. As for being short-sighted, he says the label is more appropriate for Takekuma, as the right-to-left layout simplifies the process of producing renditions of manga in Arabic, which is read in that direction.
Also participating in the discussion were manga artists Kota Hiroano, whose title Hellsing scored a major hit with fans in the English-reading world, and Masami Yuki, of Patlabor and Birdy the Mighty fame. Yuki feels that Takekuma may have a point, but Hirano takes issue with Takekuma’s assertation that artists should be able to immediately break from years of ingrained artistic philosophy, saying that the left-to-right advocate is acting like a mad scientist from one of Yuki’s sci-fi manga.
▼ Pictured: a mad scientist from one of Yuki’s sci-fi manga
As could be expected, this head-on collision of layout theories became deadlocked in the middle, with no concrete plans for change being arrived at. In the meantime, expect Takekuma to keep charging from left to right, just like Nintendo’s famous plumber whose comic he produced.