What is “great” manga artwork?

Let’s talk about manga artwork. There are a couple of manga that are regularly praised for their “amazing art” – Vagabond and Berserk, for example – and I’m like “eh”. I gave Vagabond a try several years ago, and actually found the artwork bad. It was a good display of great technical skill, but it conveyed nothing. It left me cold. It looked lifeless and boring to me. I couldn’t get into the manga at all, and dropped it. When people say “great art”, what they often mean is “photorealistic, highly detailed art”. Well, photorealism is overrated – not just when it comes to manga.

There are basic drawing skills that I think every really great mangaka must have: a good grasp on anatomy, facial expression and perspective, a sense for image composition, an ability to control the reader’s gaze … Manga is a fascinating medium because it requires a mix of very different skills. You can’t just focus on one aspect and ignore all the others, because the only thing that really matters is the end result, the story as a whole.

Some food for thought:

  • Hunter X Hunter is often singled out as a manga with “terrible art”, because Togashi has gone through periods when he’s delivered just rough sketches for publication in Weekly Shonen Jump. Let’s not discuss the possible reasons here – but even Togashi’s most casual sketches show that he’s an excellent artist with a sure grasp on anatomy.
  • Blade of the Immortal is another manga that gets praised a lot for its realistic artwork. I really like the art of Blade of the Immortal – not because of the realism, but because it is expressive, dynamic and fits the atmosphere of the story very well. Still, it’s not perfect: early BotI had some awkward anatomy problems, and one persistent weakness of Hiroaki Samura (which he even admits) is that his female characters tend to look the same. Actually, maybe this wouldn’t be so noticable if his style was less realistic?
  • There are a couple of manga I bought as a manga newbie because I found the artwork amazingly beautiful! Looking at these manga now, they’re just … OK, I guess, but nothing special. Maybe I was blinded by pretty character designs and a slightly above-average level of detail, but in the end, none of this was enough to keep my interest or make the manga memorable. I don’t think I even finished reading them.
  • How do I put this? >_< … I get the impression that “manga with great art” is often understood to mean “manga that doesn’t look like those typical manga because those are for kids and I need to prove that my tastes are that of a serious adult”. But it’s .. kind of sad that “doesn’t look like manga” is supposed to be the highest praise for manga art.

 

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4 thoughts on “What is “great” manga artwork?

  1. When people say “great art”, what they often mean is “photorealistic, highly detailed art”.

    Yes, exactly! Or worse, I actually think people often mean “highly detailed art which isn’t even photorealistic but which fools me into thinking it is by being overtly detailed for no purpose”. People mistake “detailed” for “good” all the time both in manga and in fine art, and I also agree with you 100% about HxH.

    “manga with great art” is often understood to mean “manga that doesn’t look like those typical manga because those are for kids and I need to prove that my tastes are that of a serious adult”

    Haha, also so true. This is, again, the type of attitude that comes out of people never considering why a certain style of art is the way it is; the basic goal of manga art is not to be Rembrandt, the goal is (or at least should be) for the art to serve a purpose in the telling of the story, because that’s the type of medium manga is. Like, wow, shojo has really “unrealistic” large eyes? You’re totally the first to ever point this out! /sarcasm The real question is why one style of manga art or another is the way it is, the contemplation of the choices being made in the art style which are answers to the question “What is the artist trying to convey, what do they ultimately find important?” The reason stereotypical manga art is the way it is is because the eyes convey emotion! If you can’t even grasp that, you have no right to even attempt to talk about what manga art is “good” or “bad”…

    /drunk ramblings

    • People mistake “detailed” for “good” all the time both in manga and in fine art,

      Yeah, definitely! That’s why modern art gets scoffed at so much. Art needs to look like it took a lot of time to make! Except that you can work for two years on a piece of art and it can still look crappy. And it’s unfair (dare I say, unrealistic) to expect all manga artists to dedicate extra days of work to the addition of superfluous details like finger nails, individual blades of grass etc. Especially mangaka working on a tight schedule for a weekly magazine. Part of their job is proper time management, so they have to decide when it actually makes sense, and adds something to the story, to go detailed. Like you said … ultimately, manga is a storytelling medium and the art serves a purpose. And a good artist knows when it’s more effective to use more or less details. You cannot criticize a lack of detail without explaining why you think this particular scene would profit from being drawn in more detail.

      The reason stereotypical manga art is the way it is is because the eyes convey emotion! If you can’t even grasp that, you have no right to even attempt to talk about what manga art is “good” or “bad”…

      Oh, yeah. You need to understand the visual language of manga before you can judge these things. Kinda obvious, you’d think. XD But this reminds me of emoticons, and how Western emoticons change the mouth to express different emotions, while Japanese/Asian emoticons change the eyes. I’m no expert, but maybe that’s sort of related and Western people who’re totally unfamiliar with manga just don’t expect the eyes to have that function …

  2. I was discussing this last month, most precisely about Mob Psycho 100. It has sketchy, cartoony, and probably animation-inspired art and it pains me to see people bash it, like the manga has no value at all besides the writing and you should stay way from it and just watch the anime. People use the same excuse (“I read for the plot”) when talking about Hunter x Hunter, it’s so dumb.

    I gave Berserk a try last year and felt It was like what you said about Vagabond, a good display of great technical skill. But I just couldn’t feel it, so I dropped it…

    • Oh, yeah, it frustrates me when people prefer the (usually more generic, less individualistic) look of an anime adaptation over that of a manga, especially when the artist has developed his/her own, unique style. Well … I hate how disinterested in manga the so-called anime/manga fan community is. I keep coming across anime reviews that don’t mention that it’s based on a manga, don’t mention the original creator’s name … Way to treat the mangaka as disposable! I could rant about this all day, actually. XD

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