Understanding Manga: Editor Melinda Beasi Discusses CBLDF Presents Manga

CBDLF Presents MangaDark Horse Comics have joined with the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund in releasing the new guide CBLDF Presents Manga: Introduction, Challenges and Best Practices ($15.99, 978-1-61655-278-7, December 4 release), a handbook designed to provide libraries, booksellers and fans with a concise and informed overview of manga—its history, genres, and challenges.

While manga has become an established part of the comics world (and libraries' graphic novel sections), it is still the subject of suspicion, challenges, and more. The most notable incident was the recent "Brandon X" case, in which an American citizen who faced criminal charges after Canadian customs officials searched his laptop and found what they deemed obscene manga images. A full summary of the case is available from the CBLDF, who greatly aided in the defense, at this link: http://ow.ly/p81oK

Edited by Manga Bookshelf editor Melinda Beasi, CBLDF Presents Manga features contributions from a number of manga scholars, critics, and creators, including School Library Journal's Robin Brenner and Katherine Dacey, Vertical Inc. Marketing Director Ed Chavez, and Viz Media editor and Otaku USA contributor Shaenon Garrity.

BookShelf spoke with Beasi about the book, issues present in the current manga scene, and the effect of the Brandon X case on manga fandom.

How did you come to work on this book?

Early last year, I received an email from my colleague and friend Erica Friedman. In it, she said that Charles Brownstein had approached her about managing a "Manga 101" book project for the CBLDF and that, though it wasn't something she was available to take on, she'd recommended me. I'd only met Charles once, and very briefly, but I'd written a blog post for the organization the year before about my personal take on the Brandon X case, so he was familiar with me and my writing to some extent. I reached out to let him know that I was interested in the project, and my involvement began pretty quickly. Luckily, I was able to take advantage of Erica's considerable expertise for the project after all, by signing her on as a writer!

How did you decide which writers and subjects to include?

Charles already had a vision for the project when I came on board, in terms of what kind of subject matter he thought should be included, and who he wanted to reach. So I just expanded on that to start. There is no shortage of material about manga available in English, and I think most people would still consider Frederik Schodt's Manga! Manga! the World of Japanese Comics to be the definitive authority when it comes to explaining manga to English-speaking audiences. Add to that the significant contributions of writers like Paul Gravett, Helen McCarthy, Roland Kelts, Jason Thompson, and so on, and there's clearly a wealth of information readily available to anyone who's looking. So if we were going to publish something as an introduction to manga, it was clear that we needed to come at it from a perspective that was different from the numerous books already available. Though we knew that we were going to need to go over a lot of well-covered ground, such as the history of manga, its journey to the West, and its primary marketing demographics, we were determined to approach it as necessary background for the CBLDF's real mission: to educate librarians, retailers, parents, and fans about the legal and cultural challenges unique to manga reading in North America.

When it came to hiring writers, there were a few immediate issues—in particular, the timeline, which was pretty aggressive, especially in the beginning. Beyond that, my primary strategy as editor was to seek out writers more knowledgeable than I. Sure, I write about manga, and I think I have a unique perspective and some interesting things to say, but I wouldn't consider myself an expert on the subject any means. Furthermore, I sought out writers who were actively involved in some way with current manga fandom— bloggers, publishers, editors, librarians—people with a real stake in keeping up with current releases and engaging with younger fans. Certainly, I sought writers with specific areas of expertise as well, and you'll see that reflected in their individual chapters. I felt very lucky that most of the people I approached were both excited about the project and able to work it into their packed schedules. It was a thrill to be able to work with so many of my favorite writers in the industry on a project as meaningful as this one.

Among the aspects of manga you cover is the scanlation phenomenon. How large a part of manga fandom does this seem to be, and what issues have you found coming from it?

There are so many issues connected with scanlations, legal and otherwise, and there is probably no subject more polarizing in manga fandom. But the issues most relevant to the subject matter of this book have primarily to do with content. Though even officially licensed manga has run up against its share of challenges, particularly in schools and libraries, readers can find some sense of security in the fact that these books have been carefully selected (and occasionally edited) for publication in English, with North American sensibilities and community standards in mind. Scanlations, obviously, have gone through no such process, so there is a much greater chance that they'll include vulnerable content. This especially poses a risk for fans traveling across the border, whose electronic devices may be searched for what is perceived as obscene content.

What level of familiarity with manga should the reader of this book have (if any)?

It is intended to require little to no familiarity at all, and I think it lives up to that. Part of the reason we took the time to cover standard ground, was so that the book could serve as an introduction for the uninitiated. But I think it’s got a lot to offer long-time fans as well, particularly in the sections that cover community and legal challenges.

Have you found libraries/schools who aren't familiar with manga?

This would probably be a better question for one of the book's authors, Robin Brenner, a teen librarian who has also authored an Eisner-nominated book of her own (Understanding Manga and Anime, Libraries Unlimited, 2007). But my admittedly anecdotal experience would suggest that familiarity with manga varies dramatically from school to school and library to library, based on the interest and expertise of individual librarians. You'll see this disparity from collection to collection as well. Robin, for instance, maintains a rich selection of manga (and graphic novels in general) in her library's collection. My own local library, on the other hand, carries almost none at all.

As a writer/editor who covers manga, what kinds of trends do you see?

That's a big question! Honestly, I think I personally write in a bit of a vacuum, in that my own website's readership is skewed to a very particular type of manga fan—adult, likely female, with eclectic tastes that lean towards grown-up manga. That those tastes run contrary to many manga publishing trends, however, tells me that there are a whole lot of readers I rarely see, and I think these are the readers who most need to hear the message the CBLDF is working so hard to broadcast—not only in terms of the issues and risks they may face as manga readers, but also about their rights, and who they can turn to for help when those rights are challenged. Hopefully, getting this book into the hands of librarians will help the CBLDF reach those fans.

What is it about manga that makes people see it as separate from western comics? Why does there seem to be a division in the fans of manga/manhwa (Korean comics) and American comics?

I think there are a number of reasons for this division—some real, and some imaginary. In general, I think fans of manga and fans of American comics are equally likely to pass judgment on each other's passion based largely on misinformation. For instance, until I began interacting heavily with other comics writers, my own perception of American comics was based almost exclusively on superhero and newspaper comics. Those were really the only American comics I was aware of, and I foolishly assumed that this is all there was. Similarly, American comics fans will often speak of "manga style" art, as though that was actually a real, homogeneous thing (tip: it's not), or as though it was mainly pornography (definitely not). Nobody is off the hook. Note that I can't lump manga and manhwa fans together here, because manga fans are just as likely to pass sweeping judgment on manhwa based on experience with just one or two books, or sometimes a single genre.

That said, there are certainly things that draw me to manga, some of which can be attributed directly to the way comics are published in Japan. These would include things like the lengthy serialization of works by a single creator and the vast quantity of mass-marketed comics created by and for women (and girls), in every genre imaginable. There are also aspects of the Japanese comics tradition that appeal to me in particular—trends in layout, panel design, and visual storytelling. I could happily drown in a sea of late 1980s shoujo. I suspect that fans of American comics have preferences that are similarly tied to American comics traditions. These can end up being generalizations too, of course, but not without foundation.

What effect do you think the Brandon X case will have on manga, or manga readership?

When fans first heard about the case (those of us who did), I think our primary reaction was denial, followed by fear. First, we assured ourselves that nothing in our collections would lead to legal trouble… then we left all our manga at home, anyway. I would hope, however, that the success of Ryan [Matheson, the defendant]'s case might ultimately lead manga fans to recognize the importance of asserting and defending their rights—not only for themselves, but for manga fandom as a whole.