A DISTANT SOIL isn’t manga. The more you know…
This doesn’t happen much anymore (thank God) but for some weird reason, people refer to A DISTANT SOIL as manga. Someone once even wrote an article referring to it as “Amerimanga” which is ridiculous. I was asked yesterday about it, and I strongly object to the reference. Not only is it not accurate, but just because I consider manga an influence, that does not make A DISTANT SOIL manga. I’ve never said it was.
Manga has never been an influence on my story, expect for a couple of occasions way back in the day when I put in some in-joke bits about manga I liked for kicks. And they’ve been excised. I also put in a lot of in-jokes about Led Zeppelin, but no one says A DISTANT SOIL is rock and roll.
A DISTANT SOIL predates my exposure to manga, and it predates all manga imports, so I don’t know why anyone thinks I would have seen any of it while creating it. I guess they just don’t know much about the timeline of my work.
Most of the shuojo manga that people seem to think is an influence on my story was either published after A DISTANT SOIL first appeared, or while I was creating it in the 1970’s when I couldn’t possibly have seen manga stories serialized in magazines on the other side of the planet. The internet did not exist, and neither did scanlations.
The influence from manga is primarily visual: I dumped an early effort to print my book from the original pencil art and switched to inks because my early inking style was considered too delicate by clients. I was told inking with pens was forbidden in American comics.
After I was first introduced to manga in the summer of 1984 by cartoonist Leslie Sternbergh (after A DISTANT SOIL had already been published,) using the inking style I was told I could not use and had shown in my samples, I switched to inking the way I wanted.
The reaction to my inking was so hostile at one point that after about 60 pages, I tried inking A DISTANT SOIL with a harder, more graphic style. You can see the result of this decision after the first 70 pages of the story, up through the next 120 pages or so. It’s a stylistic change I truly regret. If I had my druthers, I’d redo the whole section.
My inking technique comes from 19th century illustration, primarily from exposure to artists like Aubrey Beardsley. If I was influenced by Japanese line art it was from tertiary exposure: many of the 19th century illustrators I admire were influenced by Japanese woodblock prints. But my clean line art style didn’t come directly from manga. Manga influenced my decision to stick to that style and to develop it. The predominant style in American comics at the time was thick and thin inking with a brush. I was told flat out by multiple editors, including editors on A DISTANT SOIL, never to ink with a pen. When I pointed out Terry Austin inked with a pen, one editor sniffed “You’re no Terry Austin”.
No, but I’m me.
Manga utilized visual symbols in backgrounds. I’d been told this was a bad thing to do, even though American comics at the time also use symbolism, such as speed lines, and line bursts to indicate excitement. Symbolism was just more restrained in America and not as varied. I also saw symbolism used in European comics, in particular by some Italian and Spanish artists.
When I saw visual symbolism used widely in manga, I started pushing it in my own work.
In 1996, when I first went to Japan, I began using a lot of Japanese tone sheets. However, I decided that I was overusing them at one point, and cut way back.
Anyway, manga was a positive influence on my visual and storytelling technique, in some ways confirming where I already wanted to go, in others helping me to see that it was OK to break some American comics rules. I’m sure most of you don’t remember the days when editors pushed hard for 6 rectangular panels per page and nothing else! Even editors who were supposedly manga enthusiasts would discourage deviations from American style, in part because of what they thought were concerns over marketability, but also because I thought some of them were engaging in gatekeeping: it was OK for them to be interested in manga, it just wasn’t OK for you to be interested in manga. A lot of that gatekeeping still goes on in manga fan and pro circles. I’m sure this comes as no surprise to some of you!
Manga had absolutely no influence on the plot or story development of A DISTANT SOIL. I didn’t read any SF manga at all. At the time, SF shuojo was not only rare, but none had made it to the United States. My favorite mangas were dramas and historical fiction. And, of course, I couldn’t read a word of Japanese back in the day, so all I could do was look at the pictures. I really had no idea what was going on, and never knew how far off I was until translations appeared decades later.
Also, the manga I saw early on had a less dense storytelling structure than American comics. I like the storytelling structure and technique of ’70’s era manga, but not most modern manga. I think it’s way too loose. I took the same approach Frank Miller took: he didn’t want to imitate manga, but “…realised when I started Sin City that I found American and English comics be too wordy, too constipated, and Japanese comics to be too empty. So I was attempting to do a hybrid”.
I don’t really read any manga these days, and I don’t have time for anime, either. My scope and interests have swung toward European comics. I think that shows in my work a lot now.
I like to acknowledge my influences at all times, but I have never made the claim that A DISTANT SOIL is OEL (Original English Manga,) and it has had no influence on my story at all. I’m grateful for the influence on my art technique. But I’ve never considered it manga, because it simply isn’t.