Wednesday, January 25, 2012

manga editorial techniques

[This is a response of sorts to musings by The League on the abysmal relationship between creators and editors in the US comic book industry.]

In the summer of 1997, I spent six weeks in Tokyo interning at the publisher Kodansha. For the second half of that period, I worked in the non-fiction translated straight-to-paperback department. In the first half, however, I spent each week interning at a different "Magajin," or manga magazine.

One of the most interesting of these was Weekly Shonen Magazine, or 週刊少年マガジン. "Shonen" here means something like "young men's" (literally = "few years"), and I believe the readership was largely young men ranging in age from 15 to 30 or so. This experience was interesting partly because, at the time, Weekly Shonen Magazine was the best selling manga publication in Japan, selling significantly over 2 million copies every single week. Each issue of the magazine was something like 300 pages long, comprising 20 page episodes in serials by a different creative teams.

That's right, contributors to Weekly Shonen Magazine generated 20 pages of a story every single week.

At the time, the chief editor for Weekly Shonen Magazine was Ishii-sensei (I believe, I hope my memory isn't going out on me here, but if anyone knows differently, please correct me). Ishii-sensei had previously edited Monthly Shonen Magazine, and his particular editorial style had succeed in pulling that magazine out of a long term slump and rocketing it to relative popularity. This success prompted his promotion to editor-in-chief-ship of Weekly Shonen Magazine, and it was under his direction that the magazine moved into the most popular slot, against its long time competitor, Weekly Shonen Jump.

Now, what was Ishii-sensei's strategy for extracting 20 pages of story each from a large number of creative teams such that the combined product would be read by millions of young men every single week? The answer is of interest in the context of the present state of US comics as it involved intrusive and overbearing editorial oversight.

Of course, I didn't see Ishii-sensei himself engage in this process, but I witnessed it multiple times by his underlings in various meetings with manga artists.

First, the basic schedule. My understanding is that scripts were worked out one week in advance, and I assume editorial intervention worked the same way during that stage of the process, although I never witnessed it. The artists received the script at the start of their week. Two days later, they met with the editor assigned to their story. On the basis of these meetings, they'd spend the next couple days finalizing pencils, then perhaps go through a final meeting before spending the rest of the week inking.

(Yes, these artists worked hard! I remember talking to one who worked at home, but still complained he never got to see his kids. Editorial meetings with artists might happen any time of day or night, as needed to meet the deadline.)

OK, so what happened in an initial meeting? The editorial intervention was complete and domineering. Change the shape of the panels on this page; show an event from this angle, not that one; give us more of this kind of feeling (usually: excitement, urgency, passion, whatever). No aspect of what the artist had done was immune to editorial intervention. The 20 pages generated at the end of that 2 week period (one for writing, the other for drawing) was very much a team effort, as much the product of the editors' tastes and vision as of the writer and illustrator.

So, why is this interesting? Well, as The League has pointed out, a similar kind of editorial interventionism has been having a disastrous effect on US comics. Titles have been killed, good ideas shelved, bad ideas promoted—all because the editors put their decisions about comic book writing / illustrating on a higher plane than that of the creators.

OK, so what was different in the Weekly Shonen Magazine case, as opposed to (oh, I don't know, say) the current state of DC comics?

Well, the answer is really very simple. One thing which was patently obvious from observing the editors under Ishii-sensei at Weekly Shonen Magazine is that they were all themselves ultra hardcore manga fans.

I mean, these guys were hardcore. If not ultra-otaku, then some kind of refined badass version of the comic fan, high on his power. Not because it was mere power, but because it was power over comics.

I remember, for example, one afternoon, I was traveling around with an editor, and we had an hour to kill before a meeting with an artist. What did we do? Stop at a nearby toy and model store, so he could browse through large scale robot / godzilla / ultraman models. Here, work and play coincided.

Another incident, an editor (much less otaku, more badass) meeting with an artist at midnight in a cafe, then talking to her for hours about the comic, pushing her to improve the art, layout, the "kanji," or "feeling," conveyed by every single page.

Do you think Dan DiDio spends his spare time buying Giant Robot toys? Does he meet with creators in the middle of the night for as long as it takes?

So, I think the difference here is attitude. Interest. Caring.

The interventionist editors for Weekly Shonen Magazine didn't intervene on the basis of some idea about what would sell, or imagination about what goes on in the mind of a teenager. They intervened on the basis of their own fandom, on the basis of what they wanted to read personally, themselves, for real.

This does not seem to be the case for some of the "Big Two" editorial horror stories we've heard in the US.

Not that I'm entirely in favor of interventionism—I'm in general very much a fan of creator control, and letting the idea man (or woman) follow his (or her) vision.

But I also think editorial oversight can be good. Editors can make a novel—or a comicbook!—better . . . so long as their feedback comes from the right place (genuine knowledge and caring) rather than mere fantasy and greed.


The League said...

That's absolutely fascinating! I do find it surprising that immersion was the key. I frequently think US comics creators need to spend more time looking at other forms of art, non-comics narratives and non-fiction rather than the constant inward focus on superheroes, but I think the level of care (and what I perceive regarding Japanese attitudes about excellence, art and work) would contribute to a team effort creating a better product.

horus kemwer said...

Well, I've perhaps left the wrong impression with all the talk of otaku in the review.

Total immersion in the medium (comics) in Japan does not mean immersion in a single subject matter (as it still seems to in the US). In particular, there are popular manga on all kinds of different topics: baseball, romance, fishing (?!?!?), passing standardized tests (yes), molesting girls on the subway (perhaps less surprising), etc. In fact, if anything counts as superhero genre in Japan, those stories constitute a minority of manga overall.

For example, one of the comics for which I sat in on a meeting between editor and artist was about soccer. Although 20 new pages of story are generated each week, the overall progression of the timeline was very slow. One soccer match might last for many 20 page episodes.

Although there is an emphasis on excitement in a single episode of such a story, it might take place simultaneously at the level of the play by play kicks, passes, attempts on goal of the game, and at the level of the players' psychological reactions to those events. So, action all the time does not mean giving up on character, which drives the excitement and tension behind each episode of such a story.

The League said...

Yeah, I'm aware of (even if I haven't read any of it) the embracing of a wide variety of genres in manga. And, of course, I see it on the shelves in US from cooking manga to Detroit Metal City.

I guess I may not have been clear - what I'm surprised about is that breathing the medium 24/7/365 allows for enough external input for new and creative solutions to storytelling to enter into the mix.

Let's forget that the Big 2 primarily sell superhero comics and just worry about them as comics... What I see is a lot of repetition of the same, of the same tropes trotted out and a degraded concept of storytelling for the audience as the same kinds of stories get told, theories become arbitrary rules for design, etc...

Basically, in the US, I don't see single minded interest in the medium/ genre as a good thing for an editor, writer or artist. In a way, you can almost see the fingerprints of the input on the output.

Now, I also don't know how Japan works versus the US where its pretty clearly much more about building a clubhouse for the Editor in Chief rather than actually worrying about the best product possible.

OneoftheFallen_1 said...

I'm currently working on a manga project that I'm not seling, but more of something for fun(besides, I'm so young I probably wouldn't be taken seriously at a pro level XD). This is actually truely fascinating...It makes me wanna draw even more!!! Plus, I do seem to notice that the more the artist actually cares about the art and the story, the more popular it is. I've read interviews with Kobe...darn, I can't remember the last name for the life of me, or even remember is this is his first name, but the author of "Bleach", and one can tell that he's very passionate about his work, while I've seen American manga that looks like not much work has been put into it. I'm not saying that either one is better than the other; meerly that Japanese artists seem to love and care for their work a plethora more than an other authors.
This is a true inspiration; thank you for posting this!