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A Brief History Of Manga [Book Review]

When it comes to writing about anime and Japanese popular culture, Helen McCarthy was a pioneer. She's been writing and talking about it for around three decades- long before most British people even knew Japan had an animation industry. Back in the 90s she edited the ground-breaking magazine Anime UK and wrote the very first book in the English language entirely dedicated to anime. Anyone who writes seriously about Japanese animation owes her a debt. 2009's wonderful The Art Of Osamu Tezuka: God Of Manga broke new ground for the author in that it was her first book that was as much concerned with Japan's comics industry as with it's animated output. To truly understand anime, arguably you must come to understand manga, so it made perfect sense that her next book would shine the spotlight entirely on the printed page.

A Brief History of Manga is, as the title suggests, a whistle-stop tour through the history of comics in Japan. It's a light and breezy read for sure, but that's not to suggest that it's not absolutely full of manga-y goodness. Despite its relatively short page-count, it packs every page with nuggets of information and insight, many of which will be new to even those who consider themselves manga experts. Each double-spread tackles a pertinent year in the medium's history. What really makes this book stand out though is the time spent on the very early history of cartooning and comics in Japan. Starting with "The prehistory of Manga" in the year 700, it traces the art-form's earliest roots. Most sources act like Manga began with Tezuka, with everything preceding that a footnote at most. Not so here, as the man himself doesn't even show up until page 24. Running throughout the book is a timeline featuring dates of publications, historical events and the births and deaths of key figures in the industry.

It's true that there are more detailed books on this subject. Books like the seminal Manga! Manga!: The World of Japanese Comics and Paul Gravett's Manga: Sixty Years of Japanese Comics have the space to do deep into various genres and periods. Although attractively designed, this book also doesn't offer extracts from the comics themselves, unlike some of the earlier books. None of this matters though, because McCarthy is aiming to achieve some very specific here, and pulls it off expertly. Brief it may be- but don't for a moment confuse that with shallow.

It acts as something of a companion piece to the author's first (and long out-of-print) Anime; A Beginner's Guide To Japanese Animation. If you happen to be somebody into Japanese animation who wants to get into the comics side of things- then this book is a perfect jumping off point. Yet at the same time, it's so full of interesting facts and trivia that it becomes an essential read even for those of us who have been reading manga for some time. Highly Recommended.


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