Gifts For Kids

by John Holbo on December 12, 2010

As the father of two moderately manga-mad little girls, I have some X-Mas recommendations. First, Manga Studio is a drawing/comics application that kids can really use and enjoy. At the moment, Amazon is selling the Debut version at the low, low price of $9.99. That won’t last. [UPDATE: nor did it.] If you want to know more, here’s an interesting, 90 minute tutorial from Dave “Watchmen” Gibbons. A good introduction. If you just want to watch him make something neat, go here. Word to the wise: you can’t use this sort of application without some sort of graphics tablet.

Might as well recommend a couple books while I’m at it. A lot of how-to-draw-manga books are not really age appropriate for a 6-year old and a 9-year old. But two by Christopher Hart have been a big hit in our house: Manga for the Beginner: Everything You Need to Start Drawing Right Away!; and Manga for the Beginner, Chibis: Everything You Need to Start Drawing the Super-Cute Characters of Japanese Comics [amazon]. Christopher Hart has published a ton of how-to-draw books. A lot of them aren’t good, in my opinion. But these two hit the spot.

A question for you: I read quite a bit of manga; my daughters, not so much. They draw the stuff day and night but don’t read it. American stuff like Amulet and Bone and Tiny Titans is what they like (influenced by manga, but not manga). The Japanese stuff, with few exceptions, is hard for them. This is even the case when the titles are ridiculously ‘easy’, like Happy Happy Clover (bunnies having fairly quiet adventures, in case you couldn’t guess.) They find the panel layouts baffling and hard to follow. This isn’t just the right-left problem. I tend to agree that it all seems oddly cluttered, given the intended audience. I wonder whether Japanese tots are hyper-literate when it comes to tracing a not-so-obvious line through a series of panels. What do your little girls like to read these days?



Katherine Farmar 12.12.10 at 4:40 pm

I recently had a revelation about reading manga that I’ve been finding hard to put into words. It came from looking at Japanese prose books, and suddenly making the connection between the way text in speech bubbles is laid out in manga and the way text works in Japanese (i.e. vertical columns, sometimes of differing lengths, arranged from right to left). Obviously I knew that manga is read from right to left, but I hadn’t made the mental switch to thinking of it as actually being laid out in “columns” — not always obviously delineated columns, but columns nonetheless. Once I made that switch, the placement of speech bubbles — which formerly seemed somewhat arbitrary — suddenly made perfect sense, and my ability to figure out who was saying what, and when, and to whom, multiplied a thousandfold.

tracing a not-so-obvious line through a series of panels.

Whether the line is obvious or not depends on what you’re looking at. In the more successful manga there is almost always a clear visual trail through the art itself; paying attention to the panel structure can lead you astray because the panels are just places where the art happens, rather than (as in Western comics) defining elements of the art itself. (Here is an excellent analysis of visual flow in Fruits Basket, and here is a comparison to American comics and discussion of how these differences come about.)

I went through a phase a few years ago of reading no comics other than French and Belgian comics (I was trying to improve my French), and after a while I found that I could not read manga or American comics without immense strain. One of the characteristics of comics in the Franco-Belgian tradition is regular panel layouts: finding a French comic that doesn’t use a 6-, 9- or 12-panel grid is almost impossible. The regularity of the grid is sort of like training wheels on a bike; if you get too used to them, you fall over as soon as they’re taken away because they’re doing the job of maintaining stability (in this simile, narrative flow) for you. (That may sound like a derogatory comparison; it’s not intended to be.) American comics are less regular than Franco-Belgian comics, and manga pretty much don’t do regularity. (With one or two exceptions… but although you sometimes get artists like Fumi Yoshinaga, who likes to use very simple, square layouts without much flash, I have never seen a manga that was built on a grid. I actually think manga readers would find a regular grid confusing, because it wouldn’t be clear whether they were supposed to read down or across. They’re used to that issue being open until it’s settled by the artist’s decision, unlike Western readers who will default to “across” unless they’re given a very strong cue to read down.)


John Holbo 12.12.10 at 5:06 pm

That’s funny! We have had some trouble reading “Fruits Basket”! It’s a good example of the difficulty.


Richard Green 12.12.10 at 10:02 pm

Partially a problem can be that someone attuned to Western Comics is actually trying to trace a path. Sometimes there is no such linear time path. The “panels” on a given manga page are often different aspects on one point in time and the situation at hand. The speech bubbles are the only things that actually progress.

It’s tempting to attribute this to all sorts of cultural dynamics and Eastern conceptions of time etc. I think it’s more likely economics. A weekly publishing schedule coupled with the lack of a division of labour (script-pencils-inking etc.) in American comics means the butter of plot needs to be spread across too many pages of bread. So a scene that might be done in a single panel in a Western comic (especially since American comics traditionally tried to avoid multiple issue stories) can take up half an episode in manga. [Similar budgetary imperatives exist in anime].

This tendency in Manga can be very good, and lead to effective scene setting, giving a sense of time and place (Scott McCloud adopted this in Zot!), but it can also lead to messy splashes designed mainly to fill up space which are just confusing. More amusingly, a single sentence will be divided up to fill up the space, with ellipses giving a false sense of dramatic speech. “So I guess this….is the kitchen!”. There’s no pause in the speech intended, just a way of dividing the written text.

Interestingly, in Seinen manga (for young men) where there is a fortnightly schedule, there’s a nice compromise, where a capable artist can use both the luxury of space that is allowed in Manga, as well as using panel layouts that are genuinely progressive, and speeding up/slowing down time as is required. And thus Urasawa is one of the finest exponents of comics in either hemisphere.


John Holbo 12.12.10 at 11:31 pm

Hi Richard, I agree the Urasawa is great stuff. I’ve been reading him him recently.


BenSix 12.13.10 at 1:21 pm

Mine are always reading Oldboy. I’d imagine it’s about a dog or something – like Old Yeller.


Western Dave 12.13.10 at 8:36 pm

My eight year old girl is having the Boxcar Children series read to her, along with various incarnations of Nancy Drew, and American Girl stuff. On her own, she is reading Ramona novels, and a few other things. The five year old boy is very into Pinkalicious and the rest of the series right now and also the “Bats in the…: books.


bianca steele 12.14.10 at 1:50 am

My two year old is enjoying Hello, Wally!, about the Red Sox mascot, and there seems to be a version for Berkeley (and a couple for Penn State and Wisconsin). It has a few fairly straightforward sentences on each page and a story, probably too easy for the nine year old unless she really loves Oski, but it looked like some of them were more involved.

Comments on this entry are closed.