Paul Gravett has been a champion of Manga for a long time. The British comics crusader, as Gravett loves to call himself, and an excellent curator of the art form, has created an illustrated survey of Manga, or Japanese comics, as well as of comics from several Asian countries. Like most of their illustrated books, Thames and Hudson presents the outcome, Mangasia: A Definitive Guide to Asian Comics, in a riot of colours, accompanied by essays by Gravett. The book is divided into five sections, each focusing on a theme: Fable and Folklore, Recreating and Revising the Past, Stories and Storytellers, Censorship and Sensibility, and Multimedia Mangasia.
It is by no means an exhaustive book, as Gravett explained in an e-mail interview with Scroll.in. But no such work on Asian comics exists at the moment. The book has mounted Asian comics on a grand canvas for the world audience. This is how we come to know that Indonesia has comics on The Mahabharata and The Ramayana, that panels of Filipino comics are action-packed, that the art in Korean comics is utterly gorgeous. These first-time encounters open readers’ eyes to magnificent comics that usually do not cross the borders of the respective countries.
As Indians we would have liked more from our country, of course, but to find Bahadur, Narayan Debnath’s Nante Phonte series, Amar Chitra Katha titles and a double-spread of Sarbajit Sen’s little-known political cartoon on Bhopal is a real treat. The research is exhaustive, even if there are errors like the Nante Phonte publisher Patra Bharati being labelled a company from Bangladesh instead of West Bengal.
Not surprisingly, Japanese manga dominates the volume with all its various shades and mesmerizing forms. Gravett has been successful in familiarising readers with the reach, themes and genres of Manga. Despite Manga being a well-studied comics art form, Mangasia adds much more to our knowledge of Japanese comics. The book is a companion volume to a touring exhibition of the same name that began its journey in Rome in 2017, and is supposed to cover several cities till 2022. Excerpts from the interview with Gravett, who is the curator of the exhibition:
When did you start planning for this exhibition and what was your inspiration? How long did it take you to bring the project to fruition?
I could answer that this exhibition has taken all of my comics-reading life so far, because all of it informs and influences it. My passionate curiosity to learn about comics worldwide, past, present and future, is inexhaustible. In real terms, Mangasia began as a book project first for Thames and Hudson (T&H). As I was working on the exhibition and an accompanying book, Comics Unmasked: Art and Anarchy in the UK, for The British Library in 2012 and 2013, T&H asked me to develop my next book for them.
Initially they wanted a new book solely about Manga. My first book in 2004, Manga: Sixty Years of Japanese Comics, has proved my bestselling book. I wanted to go beyond Manga, however, and bring in comics from other Asian countries. T&H accepted my proposal for a book to situate Manga in a wider, strictly Asian context. They were excited too at being able to present these works from other countries which have rarely been shown or examined in English-language books. And T&H do produce beautiful books, and offered me a 320-page volume to do it in.
The MANGASIA exhibition came second, as the result of the director and manager of Barbican International Enterprises (BIE) visiting Comics Unmasked in 2014 and expressing interest in developing a project with me. Their goal is to create widely appealing exhibitions which can tour internationally for up to five years. When I explained my Mangasia book project that I was already working on to them, they saw it as a great subject for their next touring show. It took another two years to bring together the two partner venues and unlock all of the funding necessary to make the exhibition.
In the meantime, the book advanced in both writing and design, although we faced many challenges securing permissions for all of the many images inside. It all came together by August 2016, when both Rome and Nantes in France committed to the exhibition and the book was scheduled to coincide with the exhibition opening in October 2017. As a result, T&H also secured co-editions on the first printing in Italian, French and Korean.
Manga is already a big draw the world over. Don’t you think the other areas represented in the exhibition will get overshadowed by it?
The very title, MANGASIA, explains its balance and format, essentially half Manga and half Asia, ie, the rest of Asia. This became more or less the balance of the contents of the book and then the exhibition. There’s no doubt that manga is “the Godzilla in the room”! It’s also of course the most familiar and internationalised of Asian comics cultures. So MANGASIA could not avoid reflecting the massive scale and sophistication of the manga market and medium. But the other half of the book and exhibition can look much further afield, not only to other comics influenced by Manga but also to Asian cultures with their own unique development, styles and subjects.
John A Lent, one of the pioneer Anglo-American scholars whom I dedicate the book to, released his vital book titled Asian Comics, which provides much of the groundwork organised by region and separate countries, each with its own chapter and history. Lent omitted countries he had not visited, for example North Korea. He also sensibly omitted a section on Japan, arguing that it has been much more researched already. For my part, rather than organising the MANGASIA book and exhibition around separate countries, I chose to focus on striking themes, to offer contrasts, connections and counterpoints between manga and other forms of comics in Asia.
As background, I had been looking at how to convince publishers to produce volumes on specific countries. For example, the South Koreans have been eager to promote Manhwa internationally, and there is no in-depth book in English about them even now. While such a book is needed and will happen in time, I felt Mangasia could work as a bridge-builder. Imagine if Japanese comics could work like the Trojan Horse to secretly smuggle in comics from elsewhere in Asia!
It’s worth pointing out that the book and exhibition do overlap, probably around 50 per cent, but there are many other items only in the book or only in the exhibition. To be fully appreciated, you would ideally explore both the book and the exhibition to get the bigger picture.
Clearly, no manageable, affordable, publishable book about a comics culture could ever be truly complete. Mangasia is not exhaustive, but it is also not exhausting, I hope. And it cannot be comprehensive, but above all I hope it is comprehensible.
Approximately how many items have been displayed at the exhibition?
There are over 280 pages of original artwork, 116 pages of high-quality facsimiles (many of which are so well-made you’d be hard-pressed to spot them!), and over 200 printed copies. In many cases these are items rarely if ever exhibited before, even in their countries of origin. In addition, there are paintings, sculptures, designer fashions, a well-stocked, all-ages reading area, and videos, from documentaries to live-action and animated adaptations of comics. And to conclude, Mechasboi, our very own interactive robot on a giant screen.
Let us come to India. How big is the Indian representation in the exhibition?
The Indian artists featured in the exhibition, with original artworks or facsimiles, are Satyajit Ray, Orijit Sen, Vishwajyoti Ghosh, Kaveri Gopalakrishnan, Manjula Padmanabhan, Amruta Patil, Sarbajit Sen, Sankha Banerjee, Abishek Singh, Durgabai Vyam, and Subhash Vyam. We also display several printed comics, for example of Bantul the Great, examples of Amar Chitra Katha titles, Vijay Kranti’s Dalai Lama biography, and others. Pinaki De lent a beautiful Patua story scroll and, through Nina Sabnani, Barbican also commissioned two new kaavads. One is traditional, the other explains micro-finance. Next to it we screen a video of a performance so visitors can appreciate how they are used.
Which is the earliest piece from India displayed at the exhibition?
As a form of ancestor or precursor to comics, we reproduce an enlargement of a multi-panelled illuminated manuscript page from the Bhagwad Gita, dated 1820-1840, courtesy of The Wellcome Collection, London.
When are you bringing the exhibition to India?
There is some very promising interest but nothing has been confirmed yet. The show’s earliest availability would be late this year, after it tours to Monza, Italy and then Nantes, France. But we have until 2022 to hopefully set up India and the rest of the global schedule.
Do you plan to add more country-specific items as you take the exhibition to different Asian countries?
Yes, MANGASIA is a living and adaptable exhibition, we can amend, substitute, localise and update it as it tours. Its core themes and contents will of course remain. Certainly in India, we would look to enhance the Indian content. We already also have Asian interest from Taiwan, Korea and Singapore, among others.
What next for you?
The MANGASIA tour will be preoccupying me, as I am involved in each new venue and future prospective venues too. Two other exhibition projects are brewing nicely, though I’m sorry they cannot be disclosed yet.
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