First of all, the comment is not intended as either an elevation or a put-down of manga. It is not lesser nor greater than Euro-American comics--it is simply equal but different. This is, as I've said elsewhere, an argument about taxonomy, about where in the wider set called "graphic storytelling" the subset called manga belongs. Most I've talked with want to lump it in with "comics". I disagree--here's why:
I think kinds of storytelling are defined by their conventions...in terms of graphic storytelling, that includes "visual vocabulary," if you will. The visual vocabularies of Euro-American (henceforth "EA") comics and manga are different, in part because they are built from different artistic traditions.
Deppey even points to one of manga's most prevalent "vocabulary" idioms (one it does not share with EA comics) in his essay:
The tendency to drop into "superdeformed mode," where characters suddenly transform into ultra-cartoony versions of themselves when broad comedy is demanded, is a classic but by no means unique example.
While there is certainly a range of styles within EA comics--from the broad cartoony stuff of Asterix through the gentler humor styles of Archie to the straight-forward illustrative tradition of Alex Raymond, it is rare (I'd say "it never happens" but then somebody would be sure to hand me a dozen representative samples) for an artist to jump from one to the other in the midst of a story, other than for very specific effect...and certainly not as a recognized idiomatic form throughout the medium.
Other visual elements unique to manga include a use of backgrounds to convey emotional content. EA comics tend to have two background modes--either an attempt to convey a specific setting or no backgrounds at all (the latter usually after a scene-setting "master shot"). While color might be used as an emotional signifier in EA comics, the actual drawing of the background is not.
But in manga, the background of a panel is often replaced by an explosion of lines (what many western readers might misread as "speed lines") to indicate extreme emotion on the part of the primary character.
A third element of this visual vocabulary is a greater reliance on "silence". Yes, there have been totally "silent" EA comics--The Little King is a prime example--but, for the most part, the EA comics tradition is that even panels of pure scenery have some verbal content. It's a minor point, perhaps, but it changes the entire pacing of a story, such that manga has a different sense of time from EA comics.
Other critics have commented on this:
Indeed, the amount of wordless passages in any volume of manga may be striking to the Western eye. To 'read' manga is to read images - the rhythm is determined by the sequence of images. Of course, western comics also have a genre known as 'sourds' - wordless comics. As opposed to Japanese perception, such works are regarded in the West as 'experimental', 'avant-garde' - in other words exotic, or as a new (peripheral) phenomenon. However, even in the 'sourds', the sequence of images is not so much based on analytical montage in comparison to manga production.
As opposed to Euro-American comics, you will rarely find descriptive captions in manga. The use of these is kept to a strict minimum, which cannot be said of the prototypical European/American comic.
My thanks to Noiseman433 at comicon.com for pointing me to that discussion.
I think those differences in "vocabulary" (and there are probably others, I'm trying to keep this from turning into a book) are enough to classify manga as different from "comics" as traditionally defined.
Moving on to one other point in Deppey's essay that I didn't get into last time--
Deppey seems to make a lot of the manga publishers' "courage" in pursuing what he sees as a wider market in bookstores and by providing such a diverse range of material. (That all of it is aimed at a single demographic of "tweens and teens" seems to elude him; there is a wide range of adult-targeted manga in Japan, but damned little of it--if any--reaches American bookstores in translated form.) Among his comments:
What makes all of this so wickedly funny is that companies like Tokyopop and Viz are practically rubbing Marvel and DC's noses in the practices that have allowed manga publishers to succeed at levels previously thought impossible... and yet Marvel and DC still clearly can't figure it out.
Of course, the part Deppey conveniently ignores is the economics. Tokyopop and Viz are reprint houses--all the creative and production costs of what they provide to the US market have already been paid. They're just paying for US reprint and distribution rights, some translation costs, and some minor production costs in having the English replace the Japanese...and in these days of digital imaging, that's pretty damned easy.
In other words, the manga importers can afford to experiment (although, as noted, the experiment hasn't gone very far afield from the Sailor Moon and Voltron audiences they started with).
I'll continue this discussion in comments here and at comicon.com...but this is my last blog post on the subject. I'd like to move on to other things.