Manga “decompression”

In Understanding Comics, McCloud made the claim that manga supposedly uses more circuitous storytelling because of the formats of their books.

In my paper on Japanese VL, I dismiss this on the grounds that nothing about longer formats gives people the drive to make slower paced narrative. Just because you have ample space doesn’t mean you’re going to use it to let the story linger more. You could use that space to fill in even more “compressed” storytelling.

Thinking more about this, webcomics are another good example against this theory: from my knowledge, we haven’t seen a vast decompression of storytelling on the web due to the completely unrestricted “infinite” space allowing authors to freely use (though feel free to prove me wrong!). On the one hand, you could say that they aren’t effectively using the space that they have at their disposal. However, the other side could say that they’re using it to achieve just what they want: they have no restrictions, so what they’re producing is entirely their preference.

Personally, I think that there are numerous explanations for what might be going on in manga storytelling. Here’s a few, some of which were in my paper…

1) It’s just an inherent part of the difference between Euro-American VLs and Japanese VLs. We don’t expect spoken languages to be the same, why should visual languages? Could “decompression” simply be a result of the development of how JVL evolved?

2) They’re using the VL as a language: Manga use less text than American and European books. With more reliance on visual modality over the written requires it to take on more expressive weight. The result is more complex structure in the visual sequences. This is comparable to studies asking people to only gesture with no speaking. The result is something that looks closer to patterns like in sign languages (though still not SL).

3) The cross-cultural differences focusing on environment over action requires more space devoted to “setting a scene.” Research seems to suggest that Asian minds are more interested in the broader environment than the specifics and individuating different elements of the environment take up more panel space than simply presenting it as a whole, backgrounded to the actions.

Notice that in all of these cases, formatting is entirely secondary. Indeed, it’s somewhat interesting to think that formatting is one of McCloud’s explanations, because much of his work is about transcending formatting. Here, the explanations focus on cognitive reasoning — meaning we should see the effects no matter what the format.


  • Hmm. Interesting, but I do think you’re in dicey terrain that would be very difficult to verify empirically. Some of the decompression you’re describing here is surely due to the oversized historical influence of Tezuka. But I suspect that most of it, these days, is a function of the practical, commercial pressures involved with keeping one story, ideally with a well-defined beginning, middle, and end, going as long as possible (for as long as it is popular, possibly decades).

    Besides, not all manga are particularly decompressed in their structure, talking in universals is also problematic. But that’s a different story.

  • Thanks for the comment! I do think that Tezuka had a big influence (that factored into the “how the language ‘evolved'” part of #1). However, he’s the example I used in my paper, where he actually wanted longer scenes that got cut to be shorter by his editors.

    There are ways to verify this type of decompression empirically I believe. For example, my study in the paper Cross-Cultural Space found different ways that space was distributed in American vs. Japanese panels (300 panels in 12 American and 12 Japanese books). Further coding studies like this with a wider scope (which I’m planning) would be able to show these properties across different formats and how generalizable it is.

    Some of the commercial pressures could also be true though, certainly. I suppose here we could do the same sort of coding study to compare manga made outside the commercial sphere — “mini-comics”, etc. That would probably be very interesting…

  • I think you missed the point of what Scott McCloud wrote. In Understanding Comics, he mentioned long format books, then went on to dismiss the idea that long formats made for more expansive storytelling technique, and concluded that it was mostly a difference between Eastern and Western ways of seeing.

    I think you also have to consider comics in context of other mediums. Look at the effects that books, pulps, radio dramas. televison, movies, and animation have had on comics. The wandering eye method of scene-setting is used frequently in both artsy and mainstream American movies, so I don’t think there’s anything inherently Asian about it.

    If certain techniques are inherently Asian, why do Japanese techniques generally not make the leap from Japanese to Hong Kong, Malaysian, or Filipino Comics? what research has hinted that Asian brains are different?

    -Matt Jeske

  • Are you talking about sequential compression or spatial compression? Longer scenes are a sign of decompression! A simple way to measure decompression is to compare the number of panels per page (although page size should also be taken into account.)

  • Thanks for the comments! I generally find “decompression” to be a poor word (implying there’s a “compressed” norm) but used it because it was easy. I basically just mean that storytelling is extended over more panels than comparative books (re: American comics). Average panel/page counts won’t tell you about content, which is more what I’m interested in here (though my study showed average rates of 5 panels per page for both cultures).

    McCloud definitely did focus on differences in Japanese and American “seeing” but he also made claims about formats. As you say, those differences he claimed are found in other cultures/media too, so I’m dubious of those as well (AND… they’ve always smacked me as a little orientalist).

    Just in case I’m misunderstood, I should clarify there is nothing “inherent to Asian brains” here — what’s at issue is the effect of culture in shaping Asian brains. That is, there’s nothing innately biological about these studies.

    I think you’re right though about the point about diversity across Asia too — which I think is more support for a cognitive explanation. We would expect them to have different mental patterns despite seemingly similar cultures, just like their verbal languages are different.

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