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Manga Mania Villains:
How to Draw the Dastardly Characters of Japanese Comics

by Christopher Hart

(Watson-Guptill, $19.95, 128 pages, paperback; July 2003.)

cover scanAs the prolific US artist Robert Toth once aptly wrote, "Artistic creativity is a whirlpool of imagination that swirls in the depths of the mind." After trudging through Christopher Hart's Manga Mania Villains, one realizes that, if one wishes to create the nemeses of heroes in the Japanese comic world of manga, one has to follow Hart's rules for creativity -- explicitly.

And there's trouble even before this oversized softcover is opened. The art on the cover represents just one style of manga's very diverse and artistic world. And who uses the word "dastardly"? -- either someone who doesn't take the subject matter seriously or someone who thinks he's speaking to a younger audience. Hart does both.

This How To debacle is seemingly written for a fifth-grade reading level, though the target audience isn't children but all ages. (Though the utter simplicity of the book will most likely insult kids as well as adults.) When I dove into Hart's short bio and learned that he had written children's books, it became obvious that he's stuck in a writing-style rut.

Leaving aside the simplistic writing technique, Hart fails accurately to convey the universe of manga, its international appeal and how the genre differs from the world of US comics. Instead, he dilutes the antagonists of manga into a set of cookie-cutout personas: the Maniac Gladiator, the Seductress, the Cyberhacker, and so on. With the bad guys, gals, aliens and monsters neatly categorized, he embarks on telling us exactly how these seemingly one-dimensional characters must be drawn.

Granted, he does a decent job of showing how to lay the foundation to construct a face, eyes, hand or full figure, but these basics can be found in virtually any comic art instruction book -- especially for beginners. And Hart's absolutes serve as a number two pencil through the heart of the reader's creativity: "The shirtless vest is a trademark of manga villains"; for Punks (another bit of ad hoc categorization!), earrings "are a must"; "The cape is a great device we associate with evil" (I didn't know Sherlock Holmes was a bad guy!) and countless other authoritarian remarks. But the most ludicrous comment of all, "Bad guys drive the story, and the good guys just react", is an insult to artists and writers who know that all characters drive a story -- manga or otherwise.

Knowing that Hart has four other manga How To books to his credit, it's hard to understand why he offers such limited options in his instruction. After all, in manga and anime there's a host of "evil" characters that go against the typical "good versus evil" grain perpetuated in Hart's work. Sometimes, as in Perfect Blue, Blood: The Last Vampire, Akira, Ghost in the Shell and Oh My Goddess!, it's difficult to recognize the antagonist or to determine how "evil" they may be. In fact, the personalities of most manga and anime characters are complex -- with degrees of good and evil in each of them -- and that makes for compelling storytelling.

And, sadly, the art in the book doesn't even begin to cover the many variants of manga artistry. From most of the depictions in the book, it appears as if Hart just caught an episode of Dragon Ball Z, bought a pack of Yu-Gi-Oh! cards and stopped there. Simply visiting your local comic book store will open your eyes to a treasure trove of manga, with titles and topics catering to children, teens and adults, with subject matter ranging from romance and classic Japanese literature to science fiction, mysticism, fetish and much more. While at the manga stand, check out the art of Kenichi Sonada (Cannon God Exaxxion), Kosuke Fujishima (Oh My Goddess!), Rumiko Takahashi (Inu-Yasha) and Satoshi Urushihara (Chirality to the Promised Land), to name but a handful. And don't forget to look for the artistry (and great storytelling) of the legendary Osama Tezuka (Astro Boy, Metropolis and so much more). Just from the cover art, you'll notice that the range of artistic styles varies as much as it does from anything produced by US comic-book companies.

From weak writing to cookie-cutter "art", Hart's book offers readers little to emulate or learn. If you want a basic drawing book to guide you, do your research before you buy (and get a book on anatomy while you're at it). Then buy manga, watch anime and examine the art for yourself. You'll not only find a multitude of great drawing styles but, most importantly, you'll find your own.

Review by William D Prystauk.

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