David Wybenga, a JCMU English Language instructor in Hikone, has been drawn to Japanese comics, or manga, ever since he was a child. For #7 in his series “Mostly Manga, and Me,” David discusses comics with no words, with particular focus to wordless manga (or the lack thereof).
Have you ever read a wordless book?
Wordless books, stories which carry the narrative through only pictures, can take two distinct forms: one, it can look like a “picture book,” having basically one picture per page. Two, they can look like a “comic book,” having an elaborate multi-grid arrangement of wordless pictures on each page. A Boy, A Dog and a Frog by Mercer Mayer is a good example of the former, and The Snowman by Raymond Briggs a fantastic example of the later.
Long before I came to Japan I had a special interest in wordless picture books and comics. In fact, I co-authored a publication on them!
American and European comics are rich with beautiful tomes of wordless books. There are hundreds, if not thousands, published around the world. Here are some of my favorites:
- Passionate Journey by Frans Masereel (Belgium)
- Frank by Jim Woodring (USA)
- The Longest Day of the Future by Lucas Varela (Argentina)
- Adventures of a Japanese Business Man by Jose Domingo (Spain)
- Soires de Paris by Avril & Petit-Roulet (France)
- Space Dog by Hendrik Dorgathen (German)
- Dracula by Alberto Breccia (Uruguay)
- Le Mouche by Lewis Trondheim (France)
Manga, however, seemed to be slight on wordless comics
This was a very curious point to me, as other genres were often rich with manga. Creative expression thrives under constraints, so why is it that there are so few wordless manga?
This is not to say that there are no wordless manga. Gon by Masashi Tanaka has been the prime example of wordless manga. A diminutive dinosaur roams the earth across time, and variously plays with and attacks other animals. Except for the titular dinosaur, all other creatures are drawn with a startling realism. Most of the stories are 20 to 30 page vignettes, with several stories collected into each book. There are 7 volumes published in Japan.
With this being the best example, I still have been unable to find a long form wordless graphic novel among manga. Going in the other direction, however, is Anywhere But Here by Miki Tori. These comics consist (usually) of a 3 by 3 grid (9 pictures) used to tell a culturally unique and often absurdist, surreal, wordless story.
A small number of stock characters make reappearances throughout this longer-than-average comic strip. I have pondered some of these one-page stories for days before being satisfied that I understood them. Then months later, on re-reading, I catch onto a deeper meaning. There are 5 mind-blowing volumes published in Japan.
People who know Japanese comics may well mention other wordless manga that they know, though these seem to be usually 3 to 10 pages in length. No other wordless manga that I know of have either the duration of Anywhere But Here (over 400 collected strips) or page count approaching Gon (nearly 1000 pages).
Cultural Differences on Wordiness?
I write this all with one big caveat. When Japanese friends have read American and Europe comics they have been a bit startled at how wordy they are. “It takes so long to read!”, they say. Japanese comics are written in a pithy style. We can breeze through most manga nearly as fast as we can turn the pages – just not wordless.