Shoujo Manga as Sumo Wrestling or “Even a Monkey Can Draw Manga”

From page 12.

“Even a Monkey Can Draw Manga” is an old comic from 1990 created together by two artists also dabbling in essays and critique, Aihara Kouji and Takekuma Kentarou. Japanese nerds call it “SaruMan”, which is short for “Saru Demo Kakeru Manga Kyoushitsu”. It was translated into English and published by Viz in those glorious days when they published cool stuff like Banana Fish or Yamamoto Hideo’s Voyeur. Or Pulp Magazine, where the comic in question was serialized. Myself, I stumbled upon its pirated version sometime when I was fifteen to seventeen. I’m not exactly sure, but I probably was looking for resources to help me learn to draw. Or maybe I was just combing through completely scanlated/scanned seinen manga (there wasn’t that much of it around 2006) and that’s what I found. I didn’t get what I was expecting, but I was still very satisfied by my find. Recently, after all those years, I tried searching for a physical copy of the comic. It wasn’t cheap, but I finally erased the disgrace of reading this magnificent piece of paraliterature for free. The title might suggest a textbook about¬†drawing, but SaruMan is something… different. Before anything else, it’s a comedy. One stylized for an entertaining piece of educational material which teaches about comics while being a comic.

It consists of twenty one lessons covering a wide spectrum of topics. Aihara assumes the role of the teacher with all the knowledge you’ll need for creating manga, while Takekuma plays the stupid pupil, who gets all questions posed by his mentor wrong and inevitably gets yelled at. SaruMan begins with a declaration that should tell you enough about what kind of story you’re in for: there’s so many shitty comics getting published, that the authors felt inspired to write a book on how comics are supposed to be done. The first lesson – on how to come up with a good penname – should prove useful not only to aspiring artists. Aihara and Takekuma teach you the importance of choosing the right pseudonym. You wouldn’t want to change your name far into your career, right? A penname is for life. To help you with the decision, they came up with Four Commandments For Pennames, the first one (“Don’t get carried away”) being the most important. The next few chapters are about technical aspects of drawing. There really is precious little to learn about that from SaruMan. And yet my teenage self was mindblown by the question of “Do mangaka draw a rough skeletal frame each time they draw a character?” It really would take ages to draw a comic if that was true. Or the other one: “What if I need to draw a physically impossible pose?” Aihara and Takekuma suggest practicing yoga. Back then I thought “yoga must be super popular among mangaka”.

The true meat of this book, though, are the later chapters, where SaruMan enters the domain of storytelling, history of Japanese comics and analyzing their major genres. Each few pages serve you a piece of knowledge as eye-opening as it’s hilarious. You’re given plenty of advice on creative writing that seems basic to me now, but impressed the shit out of me a decade ago. Aihara and Takekuma spend an entire chapter trying to dissuade you from making politically engaged, idea-centered comics, saying they were drawing those in high school and the mere memory makes them cringe. Or, they break down the essence of shounen manga – they make them look so cavemanly simple and, what’s even worse, make you struggle and fail to find arguments against their thesis. It really is a “Shounen Manga Plot Shish Kabob”. You’re forced to realize the existence of a problem called “Strong Opponent Inflation”, a very real and silly phenomenon. Then they compare romances to kaitenzushi, where the protag gets to pick and choose women like they’re food to gobble up. Or they ask: “What’s more important and desirable in manga: panties or their contents?” Some comics seem to suggest the former. In the chapter on four-panel strips, Aihara and Takekuma turn out to share my hatred for lukewarm, family-friendly stories. To show what you SHOULDN’T do when drawing those, you’re shown a strip in which a naked Sazae-san clone gets killed by a truck. It fucking slays me each time I read it. Remember: when drawing for the mainstream audience, you can’t be TOO funny or interesting. You’ll make the normal people scared! Elsewhere, you’re taught that making comics for children is all about working out a compromise between what children like and what their parents (who buy the stuff) like. The authors briefly introduce you to mahjong manga, claiming that you don’t need to know how to play mahjong to draw those. Or, when talking about gag manga, they suggest spamming “ippatsugei” – ridiculous Japanese one-trick jokes, as the way to do comedy (bad, BAD idea)…

One more reason why SaruMan is awesome, beside the insightfulness: it’s damn hilarious. A large percentage of the jokes are low comedy – dick jokes or shit jokes. Still, when it’s not occupied with the lower body, this manga does some great biting jokes aimed at the rules and trends of Japanese comics. It was created in 1990 and it shows – much has changed since then and the constant references to artists and celebs from that age, completely forgotten now even in Japan, don’t do this comic any good. The bit about the aesthetic of esper manga from the 80s leaves a strange impression. The completely lineart-based “anime look” of those is the norm today – so common, it’s taken for granted. All manga look like that now. The authors don’t seem to see this modern, clean look as the inevitable future – they call it “ripping off Ootomo Katsuhiro”… Still, once in a while this comic makes some points that are surprisingly relevant even in 2017. The way SaruMan is drawn – a “realistic”, intentionally ugly and grimy aesthetic also contributes to the comedy. Especially the ridiculous reaction faces Aihara and Takekuma make all the time.

SaruMan ends with a promise of one more volume, which sadly never was released in English. Which is a damn shame. Reading this comic for the first time in years, I realize anew how great it is. And how much it taught me. I love it. For multiple reasons. Go read it. Please. The pirated scans of Even a Monkey Can Draw Manga aren’t hard to find.

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