Since I’ve been mentioning it again a few times here and there, people have been asking me what it is about that small, 96pp, Paradox Mystery/manga-ish sized graphic novel format that so fascinates me.
This morning I found the terms that crystallise it.
In talking about the Plantin press of Antwerp, the designer of Bruce Sterling’s recent book SHAPING THINGS said this of the tradition she was following with the work’s design: that the books important enough to want to carry should be small enough to fit in your pocket.
See, that right there is a big part of the manga success — those things go in a coat pocket or in a backpack. It’s why paperbacks were such a revolution: they were cheap and they could be stuffed in a pocket. Dave Gibbons, talking about the later Martha Washington books he did with Frank Miller, talked of his desire to do a “roll it up and stick it in your pocket comic”, which speaks to why that form lasted so long.
Portable culture is crucial to any society in motion. Manga in all its indigenous forms has been a thing built for Japanese commuters. Part of why that style of anthology doesn’t play so well in America is that America’s a culture of private cars, not public transport.
Personally, if I’m going to spend an hour or two on a train, I want something I can stick in my pocket. A paperback book, or a copy of LONE WOLF AND CUB or something similar.
And a comic in that form — here’s just the tiniest bit of heresy — fits next to paperback novels. It doesn’t have to go into a Graphic Novels section. I used to see this occasionally in the late 80s/early 90s. When you can’t rack MAUS next to Garfield, where do you put it? Under S on the regular shelves.
But mostly, it’s a form/ambition thing. You’ve got 90 pages and a perfect portable format. Write something so important that people have to carry it with them – because they can.
(Originally written 14 January 2006)