Japanese term first coined by the artist and teacher Hokusai (1760-1849) to describe the books of sketches and drawings which he produced for the use of his students. Translated as "irresponsible pictures", the term may also be used to refer to cartoons or comic strips, and in this latter meaning has gained currency in the West. In Japan the term gekiga ("drama pictures") is often used to refer to the more serious comic books, as is the hybrid word komikksu.
Cartoons and comic strips first appeared in Japan in the Meiji Era (late 1800s) in the form of single-frame, caricature-like cartoons, which evolved into the four-frame joke strips carried by almost every daily newspaper today. Comics with a storyline appeared before WWII, mostly featuring adventure stories for boys, but it was not until after the war, when Machiko Hasegawa's phenomenally popular Sazaesan first appeared, that comics really began to flourish. Sazaesan (the title is the name of a little girl) was a long series of amusing stories about the life of an ordinary family.
The true pioneer of the postwar comic book was Osamu Tezuka (1929-1989), who was the first cartoonist to apply cinematographic techniques to Japanese comics. This led to the advent in the 1960s of the gekiga style, using realistic pictures to tell stories dealing with topics of interest to a wide range of readers, with examples reaching into all areas of Japanese life. Once a substantial adult readership was established, numerous other creators began experimenting with a wide range of styles and techniques, producing not only comics that entertain but also works with considerable artistic and literary merit. Stories deal with a very wide range of subjects, including fantasy, sf, horror, humour, romance, business, economics, sociology, sport, crime, cookery and pornography. A seminal early series was Tezuka's Tetsuwan Atomu ["Atom, the Boy with Arms of Steel"] (from 1952), a humorous sf/fantasy about a robot child, which was the first comic book to be adapted into an animated tv series. Since then, an increasing number of M have been adapted into animated films (called Anime) employing sometimes highly sophisticated techniques. One particularly popular long-running example which typifies this cross-media aspect of M is the humorous crime series Lupin Sansei ["Lupin the Third"] (from 1984) by a team working under the pseudonym Monkey Punch. Another is Momoko Sakura's semiautobiographical Chibi Marukochan; the title is a little girl's nickname.
M accounts for 30% of the 7.7 billion books sold in Japan today and 10% of the 40,000 new titles published annually. The best selling M titles are those for women, containing touching stories about the lives of ordinary women and girls (like Chibi Marukochan) or raunchy, tragic love stories, such as Haiteen Bugi ["High Teen Boogie"] (1981-1989), about a motorcycling rock musician, by the husband-and-wife team Kazuko Makino and Yukio Goto.
Many M creators employ a team of art assistants, including specialists in street scenes, architecture, cars, etc., so that the creator himself draws only the main figures; by this means he can produce substantial multivolume series. A prime example of this is Golgo 13 (from 1969; part trans 1985 US) by Takao Saito, an international spy series which at present runs to almost 100 volumes of about 250 pages each. This series claims sales figures of about 80 million.
One of the first examples of M to be translated into English was Hadashi no Gen (1972-1973; graph coll 1984; trans as Barefoot Gen 1987 US) by Keiji Nakazawa (1938- ), a story about the Hiroshima atom bomb. Most subsequent works to have been translated have had an sf bias; they include Akira (1982-1986 and 1988 onwards; trans in 34 vols 1988-1992 US) (> Akira ) by Katsuhiro Otomo, Mai, the Psychic Girl (trans 1987-1988 UK) by Kazuya Kudo and Ryoichi Ikegami, which recounts the adventures of a girl with remarkable psychic abilities and the attempts by various agencies to capture and exploit her, and Appleseed (trans 1988-1994 US), a hard-sf series. M have gained greater and greater international popularity in the 1990s and this trend looks set to continue, with an increasing number of examples in the crime, sf and fantasy genres (often featuring gutsy, sexy nymphettes) appearing on US newsstands. One major factor enhancing their popularity is that they are often published in pocket-sized, squarebound volumes containing a substantial amount of reading matter in the form of novel-length stories.
As English-language M proliferate in both the UK and the USA, a Japanese influence has begun to appear in the indigenous comic book, with interesting examples of a hybrid drawing style becoming increasingly evident. [RT]
further reading: Manga! Manga!: The World of Japanese Comics (1983 US) by Frederik L Schodt.