Black and White in a Color World: How Manga Has Retrained Our Rods and Cones

Black and White in a Color World: How Manga Has Retrained Our Rods and Cones
by Peter Gutiérrez

In a world where computer monitors seem to offer greater color saturation than film stock, and where television now provides images that are more vivid than life itself, how incongruous is the success of this unpresumptuous little art form we call manga?

Need more examples of manga's contrarian status in this regard? How about the vast color palettes of real-time immersive video games, or even conventional comic books, which have been using digital coloring effectively for more than a decade?

Of course a perfectly natural reaction to such observations is a big, fat "So what?"

And if that's the case, great.

It could mean that you so take for granted manga's ascendancy on a foundation of black-and- white graphics that its significance in a pop cultural context is kind of beside the point. Sure, perhaps the "problem" of getting young people to engage with non-color visuals may be an issue only to old-timers in the media-watching game. Certainly the defining controversy in this area— the colorized make-over of classic Hollywood fare in the 1980s—is well known to most. Still, even as the older demographic shunned this trend, the younger set continued to balk at black-and-white films, at least whenever I was screening them. Indeed, "Can't we watch something in color?" used to be a frequently heard complaint in media and film education classes... but is the same true today?

I suspect not, with my own experience informing this opinion. Generation Y and Z's comfort level with black-and-white speaks to a newfound sophistication, and I can only conclude that the popularity of manga, with its ever-growing cross-media ripple effect, deserves much of the credit. Indeed, my own eight-year-old will consume a Tezuka masterwork and might not give much explicit thought to how, in effect, he supplied the glow of whatever fires raged, how he tinted every body of water blue.

Clearly, black-and-white sequential art, once largely the marginalized province of daily comic strips, underground "comix" and indie publishers too poor to opt out, can now be found lining the shelves of every bookstore and library in the U.S.

There's more to say about the appeal of manga's monochromacity, but I'll leave an exploration of the aesthetic implications until next time. For now I just wanted to underscore the larger point here, which concerns how manga as an artistic medium and, let's face it, a global cultural phenomenon, both defies expectations and innovates new ones, both formally and commercially...

If you're in the NY/NJ area in September, you can hear Peter speak at SFABC.

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Or maybe, they have no choice.

Maybe they aren't sophisticated. Maybe they have no choice!

The only 'alternative' to manga is American comics, which is like drinking water with a lemon in it when you really want lemonade.

Would I prefer color mangas? Yes. Would I be willing to pay the extra cost? Probably not. But I believe many would, and I think if even 10% of the mangas were in color, the buyers would be complaining that the others weren't in color.