Aihara, Koji and Kentaro Takekuma. Even a Monkey Can Draw Manga, Vol. 1. San Francisco: Viz Communications, 2002. 149 pp. ISBN 1-56931-863-8. 

Review by Timothy Perper, PhD, Philadelphia, PA:
Even a Monkey Can Draw Manga is a witty, satiric, and sometimes pointed commentary on manga and the art of Japanese cartooning. Originally published in the late 1980s-early 1990s under the title “Saru Demo Egakeru Manga Kyoshitsu” (“Comic Book Art for Monkeys”), Even a Monkey Can Draw Manga is itself drawn in black-and-white manga style with panels, sidebars, and two crazed main characters, and is presented in a how-to format that quickly reveals its satiric and critical underpinnings.

The two heroes, also named Koji Aihara and Kentaro Takekuma, ages 19 and 22 respectively, want to become famous manga artists, make billions of yen, become elected leaders of Japan, and rule the world. Every “lesson” in Even a Monkey Can Draw Manga is devoted to this maniacal plan, each of course ending in disaster or terminal obsession.

In one early lesson, Takekuma tries to teach Aihara how to draw the rectangle that surrounds each panel in a comic strip. They disregard the fact that much manga does not use rectangular frames, but it makes no difference. When Aihara puts the ruler down on the paper and inks in the line, the ink runs under the ruler in a dribbly mess. So he turns the ruler over, but ink still runs under the edge. The solution, illustrated with great solemnity, is to use a wick made from twisted tissue paper to draw up the ink molecules before they ooze (“like cockroaches,” the sidebar says) into every vacant space available. Advanced artists, they add, can use a drinking straw instead. Aihara is delighted when he finally succeeds in drawing a square: One step closer to their goal of ruling the world!

Throughout, Takekuma and Aihara lecture the reader while wearing opaque eyeglasses and uttering platitudes. These po-faced lecturers look exactly like Scott McCloud’s later lecturer in Understanding Comics (1993), and the similarity is very amusing.

Topics covered include how to choose a pen-name (avoid names like Masahiko Dostoevsky), how to draw action figures (copy them from other manga artists), the origin of the panty flash (in evolutionary steps from the habilis panty through the Neanderthal panty to the modern panty), and how to draw shonen (boys’) manga (the “shish kebob” model of narration: below a picture of shish kebob on a skewer is another skewer with boxes labeled “fight,” “fight,” “fight,” one after the next).

They also tackle how to draw sexy manga. One picture, to be emulated as a model when drawing for men’s sex magazines, shows a man surrounded by a semi-circular conveyor belt with dishes, each containing a different female character – a nympho school girl, a blonde foreigner, a horny married woman. But each woman is drawn not as a human figure but as a wooden doll in imitation of the illustrations in one of Japan’s most venerable modern sex manuals, Dr. Sha Kokken’s 1960 Seiseikatsu no Chie (“Hints for Sex Life”). However, when drawing sexy manga for women readers, the budding artist must remember that women’s libido is more complex, like a Tetris game with pieces labeled “Stable Life Style,” “Kind Sex,” “Adventure,” and “Sex on Fire.”

One of my favorite sequences occurs when Takekuma tries to explain to Aihara that the romantic hero in shojo (girls’) manga is no longer a character out of a Takarazuka Revue (where all male roles are played by women), but the “Rocker.” Aihara visualizes a high school girl gazing yearningly at a gymnasium locker, and demands to know what kind of world we live in today. No, Takekuma exclaims, he means a Rocker, and we see a tousle-haired young fellow singing ardently into a microphone. (In the last episode of that little romance, the rocker and his girlfriend are both thrown out of school.)

Even a Monkey Can Draw Manga also parodies the trend to use manga for purposes far from its origins in entertainment – for example, a railway timetable. This piece of lunacy shows the idiotically grinning Express Kaiji 103 train chugging along through 50 nearly identical panels from Shinjuku at 9:07 to Kamisuwa at 12:08. The whole timetable is about a foot thick, but Takekuma assures Aihara that he is working on that problem.

Throughout, Even a Monkey Can Draw Manga parodies manga and its conventions, foibles, and excesses. Overall, the targets are clichéd unoriginality, market-driven mediocrity, and just plain incompetent greed. In an effective and delicious ploy, criticism here wears the masks of the very form it critiques. Readers who already know manga will greatly enjoy Even a Monkey Can Draw Manga. In addition, its satiric wit, clever drawing, wild plotting, and runaway, over-the-top enthusiasm will endear it to any fan of truly funny comics.

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This Page Last Updated 3 January 2004.