Media arts prof uses cartoon-style medium as teaching tool
By Chris Horn, University Magazine Group,firstname.lastname@example.org, 803-777-3687
Northrop Davis knows how to tell a good story — he’s a screenwriter who has sold projects to Hollywood, lectured at international universities and rubbed elbows at the writers and directors guilds of America.
Besides teaching screenwriting and TV writing to his media arts students at USC, Davis teaches a packed class on a Japanese graphic art tradition that dates to medieval Japan. It’s called manga, an art form that is wildly successful commercially, dwarfing the American comics industry and making a big impact on the arts worldwide.
“Manga is part of what is popularly called 'cool Japan,’ and it’s in tune with their age group,” said Davis, an assistant professor of media arts and a 2012 Mungo undergraduate teaching award winner. “Manga integrates storytelling into art, is extremely diverse genre-wise and fascinatingly creative.”
Modern manga emerged after World War II “when anyone young who had survived the war in Japan wanted something new — and manga was it,” Davis said.
Japanese young and old consume manga stories in print and on mobile devices. Some manga make the leap to animation (anime) — and some make it all the way to Hollywood. Davis found a compelling manga entitled “Battle Angel Alitatra,” a story whose artist-creator Yukito Kishiro said was influenced in part by the 1984 American movie classic “The Terminator.”
Davis pitched the story to 20th Century Fox with a treatment on how it might be presented on screen. The studio bought the project, and James Cameron, who directed “The Terminator,” “Titanic” and now the “Avatar” series, is set to direct “Battle Angel Alitra” next.
“There’s a long-standing confluence of manga, anime and Hollywood. My research has focused on Disney animation and Hollywood’s direct cinematic storytelling style that has influenced the Japanese art form — and been influenced by manga, as well,” he said. “I also focus on manga/anime and Hollywood’s accelerating hybridization into fresh new forms that the students and I can in turn create.”
Davis came to USC from the University of California Irvine in 2008 with a passion for teaching screenwriting, manga and anime.
“One of the main differences between manga and American comics is that you’re in the middle of the action in manga but just a spectator in American comics,” Davis said. “Also, American comics tend to focus just on super heroes or kid stories like Archie, while Japanese manga delves into lots of genres: sports, science fiction, romance, gangsters, ninja, urban life and so on, and it appeals to all ages, not just kids.
“Manga also tend to have more meaningful, thematic stores — a strong moral core. Dr. Tezuka, creator of the form, believed mangas were like a tree, which is only as strong as its roots (meaning theme) and took the Russian novels of Tolstoy and Dostoevsky as a basis for his long-running manga stories.”
Several hundred students have taken Davis’ manga courses, and the students end up creating their own mangas.
“Students like having something tangible to show for their work, and making comics takes a good deal of work,” said Jarad Greene, a 2011 graduate and editor of wemakemanga.com, a website that features mangas created by Davis’ students. “At the end of the semester they do not just say, 'I learned about manga,' but 'I learned about manga, and here is my own.'”
The students’ works have received worldwide accolades, with Manami Iiboshi of a top Japanese manga distributor calling them “excellent.” In October, two Beijing universities flew Davis to China to lecture about the work, after being impressed with the wemakemaga.com website. Three of his manga class grads were invited to a summer internship at Random House in New York the past two summers, and two received publishing industry job offers.
With a university in Japan now discussing a potential collaboration with Davis on manga studies, his students might one day make another claim: “I studied with students from the birthplace of manga.”
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