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Massive Asian Comics Exhibit on View at the Bowers

"Comfort Bridge" from Keiichi Tanaami, a multi-genre Japanese artist and seminal pop artist whose works blurs the lines between manga and fine art. This piece is in display at the Bowers Museum as a part of its "Asian Comics" exhibit. Image courtesy of Bowers Museum, the artist and Nanzuka/© Keiichi Tanaami

Over the past 20 years, the Bowers Museum has hosted some of Asia’s most timeless artifacts and art, from Tibetan treasures and Japanese samurai art to relics of the Silk Road and Terra Cotta guardians of China’s first emperor.

Its latest exhibition, “Asian Comics: Evolution of an Art Form,” may not match the historical scope or fine art pedigree of those, but in terms of how its pieces have impacted and are impacting the contemporary world, it stands alone.

A massive collection of comic book art and immersive multimedia installations developed by the UK’s prestigious Barbican Centre, it’s the largest exhibition of Asian comics ever assembled. This is the first time it’s been shown outside of Europe and inside a museum, following stays in two Italian castles and a former French biscuit factory.

At turns playful and profane, personal and political, beautiful and bewildering, the exhibition’s approximately 400 pieces explore the artistry and creativity of 22 diverse countries ranging from Pakistan to the west, Indonesia to the southeast and Mongolia to the north. Each has its own visual storytelling culture that reflects its national traditions, but they are also connected; not by language or even geography but through the wholly commercial, mass-produced mass medium of comics, a medium dominated by the continent’s largest and most sophisticated comics culture: Japanese manga.

Sports manga is a popular sub-genre of Japanese manga. Ide Chikae's "Viva! Volleyball," published between 1968-71, narrates the adventures of a girl named Chie Hosokawa who plays on the school’s volleyball team. Image courtesy of Bowers Museum, © Ide Chikae

The Mythical and Modern

The exhibit is curated by noted comics journalist and author Paul Gravett. That literary influence is borne out by the way the exhibit unfolds; rather than dividing it into a survey of individual countries or areas, it’s divided into six thematic sections. The first three, titled Mapping Asian Comics, Fables and Folktales and Recreating and Revisiting the Past,  focus on the influence that manga, or comics made in Japan, have had on other Asian comics as well as the unique historical, social, cultural and artistic influences in those countries that have shaped their comics.  

It’s a blend of dazzling, sometimes whimsical, sometimes strange, but always artistic visuals, studious history, and celebration of a diverse array of comics which makes sense as Gravette may be a journalist and author (the exhibit grew from his 2015 book “Mangasia), but he’s also a comics fan who seems genuinely excited to share some of what he has discovered (with the help of 20 Asian comics experts).

Though she never had any formal training, Chinese artist Zao Dao became an internet sensation while still living in the isolated village on the outskirts of Kaiping where she was born. Image from "Le souffle du vent dans les pins" (2016), published by Editions Mosquito; courtesy of Bowers Museum

The fourth section focuses on the people who create the comics, one of the few parts of the exhibit where there is ample description given to each of the artworks (something difficult to do when there are 400).

The fifth section, Censorship and Sensibility, appears at first glance to resemble an old-school video rental store, as it is roped off with signs indicating that no one under age 18 is permitted. The resemblance isn’t cosmetic. Inside are examples of genres, and subgenres, of one of the more problematic aspects of manga: the explicit sexual and violent comics that comprise a large portion of it.  Some, as the accompanying introductory text states, are from “genres by and for women to question their gender roles and societal constraints.” Others are from the homoerotic genre of yaoi, which the text explains “developed in the late 1970s as an empowering fantasy by and for women.” Where some of the sexual iconography is so tame one wonders why the ropes are needed and others are so over the top they are more funny than salacious, a few, particularly those indebted to a genre of Japanese traditional woodblock prints called muzan-e, or atrocity pictures, show why the section is adults only.

Immersive Multimedia

The sixth section contains the immersive part of the exhibit: Asian Comics Go Multimedia. Two of the immersions are fairly standard: a reading station where thick manga anthologies can be thumbed through, and a drawing station. But there’s also a motion-capture installation that allows ticket holders to control a building-sized construction robot that resembles the kind of giant robots popular in mecha manga of the 1980s and 1990s. That’s high-tech, but where the viewer is immersed in the 21st Century is the bank of video monitors that underscore the reciprocal nature Asian comics, particularly, manga, have had on film and video games. 

And then there’s the influence of fandom as a monitor broadcasts a performance of Hatsune Mikyu, a virtual pop star that began existence as a piece of vocal synthesizer software but has transformed into a multimedia phenomenon that appears in manga, anime and, as an animated hologram, performs her songs “live” at concerts in front of thousands of people.

It’s an exhaustive exhibit that showcases an astonishing amount of artwork but also delves into the myths and folklore that so many creators have drawn from as well as the social and political concerns that infuse so many of the stories. It could be exhausting if it were just a bunch of comic book and magazine covers and interior pages encased in glass with lots of accompanying text, which it is a great deal of the time until the immersive section.

What it isn't is a greatest-hits package of manga familiar to Western eyes. Except for the prodigious and hugely influential Osamu Tezuka, whose “Astro Boy” animated TV series, based on his 1950s manga, was the first major Japanese cultural incursion into America post-World War II, few of the creators on display are names that anyone with just a passing familiarity with manga will probably recognize.


The spread of comics beyond traditional print media, and outside Japan, is also explored in the "Asian Comics" exhibit at the Bowers Museum, including this 2013 web comic from Thailand, "Star Punch Girl." Image courtesy of Bowers Museum, © Sphinx Scribble

And that might be the exhibit’s major achievement – other than showing the incredible diversity of Asian comics; it manages to avoid taking an overtly Anglo-centric view of manga. The central question it seems concerned with isn’t “Why are Asian comics so  different from ours?” but “How did Asian comics take their current form?” 

There is a big difference between those two contexts. The first involves viewing Asian comics through the lens of Western norms and standards, which runs the risk of diminishing their cultural authenticity and diversity. That’s great if you want to perpetuate stereotypes and stymie cross-cultural understanding.  But the second grounds Asian comics in their own cultures and storytelling traditions, and calls for a more nuanced and thoughtful appreciation.

Global Phenomenon


And some of that appreciation could be well spent on Gravett’s text in the introductory panel. He writes that just as “there is no single Asia but rather a diverse range of countries over which extends a network of historical, political, spiritual and artistic cultures … the term manga refers to not a singular style but an almost infinitely variable art form, covering subjects that range from children’s stories to adult-only fantasies.”

That variability of manga makes it a mutable art form, one that allows it to adapt and evolve within Japan, but to also influence and inspire changes in other comic book styles and storytelling traditions. That is evident in this exhibit, roughly half of which is manga. Focusing so much of an exhibit titled “Asian Comics” on one country’s comic industry isn’t playing favorites, however. Manga has dominated Asian comics since Japan became the largest comics market in the world in the late 1970s; in the 21st century, it has morphed into a global phenomenon influencing everything from fashion to digital technology. 

Museum exhibits often transcend the objects on display by providing context to the society they represent. “Asian Comics” does that by connecting the past to the present, But by showing the ongoing global impact of manga and its related forms, the exhibit also hints at a future being drawn and written in real-time.

Asian Comics: Evolution of an Art Form

When: Through Sept. 8. See website for details.

Where: Bowers Museum, 2002 N. Main St., Santa Ana

Cost: $10 to $28

Contact: 714-567-3600 or

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