There are a lot of Japanese-language alternative manga that are as good as, or better than, most of the English-language alternative comics that have been critically lauded. There are only a few English-language publishers who license and translate alternative manga, and their collective output of manga is a trickle compared to the wealth of material out there. So why do I fear the possibility of Drawn & Quarterly licensing one of my favorite manga? Because of how they publish their manga. I’ve expressed my opposition to the way Drawn & Quarterly publishes its manga in comments here and elsewhere, so I’m grateful to Noah for inviting me to write a post on the subject. It won’t be a very long post, because the case against Drawn & Quarterly’s method is so straightforward that it requires no elaboration.
In Japan, almost all comics are read right to left. This means that every row of panels is read starting from the right. Currently, almost all English-language manga publishers that I know of leave things this way. They exception is Drawn & Quarterly: when they publish manga, they rearrange the panels on each page so it reads left to right.*
If you only consider the panels in isolation, Drawn & Quarterly’s way might seem to be best: it preserves the original orientation of the panels, while not requiring the Western reader to read right to left. But by rearranging the panels, the visual relationships between panels are destroyed, as is the overall composition of the page, thus destroying the page’s integrity.
Someone might retort: “Drawn & Quarterly’s manga look perfectly fine to me.” In the first place, the composition and especially the relationships between panels probably affects the reading experience more on a subconscious level than a conscious one most of the time. In the second place, even if a page in Drawn & Quarterly’s manga looks as good as the original, it still isn’t the page the artist drew. It’s pieces of that page, cut up and shuffled around. Any aesthetic value the new composition and panel relationships may have will be a fortuitous accident. (In some cases, the adapter may be able to affect this to some degree; but at best (s)he will have a very limited number of options.)
Sometimes it’s argued that Drawn & Quarterly’s method is commercially necessary, but this is belied by the fact that virtually all other current publishers of manga, including publishers of alternative manga (e. g. Fantagraphic, Top Shelf, Picturebox) publish their manga right-to-left, leaving the art as it is. And if Drawn & Quarterly feels it has to make its manga read left to right, it would be much better to simply reverse the entire page including the art, as if it were reflected in a mirror. This has its disadvantages — for instance, right-handed characters become left-handed and vice versa — but the page’s integrity is preserved.
In other comments on the subject, I’ve called Drawn & Quarterly’s method “mutilation.” I’ve refrained from that here. For one thing, I now think that as far as the result is concerned, it goes a little too far. For another, the people at Drawn & Quarterly clearly believe that they’re being respectful to the manga, even though objectively they aren’t.** What’s so frustrating is that they’re bringing over worthy manga, which otherwise would probably never get translated into English; but they’re doing it wrong, when it would actually be easier and cheaper to do it right.
*They may not do this all the time. They don’t seem to have done it with The Box Man, although I can’t say for certain.
**To avoid misunderstanding, I’m not asserting that they’re being disrespectful to the manga artist, but to the manga itself.