Japan to Give 'Nobel Prize' for Foreign Comic-Book Artists

Comic Book Guy may soon join the ranks of Nelson Mandela and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. Well, sort of.

The Japanese government announced Tuesday it will award its first "Nobel Prize of Manga" in July to comic-book artists living abroad. It's a watershed moment for the island nation, which experts say has been slow to recognize the graphic-novel — or "manga" — industry as an officially sanctioned economic powerhouse.

"It's not Sony anymore, it's manga," said Alexandra Munroe, the senior curator of Asian art at the Guggenheim Museum in New York. "It's a very strategic move by the government to kind of sanctify and legitimize an area of Japanese cultural production that has traditionally been — although economically a huge portion of Japan's publishing industry — it has been officially a subculture."

The International Manga Award will be given to the artist who best contributes to the worldwide spread of the art form, the Foreign Ministry said in a statement. Last year, Foreign Minister Taro Aso likened the award to a "Nobel Prize."

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"Official forces within Japanese government are recognizing the leadership that Japan has in the world in this area of cultural production. And they do. No one comes close," Munroe said. "They realize it's their Hollywood."

Escapist plots and racy drawings have made these graphic novels a hugely popular homegrown industry, with publishing houses now marketing manga versions of classic literature and Buddhist texts.

"There are manga that are full of big-eyed girls and robots, there are manga that tell the story of professional golfers, there are cooking manga, there are manga that are very sort of indie and western in flavor," said Mike Kiley, the publisher of Tokyopop, an English-language manga company based in Los Angeles. "It's a very broad palate and kind of difficult to generalize."

Manga was born in 1950s post-war Japan, when artists like Osamu Tezuka created big-eyed characters like Astro Boy, inspired by American comics. Today these graphic novels go hand-in-hand with Japanese animation, or anime.

"The stories tend to be much more complex," Munroe said. "They tend to be psychologically much more bizarre. They tend to have themes that are much more kind of apocalyptic. More extraterrestrial. More truly gruesome and violent."

And at times they have sex — lots and lots of cartoon sex.

But that's just a sub-segment of the format, Kiley said.

"Manga is really more like calling something fiction — it's a format rather than a genre," he said. "There are manga produced for 3-year-olds and there are manga that are written for 80-year-olds."

Anime like Hayao Miyazaki's "Spirited Away" — released in the United States several years ago by Walt Disney Pictures — shows how big the market for the genre has become. In America, where graphic novels are a $300 million-a-year business, manga writers and artists are heralding the new award.

"While it can be argued that Americans created the comic as we know it today, the Japanese undoubtedly perfected it and for them to recognize that there's a lot of great work being done overseas is an important thing," said Josh Elder, the writer of the manga Mail Order Ninja.

Tokyopop, which will release around 500 titles this year with stories that deal with everything from flesh-eating lesbian vampires to angsty teen romance, is counting on its brand of American manga to be in the running for the new "Nobel" from manga's "spiritual homeland."

A committee of manga artists and publishers will release a list of the finalists for the prize on June 22, the ministry said, with the winner and three runner-ups traveling to Japan on July 2 for a ceremony and a 10-day trip to meet with the manga industry.

"Manga and anime have been spreading overseas and are selling quite well," Aso said. "I want to further boost the communicative power of these so-called pieces of pop culture."

And it's manga fans like Aso, Elder said, that have made the official government endorsement of manga possible.

"The people who were adults when the manga industry really took off in Japan, they're retired or dead," Elder said. "The people who grew up with this stuff as fans of it have taken the reins of power across the entire spectrum of Japanese society and therefore it's become much more culturally acceptable in every way."

The prize carries no monetary reward, ministry official Nobuyuki Watanabe said. The trophy's design has yet to be finalized, but it would be something "appropriate," he said.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.