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While reading Michael Connelly’s The Lincoln Lawyer Novels, I made an observation that I realized would be hard to explain to others. The book wisely chose to use low quality paper. This thing is massive; it is three of Connelly’s novels in his Lincoln Lawyer series, nearly nine hundred pages, bundled together and wrapped with a hard cover. My wrist gets sore from propping it up too long. Better quality paper would mean more weight, and more sore wrists.

The reason why I noticed such a seemingly innocuous aspect of the printing? Manga. Anyone who knows the feeling of flipping through pages right to left, or has browsed physical copies of doujin-shi knows that paper quality can be a big deal, especially in comics. But exactly why is paper quality important? What informs a manga creator or publisher’s decision of what paper to use? Well, a number of things.

Let’s look at Fullmetal Alchemist 3-in-1 editions and Deathnote black editions. These two make perfect examples, not just because of their popularity; in terms of paper needs, these two are complete opposites. FMA has razor thin, tender pages. While Deathnote’s pages are some of the thickest and most resilient I’ve ever turned. But both of these are perfect, for what they need to do.

Starting with weight, a 3-in-1 volume of Fullmetal has about six hundred pages. A black edition (2-in-1) Deathnote is four hundred. But the FMA actually weighs about 90g less, and they have the exact same depth, 3.3 cm. Deathnote can afford the extra weight of thicker pages, and probably benefits from the extra depth when it stands out more on store shelves. FMA, on the other hand, benefits for the lightness and compactness of thin paper.

The art style determines the paper choice too. Fine, uncluttered lines and light shading won’t show through a page very easily. Arakawa’s art in Fullmetal fits this description perfectly, with plenty of white space. So the thin pages aren’t a problem. But if they were used for something more like Deathnote, with heavy contrast, thick pen strokes, fields of pitch black and shadows, and even entire pages of nearly nothing but black (the “How to Read the Deathnote” pages), the ink would show through to the other side of the page, and damage the art to a degree. So, thicker pages stop this from happening.

Deathnote, Fullmetal Alchemist, manga art

Pacing is one of the most interesting things in manga. After print, the artist has to hand off the story, the page turning, to the reader. They have no power over how fast the reader moves. Or do they? Panel spacing, frame size, speech bubble placement, even the amount of ink in an illustration are all ways the author can control the readers’ pace. And another factor to that list, is paper. Fullmetal is action heavy, dialog light, and best digested while reading. You don’t stop to think about FMA, you read on to think about FMA. And its pages encourage this, as they flip quick-and-easily, keeping you emerged in the story start to finish (seriously, I burned through the last 6 volumes in one sitting without even realizing it). But Deathnote demands you stop often, digest the latest information, remind yourself of all the relevant information, and let it settle before continuing. It’s a complex-as-hell story, and I’m still impressed the author, Tsugumi Ohba, was able to keep track of it all. The bulky pages can often be unruly and difficult to pick out, and can’t simple be slid aside like FMA’s. They slow you down, and give you pause every few seconds to process what you read.

These are some of the concerns when picking paper quality. I think this really demonstrates the artistic precision that comes with printing. It’s something most people rarely think about, and until recently I’d never seen it considered for a novel. But a good artist should always think about the way the viewer or listener experiences their work, and the minds behind Deathnote, Fullmetal Alchemist, and The Lincoln Lawyer seem to get that.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m gonna see what kinda darkness detective Harry Bosch is facing today.

Don’t Lose Your Way