Frederik L. Schodt | フレデリック・L・ショット

Henry Yoshitaka Kiyama and The Four Immigrants Manga

Was the first American original comic book created by a Japanese immigrant?

"Comics," as we usually think of them, are pictures with "word balloons" in sequential panels that tell a story. They mainly take the form of short newspaper "comic strips" and longer "comic books." As Bill Blackbeard and Martin Williams note in the Smithsonian Collection of Newspaper Comics, comic strips achieved their modern form in the United States starting around 1896, the year Richard Felton Outcault's Yellow Kid ran in the American Humorist weekly supplement in the New York Journal. For at least three decades almost all comics were short serialized newspaper strips, not the "comic books" we have today.

Comic books with original material are often said to have started around February 1935, when New Fun was issued by DC comics. Prior to that time there were some comic "books," but these were merely newspaper comic strips compiled into book form and sold as collections or anthologies. New Fun was a magazine published with all original material, much of it authored by Major Malcolm Wheeler-Nicholson, a former cavalry officer and pulp fiction writer. Its success set the stage for classic American comic book titles such as Superman and Batman, which appeared in 1938 and 1940, respectively.

So how does Kiyama's book fit into all this? According to surviving San Francisco Japanese-language newspaper accounts, he exhibited his entire story at Kinmon Gakuen ("Golden Gate Institute") in mid-February, 1927. In order to do so, he must have started working on the series in 1926, if not earlier. Kazuo Ebina, a San Francisco newspaper columnist who wrote under the pen name of Shunshuro for the Nichi Bei, or The Japanese American News, visited the 1927 exhibit and noted that Kiyama had created his comic in the hopes of having it serialized in a newspaper. Indeed, when it was exhibited it consisted of 52 episodes of 12 panels each, corresponding to one year's weekly serialization in a newspaper. It was then titled Manga Hokubei Iminshi, or "A Manga North American Immigrant History."

Why was Kiyama unable to serialize his story in a newspaper? A variety of reasons come to mind. First, it was extremely long (104 pages). In those days an artist trying to sell a story for newspaper serialization would never have created an entire, integral work of so many pages (with a beginning and even an end!) for submission. Furthermore, it was probably too documentary in nature and too adult in content. In the 1920s comic strips were read by the whole family, and they did not deal with racism and social and political issues the way Kiyama's work did. Finally, the bilingual nature of his comic required that readers understand both Japanese and English. This meant that the only publications capable of serializing his story were the few local Japanese language papers in major cities in the United States.

Kiyama eventually elected to self-publish. He had his work printed in Japan at Kumaya Printers in Tokyo on January 25th and then brought it back to America, issuing it as a book titled Manga Yonin Shosei ("The Four Students Comic") on March 3, 1931. For the place of publication, he listed his studio on 1901 Sutter Street, San Francisco, California.

If Kiyama's book appeared four years before New Fun, is it the "first American comic book"? It could be, but it depends on how one defines a comic book, and not everyone agrees on a definition today. Some people would argue passionately that the first comic books were humorous Japanese illustrated woodblock print books from the 18th century, or European illustrated books from the 19th century. Kiyama's book also does not resemble a typical modern American "comic book" in the sense that it is hardbound and over 100 pages, as opposed to the magazine-style, stapled publications of thirty or so pages popular today. Its visual style resembles that of U.S. gag newspaper strips popular in the early twentieth century, but its content-- a serious story of an autobiographical nature, using apparently "real" characters, who mature and develop over time-- is closer to a modern "graphic novel" than it is to early comic strips or comic books.

Is Kiyama's work the first "graphic novel"? Is it the first "modern-format American comic book"? Experts will probably find much to discuss and argue about. No matter what their conclusions, it is one of a kind, and the first of its kind.

Frederik L. Schodt
November 5, 1998


Blackbeard, Bill and Martin Williams, ed. The Smithsonian Collection of Newspaper Comics. Washington D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press and Harry N. Abrams, 1979.

Paul Sassienie. The Comic Book: The One Essential Guide for Comic Book Fans Everywhere. London: Ebury Press, 1994.

The Four Immigrants Manga is also available at finer bookstores, both real and Web-virtual. To order through Amazon, click here.