Exhibition review: Mucha Manga Mystery, Berlin

Mucha Manga Mystery exhibition viewThis week is the last of the exhibition “Mucha Manga Mystery” at the Bröhan Museum in Berlin, the “State Museum for Art Nouveau, Art Deco and Functionalism (1889-1939)”. The title of the show suggests a much narrower focus than the “German comics” show in Hannover, but at the same time a wider range of media. The basic premise of the Berlin exhibition is to show the influence of Art Nouveau artist Alphonse Mucha (1860-1939) on subsequent popular culture up to the present day.

More precisely, there are three sections. The first shows diverse works by Mucha, above all his famous advertisement posters. These are always a pleasure to behold, although the Bröhan Museum holds a sizeable permanent Mucha collection anyway, if I remember correctly. (The exhibition was first shown at another museum, though.)

With the second section, we suddenly fast forward to the 1960s and 70s, when designers of rock music record covers and posters allegedly drew inspiration from Mucha’s art. It’s not made clear, however, whether these designers copied or adapted Mucha’s imagery, or whether they were only vaguely inspired by Art Nouveau in general. Furthermore, for someone like me who is actually interested in record covers, it is almost painful to see 19 record covers on display, but not a single one of them credited (neither to the cover designer nor to the album musician). You can listen to some songs on headphones (Cream, Quicksilver Messenger Service, etc.), but the selection of tracks doesn’t correspond to the records displayed. Still, some important record cover designs can be seen here, such as Abraxas, Disraeli Gears, and Sommerabend. Alphonse Mucha and Art Nouveau continue to exert their influence on record cover designers (e.g. John Dyer Baizley, Malleus Rock Art Lab, Tiffanie Uldry), which raises the question why the exhibition stops in the 70s.

And then there is the third, the manga section. Or rather, a collection of artifacts loosely related to manga. Granted, there is a pile of tankōbon of German translations of manga which the visitors are encouraged to read. But the tankōbon in the display case (titles by CLAMP mostly – RG Veda, Chobits, Gate 7 – but also Million Girl by Kotori Momoyuki and Adekan by Tsukiji Nao) are arranged in such a way that either only the covers are visible, or double-page spreads. In other words, you can’t perceive them as comics, as there are no sequential images. This is unfortunate, and what makes it worse is that, as with the record covers, the purported similarity to Mucha’s art is not convincingly argued for. Frankly, I see more differences, for instance the lack of any abstract graphic ornaments in the manga on display.

These items are accompanied by other non-manga artifacts such as posters and figurines, and a silent projection of the RG Veda anime. For some reason, the label for one of the posters says “artist unknown”, although the artist is clearly credited on the poster itself as “Shinsuke Arai” (probably this one: dead-robot.deviantart.com). It should be noted that there are also some American comic books in the exhibition – again, mostly covers only – by J. H. Williams III and Joe Quesada.

While I criticised the Hannover exhibition for showing too much original drawings, the Berlin exhibition disappoints by not containing any. Altogether I wouldn’t recommend this show, except for the Mucha part.

Rating: ● ● ○ ○ ○

Exhibition review: German Comics, Hannover

Karikaturmuseum Wilhelm BuschOn the occasion of the 150th anniversary of the publication of Max und Moritz, the Wilhelm Busch Museum in Hannover is currently showing an exhibition titled “Deutschsprachige Comics von Wilhelm Busch bis heute” (“German-language comics from Wilhelm Busch to the present day”) until May 4. An interesting, ambitious, if not problematic subject for an exhibition. For what is it that unifies the diverse comics that were first published in German? How are German-language comics different from, say, comics in English, French, or Japanese? However, it’s not the use of German language in comics that this exhibition is about. For the most part, the comics on display are represented by pages of original art, sometimes without the lettering, so you can’t even read them.

Instead, the exhibition simply assembles the most notable comics by creators (i.e. artists – the writers are often not even credited) who happen to be from Germany, Switzerland and Austria. This criterion becomes even more questionable when manga creator Christina Plaka is introduced like this: “the Greek Christina Plaka is living in Offenbach since her birth…”. The relations between nationality, comics and other artworks, and authorship are complex (as I’ve tried to show in my 2010 article “Authorship, Collaboration, and Art Geography”) – maybe a museum exhibition isn’t the right place for such theoretical issues.

And at any rate, this exhibition does have some interesting things on display:

  • Possibly the most notable exhibit is a magazine with “Famany, der fliegende Mensch” by F. F. Oberhauser and E. G. Hildebrand – a German superhero comic from 1937, one year before Superman.
  • A decision that probably won’t go down well with every visitor is to show propaganda comics from the NS era and the GDR together under the same heading. I don’t think the condemning text accompanying GDR comics such as Atze and Waputa does them justice either.
  • Naturally, Matthias Schultheiss is also incorporated, but the label text says he is “almost forgotten today”. I guess this shows the different perceptions in comic historiography (in which Schultheiss is still regarded as an important figure) and the actual comic scene.
  • On a side note, I was surprised to learn that Chris Scheuer is from Austria. Somehow I always associated him with Hamburg, but apparently he only moved there in 1988, according to Lambiek.

As I have said, most exhibits are original drawings, which is a pity as I would have preferred to see the original publications instead, or both alongside each other. (The examples from Fliegende Blätter seem to be shown in the original issues, but these were unfortunately bound together at a later point in time, so they are presented as thick books, which gives a wrong impression of these pamphlets. A digitised version can be seen at UB Heidelberg.) Apart from that (and the aforementioned lack of any theory or statement), this exhibition is well worth seeing.

Rating: ● ● ● ○ ○

Shōjo manga roundup: Tempest, Namida Usagi, Kimi ni todoke

Continuing from last week, here are some more short reviews of current (or at least recently translated) shōjo manga.
Hime from Tempest despairs of his male body.

Hime despairs of his male body in Tempest.

Title: Sonnensturm (テンペスト / Tempest)
Language: German (translated from Japanese)
Author: Yuiji Aniya
Year: 2013 (originally 2011)
Publisher: Egmont Manga (originally Kōdansha)
Pages: 158
Price: €6.50 (D)
Website (German): http://www.manganet.de/buch-buchreihe/sonnensturm/
Volumes reviewed: 1 (of 3 volumes in German so far; volume 4 is scheduled for May)
ISBN: 978-3770481514

In the near future, earth’s entire male population is wiped out by a solar storm – that’s probably the eponymous Tempest (not to be confused with the manga Blast of Tempest / Zetsuen no Tempest). However, the remaining women figure out how to reproduce by hybridising egg cells. Only female children are born this way, until the 40th century, when a boy is born – our protagonist Hime. Trying to fit into this all-female world, he pretends to be a girl. Which goes well until his friend Kou wants to have children with him…
Such a story must be a real treat for anyone interested in gender issues. Homosexuality, social pressure and acceptance, radical feminism, family and reproduction politics, it’s all in there. It’s also interesting from a reception perspective: how easily does the reader “forget” that Hime is a boy? Can it be read as a yuri manga? On the other hand, Tempest doesn’t work well as a science fiction manga. Apart from some advanced data visualisation technology, we don’t see much that tells us we’re in the future at all.
Rating: ● ● ○ ○ ○
There's also a subplot on photography in Namida Usagi, but that's quickly forgotten by the 2nd volume.

There’s also a subplot around photography in Namida Usagi, but that’s quickly forgotten by the 2nd volume.

Title: Namida Usagi – Tränenhase (なみだうさぎ ~ 制服の片思い / Namida Usagi – Seifuku no kataomoi)
Language: German (translated from Japanese)
Author: Ai Minase
Year: 2013-2014 (originally 2009)
Publisher: Egmont Manga (originally Shōgakukan)
Pages: 192
Price: €6.50 (D)
Website (German): http://www.manganet.de/buch-buchreihe/namida-usagi-traenenhase/
Volumes reviewed: 1-2 (of 2 volumes in German so far; vol. 3 is scheduled for March)
ISBN (vol. 1): 978-3770481347

Ai Minase’s name might ring a bell, as she was an assistant to Arina Tanemura on the classic magical girl manga Kamikaze Kaitō Jeanne. Namida Usagi was off to a good start: in this high school love story, the stereotypical roles of powerless girl and powerful boy are reversed when Momoka, a fairly average girl, falls in love with her reclusive and unpopular classmate Narumi. However, this setup is already revised at the end of the first volume. After the holidays, Narumi returns to school with shorter hair and without glasses, and suddenly he’s popular with all the girls. This makeover (which the author claims to have made by popular demand) ruins the whole manga for me, as it looks like it continues from this point as just another bog-standard romance manga.
Rating: ● ● ○ ○ ○
Scary Sawako from Kimi ni todoke.

Scary Sawako from Kimi ni todoke.

Title: Nah bei dir – Kimi ni todoke (君に届け / Kimi ni todoke)
Language: German (translated from Japanese)
Author: Karuho Shiina
Year: 2010 (originally 2005)
Publisher: Tokypop (originally Shūeisha)
Pages: 192-208
Price: €6.95 (D)
Website (German): http://www.tokyopop.de/manga-shop/index.php?cPath=875_742
Volumes reviewed: 1-2 (of 18 volumes in German so far; vol. 19 is scheduled for April)
ISBN (vol. 1): 978-3-8420-0071-1

Her classmates avoid 15-year old Sawako because she looks like Sadako from The Ring. The only one who doesn’t find her scary is Kazehaya, the most popular boy in class – but then again, Kazehaya is nice to everyone…
I learned about Namida Usagi through a review in AnimaniA, which said that is was nowhere near as good as Kimi ni todoke. In the end I checked out both series, and AnimaniA was right. Although the character constellation in Kimi ni todoke (shy girl meets popular boy) seems generic at first, the subtle storytelling makes more than up for that. Particularly by the second volume, the focus is more on the girls Sawako tries to become friends with than Kazehaya. In other words, this manga is more about friendship than romance, at least so far. Will this series continue to be as enjoyable over the course of more than 20 volumes? I’m willing to give it a try.
Rating: ● ● ● ● ○

Shōjo manga roundup: Crayon Days, Pocha Pocha, Kase-san

It’s been a long time since I posted a straightforward review of a comic. The last one was actually from June 2013 (of Before Watchmen). All the while I’ve been reading comics, of course, some of which I found noteworthy. Here are three short reviews of some of them, united only by the fact that they are all shōjo manga from the last few years.
Painting is still very much a physical activity in Crayon Days.

Painting is still very much a physical activity in Crayon Days.

Title: Kreidetage (くれよん でいず ~ 大キライなアイツ / Crayon Days – Daikirai na Aitsu)
Language: German (translated from Japanese)
Author: Kozue Chiba
Year: 2013-2014 (originally 2012)
Publisher: Tokyopop (originally Shōgakukan)
Pages: 192-196
Price: €6.50 (D)
Website (German): http://www.tokyopop.de/manga-shop/index.php?cPath=872_901
Volumes reviewed: 1-3 (of 3 volumes in German so far; vol. 4 is scheduled for April)

Shima is a 16-year old girl who likes to paint, but is otherwise unremarkable. The story starts with her changing from a regular high school to an art school. A fairly standard love story ensues, her (main) love interest being a rough and unfriendly schoolmate who is already an acclaimed painter. While I can’t say I find the depiction of high school life in Crayon Days convincing, it might be an interesting manga from an art historian’s perspective, as we get to see people painting and talking about painting. For instance, in the world of Crayon Days, abstract expressionism still seems to be en vogue. However, as in many other manga, the setting isn’t all that important here – it just serves as a backdrop for the characters and the story.
Rating: ● ● ○ ○ ○
Katsuyo being caught at what she's best at.

Katsuyo being caught at what she’s best at in Pocha Pocha Swimming Club.

Title: Pocha Pocha Swimming Club (ぽちゃぽちゃ水泳部 / Pocha Pocha Suieibu)
Language: German (translated from Japanese)
Author: Ema Tōyama
Year: 2014 (originally 2011)
Publisher: Egmont Manga (originally Hōbunsha)
Pages: 112
Price: €7 (D)
Website (German): http://www.manganet.de/buch-buchreihe/pocha-pocha-swimming-club/
Volumes reviewed: 1 (1 volume in German so far; vol. 2 is scheduled for March)

When overweight Katsuyo finds out that the boy she fancies only likes slim girls, she decides to lose weight and joins the swimming club of her school. I must admit I hadn’t read a yonkoma (4-panel) manga before, mainly because I thought that format was employed only for gag strips. As Pocha Pocha shows, longer stories can be told just as well in such a rigid layout of 2 × 4 panels per page. I’m not even sure  whether I find ‘comedy’ the right genre designation (though I suspect some of the humour gets lost in translation). Then again, romance isn’t the decisive element either here, as the story revolves rather around swimming, eating, and losing weight.
Rating: ● ● ● ○ ○
Yamada and Kase, our soon-to-be lovers from Asagao to Kase-san.

Yamada and Kase, our soon-to-be lovers from Asagao to Kase-san.

Title: Ipomoea (あさがおと加瀬さん / Asagao to Kase-san)
Language: German (translated from Japanese)
Author: Hiromi Takashima
Year: 2013 (originally 2012)
Publisher: Egmont Manga (originally Shinshokan)
Pages: 159
Price: €7 (D)
Website (German): http://www.manganet.de/buch/ipomoea/
Volumes reviewed: 1 (only 1 volume in German so far)

The shy schoolgirl Yamada meets her athletic schoolmate Kase when watering flowers (ipomoea or morning glories, asagao in Japanese) at their school and gradually falls in love with her. Yuri (Girls’ Love) is another kind of manga that I’ve shied away from in the past, finding it somewhat creepy for adult men to read about lesbian teenage love. Kase-san, however, handles the topic sensitively, as there is no nudity at all in this manga. It is quite similar to a heterosexual romance story, except that the protagonist Yamada struggles to come to terms with her sexuality and that of the eponymous Kase. Their homosexual love is still experienced as a somewhat ‘forbidden love’, which adds an interesting twist to this story. Hopefully Egmont will translate more of this series.
Rating: ● ● ● ● ○

The 650-Cent Plague turns two

This blog post marks two anniversaries: I started this weblog two years ago (on January 15, with a review of the now-defunct manga magazine Daisuki), and this is also the 50th post. That means, for two years I’ve been publishing two posts per month here. On this occasion, I thought a look back might be appropriate. WordPress provides detailed traffic statistics, so here are five ‘fun’ facts about The 650-Cent Plague:

  • Even if we bear in mind that web traffic statistics are always to be interpreted with caution, and that the number of hits isn’t equal to the number of people who have read a blog post, it boils down to: virtually no one is reading this.
  • The people who did read this weblog probably didn’t find what they were looking for: most traffic comes via Google, and the most frequent search terms were related to the flower photographs of either Sarah Jones or Luzia Simons. Given that these searches were for the most part performed on Google Images, it seems likely that those visitors were simply looking for images by these two artists (which are available in better quality at the artists’ websites, anyway), rather than my short comparison of their art on the occasion of the Goslar exhibition.
  • Another source of relatively high traffic was Facebook. I don’t have a Facebook account myself, but Robin Vehrs kindly posted a link to my review of his comic on Facebook. This resulted in the highest hits-per-day number in the history of The 650-Cent Plague (on August 4, 2012). The downside is: some people left comments pertaining to my review on Facebook, and I don’t have the chance to reply. Still not loving Facebook.
  • Anyway, the real currency in blogging are not hits, but comments. And the comment numbers for this weblog are dismal. Still, thank you, everyone who left a comment here – all five of you.
  • Having hardly any readers wouldn’t be so bad if it didn’t take me so much time to write a blog post. I keep track of such things in a spreadsheet, and the average time spent on a post is almost 3 hours (not counting the time I spend reading the texts I write about).

Not yet, Colonel…

That being said, I still think blogging is a good exercise for any scholar. It helps me thinking about things, expressing that in writing, and remembering them. So I guess I’ll continue ‘talking into the void’ at The 650-Cent Plague for the time being. Any suggestions for how to make this weblog more interesting are highly welcome, of course.

Exhibition review: The Adventures of the Ligne claire, Basel

There is a lot to like about the exhibition The Adventures of the Ligne claire. The Herr G. & Co. Affair (German: “Die Abenteuer der Ligne claire. Der Fall Herr G. & Co.”), which can still be seen at Cartoonmuseum Basel until March 9, 2014. With a lot of original drawings and original editions, it shows what ligne claire (“clear line”) comics are and tells the story of the ligne claire style: from precursors such as Bringing Up Father and Bécassine, through Hergé and his contemporaries, to Joost Swarte coining the term “ligne claire” in 1977 and the ligne claire revival from the 1980s onwards.

The awesome exhibition poster by another contemporary ligne claire artist, Exem

The awesome exhibition poster by another contemporary artist, Exem.

There are only two things that the exhibition lacked:

Although some recent examples of ligne claire comics are exhibited (e.g. Christophe Badoux, Chris Ware), there is no mention of ligne claire webcomics – even though these exist, e.g. Tozo by David O’Connell, or The Rainbow Orchid (albeit that’s only an extensive preview to a printed comic) by Garen Ewing. The latter also interviewed the former once. It would have been interesting in the exhibition context to examine the clash of the new, online presentation format with the venerable drawing style.

A panel from the latest Tozo episode by David O’Connell, 2013-09-24.

A panel from the latest Tozo episode by David O’Connell, 2013-09-24.

My other minor complaint about the exhibition is that it mentions “André Franquin’s atom style” (or “atomic style”) as a comic style concurrent with ligne claire, without explaining what that atom style actually is. Some googling led me to Paul Gravett’s website, who has curated the exhibition In Search of the Atom Style in Brussels in 2009. He says, the atom style “seems to be less an artistic style to be adopted, and more an attitude, a state of mind, or as Swarte sees it, ‘… the taste for inventing things in a positive direction.’” – in other words, it’s more about which objects to depict, rather than how to depict them, thus similar to retro-futurism. Furthermore, the atom style appears to have been closely linked to the Marcinelle/Charleroi school (or is a revival thereof). “Atom style” (a term coined by Joost Swarte too) seems to be a difficult and vague stylistic designation at best, which makes it even more regrettable that the Basel exhibition uses it only offhandedly.

Two panels from the comic adaptation of Chico & Rita, by the "atom style" artist Javier Mariscal.

Two panels from the comic adaptation of Chico & Rita, by the “atom style” artist Javier Mariscal.

Jan Assmann’s cultural memory – in comics?

This post took me much longer to write, as I found making a connection to comics with this one is somewhat trickier. Jan Assmann is an egyptologist, and his book Das kulturelle Gedächtnis (“cultural memory”)¹ is concerned with entire ancient cultures – Egypt, Greece, Israel – and they way in which each of them formed and maintained a distinctive collective memory. In order to apply Assmann’s theory to comics, we could look if comics can be said to constitute a culture, or several cultures, of their own (e.g. Matthew J. Pustz’s “comic book culture”²), and analyse how such a comic culture differs from others in terms of its “connective structure”.

Another approach would be to investigate how the content of a particular comic relates to a cultural memory, which is what Karin Kukkonen has done for the case of Bill Willingham’s Fables.³ Similarly, but with less emphasis on Assmann, Marianne Hirsch has examined Art Spiegelman’s Maus in relation to Holocaust remembrance.

There’s another aspect in Assmann’s book that I find more interesting though. Cultural memory is primarily based on writing, which developed out of rites. A rite is a “mimetic routine” that has a symbolic meaning beyond its mere functional meaning. All rites are situated on a scale between repetition on the one hand, and realisation or revival of a past event (“Vergegenwärtigung”) on the other. The less strictly a rite adheres to a form, the more vivid is the reference to the past.

Given the sequentiality of comics, it’s not hard to find instances of mimetic routines in them. It then takes a closer look to tell the functional routines apart from the symbolic routines, but that is still feasible. For instance, consider the sequence of Jim Davis’s Garfield epsiodes from May 1014, 1993. All five of these strips are about Garfield shedding his hair. Only in three of them (May 10, 12 and 13), however, he is actively moving to intensify the shedding, whereas in the other two he is motionless. Garfield’s shedding motions therefore constitute a mimetic routine (if we assume that these Garfield strips are connected to one long story in which the events of the episodes occur one after another). Furthermore, it isn’t a functional routine, as Garfield’s motive is certainly not merely the advancement of his change of pelage. Rather, the motive is mischief towards Jon (May 10 and 12) and competition against Odie (May 13).

middle panel from Garfield 1993-05-12 (coloured version) by Jim DavisThese motivations can only be conveyed if we interpret Garfield’s actions as neither indexical nor iconic signs, but symbolic ones. (The hairs already shed might pass as an indexical sign, but they are not part of the mimetic routine.) Each time, the shedding motion conveys a message that can only be deciphered through its context: Garfield giving a Greek gift (May 10), Garfield claiming his superiority over Jon (May 12) and Garfield claiming his superiority over Odie (May 13). As these mimetic routines have symbolic functions, they must be rites according to Assmann.

The problematic part of Assmann’s notion of rites is the emphasis he puts on their purported reference to past events. This may be true for the religious rites discussed in Assmann’s book, but which event does Garfield’s shedding ritual refer to? This rite can well be regarded as an extension of a cat’s natural change of pelage, but that is a recurring, annual event, not a singular one such as the Exodus of the Israelites from Egypt. For the kind of rite meant by Assmann, it is essential that it refers to an event that is long gone and unlikely to return, so that it has to be remembered through rites (or writing) within an “extended situation” (“zerdehnte Situation”). If we add this requirement to Assmann’s definition of rites, they are much rarer in comics than mere mimetic routines.

first panel from Garfield 2010-06-19 by Jim DavisIn Garfield and other comics, there are examples of rites more in line with Assmann’s sense: rites connected to festivities such as Christmas, New Year’s Eve, or Garfield’s birthday. Which past events do these rites refer to? Maybe Christmas rites most likely refer to the birth of Jesus, New Year’s rites to the past year, and the rites of Garfield’s birthday to the birth of Garfield? But when we look at such a rite, e.g. Jon giving a birthday cake to Garfield (usually on June 19, the publication date of the first Garfield strip ever), it’s hard to see any connection to a past event in that. Surely anthropologists could explain how the cake-giving rite originated and how it is connected to childbirth, but that connection just isn’t conveyed in the rite itself. In contrast, Assmann’s examples, such as the reading of the Haggadah at the Passover Seder, directly refer to past events.

Therefore, I think this trait of rites should be considered part of their definition: a rite

  1. is a mimetic routine;
  2. has a symbolic function; and
  3. refers to a past event.

Such rites, however, aren’t easy to find, in comics and elsewhere.

¹ Das kulturelle Gedächtnis. Schrift, Erinnerung und politische Identität in frühen Hochkulturen, München 1992. English edition: Cultural memory and early civilization. Writing, remembrance, and political imagination, Cambridge 2011.
² Comic Book Culture. Fanboys and True Believers, Jackson 1999.
³ “Popular Cultural Memory. Comics, Communities and Context Knowledge”, Nordicom Review 29 (2008) 2, pp. 261-273, http://www.nordicom.gu.se/common/publ_pdf/270_kukkonen.pdf
⁴ “The Generation of Postmemory”, Poetics Today 29:1 (Spring 2008), DOI 10.1215/03335372-2007-019, http://www.columbia.edu/~mh2349/papers/generation.pdf


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