Homi K. Bhabha’s mimicry – in comics?

Homi K. Bhabha’s 1984 journal article “Of Mimicry and Man: The Ambivalence of Colonial Discourse” is often cited, even though (or perhaps because?) it is a rather opaque, difficult text. In it, he outlines the concept of mimicry, “one of the most elusive and effective strategies of colonial power and knowledge.” Mimicry is a kind of “colonial imitation”: colonised subjects imitating the manners of their colonisers. One of the few examples given by Bhabha, quoting a 19th century text, is the “mimic representation of the British Constitution” in British colonies with its “fancied importance of speakers and maces, and all the paraphernalia and ceremonies of the imperial legislature”. Another is the adoption of the Christian faith and rites.

Mimicry is thus similar to two other postcolonial concepts, transculturation and the contact zone, both of which I have written about elsewhere. Fernando Ortiz’s transculturation is a general framework of cultural exchange, whereas Mary Louise Pratt’s contact zone, developed after Bhabha’s article, focuses on those instances of cultural exchange that take place “in contexts of highly asymmetrical relations of power”. This is also true for mimicry, but in contrast to transculturation and the contact zone, which both stress reciprocity, mimicry only takes in to account one direction of acculturation: from the colonising culture to the colonised.

At first glance, the act of mimicry seems to be something rather objectionable, as if it was fake – a poorly understood but not truly internalised behaviour, worn like a fancy dress which conceals, or is at odds with, the true nature of the colonised. Bhabha’s point, however, is a different one. It is the ambivalence of being “almost the same, but not quite” that “poses an immanent threat” to, “disrupts” and has a “profound and disturbing effect” on colonial authority so that “mimicry is at once resemblance and menace”. At least part of the subversive power of mimicry is due to its effect to point to the colonisers’ hypocrisy when the colonised are e.g. granted a parliament but no actual political participation, or baptism but no equality as Christian brethren.

Is mimicry actually a “strategy”? If so, who actively employs it, the colonisers or the colonised? And why would they want to do it? Bhabha implies that mimicry is voluntarily performed by the colonised as well as encouraged by the colonisers, both parties seeking to benefit from it while being unaware of its drawbacks. If we follow Ortiz, transculturation is inevitable when two cultures meet, which would thus include the process of mimicry in the case of colonial encounters.

Are there any traces of the phenomenon of mimicry to be found in comics, or specifically in manga? Of course, Japan has never been a colony; quite the contrary: for decades, Japan ruled over colonial territories such as Korea and Taiwan, and one could also regard the Japanese settlement of the island of Hokkaidō as a kind of colonisation. Then again, there were times when the relations between the United States and Japan resembled something not unlike a subtle form of colonisation: in the 1850s, the U.S. Navy forcefully “opened” Japan. Unsurprisingly, the first embassy to be established in Japan was the American. From the Meiji period onward, Japan turned to several Western powers, including the U.S., as models for the reform of many aspects of society – e.g. baseball was introduced in Japan at that time. In 1939, Friedrich Sieburg summed up this trend of industrialisation, modernisation, and, ultimately, Westernisation, in his book Die Stählerne Blume: “Whatever its [Japan’s] world politics are going to be, it will always depend on contact with the ‘West’ – and by that, one can by all means understand ‘America’.” (On the other hand, Sieburg also wrote that this modernisation process was what enabled Japan to resist being colonised.) At that time, the Japanese economy relied heavily on oil imported from the United States. Then, of course, after WWII, Japan was under American occupation for almost seven years. (As I show in the aforementioned paper, some of these events, especially the latter, have had a lasting impact on the image of Japan in the Western world which amounts to a kind of Orientalism.) In addition to these influences, throughout the 20th century, the same American cultural influence – some call it ‘cultural imperialism’ – had been at work in Japan as everywhere else in the world. Again, this is not to say that Japan has ever been an American colony, but these look like historical circumstances from which some form of mimicry might well have emerged.

Japanese mimicking Americans? Baseball players in Hiroshima, 1937. Photograph by Dietrich Seckel.

Besides, if the concept of mimicry was only applicable to colonies in the strict political or legal sense, its usefulness would be rather limited. The popularity of Bhabha’s concept, which is invoked in all kinds of contexts, suggests otherwise. Perhaps Bhabha intended to describe a specific historical situation, but as with any methodological concept, I’d like to find out whether it is universally applicable.

So what about manga? Are manga mimicry? It is generally believed that foreigners working in Japan, such as the Englishman Charles Wirgman (1832-1891) and the Frenchman Georges Bigot (1860-1927), have significantly contributed to their formation. ‘Modern’-looking manga with speech bubbles reached maturity in the 1930s, most likely influenced by imported and translated American comic strips such as the wildly popular Bringing Up Father by George McManus.

Our example for today, however, shall be a later manga: the classic Devilman by Gō Nagai from 1972. Looking at its page layouts, we recognise a level of sophistication on par with contemporaneous European and American comics. Instead of earlier layouts in which the usual page was merely a stack of strips with strictly rectangular panels, Nagai uses a vast variety of layouts with different panel shapes, bleeds, splashes, and overlapping speech balloons and sound effects.

P. 180 from Devilman. Note the 2nd panel, an isosceles trapezoid – a device already used by Osamu Tezuka before, e.g. in Dororo.

However, to explain the formal properties of Devilman with Western influences would be unnecessary and far-fetched. By the year 1972, 25 years had passed since Osamu Tezuka’s Shin Takarajima (New Treasure Island) revolutionised long-form manga – a lot of time for manga to evolve, with each new wave of mangaka building on the accomplishments of the previous one and adding their own innovations. Occasionally, mangaka would turn to Western comics for inspiration, but by and large, manga was (and still is) a self-contained, autonomous system.

Thus, if there is mimicry in Devilman, it is not to be found in its form, but perhaps in its content. In the early 1970s, Japanese attitudes towards the United States were ambiguous: on the one hand, resistance to the American-Japanese Security Treaty coincided with opposition against the Vietnam War to erupt in massive anti-American student protests. On the other hand, American pop- and counter-culture continued to be popular among young Japanese. Which brings us to the most famous scene in Devilman: the “Sabbath”.

P. 179 from Devilman, part of a double-page spread.

In what must be the longest superhero origin story ever, by pages 178-179, Ryo has led his friend Akira to a secret party where people are indulging in frantic dancing, drinking and drug-taking. There is a band playing, which includes two dark-skinned musicians, surely meant to be African Americans. The line-up consists of two electric guitars, drums, electric organ, and an upright bass; there doesn’t seem to be a vocalist. As for the genre of music they are playing, we can only speculate (disregarding the soundtrack of the Devilman anime adaptations, which differ from the manga in the depiction of the band), but this line-up, and the intense, fierce way of playing their instruments, perhaps points to some kind of jazz rock. This genre was quite popular in 70s Japan and spawned several notable Japanese musicians, but for them, America was still the epicentre and point of reference of their music. They aspired to tour the United States and play with American musicians; Ryō Kawasaki even emigrated to New York in 1973.

This is the decisive difference between Japanese comics in 1972 and Japanese jazz rock in 1972: the former has become something completely domestic, while the latter is essentially still something American. Perhaps the entire band in Devilman is meant to be from the U.S. and merely visiting Japan, but then the act of mimicry could be located in the Japanese audience attending the gathering – some of them even wearing typical hippie clothes such as fringed vests. In the spirit of Bhabha, Nagai’s depiction of such mimicry is delightfully ambiguous: unknowingly and in combination with drugs, alcohol and promiscuity, the dancers enter a state of mind that allows demons to possess them, thus bringing about the Black Sabbath. Nagai’s America – as well as the whole Devilman manga – is cool and hip, and at the same time twisted and evil.

As ever so often, Bhabha’s mimicry turns out not to be a radically new concept for something that couldn’t be described otherwise. However, when we look at transculturation processes through the lens of mimicry, we might reach a deeper understanding of them.

Index to all “[theory] – in comics?” posts on this weblog

Manga review, Halloween 2020 edition: Suicide Club

Another classic horror manga, though not quite as old as last year’s

Suicide Club (German: Der Selbstmordclub, Japanese: 自殺サークル jisatsu saakuru, lit. “suicide circle”)
Language: German (originally Japanese)
Author: Usamaru Furuya
Publisher: Schreiber & Leser / Shodoku (originally Ohta)
Year: 2006 (original run 2002)
Number of volumes: 1
Pages: 170
Price: € 9
Website: https://www.mangaupdates.com/series.html?id=3439
ISBN: 978-3-937102-53-5

Loosely based on the eponymous film by Sion Sono, Suicide Club is about Saya, a high schooler who clearly has some severe mental issues which drive her into self-harm and prostitution. She feels out of touch with herself, and also withdraws from her best friend Kyōko from whose perspective the story is told. Then Saya meets the enigmatic schoolgirl Mitsuko and joins her cult in which disaffected misfits gather. Mitsuko’s control over her acolytes is absolute, and they eagerly do her bidding – up to, ultimately, collective suicide. But the story of Saya, Kyōko and Mitsuko doesn’t end there…

Furuya comes from a fine art and alternative manga background, and one can see traces of this in his drawing style, a certain deliberate crudeness and starkness. At the same time, the figures with their clear, thin outlines and little shading and the smooth page layouts with their almost always rectangular panels make for quite a matter-of-factly visual storytelling.

This art style complements the plot nicely. It is a horror story that almost entirely abstains from supernatural elements. Most events can be explained psychologically. For instance, Mitsuko’s seemingly hypnotic power over her devotees might be due to their unstable minds, and to the fact that she is the first one to listen to their troubles.

Of course, one could read Suicide Club as more than ‘just’ an entertaining horror manga. The social commentary is there: after all, suicide was and still is a major issue in Japan, the country with the highest suicide rate in the world. Likewise, the issue of child prostitution is pointed out precisely by the offhand way in which it is depicted. But the social criticism (if one can call it that) of Suicide Club appears almost as detached as its characters – it’s not the engaged Confidential Confessions type that wants to offer help to readers who might find themselves in similar situations.

Scariest moment: the first time we get to see Mitsuko. There is something creepy about her face, and you immediately get the feeling that it’s going to haunt you (as it does Kyōko).

Rating: ● ● ● ○ ○

Find the previous Halloween blogposts here: 2019, 2018, 2017, 2016, 2015.

PhD thesis “The Early Reception of Manga in the West” submitted!

These are three copies of the thesis, mind you. It doesn’t span three volumes!

After many long years in which there seemed to be hardly any progress at all, my dissertation about English and German manga translations in the late 1980s and early 90s is now completed. Last week I submitted it to Heidelberg University.

When I started this weblog in 2012, I had thought it was going to be a ‘watch a PhD thesis grow’ type of journal, but I quickly abandoned that idea and blogged about all kinds of other things instead. So even if my journey towards a PhD is slowly but surely coming to its end, The 650-Cent Plague isn’t going away. Regular readers might have noticed that the posting frequency has recently slowed down from two posts per month to one. Nevertheless, I still enjoy writing these blogposts and I’m already looking forward to the next instalments of the regular series, such as the horror manga review for Halloween, the year-end best-of list in December, the Women’s History Month theory post in March, and the Warren Ellis politics post on May 1.

Plus, if and when my PhD thesis gets turned into a book, rest assured that you’ll read about it here.

Chi-squared: which characteristics do really matter?

In our little stylometric experiments, we compared different manga in terms of their hiragana frequencies. While we were able to say how similar or different the comics are to each other, it’s hard to tell in what way precisely they are different, i.e. which hiragana differed vastly in quantity and which were more or less the same. Intuitively, we ought to be able to answer this by looking at how much the hiragana counts differ from the average, but it would be good to have a more exact measure of what it means to differ “vastly” or to be “more or less” the same. If we could identify those hiragana in which the manga are hardly any different, we could ignore them in future experiments, which would be a relief since we’re otherwise stuck with as many as ~50 hiragana to keep track of.

Enter chi-squared (also called chi-square, or χ²), which is perhaps the most widespread of several statistical tests for this purpose. I first learned about it during my Master’s, but either I forgot about it or I had never really understood it in the first place. But now that I’ve looked it up again, I found it’s actually quite simple: the idea is to not only calculate the difference between the actual (observed) and the “average” (expected) value, but to square the result and then divide it by the expected value. The squaring has the effect to make large differences stand out more, while the division makes different chi-squared values comparable.

So, the formula would be:

(observed – expected)² / expected

[You might have seen this formula with a sum sign at the beginning: when you perform a “chi-squared test”, you take the sum of all calculated values and look it up in a table to determine whether your experiment is random or not (see below). In our case, it definitely isn’t.]

Let’s take the hiragana で de as an example. In our first 100-character sample from Katsuhiro Ōtomo’s Akira (A1), で de occurred 8 times (see the chart here). In the second Akira sample (A2), it is found 3 times. In the two manga samples from Morning magazine, Miko Yasu’s Hakozume (M1) and Rito Asami’s Ichikei no karasu (M2), で de is found 6 and 7 times, respectively. Overall, there are 24 で de in those four manga samples. The sum of all hiragana in these manga samples is 435 (so it turns out I took slightly more than 100 hiragana for each sample; don’t ask me why), which means that on average, で de should occur with a frequency of 24/435 = 0.0552. In other words, roughly every 19th hiragana in any of the four manga should be a で de. For the first of the two Akira samples, A1, which consists of 112 hiragana in total, the expected value for で de is 112 * 0.0552 = 6.18, i.e. we expect to find 6 or 7 で de in A1.

There actually are 8 で de in A1. That’s a difference of 8 – 6.18 = 1.82. Squared and divided by the expected value of 6.18, this results in a chi-squared value of 0.536.

Compare this to the frequency of で de in the other Akira sample, A2, where it occurs only 3 times, i.e. much less than one would have thought. Given a hiragana total of 106 for A2, we get an expected value of 106 * 0.0552 = 5.85. Accordingly, chi-squared for で/A2 is (3 – 5.85)² / 5.85 = 1.39.

However, our aim was to compare different hiragana, so let’s also calculate the chi-squared values for し shi, which occurs 7 times in A1, 1 time in A2, and 6 times in the other two manga, so the total for し shi is 14. Chi-squared for し in A1 is (7 – (14/435)*112)² / ((14/435)*112) = 3.199 and chi-squared for し in A2 is (1 – (14/435)*106)² / (14/435)*106 = 1.705.

As you can see, the chi-squared values for し shi are higher than for で de, which means that the former hiragana contributes more to the overall difference between A1 and A2 than the latter. In other words, the usage of で de throughout Akira is close to the average, thus comparatively unremarkable and perhaps not the most relevant stylometric property.

Here’s a chart of the chi-squared values for all 51 hiragana characters that occur in the four manga samples (click to enlarge):

A dialogue excerpt from Hakozume by Miko Yasu which illustrates the above-average frequency of the hiragana character え e. With regard to our little example corpus, か ka and ん n are relatively frequent too.

One can easily see several spikes at the hiragana え e, ん n, と to and ず zu, though more important than the individual values are the sums, which are also high for お o and こ ko. These 6 hiragana alone contribute roughly 70% towards the overall sum of chi-squares! If our corpus was of a sufficient size (which it is definitely not), we could focus on these 6 hiragana in further experiments, as difference in hiragana usage among manga would be most likely connected to them.

In contrast, hiragana like び bi, く ku and に ni, with chi-square values close to zero, seem to have very little explanatory power over stylometric differences; their usage differs hardly among the four manga in question.

Of course, chi-squared can not only be applied to character counts in stylometry, but also to anything else that is countable. For instance, I recently mentioned the 1:1 gender ratio as a potential criterion for corpus building. One possible null hypothesis would be that good (or popular) comics are equally likely to be authored by men or by women. If we look at the 60 people who authored the top 10 comics from each of the last four years’ best-of lists (only counting the first-mentioned author when there are more than 3), we end up with 41 men and 19 women. This distribution isn’t quite the 30:30 we might have expected, but can it still be said to be roughly equal?

To answer this with the help of chi-squared, we calculate the two chi-squared values, one for male authors:

(41 – 30)² / 30 = 4.033

and one for female authors:

(19 – 30)² / 30 = 4.033

Now we add those two numbers together and look up the result in a table like this one. We need to use the first row as we have 1 “degree of freedom” in our essentially binary variable. There, our chi-squared sum of 8.07 lies between the p=0.01 and the p=0.001 column, meaning that the null hypothesis can be rejected with high confidence. In other words, the deviation of our sample from a 30:30 gender ratio is statistically significant. Of course, what exactly this gender bias means and where it comes from is another question.

In case all of this didn’t make any sense to you, there are many online tutorials on chi-squared which perhaps explain it better, among which I recommend this video by Paul Andersen on YouTube.

The best manga of 2016? Review of The Girl From the Other Side

A story involving a fatal ‘curse’ that infects people at the merest touch seems eerily timely in 2020, but its serialisation began in 2015 already, in those blissful days when ‘Corona’ was still nothing but a beer brand. The first tankōbon was published in Japan in 2016 (and also the second), which makes it a legitimate candidate for the best manga of 2016. The English and German translations followed a year later and were duly noticed by readers and critics, resulting in a top 20 spot in the 2017 best-of list.

The Girl From the Other Side: Siúil, a Rún (とつくにの少女 / Totsukuni no shōjo; German title: Siúil, a Rún. Das fremde Mädchen) vol. 1
Language: German (translated from Japanese)
Author: Nagabe
Publisher: Tokyopop (originally Mag Garden)
Year: 2017 (originally 2016)
Number of volumes: 9 so far
Pages: 174
Price: € 10
Website: https://www.tokyopop.de/buecher/seinen/siuil-a-run-das-fremde-maedchen/ (German), https://sevenseasentertainment.com/series/the-girl-from-the-other-side-siuil-a-run/ (English)
ISBN: 9783842039780

Shiva is a young girl who lives in the forest with a scary-looking creature. In the Japanese original, she calls him sensei, which becomes “Doktor” (doctor) in German and “Teacher” in English, and while sensei can mean both, he is more likely meant to be a physician than a schoolmaster. Anyway, they live secluded from other people and are shunned because of the ‘curse’ that supposedly turns humans into monstrous ‘Outsiders’. It’s all very mysterious in this first volume and Nagabe reveals background details only slowly, giving ample space to the day-to-day activities of Shiva and Doctor.

This all takes place in a pseudo-historical setting that, typically of manga, eclectically combines elements from the Middle Ages (the soldiers’ armour and weapons) to the 19th century (Doctor’s clothes and his home furnishings).

It is a character constellation that we’ve seen before in manga: just a young girl and her father (or surrogate father). Yumi Unita’s Usagi Drop, Kiyohiko Azuma’s Yotsuba&!, Nagabe’s own Nivawa to Saitō – one could even include Kōji Kumeta’s recent success Kakushigoto with its conspicuously absent mother in this ‘micro genre’. This idea of fatherhood without mother, this ‘asexual reproduction’ as it were, must seem oddly appealing to manga readers.

Another theme here is the Beauty and the Beast motif: only Shiva can see through the horrifying appearance of Doctor and recognise him as a kind person, whereas everybody else only sees him as a monster and is afraid of him. And what a ghastly appearance he has. Doctor’s design is doubtlessly the greatest strength of this manga and one of the most outstanding design achievements in manga of the decade. Obviously inspired by satanic figures with his tail, goat’s ears and horns, he also somewhat resembles a plague doctor due to his bird-like beak and his long dark coat. His lack of a mouth reduces his range of facial expressions, making him look even more hideous. Nagabe exploits this to great effect by contrasting Doctor’s looks with his tenderness towards Shiva, and also by simply juxtaposing his tall and dark figure with the small and light Shiva.

Generally, the art appears dense and dark through the use of hatching, plenty of screentone, and even some white-on-black drawings. Nagabe dramatically punctuates this darkness with some predominantly white figures such as Shiva and the soldiers, Doctor’s shirtsleeves and cravat, or the occasional blank panel background.

If one wants to find a flaw in The Girl From the Other Side, it’s that maybe the writing can’t quite keep up with such impressive artwork; the setting seems somewhat implausible and the story has a bit of a fairytale feeling to it. Also: € 10 for a regular tankōbon?!

Rating: ● ● ● ● ○

Corpus building, the ELTeC way

Some time ago, I attended a fascinating presentation about ELTeC (European Literary Text Collection), a multilingual corpus of novels. Such a corpus is not a new idea, but the way in which novels are chosen for inclusion in ELTeC is so thoughtful and transparent that Humanities scholars (and perhaps particularly art historians) might learn something from it. Because usually, they (i.e. we) don’t think much about which objects they select for an analysis, much less justify their choices, thus leading to an inaccurate or distorted representation of reality with little scholarly merit.

The ELTeC criteria for inclusion can be seen on the Summary Page that shows the texts included so far:

  • language: the number of texts per language varies, but that is surely going to change; they seem to be capped at 100, and even languages with relatively few speakers such as Slovenian and Hungarian have reached this number already. Thus the project appears to strive for equal representation of all languages considered.
  • male author / female author: some of the numbers show that ELTeC aims at a quota of either 50:50 (English) or 2:1 (German, French). In other cases the ratio of female authors is lower though.
  • short/medium/long: probably based on word counts, the novels are divided into three categories of length. The idea was to represent all lengths equally, but this doesn’t seem to have worked out in all languages: e.g. only 8% of the Slovenian novels are ‘long’.
  • year of first publication: most likely due to copyright restrictions, only novels published in or before 1920 are included in the corpus. The earliest date is 1840, but they plan to extend the corpus to earlier novels eventually. This 1840-1920 period is divided into four 20-year segments, and again the aim is to represent all segments equally – in French, for example, exactly 25 texts are included from each segment.
  • frequent/rare: this criterion concerns the canonicity of the novels, as measured by the number of reprints. Both well-known and less widely known texts should be equally represented, although there doesn’t yet seem to be a strict rule in place how many reprints constitute a “frequent” or “rare” text.

Chart from the ELTeC website showing the distribution of the 100 novels in the English subcorpus.

For Comics Studies, a sampling approach based on these criteria is intriguing. As an example, albeit not actually a scholarly one, let’s look at the titles of the “best manga of 2016” reviews on this weblog, of which there are currently 11. So far, these manga have only been chosen for review because I happened to have been reading them (or meaning to read them) anyway, but what if I wanted to take a more systematic approach?

  • language: of course they are all originally published in Japanese, but the starting point of my blogpost series was to find out which manga were popular according to English and German sources. Who knows, maybe completely different manga would surface when one turns to other parts of the world?
  • male author / female author: the current ratio is 3 male mangaka to 8 female mangaka (including a team of two women). If I wanted to achieve a ratio more like 50:50, the next review should be about a manga authored by a man (spoiler: yes, it’s going to be).
  • short/medium/long: instead of word counts, the number of tankōbon volumes per series should be a feasible measure of length (although my reviews only refer to one individual volume each). Based on the number of volumes published in Japan at the time of reviewing, the 3-quantiles of our current ‘corpus’ would be the following:
    • short: 1-5 volumes
    • medium: 7-13 volumes
    • long: 15-29 volumes

    That’s not terribly helpful though: what if there already is a bias in the current sample? A better way would be to calculate the quantiles from all manga published in 2016. That would be a lot of work, but maybe the picture would change quite a bit due to the consideration of long-running series such as One Piece (83 volumes by 2016), or a higher number of one-shots.

  • time segments: while the manga are supposed to be from a single year, 2016, there is some leeway as sometimes the date of the American or German publication is the one that led to the inclusion of the manga in the “best comics of 2016 meta list”. The most extreme time lag is perhaps that of Goodnight Punpun (not yet reviewed here) which was originally published from 2007-2013; due to its American publication in 2016 it was included in that list (and even ranked within the top 20). As mentioned in an earlier blogpost, this focus on ‘2016’ is not so much about that particular year but more about getting an idea what manga in the 2010s were like. Perhaps it’s not worth the trouble to categorise them into such small time brackets though.
  • frequent/rare: while the number of reprints would not be a suitable indicator for relatively new manga, one could complement the popular manga from the 2016 meta list with lesser-known ones that were ignored by English- and German-language media. I already did that, though not systematically: in fact, 6 out of the 11 manga reviewed were not ‘nominated’ by anyone as best manga of 2016 as far as I could see.

Regardless of the purpose of your corpus, the ELTeC criteria might help you detect biases. There’s no need to follow them religiously and strive for exact equality in all categories, but they are a good starting point for thinking about how you want to select the objects of your study. In other words: if there are e.g. no female authors in your corpus, you’d better be prepared to explain why.

Politics in Warren Ellis’s Freakangels

Welcome to the fifth instalment of this little Labour Day series. Initially I wanted to write about a more recent Warren Ellis comic, but now that Freakangels (or FreakAngels) is going to be adapted as an anime, let’s return to its first volume from 2008, illustrated by Paul Duffield. The story is loosely based on John Wyndham’s novel The Midwich Cuckoos from 1957: a couple of children (twelve in Freakangels) are born in an English village on the same day with strangely colored eyes and telepathic abilities that allow them to control other people’s minds and to communicate mind-to-mind. Ellis then deviates from Wyndham in that the children, at the age of 17, somehow trigger a cataclysmic event that leaves London half in ruins and partially submerged, and probably kills quite a few of its inhabitants. The story begins six years later when the children are 23.

A few people try to get by in post-apocalyptic London, organised in different antagonised factions. Those living in Whitechapel are led by the aforementioned children, who are called Freakangels. Due to their supernatural powers, the Freakangels are able to protect and care for the ordinary inhabitants: Kirk, for instance, keeps watch on a tower for days without having to eat; Caz distributes fresh water with a steam-powered cart built by another Freakangel, KK; Jack is always out on a boat scavenging; and Sirkka operates a machine gun to defend them against invaders. It is not only the Freakangels’ proverbial great power, though, that makes them take on this great responsibility. They also feel guilty about bringing on the “end of the world” (unbeknownst to the ordinary people) and want to make up for it.

Not all Freakangels accept this role as leaders and guardians. Karl likes to keep to himself and shields his mind against the other Freakangels’ telepathic communication; Luke manipulates and exploits others for his own gain; and Mark has left London and the Freakangels altogether. Still, by and large, the Freakangels appear to be popular among the inhabitants of Whitechapel. On his way to the market, Kirk is offered milk and cheese by a farmer. “Anytime you need anything, you just let me know. It’s the least we can do for you watching over us.” Kirk replies: “Nice of you to say so. But, really, it’s the least we can do for you, all things considered.”

Note how they use plural pronouns, which tells us that their statements not only hold true on a personal level but also on a political: the society of Whitechapel is a typical oligarchy in which few people – the Freakangels – have power over many. Regardless of their popularity, the Freakangels were certainly not elected, but simply assumed the role of leaders because they could.

In a way, Freakangels is classic Warren Ellis: democracy has failed, and superpowered, self-empowered individuals wield great power. The only question is, in what light does he portray this oligarchy? While the majority of the Freakangels appear as benevolent or at least likeable characters, their interactions consist mostly of infighting – ranging from harmless bickering over fisticuffs between Kirk and Luke to outright hostility that almost turns lethal (between Mark and the others). Luke in particular is a threat to the status quo and is about to get either expelled or killed by the other Freakangels.

Thus the power structure in Freakangels is a fragile one that can only be maintained with much effort – and maybe only as long as the Freakangels’ terrible secret about their involvement in the “end of the world” is kept. But who could replace the Freakangels as leaders? It looks like the ordinary populace will always be at the mercy of greater powers. In this Warren Ellis comic, the core principle is once more: might makes right.

Susan Sontag’s Regarding the Pain of Others – in comics?

Perhaps the lack of willingness of some people to comply to lockdown regulations is related to the lack of shocking imagery in the media. Hardly any images of people suffering from Covid-19 are shown in the news, which makes the threat posed by this disease appear abstract and remote. Which brings us to this month’s topic.

Susan Sontag’s last book to be published in her lifetime, Regarding the Pain of Others (2003) is a long essay, or short monograph, of about 120 pages. Its topic is mainly war photography, but also other photographic depictions of human suffering, and their effects on recipients. She even briefly mentions comics once (p. 100 in the Farrar, Straus and Giroux edition): “As everyone has observed, there is a mounting level of acceptable violence and sadism in mass culture: films, television, comics, computer games.”

Yeah, right. More interesting are Sontag’s observations of the difference between photographed and hand-drawn violence, her example being Francisco Goya’s series of etchings, Los desastres de la guerra (p. 47):

That the atrocities perpetrated by the French soldiers in Spain didn’t happen exactly as pictured – say, that the victim didn’t look just so, that it didn’t happen next to a tree – hardly disqualifies The Disasters of War. Goya’s images are a synthesis. They claim: things like this happened. In contrast, a single photograph or filmstrip claims to represent exactly what was before the camera’s lens. A photograph is supposed not to evoke but to show. That is why photographs, unlike handmade images, can count as evidence.

This difference, however, does not diminish the potential of handmade pictures “to awaken, shock, wound the viewer” (p. 44). At another point in the book, Sontag refers to a treatise on painting by Leonardo da Vinci (pp. 75-76):

Leonardo is suggesting that the artist’s gaze be, literally, pitiless. The image should appall, and in that terribilità lies a challenging kind of beauty. That a gory battlescape could be beautiful – in the sublime or awesome or tragic register of the beautiful – is a commonplace about images of war made by artists. The idea does not sit well when applied to images taken by cameras: to find beauty in war photographs seems heartless. But the landscape of devastation is still a landscape. There is beauty in ruins.

Sontag traces this ambiguous perception back to Antiquity (pp. 96-97):

Plato’s Socrates describes how our reason may be overwhelmed by an unworthy desire, which drives the self to become angry with a part of its nature. […] Plato appears to take for granted that we also have an appetite for sights of degradation and pain and mutilation.

It would now be all too obvious to turn to depictions of war and violence in non-fictional comics, e.g. those by Joe Sacco or Keiji Nakazawa, and see if the effects described by Sontag with regard to photography can be found there too. But wouldn’t it be more interesting to examine fictional depictions of war and violence? These are largely absent from Sontag’s text (except for Jeff Wall’s Dead Troops Talk, which, however, is based on a real conflict), and while they probably lack the power to incite viewers to anti-war activism, some of the other effects should hold true regardless.

pp. 4-5 of Appleseed vol. 1 by Masamune Shirow

Consider the beginning of Masamune Shirow’s Appleseed from 1985. Set in a post-World War IV (see Jason Thompson’s review at https://www.animenewsnetwork.com/house-of-1000-manga/2011-07-21) future, the 2nd and 3rd page form a lovely double-page spread of a war-ravaged cityscape. One cannot help but be reminded of Katsuhiro Ōtomo’s spectacular renderings of Neo Tokyo after the cataclysm in the middle of Akira (which was probably published too late to have been an inspiration for Shirow). Both creators have a fondness – and talent – for drawing both buildings and their destruction. Add to this a few carefully placed vehicles (another forte of both Shirow and Ōtomo) and you get “beauty in ruins” indeed.

detail from p. 4 of Appleseed vol. 1 by Masamune Shirow

Note, however, the corpse hanging out of the tank in the foreground. His firearm lying on the ground before him, we can imagine that he was shot just as he was about to climb out of his tank which maybe had got stuck in a chasm, and also one of its chains had come off. This soldier is only a tiny figure, but it shows that the conflict that presumably caused the destruction of the city is a recent – perhaps still ongoing – and deadly one. As the only human figure in this panel, the reader might empathise with him, but there is no blood or wound visible on him, and we don’t get to see his face. This body isn’t exactly an appalling sight; it hardly disturbs the beauty of the ruins.

p. 34 from Appleseed vol. 1 by Masamune Shirow

A few pages later (p. 34 in the German edition by Feest) we get to see quite a different depiction of a dying soldier. The protagonists, Deunan and Briareos, defend themselves against an attack by mercenary-type combatants. Deunan shoots one of them with an automatic rifle. The force of the hail of bullets is so strong that it not only kills her opponent but also chips off pieces from the surrounding walls. In panel 3, his body gets folded up by the impact so that we don’t see how badly he gets wounded, but in panel 4, black blotches rise from his chest, up to the level of his head, so that it looks like he is bleeding from his mouth, which is wide open as if in a silent scream. The last panel shows him lying on his back, his speech bubble containing only a sort of open-centre asterisk that may signify his last breath.

A pretty grisly scene, if you think about it. Sure, he was only a villain. Granted, Deunan acted in self-defense. And yet, someone’s life was just cut short, and we don’t even know why they were fighting. Deunan isn’t completely cold-blooded (let alone malicious), as the look on her face tells us when she looks back at her target (panel 6). But Shirow’s art aestheticises death so successfully that we don’t think about it in such existential terms. One powerful device is ‘slow motion’ in panels 3 and 4 in which the figure and the surrounding debris seem to be frozen in mid-air. Another is the convincingly imagined circle that the shots have carved out of the walls (although strictly speaking it was the villain’s weapon that caused it, as shown on the previous page), a rendering of a physical effect once more reminiscent of Ōtomo, e.g. in Dōmu (1980-81) – a ‘safe’ kind of violence as it appears to affect only things, not living beings.

Naturally, images of a real-world, present-day war would always be more shocking than those of a science-fiction conflict, even though the former can at the sime time have that “challenging kind of beauty” too. Perhaps the ability of images “to awaken, shock, wound the viewer” depends on two variables: on the one hand, the degree of the relationship of their content to reality, and on the other, the inverse degree of aestheticisation of their form. In itself, the choice of pictorial medium, i.e. whether it is a photograph or a drawn comic, probably doesn’t matter as much. As Sontag says herself, “A narrative seems likely to be more effective than an image” (p. 122), without acknowleding that ‘image’ and ‘narrative’ need not be mutually exclusive.

Index to all “[theory] – in comics?” posts on this weblog

The best manga of 2016? Review of To Your Eternity

At the end of the same year in which Western manga readers were treated to the first translated volume of Yoshitoki Ōima’s A Silent Voice, her new series was already launched in Weekly Shōnen Magazine in Japan. The first chapter of To Your Eternity consists of a whopping 80 pages, so it might make sense to review it as if it was a standalone comic.

To Your Eternity (不滅のあなたへ / Fumetsu no anata e) chapter 1
Language: German (translated from Japanese)
Author: Yoshitoki Ōima
Publisher: Egmont (originally Kōdansha)
Year: 2018 (originally 2016)
Number of volumes: 12 so far in Japan
Pages: 80
Website: https://www.egmont-manga.de/buch-buchreihe/to-your-eternity/ (German publisher), https://www.mangaupdates.com/series.html?id=137169 (Baka-Updates)

Another reason for reading the first chapter on its own (besides safely staying in the year 2016) is that the story takes some wild turns in the subsequent chapters, and it is perhaps too soon to make judgements about the coherence of the plot or lack thereof before the series has come to its conclusion. Anyway, in these first 80 pages, the story is quite straightforward, yet far from predictable or unoriginal. It starts with some sort of alien or supernatural life form getting “cast unto the earth”. Stranded in a barren ice desert, it assumes the shape of a dying arctic wolf. The alien/wolf returns to a teenaged boy living all alone who used to keep the ‘old’ wolf as a pet and who now doesn’t notice that this wolf is merely a ‘copy’ of his old one.

At this point we learn that the setting is a pseudo-medieval one. The boy has been left behind by his tribe who went away looking for a better place to settle in a warmer climate. Now, after five years, the boy decides to follow them, in the company of what he believes is his wolf…

Naturally, the transition from a romance manga set in 21st century Japan such as A Silent Voice to the fantasy genre of To Your Eternity is a harsh one. Then again, the life-and-death stakes of a fantasy manga might make for the kind of highly dramatic and emotional story that plays to Ōima’s strengths. However, once more it is the subtler emotional nuances that Ōima conveys so convincingly, e.g. when the boy tries to smile even though he realises things are looking grim – or, conversely, when the facial expressions of the alien/wolf remain inscrutable even though we would expect him to react according to the basic instincts of an animal.

Occasionally we get to see glimpses of Ōima’s artistic genius, as in those incredibly detailed panels where heavy outlines and lots of white space speak for themselves. For these panels to stand out, Ōima counterbalances them with more conventionally drawn (though still finely executed) panels with hatching and screen tone. Despite the fantasy setting which yields lots of animals and exotic clothes, tools and architecture to depict, Ōima doesn’t get lost in details; she has a story to tell and does so efficiently.

Ultimately, comics are a serial medium in more than one way. By virtue of its author, To Your Eternity will always be regarded as a sequel of sorts to A Silent Voice, and these are some huge shoes to fill. But while A Silent Voice might be the more emotionally engaging read due to its more familiar setting, To Your Eternity has the one advantage of feeling delightfully fresh and highly original.

Rating: ● ● ● ● ○

Review: Scott Mendes’s Venice

In my blogpost on the 2019 Venice Biennale, I mentioned that Darren Bader had set up a comic book vending machine there, which however failed to dispense a copy for me. In the meantime, the artist and his gallery have kindly provided me with some copies of the comic book in question: Scott Mendes’s Venice (or is it “Scott Vendes’s Menice”?).

There are two ways to approach this item. On the one hand, it is part of a work of installation / conceptual art, which in turn is part of Bader’s oeuvre. One could now try to decipher all the references in it – the name-dropping ranges from ancient saints to contemporary artists and other celebrities – and make connections to Bader’s artistic strategy to see how the comic fits into the larger picture. On the other hand, one could simply regard this comic book as a comic book and see if we can get anything out of reading it. In other words: as a comic, is it any good?

First, the facts: while it is a standard staple-bound US format comic book, it is rather long at 32 pages without advertisements (except for two probably fake ones on the inner covers). The writing is credited to “Moses Hosiery” (which may or may not be an alias for Bader himself) and the artwork to two design companies, Suite Sixsixteen and Oliven Studio. By and large, the artwork is of a high quality: the linework is detailed but without any shading, which is made up for by the nuanced colouring. The colouring, however, shows a propensity for garish contrasts which at first glance lend a deceptively cheap appearance to the whole art.

The story is of a ‘dream within a dream’ variety which allows for a surreal plot, as the cover already suggests. The protagonist is modernist painter Giorgio de Chirico who somehow happens to live in present-day Venice. He’s clearly not having a good day: after getting up he falls down the stairs, then gets washed out onto the street by some sort of flood wave, and in the end he even gets swallowed by the pavement. And these aren’t even the weirdest events in the story. Like I said, this is a dream in which strange things happen. Adding to the confusion is the number of languages in which the dialogue is written: English, Italian, French, Portuguese, and Hebrew.

Depending on your taste, you may find this comic either unnerving or fascinating. It’s definitely something different than e.g. the latest issue of X-Men. And despite its surrealism, it portrays a Venice that readers who have ever been there will instantly recognise with all its water, pigeons, seagulls, and tourists from all over the world.

If you’re interested in obtaining a copy of this comic book, perhaps it’s worth trying to contact Galleria Franco Noero to see if they still have any left.