Politics in Warren Ellis’s Injection

One year after their outstanding but all too short Moon Knight run from 2014, the team of writer Warren Ellis, artist Declan Shalvey and colourist Jordie Bellaire followed up with their own creation, the 15-issue series Injection. The following refers to its first volume which collects #1-5.

The backstory, gradually revealed in bits and pieces, is basically this: the “Cultural Cross-Contamination Unit” (CCCU), a British think tank, is tasked to predict the future, but they don’t like the predictions they come up with: “Everything slows down. Everything gets tangled up. Everything stops racing forward.” – “We reach a peak of novelty and innovation and enter a long trough.” – “The CCCU’s final finding was that innovation was going to flatten out and the future was going to be a slow and difficult time.” So in order to prevent the future from becoming “boring”, they decide to make it more interesting by designing a new kind of artificial intelligence and injecting it into the Internet.

But of course that goes terribly wrong. A few years later, in the present day, the AI starts killing and abducting people, and the former CCCU members try to stop it.

Which brings us to our protagonists: a typical Warren Ellis superhero team. Granted, they don’t wear masks and capes, but each of them has superhuman powers in a way. Robin is a John Constantine type occultist, Maria is a genius scientist who wields a sort of magical energy sword made by Robin, Simeon is a James Bond type special agent, Brigid is a hacker, and Vivek is a Sherlock Holmes type private detective.

So once more the fate of the world (or at least Britain) lies in the hands of a few people. However, in terms of politics, there is an interesting difference between the CCCU and other Ellis superheroes such as the Freakangels, Moon Knight, or Planetary: the former is co-funded by a fictional UK Ministry of Time and Measurement, a mysterious company called FPI, and the fictional Lowlands University (which could be either public or private). Thus the CCCU was created by an unholy alliance of the public and the private sectors, which continues to exert varying degrees of influence over the former team members. Despite the government involvement, however, the CCCU and its related institutions operate in secret, i.e. their actions are not accounted for to the tax payers who ultimately fund them.

In all of their interactions with the ex-CCCU members, the various government bodies and FPI come across as disturbingly evil and powerful (though not all-powerful – they still rely on the CCCU to fight the Injection). A more harmless example: when a victim of the Injection is found dead in Dublin and the Irish police can’t quite explain (or believe) how it happened, they decide to cover it up instead of publicly exposing the connection to the CCCU – “The boy in the computer room would be explained away as a freak electrical-fire victim or some such. There would be compensation and the like.”

A more drastic example: in the beginning of the comic, we are introduced to Maria as an inmate in a bleak mental asylum. We don’t learn much about her treatment there, except that she seems to be held there against her will, is tube-fed instead of given real food, and that the wardens wear masks. It soon turns out that the FPI is behind all of this: they are responsible for her being held at the asylum, and they let her out only to carry out work – investigating and neutralising paranormal threats – for them. And even then she is closely watched by another FPI employee.

Maria at the asylum. Detail of p. 2 from Injection vol. 1.

Thus Injection basically combines the ‘weak government’ trope (in which self-empowered individuals such as superheroes pull the strings; see above) with the ‘abusive government’ (as seen in Ellis’s Dark Blue) and ‘evil corporation’ tropes. But there is more to this comic. It is also a parable of the power and danger of science. When left unchecked and supplied with opulent funds, a handful of scientists can create a global threat by bringing about the Singularity, i.e. artificial superintelligence that eventually rises up against humanity. This Computer Science based threat is new and perhaps even scarier than e.g. the classic fears of scientists building a super bomb, or creating a black hole in a particle accelerator, because these latter ones require more resources, resulting in more political involvement and public visibility.

Injection seems to suggest that anyone with the right skills and Internet access could build such a superintelligence, and they could be doing it right now without anyone noticing. This is a new twist in Ellis’s politics: the self-empowered individuals here are not fantastical superhero characters – at least the CCCU are not overtly using their quasi-superhuman powers when creating the Injection -, they could be scientists and hackers that exist in the real world. Ironically, by establishing the CCCU, the government unwittingly undermines its own authority, transferring the responsibility for the maintenance of law and order from democratically legitimised institutions to individuals operating above the law.

A related issue is the nature of the work that FPI does: they carry out archaeological excavations, a task traditionally associated with public research institutions or government bodies. But the FPI does it “to find new exploitable resources”, or, as Maria puts it, “poking at things for the greater glory of the bloody company”. Of course, private excavation companies are already carrying out archaeological digs in the real world, but they usually do so on behalf of the government who get to keep any culturally important finds (and openly publish the outcomes). The idea here is that ancient artifacts are heritage and as such belong to the entire populace, not only to the finder or the landowner. The FPI in Injection, being an evil corporation, obviously has different ideas. They are secretive about their operations, but at the same time the government appears to cooperate with them, so maybe this is a case of a public-private partnership gone wrong. Or is Ellis subtly critiquing the whole concept of the government outsourcing important tasks to private companies?


Linda Nochlin’s fallen woman – in comics?

Though not quite as famous as her 1971 essay “Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?”, Linda Nochlin’s “Lost and Found: Once More the Fallen Woman” from 1978 is still a classic text of feminist art history. At its core, this article is an interpretation of the unfinished painting Found, which Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828-1882) had been working on intermittently for decades. It shows a woman in a London street who “has sunk under her shame upon her knees” (Rossetti) as she has recognized a man from the countryside whom she, apparently, knows from a happier, rural past which she has left behind.

Nochlin identifies this female figure as a “fallen woman”, a popular trope in nineteenth-century art and literature. “Fallen” is defined as “any sort of sexual activity on the part of women out of wedlock, whether or not for gain”. Nochlin points out the following typical features of fallen-woman imagery:

  • The moral fall often goes hand in hand with a literal fall.
  • Sinful urbanity is contrasted with innocent rurality.
  • The bleak present is opposed to a blissful past.
  • Another contrast to the fallen woman (or her possible way of redemption) is the woman who fulfils her role within the family as daughter, wife and/or mother, the “angel in the house”.
  • This contrast is also depicted as an outside-inside dichotomy (fallen woman in the street vs. family inside the home). However, this dichotomy may also be reversed, as Nochlin shows using the example of other pictures, to become the “contrast of inside and outside, the crowded, body-packed realm of sin opposed to the pure realm of nature outside the windows”.

In a move that seems a bit old-fashioned today, Nochlin then connects Rossetti’s artistic “obsession” towards this topic to his biography and personality in which, she presumes, “contradictory urges of chivalrous purity and sexual lust [were] burning”; he was a “man of strong sensuality who at the same time believed fervently in some kind of ideal of goodness but could rarely bring himself to act upon this belief.” Thus the fallen woman becomes a “symbol of his moral and erotic idealism” (as Nochlin says about another Rossetti painting).

So far, all of this might not seem relevant to you (unless you happen to be interested in Victorian art). But it will be if we take Nochlin’s observations as universal, i.e. applicable not just to Rossetti and Found but to anyone at almost any time and to a wide range of works of art. Bear in mind though that this may go beyond what Nochlin intended to say. Still, given the universality of the male gaze, it seems unlikely that Rossetti was exceptional in his attitude towards and depictions of fallen women. Of course, when moving to a different time period, the definition of falling as extramarital sexual activity might need to be extended to other forms of moral misconduct.

That being said, let us take a more-or-less random comic and see how much of the fallen woman concept we can find in there. Bonnouji (煩悩寺) by Aki Eda originally came out in 2010 already, but has only now been translated into German (and apparently not yet at all in English). It tells the love story between the young single man Oyamada and his female neighbour from three floors above, Ozawa. Both are in their twenties, and while Ozawa has an office job, Oyamada works from home. When one day Ozawa finds out that Oyamada’s apartment is full of trinkets, curiosities, and mysterious unopened parcels sent to him by his brother, she starts hanging out at this “temple of earthly desires” (bonnōji).

Is Ozawa a fallen woman? It’s not as if she was a prostitute or anything like that, but there is definitely a contrast built up between her and Oyamada in terms of morality. On the very first page, she comes to his place for the first time because she’s had too much to drink and wants to use his bathroom, then tells him that her long-term boyfriend has just left her. Ozawa also smokes and regularly gets drunk at Oyamada’s. He, on the other hand, lives like a hermit and rarely leaves his apartment. Sexually inexperienced and shy around Ozawa, there is something innocent and pure about him. (At least in the first volume; in the second, this dynamic is somehow reversed.)

table of contents page from Bonnouji vol. 1

As for Nochlin’s five typical features:

  • There is sort of a literal fall right at the beginning of the manga. The table of contents before the first actual comic page is illustrated with a little scene in chibi style that doesn’t occur in the story. Ozawa, surrounded by cans and bottles of alcohol, has passed out on the floor, and Oyamada is smiling and holding a blanket, about to tuck her in.
  • Unlike in many other manga, the urban-rural dichotomy does not play much of a role in Bonnouji. However, one could read a subtle critique of urbanity into it, e.g. into the anonymity of the apartment house in which no one really knows their neighbour and in which the inhabitants dwell in tiny flats, probably paying outrageously high rents.
  • present vs. past: after having broken up with her boyfriend, Ozawa frequently hangs out at Oyamada’s place because she dislikes her present situation of living alone. She ultimately wants to restore her past of being in a relationship.
  • angel in the house: even before they start dating, Ozawa secretly tidies up Oyamada’s apartment. This intrusion shows that she would like to be something more like a homemaker to him, even though presently she is not in the ‘official’ position to do so.
  • outside vs. inside: in the second volume, the two realise that they’re spending too much time inside Oyamada’s flat, and that going outside more often would be the right thing to do.
page detail from Bonnouji vol. 1

We can even see something of Rossetti (as characterised by Nochlin) in the character of Oyamada who also has “contradictory urges of chivalrous purity and sexual lust”, which is epitomised in the scene in which Ozawa spends her first night as his girlfriend at his place: she sleeps in a coffin – another of Oyamada’s brother’s gifts – and he sleeps on the floor next to it.

panel from Bonnouji vol. 1

So there we have it: we have identified Ozawa as a fallen woman, and it looks like once we start looking, we find fallen women everywhere; Nochlin’s concept is useful for attuning our attention to this topic, and we can leave it at that. Right?

Wrong. As ever so often in the Humanities, an interpretation can easily be turned into its opposite, which then appears to be at least equally as valid.

In Bonnouji, the case could be made that Ozawa is anything but a fallen woman. After all, she and her boyfriend broke up because she wanted to marry and he didn’t. Her readiness to become someone’s wife appears rather virtuous (in the fallen woman context) compared to Oyamada who doesn’t seem to have had any interest in women – and thus in eventually becoming someone’s husband – so far.

The aforementioned five typical features of the fallen woman trope can be reversed as well:

  • literal fall: as mentioned before, the scene in which he is standing and she has passed out drunk on the floor doesn’t actually happen in the manga, but there is a reverse situation of sorts when she enters his apartment and finds him asleep, and then proceeds to tidy the place up without waking him up. Also note the moral implication there of her being busy (i.e. virtuous) while he is being idle (i.e. sinful).
  • urban vs. rural: the absence of rurality in this manga can also be taken as a celebration of urbanity. The protagonists have everything they need in their urban surroundings and never need to leave them.
  • present vs. past: Ozawa is actually glad that her ex-boyfriend has moved out. For her, falling in love with Oyamada feels like a completely new experience. They both live in the present and are not longing for their past lives.
  • angel in the house: apart from that one tidying-up episode, the role of the housewife is neither acted out by Ozawa, nor by anyone else to represent a counterpoint to her.
  • outside vs. inside: the name bonnōji says it all: Oyamada’s apartment is glorified as a magical place filled with endless wonder. Consequently, most of the action of the manga takes place inside, and the characters only go outside if they can’t avoid it.

So Ozawa may or may not be a fallen woman after all. But is Nochlin’s concept applicable to 21st century comics in the first place? Or, more generally: is sexual morality (in a wider sense, i.e. including the ethics of gender roles) still relevant enough nowadays to provide a meaningful lens through which we can read comics?

At least in the case of romance manga, it would be absurd not to assume any connection to the sexual ethics of Japanese society. There is an unbroken preoccupation – or fascination? – in the West with Japanese sexuality and its purportedly vast differentness (or even perceived moral inferiority, as I have argued elsewhere). Therefore, when reading any comic featuring a female character, one can ask: what are the rules that govern her behaviour within her specific society? What would need to happen for her to become a fallen woman? How would that change her role in society? What would her options for redemption be? And how is all of that expressed in the comics medium? That being said, we need to be aware that comics need not accurately represent the society in which they are made and read, but rather tell us something about the conscious or unconscious desires and fears of that society.

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


Review, Jirō Taniguchi memorial edition: Furari

One of Jirō Taniguchi’s († February 11, 2017) last manga to be published in translation during his lifetime, Furari has been called (even by the mangaka himself) ‘The Walking Man in Edo’. But is Furari really a masterpiece on the same level as Aruku hito?

Furari (ふらり, lit. “aimlessly”; German title: Der Kartograph)
Language: German (originally Japanese)
Author: Jirō Taniguchi
Publisher: Carlsen (originally Kōdansha)
Year: 2013 (originally 2011)
Number of volumes: 1

Pages: 201
Price: € 16
Website: https://www.carlsen.de/softcover/der-kartograph/978-3-551-75102-7 (German); https://www.mangaupdates.com/series.html?id=60670
ISBN: 978-3-551-75102-7

Some similarities can’t be denied, as both manga are about flaneurs, men walking around and exploring their urban surroundings. One difference is the protagonist’s motivation: while the nameless Aruku hito has just moved to a new home and wants to get to know the neighbourhood, Tadataka Inō, the protagonist of Furari, is a pensioner who has taken up pedometry – measuring distances by walking with a constant step length – as a hobby. (Only at the end of the manga does he officially become a surveyor; thus the German title, “The Cartographer”, is a bit misleading.) Also, Furari is a lot wordier than Aruku hito with many thought balloons, as Taniguchi must have felt it necessary to have his main character explain more things to the reader, as it were, and bridge the 200-year gap.

The biggest difference, however, is that Furari is really about something else. In 7 out of the 15 episodes, Inō has dreams/daydreams/visions in which he transforms into an animal (or a tree in one instance) and sees Edo from its point of view, e.g. from the river as a turtle, or from above as a dragonfly. And also some of the other episodes feature such a change of perspective on the town- and landscape, e.g. on a boat trip on the river: “when I’m on water for once, I realise that things come into view that you can’t see from onshore.” Thus I’d argue that Furari is at least as much a meditation on geography itself as it is a portrayal of historical Edo.

This is all quite fascinating, but there is one aspect in which Furari might be inferior to such Taniguchi classics as Aruku hito, Harukana machi e, or Chichi no koyomi: in these, the main character is pretty much a ‘nobody’, or an ‘anybody’, a ‘man without qualities’ from the contemporary real world with whom readers (particularly from Japan) can easily identify. Inō and the things he sees and does, in contrast, feel very distant to the reader, and thus the experience of reading Furari is more detached.

That being said, Furari is a must-read for any Taniguchi enthusiast, especially for those with an interest in historical Japan. Too bad the German publisher Carlsen once more overpriced what is essentially a regular tankōbon.

Rating: ● ● ● ● ○


The best manga of 2016? Review of Yuru Camp

Although the first two volumes were already published in 2015 and 2016 in Japan, Western publishers once again came late to the party and only began translating Yuru Camp when it was adapted into an anime series.

panel from vol. 2

Yuru Camp (ゆるキャン△ / yurukyan△; international title: Laid-Back Camp) vols. 1-2
Language: German (translated from Japanese)
Author: Afro
Publisher: Manga Cult (originally Houbunsha)
Year: 2020 (originally 2015-16)
Number of volumes: 11 so far in Japan
Pages per volume: 175
Price per volume: € 10
Website: https://www.cross-cult.de/titel/laid-back-camp-1.html (German publisher), https://www.mangaupdates.com/series.html?id=121961 (Baka-Updates)
ISBN: 9783964333094, 9783964333223

Most other reviews mention how unusual the subject matter of this manga – camping – is, that the Japanese truly have a comic for everything, that it is enjoyable even if you don’t like camping, and that it is also an educational manga that gives detailed and practical information on the topic of camping. All of this may be true, but it’s worth noting that the kind of camping that we get to see here isn’t everyone’s idea of camping. First of all, it’s camping without hiking. Rin takes her moped to go camping, Nadeshiko lets her older sister drive her in the car, and on one occasion, Chiaki, Aoi and Nadeshiko take the train and then have to walk for 4 km, only to find out later that they could have taken a bus.

It’s also camping without wilderness, despite what the blurb might say (“A time off in the wilderness”, the German back cover says). Our protagonist high school girls always put their tents up at official campsites, and these campsites usually come with amenities such as firewood, lots of rules, and sometimes pricey fees. Nature does feature in the form of scenic landscapes viewed from the campsite, but in essence, this kind of camping is, as the title says, rather yuru (緩 – loose, relaxed) and consists essentially of outdoor cooking – various recipes are provided – and sleeping in a tent.

On the other hand, the kind of camping undertaken by Rin and the others is peculiar because it’s off-season camping, meaning that the story takes place in late fall and winter and it’s always cold. This gives the author the opportunity to offer tips on how to protect against cold weather, while at the same time not having to have the protagonists interact with many other characters, as they are almost the only campers on their campsites at that time of the year.

page detail from vol. 1

And of course, our main characters are probably not the first kind of person that comes into one’s mind when thinking of campers. A sort of explanation is hinted at in the story: at Rin’s high school, there are two different clubs, the mountaineering club and the “outdoor club”. Perhaps all the boys at that school who are interested in camping have joined the former? In any case, with Yuru Camp, we’re deep in the sub-genre within the slice-of-life genre known as “Cute Girls Doing Cute Things”, which is closely related to (or, as some say, identical with) the concept of moe.

Reading such a kind of manga is always a bit of a guilty pleasure, at least for heterosexual male readers. Not that it is sexually exploitative or anything – despite several onsen bathing scenes, there is no explicit nudity – , but such para-erotic appeal is of course precisely the essence of moe. Then again, the manga abstains, perhaps mercifully, from any yuri elements whatsoever (although there would be plenty of opportunities for homoerotic scenes, e.g when there are two girls sleeping in the same tent etc.).

Some who have reviewed the first volume only have expressed doubts regarding the single-mindedness of the characters and the manga as a whole: would Yuru Camp remain interesting over several volumes? It does, by virtue of a carefully crafted story. Basically there are two parallel stories, that of the outdoor club, and that of Rin who prefers to go camping alone. But through the characters of Nadeshiko who is a club member but also befriends Rin, and Ena, a schoolmate who isn’t interested in camping but encourages Rin to befriend Nadeshiko, the stories are interwoven and feel like one big story.

Interestingly, the artwork of the scenery isn’t that spectacular. There is a lot of almost crude cross-hatching, and an overuse of an obtrusive parallel hatching effect that shrouds many backgrounds (and quite a few foreground objects as well), perhaps to indicate that it gets dark early during off-season. The figures, in contrast, are elaborately rendered and exhibit versatile facial expressions.

All in all, Yuru Camp is definitely one of the strongest manga series still running. However, it’s a shame that both the German and the American publisher decided to put such a hefty price tag on it. A Yuru Camp volume is perhaps worth it, but only just.

Rating: ● ● ● ● ○


The best comics of 2020: a meta list

[UPDATE: added 10 more lists – A.V. Club, Broken Frontier, ComFor, Comic.de, Comicgate, DoomRocket, Herald, IGN, SyFy Wire, WhatCulture. Arrows next to entries indicate that their rank went up or down compared to the previous version.]

Some people seem reluctant this year to look back at the past twelve months. From a comics perspective, however, it seems to have been a strong year, with no shortage of titles to fill all the ranks of those year-end best-of lists. As always, I put together a ‘master list’ out of all of those charts I found online (in English or German). Each title was assigned between 1 and 30 points, depending on either its rank or, in unranked lists, the number of titles (full explanation here).

THE TOP 25 COMICS OF 2020:

  1. Dragon Hoops by Gene Luen Yang (149 points)
  2. Superman Smashes the Klan by Gene Luen Yang (129) ⇧
  3. The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Cartoonist by Adrian Tomine (125)
  4. Superman’s Pal Jimmy Olsen by Matt Fraction and Steve Lieber (124) ⇧
  5. Blue in Green by Ram V et al. (115) ⇧
  6. Paying the Land by Joe Sacco (104) ⇩
  7. Far Sector by N. K. Jemisin (103) ⇧
  8. Dracula, Motherf**ker by Alex de Campi and Erica Henderson (95) ⇩
  9. Kent State: Four Dead in Ohio by Derf Backderf (92) ⇩
  10. Pulp by Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips (87) ⇧
  11. A Map to the Sun by Sloane Leong (86) ⇧
  12. The Immortal Hulk by Al Ewing and Joe Bennett (82) ⇩
  13. John Constantine: Hellblazer by Simon Spurrier, Aaron Campbell and Matias Bergara (78)
  14. Daredevil by Chip Zdarsky and Marco Checchetto (68) ⇧
  15. Wendy, Master of Art by Walter Scott (65) ⇩
  16. You Brought Me The Ocean by Alex Sánchez and Julie Maroh (59) ⇧
  17. The Magic Fish by Trung Le Nguyen ⇩, tied with
    The Times I Knew I Was Gay by Eleanor Crewes ⇩ (57)
  18. Chainsaw Man by Tatsuki Fujimoto (56) ⇩
  19. Demon Slayer: Kimetsu no Yaiba by Koyoharu Gotōge (55) ⇩
  20. Bowie by Michael Allred, Seve Horton and Laura Allred (51) ⇧
  21. We Only Find Them When They’re Dead by Al Ewing and Simone Di Meo (50) ⇧
  22. The Impending Blindness of Billie Scott by Zoe Thorogood (49) ⇧
  23. Big Black: Stand at Attica by Frank “Big Black” Smith, Jared Reinmuth and Ameziane ⇩, tied with
    Heartstopper by Alice Oseman ⇩ and
    Spy × Family by Tatsuya Endō ⇩ (48)

What a year for Gene Luen Yang, whose comics take the top two spots! As always, manga are sadly underrepresented, but at least we have three manga in the top 25 with Chainsaw Man, Spy × Family, and of course the ubiquitous Demon Slayer. The latter is also one of four recurring comics along with Jimmy Olsen, The Immortal Hulk, and Daredevil, all of which already charted in 2019. The highest-ranking German comic, not shown above, would be Freaks by Frank Schmolke on rank 30.

The following lists were evaluated: The A.V. Club, The Beat (top 10 only), Book Riot, Broken Frontier, CBC, Chicago Public Library, ComFor (German), Comic.de (German; multiple mentions only), Comicgate (German), Comickunst (German), DoomRocket, Forbes, GeekCast (top 30 only), Goodreads, Gosh (adults, kids), The Guardian, The Herald, IGN (ongoing / limited), io9, Kono manga ga sugoi via Anime News Network, NPR, Nerdist, Oricon Top-Selling Manga in Japan by Series via Anime News Network, Publishers Weekly Critics Poll, SyFy Wire, Tagesspiegel (German), Tor Online (German), The Washington Post, WhatCulture, YALSA.


Article on animal liberation in comics published

The latest issue of Closure. Kieler e-Journal für Comicforschung contains a special section on “Eco-comics” to which I contributed one of its four articles. According to the issue introduction,

Martin de la Iglesia’s »Formal Characteristics of Animal Liberation in Comics«, which closes the special section, shares with the preceding articles a concern with the comics form. Particularly, de la Iglesia investigates if comics associate the specific scenario of animal liberation with a formal correlative – and if the comics form is geared towards a presentation of »animal communication and perception« (91) at all. And indeed: some commonalities emerge from the analysis of open cages, sudden flight, and abject suffering in Animal Man, Daredevil, We3, and Pride of Baghdad. In its detailed close readings and search for an overarching graphic rhetoric of liberation, the article pays particular attention to the ›expressive‹ potential of comics devices and the degree to which observers alternately share and are distanced from animal minds.

Read my article “Formal Characteristics of Animal Liberation in Comics” for free in HTML or PDF.


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.