Sequential art at the 58th Venice Art Biennale, 2019

There isn’t much on display resembling comics at this year’s Biennale (May 11 – November 24) and no participation of a famous comic artist as in 2017 or 2013. Here’s what caught my eye:

Darren Bader (not to be confused with fantasy illustrator Daren Bader) set up a comic book vending machine at the Arsenale. Somehow I failed to get a comic out of the machine, but there are pictures online that show that there are copies of an actual comic inside.

Also at the Arsenale, an episode of Ian Cheng‘s comic Life After BOB is displayed on large backlit panels. Not the ideal form of presentation, as the lower portions are hard to read. A printed pamphlet version is sold at the Biennale shop at an outrageous price. An interactive video installation based on the titular character is shown at the Giardini.

Many of Igor Grubić‘s photographic tableaux at the Croation pavilion can be considered sequential art. In this example, the accompanying text mentions first the floor tiles and then the step at the entrance, so the photos are best read from top left to bottom right (or clockwise). In others, the photos form a sequence from exterior to interior, or from wide shot to close up.

Anne Kuhn‘s photographic diptych in the pavilion of Mozambique, Seychelles and Kiribati is based on a scene in Marguerite Duras’s novel, The Ravishing of Lol Stein. In an earlier edition of the book, “ravissement” was translated as “rapture”, and Kuhn’s work is a convincing illustration of this state: in one moment, the young woman is standing in a room full of people, and in the next she experiences a rapture that makes her feels as if she is levitating and she becomes oblivious of everyone around her. This diptych is part of Kuhn’s Héroïnes series in which only some works follow this action-to-action transition pattern.

As always, there are those artists who use comics only as a quarry from which they incorporate bits and pieces into their works, but the results are not sequential themselves. One such artist is Christian Marclay whose Scream series is shown at the Arsenale. These prints are composed of wooden planks and manga character close ups. (Another artist working with images from comics is Goo Sung Kyun at the Mozambique/Seychelles/Kiribati pavilion.)

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The best manga of 2016? Review of Daisy

For Japan, the 2010s were marked by a historic event at the beginning of the decade: the Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami on March 11, 2011, and the ensuing nuclear accident at the Fukushima Daiichi power plant. It’s somewhat surprising that there haven’t been many more manga on this topic, although I bet a lot of manga critics are going to interpret pretty much any manga published afterwards as somehow inspired by the triple disaster, just as they did with the Hiroshima nuclear bombing. Apart from 1F, the other big ‘3.11’ manga is Daisy, created in 2012 but not published in German until 2016 (and not yet available in English as far as I know).

Daisy (デイジー ~3.11女子高生たちの選択~ / Daisy – 3.11 Joshikōseitachi no Sentaku)
Language: German (translated from Japanese)
Author: Reiko Momochi; based on a novel by Teruhiro Kobayashi, Darai Kusanagi, and Tomoji Nobuta
Publisher: Egmont (originally Kōdansha)
Year: 2016 (originally 2013)
Number of volumes: 1
Pages: ~340
Price: € 14
Website: https://www.egmont-manga.de/buch/daisy-aus-fukushima/ (German), https://www.mangaupdates.com/series.html?id=87087 (Baka-Updates)
ISBN: 978-3-7704-9162-9

On the one hand, Daisy – full title in German: Daisy aus Fukushima (“Daisy from Fukushima”) – is a typical shōjo manga about a group of friends in their last year of high school: Ayaka, Moe, Mayu, and narrator Fumi play in a band, fall in love with boys, worry about which career to pursue after graduation, quarrel and reconcile again. On the other hand, they live in Fukushima-shi (Fukushima City), and after that fateful 11th March their lives are affected in many ways.

Even though Fukushima-shi is well outside of the evacuation zone, radioactivity has become a constant threat. It keeps guests from staying at Ayaka’s parents’ hotel, it deters customers from buying rice from Mayu’s father’s farm, and it makes Moe abandon her home town. Before the disaster, Fumi’s plan had been to go away to Tokyo to university, but now she wonders if leaving Fukushima at this time would make her a traitor.

It’s quite a feat of this manga to make this peculiar feeling palpable; these effects of the disaster that are much more subtle than radiation poisoning; this creeping fear of an invisible danger that is so unlike the blind panic of people running from a tidal wave. Daisy is similar to 1F in this regard: they both don’t show how the tsunami hits the coast or how reactors explode, and both focus on characters from outside of the evacuation zone – the main difference, of course, being that the ones in Daisy are fictional.

Reiko Momochi, who is perhaps best known for her similarly serious shōjo manga series Confidential Confessions (Mondai teiki sakuhinshū), provides solid artwork in which particularly character close-ups excel with discreet shading lines and screen tones.

When talking about the manga of the 2010s, Daisy is definitely one to rank among the most representative of this decade.

Rating: ● ● ● ● ○


Akira Code 7 Alert

Akira Code 7 Alert is an unofficial animated short film by Richard Nyst that went online on YouTube two weeks ago. I hesitate to call it a ‘fan film’ because it looks so professional. The interesting thing about it is that it focuses on characters from the Akira manga that didn’t make it into the anime: the caretaker robots, also known as ‘Security Balls’, which the military employs for riot control. (They are quite relevant though if one reads Akira as a cyberpunk manga, as I have argued elsewhere.) In animation, they are reminiscent of the Tachikoma in the Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex anime series. Or maybe the other way round: you can see that Masamune Shirow most likely got the inspiration for the Fuchikoma in his Ghost in the Shell manga from Katsuhiro Ōtomo’s Akira manga.

Disclosure: I’m credited as “Japanese script advisor” in the film.


Exhibition review: Joann Sfar, Basel, 6.4.-11.8.2019

Shortly after Tardi, Cartoonmuseum Basel celebrates another living legend of French comics.

As with Tardi, the Joann Sfar exhibition does a good job of showcasing the artist’s vast body of work. There are many original inked pages on display, mostly of Le chat du rabbin but also of lesser known comics such as L’Ancien Temps or Aspirine, as well as his watercolours for La Fontaine’s Fables, oil paintings in connection with his Je l’appelle monsieur Bonnard project, excerpts from his live-action film Gainsbourg, lots of one-panel cartoons (with German translations provided this time) and much more.

It is perhaps easier to say what we don’t get to see here, and there are two surprising omissions: one is Professeur Bell, a series of no less than 5 albums (the last three of which have been drawn by Hervé Tanquerelle). There are only some reading copies provided in the museum library, but no original art. The other omission, which I find more severe because it was my introduction to Sfar, is Donjon. Of course, Sfar only drew very few Donjon albums himself and merely co-wrote others. But it would have been interesting if the show had shed some light on the process of the writing collaboration between Sfar and Lewis Trondheim. In Basel, only a few Donjon album copies are (mis)placed in some kind of children’s section for the visitor to read, next to Petit Vampire

Another question one might ask is: are black-and-white ink drawings really representative of Sfar’s art? Can you talk about Sfar’s comics without mentioning Brigitte Findakly, who coloured most of them? When you think of e.g. Le chat du rabbin, you probably think of the grey cat with its large yellow-green eyes, the brown-skinned daughter of the rabbi and her colourful dresses, the light blue sky over Algiers… At least some side-by-side comparisons of inked and coloured pages would have been a sensible addition to this exhibition.

Rating: ● ● ● ○ ○

Flesch reading ease for stylometry?

The Flesch reading-ease score (FRES, also called FRE – ‘Flesch Reading Ease’) is still a popular measurement for the readability of texts, despite some criticism and suggestions for improvement since it was first proposed by Rudolf Flesch in 1948. (I’ve never read his original paper, though; all my information is taken from Wikipedia.) On a scale from 0 to 100, it indicates how difficult it is to understand a given text based on sentence length and word length, with a low score meaning difficult to read and a high score meaning easy to read.

Sentence length and word length are also popular factors in stylometry, the idea here being that some authors (or, generally speaking, kinds of text) prefer longer sentences and/or words while others prefer shorter ones. Thus such scores based on sentence length and word length might serve as an indicator of how similar two given texts are. In fact, FRES is used in actual stylometry, albeit only as one factor among many (e.g. in Brennan, Afroz and Greenstadt 2012 (PDF)). Over other stylometric indicators, FRES would have the added benefit that it actually says something in itself about the text, rather than being merely a number that only means something in relation to another.

The original FRES formula was developed for English and has been modified for other languages. In the last few stylometry blogposts here, the examples were taken from Japanese manga, but FRES is not well suited for Japanese. The main reason is that syllables don’t play much of a role in Japanese readability. More important factors are the number of characters and the ratio of kanji, as the number of syllables per character varies. A two-kanji compound, for instance, can have fewer syllables than a single-kanji word (e.g. 部長 bu‧chō ‘head of department’ vs. 力 chi‧ka‧ra ‘power’). Therefore, we’re going to use our old English-language X-Men examples from 2017 again.

The comics in question are: Astonishing X-Men #1 (1995) written by Scott Lobdell, Ultimate X-Men #1 (2001) written by Mark Millar, and Civil War: X-Men #1 (2006) written by David Hine. Looking at just the opening sequence of each comic (see the previous X-Men post for some images), we get the following sentence / word / syllable counts:

  • AXM: 3 sentences, 68 words, 100 syllables.
  • UXM: 6 sentences, 82 words, 148 syllables.
  • CW:XM: 7 sentences, 79 words, 114 syllables.

We don’t even need to use Flesch’s formula to get an idea of the readability differences: the sentences in AXM are really long and those in CW:XM are much shorter. As for word length, UXM stands out with rather long words such as “unconstitutional”, which is reflected in the high ratio of syllables per word.

Applying the formula (cf. Wikipedia), we get the following FRESs:

  • AXM: 59.4
  • UXM: 40.3
  • CW:XM: 73.3

Who would have thought that! It looks like UXM (or at least the selected portion) is harder to read than AXM – a FRES of 40.3 is already ‘College’ level according to Flesch’s table.

But how do these numbers help us if we’re interested in stylometric similarity? All three texts are written by different writers. So far we could only say (again – based on a insufficiently sized sample) that Hine’s writing style is closer to Lobdell’s than to Millar’s. The ultimate test for a stylometric indicator would be to take an additional example text that is written by one of the three authors, and see if its FRES is close to the one from the same author’s X-Men text.

Our 4th example will be the rather randomly selected Nemesis by Millar (2010, art by Steve McNiven) from which we’ll also take all text from the first few panels.

3 panels from Nemesis by Mark Millar and Steve McNiven

Part of the opening scene from Nemesis.

These are the numbers for the selected text fragment from Nemesis:

  • 8 sentences, 68 words, 88 syllables.
  • This translates to a FRES of 88.7!

In other words, Nemesis and UXM, the two comics written by Millar, appear to be the most dissimilar of the four! However, that was to be expected. Millar would be a poor writer if he always applied the same style to each character in each scene. And the two selected scenes are very different: a TV news report in UXM in contrast to a dialogue (or perhaps more like the typical villain’s monologue) in Nemesis.

Interestingly, there is a TV news report scene in Nemesis too (Part 3, p. 3). Wouldn’t that make for a more suitable comparison?

Here are the numbers for this TV scene which I’ll call N2:

  • 4 sentences, 81 words, 146 syllables.
  • FRES: 33.8

Now this looks more like Millar’s writing from UXM: the difference between the two scores is so small (6.5) that they can be said to be almost identical.

Still, we haven’t really proven anything yet. One possible interpretation of the scores is that the ~30-40 range is simply the usual range for this type of text, i.e. TV news reports. So perhaps these scores are not specific to Millar (or even to comics). One would have to look at similar scenes by Lobdell, Hine and/or other writers to verify that, and ideally also at real-world news transcripts.

On the other hand, one thing has worked well: two texts that we had intuitively identified as similar – UXM and N2 – indeed showed similar Flesch scores. That means FRES is not only a measurement of readability but also of stylometric similarity – albeit a rather crude one which is, as always, best used in combination with other metrics.


The best manga of 2016? Review of Wolf Girl & Black Prince

Now that the Reiwa era has begun, some people are compiling lists of the best manga from the Heisei era, even though 1989–2019 seems like a ridiculously long time to do so, and comparisons to the previous Shōwa era (1926–1989) are difficult due to their different lengths. However, towards the end of this year, lots of people are going to wonder what the best manga of the 2010s were, and then it will come in handy that we’ve taken an in-depth look at manga from the middle of this decade (technically speaking its 7th year) in this series of blogposts.

Wolf Girl & Black Prince (オオカミ少女と黒王子 / Ōkami shōjo to kuro ōji) vol. 11
Language: German (translated from Japanese)
Author: Ayuko Hatta
Publisher: Kazé (originally Shūeisha)
Year: 2016 (originally 2011)
Number of volumes: 16
Pages: ~175
Price: € 7
Website: https://www.kaze-online.de/Programm/Manga/Wolf-Girl-Black-Prince-Band-11.html (German), https://www.mangaupdates.com/series.html?id=66333 (Baka-Updates)
ISBN: 978-2-88921-667-3

Even people who usually don’t read romance/shōjo stories seem to like this manga (and/or its anime adaptation). For some reason, though, apparently it has never been published in English. In 2016, the final two volumes came out in Japan, but in Germany, that year saw the publication of vols. 6-11, which is why I’ll deal with vol. 11 here.

Previously in Wolf Girl & Black Prince: in order to remain popular among her friends, 17-year old Erika pretends that her attractive classmate Kyōya is her boyfriend. She secretly begs him to play along so that her friends don’t find out that they’re not actually dating. He agrees to act as if they were a couple, but in private he is mean to her. In the end, however, they fall in love with each other and begin an actual relationship.

And that is the plot of about the first three volumes. The series could have ended there, but like with so many other long-running manga, the cash cow wasn’t dry yet. In the case of Wolf Girl & Black Prince, 13 more volumes followed which tell us of the romantic life of Erika and Kyōya, and of course their large cast of friends. In this eleventh volume, for instance, the first chapter is about Erika falling ill and Kyōya reluctantly caring for her, while the second and third chapters deal with romantic rivals (a co-worker at Erika’s job and a classmate who gets closer to Kyōya).

That isn’t to say that these ‘middle volumes’ are entirely without appeal. There are still moments in which Erika and Kyōya come across as compelling characters – she continues to be slightly selfish but also masochistic, he remains cool and distant. What really sets Wolf Girl & Black Prince apart from many other shōjo manga is its relatively mature content. For instance, the characters talk almost openly about sex (and also sometimes explicitly use that word), though sexual acts are never depicted.

One could probably say a lot about this manga from a gender perspective. The way in which Kyōya (“I’m going to steal your virginity!”) treats Erika, and the way in which Erika lets herself be treated by him, makes it clear that we’re not exactly reading a feminist manifesto here.

Another thing worth mentioning is that most volumes (at least in this Kazé edition) contain bonus stories. These can be spin-off stories from the main one, or unrelated one-shots. In the case of vol. 11, it’s a 38-page one-shot high school love story. On the flipside, though, this means that you only get 130 pages of the main story.

The artwork is of an extremely high quality and, in accordance with the humorous tone of this manga, is full of charming cartoonish characters. Too bad the story has lost its drive long ago and seems to go nowhere. Otherwise Wolf Girl & Black Prince would have indeed been one of the best manga of 2016.

Rating: ● ● ●


Politics in Warren Ellis’s Dark Blue

On this year’s Labour Day we’re going to look at a comic that was published at around the same time as Planetary but which is not nearly as well-known: Dark Blue (Avatar Press, first collected edition 2001; apparently originally published in 2000 as part of an anthology series called Threshold, the cover images of which are definitely ‘not safe for work’…). The black-and-white artwork is by a young Jacen Burrows, with relatively elaborate screentones for which no less than three people are credited, Terry Staats, Jason Crager, and Mark Seifert.

About halfway into this 60-page story there is a major plot twist that has some relevance here, so just this once I’m giving a spoiler warning: if you haven’t read Dark Blue but intend to, you might want to stop reading now.

The story starts out as a violent cop tale. Protagonist Detective Frank Christchurch is introduced beating up a suspect in custody in an attempt to find out the whereabouts of a serial killer, Trent Wayman. Frank’s partner Debbie stops him before he kills the suspect and Frank is told off by his boss, Lieutenant Abbey, but in the end Frank gets away with it. Abbey has problems of his own: he is a heroin addict who even shoots up in his office. The whole police department is morally depraved, to say the least. According to Frank, one police officer is “trying to sell me pills when I come in for my shift”, another “was raping a whore in the holding cell” while a third one looked on, “jerking off into a firebucket”.

So far, this seems to be the typical Warren Ellis motif of a failed democratic government with a law enforcement that not only is ineffectual at fighting crime but commits crimes itself. However, then the aforementioned twist happens when the entire city in which the police department is located turns out to be a drug-induced consensual hallucination shared by three hundred people. “Every person who takes the drug goes to that city and believes it to be utterly real”, explains Debbie, who in reality is a doctor at the hospital in which the drugged people are actually located.

Furthermore, Frank isn’t a police officer either, but a CIA agent who was “gathering intel in the former Yugoslavia”, as Debbie reminds him. “You got caught outside when shelling started and you ran into the nearest big building. It was a schoolhouse. And some fucker shelled it anyway.”

The story continues with Frank returning to “narcospace” and continuing to chase the murderer, Trent Wayman, but the really interesting questions are left unexplored. What kind of hospital treats traumatised intelligence agents by administering experimental “shamanic” drugs for several months on end? What kind of government operates such hospitals? Is it morally justifiable for a government to lie to its citizens and entrap them in an illusory world, even if this is intended as mental health treatment? Is the risk acceptable that they end up permanently confusing their real life with their illusory one (as happens to Frank)?

One could also ask what exactly a CIA agent was doing in Yugoslavia in the first place. What are the interests of the CIA (or of the American government, or of the American people) in the Yugoslav Wars? As Debbie tells the story, it seems to be clear who the good and the bad guys are: Frank was only peacefully “gathering intel” and becomes the victim of an attack, whereas the attacker is a “fucker” who stops at nothing, not even killing schoolchildren. Debbie doesn’t say which of the factions of the Yugoslav Wars the attacker belonged to, or where the school was located. Ellis’s vagueness concerning Frank’s backstory is particularly regrettable in the light of a certain conspiracy theory according to which a “Former CIA Agent claims: They gave us Millions to split up Yugoslavia”.

In any case, in contrast to what it seemed like in the beginning of the comic, Ellis presents a vision of a government that is very much in control and doesn’t need any help from superheroes: apart from minor problems with individuals such as Frank Christchurch and Trent Wayman, the United States have total control domestically (as exemplified by the hospital) and a strong influence abroad. Civil rights and democratic legitimization, however, fall by the wayside once more. Thus Ellis’s view on democracy in Dark Blue is yet another cynical criticism.