Alois Riegl’s group portraiture of Holland – in comics?

On the surface, Alois Riegl’s 1902 book The Group Portraiture of Holland (German full text here) is about a quite specific kind of artwork – Dutch portrait paintings from the 16th and 17th century. However, it also provides some concepts and terms applicable to any group portrait. Among those, the following three oppositional pairs are arguably the most intriguing:

  • subjectivism vs. objectivism: in a subjective mode of depiction, the figures in the portrait present themselves as they would to a spectator present at the same site. They are embedded in the landscape and affected by their surroundings, so that e.g. their outlines may “evaporate”. In the objective mode, in contrast, figures appear in a sort of ideal or neutral view and are detached from their surroundings, resulting e.g. in clear outlines.
  • subordination vs. coordination: in many groups there is a hierarchy, e.g. different ranks in a military unit. When such a hierarchy is clearly visible in a portrait, for instance by gestures, dress, symbolic objects, or placement of figures, Riegl speaks of subordination.
  • symbolism vs. genre*: in 1902 the Symbolist art movement was in full swing, but that’s not what Riegl means by this term. Figures in a group portrait often perform actions and/or hold objects, and when those actions seem believable, i.e. when it looks as if the sitter actually performed that action, the action itself threatens to overshadow the individuality of the figure and the painting is in danger, so to speak, of becoming a genre painting instead of a portrait. Symbolic actions and objects, however, are metonymic signifiers of something else, most often character traits of the respective sitter. A telltale sign by which symbolism and genre can be told apart is how much attention the figure is paying to the action it performs or the object it is holding: if the figure is looking somewhere else (e.g. out of the picture), the action/object is probably symbolic.

Does it make sense to look at comics the same way Riegl looks at paintings? It is not unusual to compare individual comic panels to paintings, and many panels feature three or more figures. It can be argued that such panels sometimes resemble portraits – for instance, superhero comics books often contain a splash panel that introduces the main characters.

Let’s look at two examples from a fairly standard current superhero series, Batman/Superman by Gene Luen Yang and Ivan Reis. In issue #17, our protagonists encounter a supervillain team on a parallel world. This is the panel that introduces the villains:

Panel from Batman/Superman #17 by Gene Luen Yang and Ivan Reis

Is the subjective or objective mode of depiction at work here? On the one hand, all four characters are bathed in the same turquoise light, which suggests subjectivism. On the other hand, the composition ensures that most of the figures is clearly visible, especially their faces, and there is no interaction between them – the Penguin is pointing upwards, but the other three are looking elsewhere – so that each is shown in isolation, as it were.

The composition also emphasises subordination: the foremost figure, and also the one who seems tallest (i.e. who is drawn to the largest vertical extent), is that of Warden Luthor, the leader of the quartet. The quality that definitely allows us to speak of this panel as a portrait, though, is its symbolism. As mentioned before, the only real action of the Penguin pointing to the sky is unrealistic because the others are not able to perceive it. Joker, Warden and Jones appear to be engaged in conversation with Batman and Robin, but their gestures have little to do with that conversation. Instead, the gestures tell us something about those characters: Jones is holding a bauble because that’s the weapon he throws at his opponents, Warden Luthor is depicted adjusting his tie and having a hand in his pocket to show how conceited and overconfident he is, and the Joker is laughing because that’s what he always does.

A few issues later (#20), the arrival of our protagonists on another parallel world is shown in this double page spread:

Double page from Batman/Superman #20 by Gene Luen Yang and Ivan Reis

Despite the orange reflections of the fire on the figures’ clothes and skin, the subjectivism of this image is doubtful: while the threatening demons are situated next to and behind the heroes, the latter don’t interact with them (nor with each other really) and look towards the picture surface, as if they are posing for us, each on his or her own in empty space.

Again there is a clear subordination, with Superman – normally Batman’s equal, but temporarily the leader here on his home turf in the Metropolis of the “World of Tomorrow” – depicted much more prominently than the others, especially the diminutive figures of Alanna and El Diablo (throwaway sidekicks introduced in #19 who now tag along with Batman and Superman on their inter-dimensional journey).

As for symbolism, this is again the dominant mode in which the figures’ gestures are depicted. Everyone has this mildly concerned look on his or her face and isn’t really interacting with anyone or anything. Even Alanna, who carries El Diablo with her jetpack, isn’t all too focused on her task. With the exception of Superman and his wide-open mouth, one could cut each figure out and stick it on a poster against a neutral background, each character a model of typical superhero stoicism.

Just to show that not all comic panels serve as portraits, here is another panel from earlier in the same issue that features the same five characters (who are wearing cowboy hats now because they’re in yet another parallel world):

Panel from Batman/Superman #20 by Gene Luen Yang and Ivan Reis

Here the figures are very much absorbed in their respective actions – firing grapple guns, swinging a whip, flying to escape the quicksand – and we don’t get a clear view of all of them; poor Alanna in particular is mostly concealed. In this panel, the focus is on what happens, and not so much on who the characters are. This only shows that in typical superhero comics like Batman/Superman, creators purposefully insert panels resembling group portraits only every now and then.

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

* ^ More precisely, Riegl presents a multi-tiered model of the development of Dutch group portraiture in which symbolism and genre are only two of the stages, the other two (sometimes combined into one) being ‘novella’ and ‘drama’. Genre, novella and drama are all in opposition to symbolism and the status of the painting as a portrait.


The best manga of 2016? Review of Savage Season

Granted, the first chapter of this manga came out in Japan at the very end of 2016. Still, the lack of buzz it got abroad is surprising, given that it is written by none other than Mari Okada, anime screenwriting superstar of Anohana (etc. etc.) fame.

Savage Season (荒ぶる季節の乙女どもよ / Araburu kisetsu no otome-domo yo; English title: O Maidens in Your Savage Season) chapter 1
Language: German (translated from Japanese)
Authors: Mari OKADA (writer), Nao EMOTO (artist)
Publisher: Tokyopop (originally Kōdansha)
Year: 2020 (originally 2016)
Number of volumes: 8
Pages: 60
Website: https://www.tokyopop.de/buecher/josei/savage-season/ (German publisher), https://www.mangaupdates.com/series.html?id=140875 (Baka-Updates)

The world of the five members of an all-female high school Literature club gets turned upside down when they discover sexuality – first in the books they read, then in their own lives. Each has her own issues with sex: Kazusa finds it difficult to accept that she has fallen in love with her male childhood friend Izumi, while Sonezaki feels deeply embarrassed when anyone around her even mentions sex. In later chapters, we learn that Hongo secretly writes erotic novels (which are deemed not realistic enough by her editor, so she starts researching), Sugawara is so attractive that she always has to fend off advances of older men, and Momoko goes on her first date but finds it disappointing.

By volume 3, things get decidedly creepier when two of the girls experience or recount sexual encounters in the wider sense (i.e. there’s no nudity or sexual intercourse depicted or implied) with adult men. But let’s stick to the more innocent beginning of the series. The main selling point of Savage Season is undoubtedly its fresh main topic, female teenage sexuality, which so far has hardly ever been thoroughly explored in manga. In most other romance or romantic comedy manga, if that’s the genre we’re looking at here, sexual intercourse is conspicuously absent (Wolf Girl & Black Prince being a notable exception). Savage Season handles this sensitive topic in a way that has been described as “wholesome”, “sweet and understanding” and “frank” at the same time.

That in itself isn’t what makes Savage Season a good manga though, just as the thorough exploration of the fresh topic of off-season camping alone isn’t what makes Yuru Camp great. Instead, one can think of Savage Season as an ‘enhanced’ high-school romance manga: there are multiple parallel but intertwined love stories, tied together by the school club at which the protagonists meet. This is not unlike e.g. Boyfriend in which the love story is set against the background of school bullying which becomes less and less important as the plot progresses. Except that in Savage Season, the sex angle infuses a healthy dose of realism (and also a source of humour).

An important contribution to the overall quality of this manga is the artwork. Nao Emoto had an entire host of assistants (ten, according to a group picture in vol. 2), and this shows above all in the vast amount and variety of screentone used; e.g. on the very first pages in which the afternoon sun shines into the club room onto the girls’ heads. There are also some brilliant and unusual panel compositions, such as the one in which we see Kazusa’s crouching figure from behind. As for the writing, its quality is harder to assess: due to its uneven structure, it takes some time before e.g. Momoko comes into focus, which makes this character appear “largely undeveloped” at first. Perhaps in later volumes the parallel story arcs will be interwoven more tightly, but will readers have the patience and take the gamble to find out?

At least the first chapter, which is supposed to be the item under review here, should leave readers wanting to find out how things turn out between Kazusa and the boy next door. As most manga, however, Savage Season seems to peter out somewhat after the first volume. In the end, as a contender for the title of ‘best manga of 2016’, Savage Season would have to compete against other romance and rom-com manga such as My Love Story, and maybe it isn’t quite on par.

Then again, as Sonezaki says in volume 3, books help us to define feelings for which we didn’t have a name before, and if we absorb that feeling again, a new one arises. Perhaps there is something of that in Savage Season too. E.g. when Kazusa, also in vol. 3, ponders whether love and sex are separable at all and whether “all those wonderful feelings that exist in the world […] ultimately come down to Ess Ee Ecks”, which in turn informs her conflicted feelings for Izumi – a notion that e.g. Kimi ni todoke only vaguely hints at.

Rating: ● ● ● ○ ○


Defender

A page from Crying Freeman ch. 7 by Kazuo Koike and Ryōichi Ikegami.

There has been an unusually long silence on this weblog, but for a good reason: two months ago, the evaluation reports for the PhD thesis I had submitted in late August 2020 arrived at long last, and then I had to prepare for my viva voce a.k.a. oral defense a.k.a. disputatio – which I passed on June 30. Hooray! (Or should I say, yatta!)

However, my journey towards a PhD is far from over, as I still need to turn the thesis into a book. I’m already negotiating a deal with a publisher, and when the book is available I’ll make sure to advertise it here. In the meantime, regular blogging (at approximately 1 post per month) will resume shortly, so stay tuned.


Benedict Anderson’s Imagined Communities – in comics?

First published in 1983, Benedict Anderson’s book Imagined Communities. Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism remains tremendously influential in the Humanities today. In it, the nation is defined as “an imagined political community […]. It is imagined because the members of even the smallest nation will never know most of their fellow-members” (p. 6; all page numbers here refer to the 2016 revised edition by Verso). By using the word “imagined”, Anderson emphasises that national consciousness it not something pre-existing that only needs to be “awakened” – it needs to be actively created.

One of the instruments through which a nation can be created is what Anderson calls “print-capitalism”, a system within which e.g. newspapers forge a community out of their readers (pp. 35-36). This process is aided by “the fatality of human linguistic diversity” as readers felt “connected” to their “fellow-readers” due to their sharing the same “language-field”, regardless of their location on the globe (pp. 43-44). Furthermore, newspapers “brought together, on the same page” a variety of commercial, political and cultural news items of regional or local interest, which instilled in readers the feeling that all these things they read about were connected to each other and to the readers themselves, and thus “created an imagined community” (p. 62).

Language itself can facilitate the formation of nations, particularly when the vernacular language in which people speak and write differs from the official language-of-state, as was the case in the various nations of the Austro-Hungarian Empire in the 19th century (p. 78). Then again, rulers can also be “naturalized” and employ an “official nationalism” in order to culturally homogenify their territory and counter popular national movements (p. 86).

Education is another factor that contributed to the creation of imagined communites; for instance, the colonial subjects of the multiethnic Dutch East Indies “knew that from wherever they had come they still had read the same books and done the same sums” (pp. 121-122). Then there is the complex of “Census, Map, Museum” (ch. 10, pp. 163-185) – devices through which colonial rulers categorised their subjects and at the same time inadvertently helped form their national identities.

Thus Anderson discusses various ways to create nations, but the point is that they need someone to create them. Otherwise, the idea of a particular imagined community would fail to catch on and people would not identify with it as their nation. For our example today, we’re going to examine such failed creations of nations in a comic. While this isn’t going to prove Anderson’s theory right or wrong, it will hopefully illustrate some of his ideas.

Our example is going to be Sarah (沙流羅 sarura, also known in English as The Legend of Mother Sarah), written by Katsuhiro Ōtomo, drawn by Takumi Nagayasu, and originally published from 1990-2004 – more specifically its first (German) volume. In a war-torn future, the eponymous protagonist gets separated from her four children and sets out on an epic quest to reunite with them. The background of this plot is mainly told in a prologue text: there has been a nuclear war which has left Earth uninhabitable. The survivors fled to space colonies. There, scientists developed a bomb to tilt the earth axis, which would slowly cleanse the planet of radiation and eventually allow it to be settled again. This plan split people into a supporting and an opposing faction who called themselves “Epoch” and “Mother Earth”, respectively. The hostilities between these factions led to terrorism and even civil war. The bomb was launched after all, and even though the terrestrial climate is still somewhat hostile, people started returning to the earth’s surface, where the fighting between Epoch and Mother Earth continues. The bone of contention is no longer the use of the bomb, though, but global domination.

Epoch guards against civilians. Detail of p. 19 from Sarah vol. 1 by Katsuhiro Ōtomo and Takumi Nagayasu.

Can Epoch and Mother Earth be regarded as nations in Anderson’s sense? In the very first scene of the manga, which still is a kind of prologue to the actual story, we already see representations of Epoch: while people are fleeing from a space station which is shattered by explosions, they are watched by armed men with the letter E on their hats, helmets and bandanas. The same E logo is crudely painted on walls inside the space station, indicating that Epoch rules this place. The ordinary people, however, do not sport any Epoch signs. They are no so much protected by the Epoch gunmen as controlled, the latter sifting through the crowd looking for enemies. And when a panic breaks out and everyone tries to board the escape shuttles at once, the Epoch men indiscriminately shoot into the crowd to stop them.

A Mother Earth officer. Panel from Sarah vol. 1, p. 73 by Katsuhiro Ōtomo and Takumi Nagayasu.

Then the action shifts to earth in the present day, i.e. some time after the exodus from the space stations. Sarah, accompanying a travelling merchant, reaches a small settlement adjacent to a gigantic mine. The mine is operated by the Mother Earth military, the soldiers being identifiable by small “ME” (plus a winged globe icon) logos on parts of their uniform. The workers in the mine are prisoners of war from Epoch, more clearly marked by large “E”s on their clothing or bare backs.

Epoch prisoners of war guarded by Mother Earth soldiers. Panel from Sarah vol. 1, p. 36 by Katsuhiro Ōtomo and Takumi Nagayasu.

There is a discernible divide between the soldiers overseeing their high-tech mine, and the local populace who farm the land using few machines and live in primitive-looking brick buildings. It is a science-fiction trope that we know from e.g. Star Wars: the common folk are simply trying to get by while there’s a war raging around them which they have not the slightest stake in (but which some of them, of course, ultimately get caught up in). The only link between them is the character Toki, a young man who comes from a farming family but has joined the military. Unlike his stepsister Lucia, Toki hates Epoch and blames them for devastating the earth. Lucia retorts by reminding him of Mother Earth’s constitution, which says war is bad and that “we shall live in harmony with mother earth and preserve its treasures”. Toki dismisses this as idealism that one cannot live by.

The local ‘neutral’ civilian population. Panel from Sarah vol. 1, p. 31 by Katsuhiro Ōtomo and Takumi Nagayasu.

But when Toki and Lucia discover the secret purpose of the mine, the military wants to see both of them dead. The ensuing brutal raid, in which both a soldier and Toki’s and Lucia’s grandfather are shot, epitomises the divide between military and civilians. (In later volumes, we even see tanks firing into crowds.)

Clearly, nation-building has failed in Sarah. The only ones who identify with the nations of Epoch and Mother Earth are soldiers, whereas the civilians don’t seem to have any national identity whatsoever. With the sole (and only temporary) exception of Toki, the soldiers appear not to belong to the folk who settle at the mine. The military rather seems like an occupying force from a distant country, only there to exploit the natural resources and possibly gone again soon.

This should not come as a surprise, as none of Anderson’s nation-forming devices are visible in this manga: no print-capitalist products (except for a pornographic magazine), no ‘naturalised’ rulers, no education, no maps, no census, no museums. And as in many other science-fiction stories, everyone seems to speak the same mother tongue (despite signs of some racial diversity), so that no separate language communities could form within the overall population.

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


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.