Not-so-successful transition from web to print: Josh Tierney’s Spera

A nice rendition of the protagonsits, Lono and Pira, by Rachel Saunders in the online version. Interestingly, this scene is missing from the printed book.

A nice rendition of the protagonsits, Lono and Pira, by Rachel Saunders in the online version. Interestingly, this scene is missing from the printed book.

Language: English
Authors: Josh Tierney (writer), various artists
Publisher: Archaia (an imprint of Boom! Studios)
Year: 2013
Pages: 90 (main story) / 176 (including short stories)
Price: US-$ 19.95
Website: http://spera-comic.com/
ISBN: 978-1-936393-30-5

Sometimes, it takes little to make a good print comic out of a good web comic (e.g. Robin Vehrs’s Western Touch/Enjambements, reviewed on this weblog). Spera was a good web comic, too, and when its print publication was announced, I was looking forward to it. The concept of Spera was crazy, in a good way: the entire script was written by Josh Tierney, but every 3-8 pages (some of which have large “infinite canvas”-like layouts) the artist would change.

Over 40 artists contributed back then, which resulted in a variety of styles, and also in vastly different levels of quality. Sometimes you couldn’t even figure out what was going on in the illustrations if you hadn’t read Tierney’s synopsis at the start of each section. For the print version, it looks like Tierney (or his editors at Archaia?) wanted to have more consistent art, so the same script is now illustrated by only four artists: Kyla Vanderklugt, Hwei, recent Eisner Award winner Emily Carroll, and Olivier Pichard. Don’t get me wrong, all four of them are superb artists, and on average, the art is probably better in the book than in the web comic.

However, this printed Spera is no longer a bold experiment in comic-making. It’s just a run-of-the-mill fantasy story. The only element in the story that some readers will find interesting is the gender-bending aspect. Furthermore, the dialogue is often awkward and clumsy (“I want to be my own person, exploring secret dungeons and caves. I want to find things made out of gold and silver and trade them for cool weapons”).

On the other hand, the book is designed beautifully as a heavy hard cover volume with golden ornaments on the cover, a map printed on the endpapers, and other nice touches (but still reasonably priced). That’s one advantage over the online version. Still, overall I’m disappointed of how this book turned out, and I probably won’t read any of the following volumes (three to date). If only they had given this book another title, “Spera Reloaded” or something like that…

Rating: ● ● ○ ○ ○


Bartkira the animated trailer

(via Major Spoilers)

Remember Bartkira, the comic mashup of Akira and The Simpsons (mentioned briefly here one year ago)? Based on this idea, Kaitlin Sullivan, in collaboration with many other artists, has made an animated short film. This fan film adapts the animated Akira film rather than the comic, so we get to see some new scenes and characters not present in Bartkira the comic.


Conference paper “Akira im Westen” published

panel from Akira by Katsuhiro Ōtomo

Last year at a conference on “the translation and adaptation of comics” in Hildesheim, Germany, I gave a talk on the first English and German editions of Katsuhiro Ōtomo’s Akira . The conference proceedings have now been published as a book, albeit with most of the papers in German, including my own. I’m working on making an English-language, Open Access version of my talk available soon. Anyway, here’s the bibliographic data:

de la Iglesia, Martin. “Akira im Westen.” In Comics. Übersetzungen und Adaptionen, edited by Nathalie Mälzer, 355-373. Berlin: Frank & Timme, 2015.

The ISBN of the book is: 978-3-7329-0131-9


“Presence in Comics” article published

detail of a panel from The Ultimates #3 by Mark Millar and Bryan Hitch

Remember the conference paper I announced on this weblog in 2012? It took some time, but now this paper has been published as an article in Studies in Visual Arts and Communication – an international journal and is available online for free: http://journalonarts.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/01/SVACij-Vol1_No2_2014-delaIGLESIA_Martin-Presence_in_comics.pdf

Here’s the abstract:

The term ‘presence’ is often used to denote a trait of an artwork that causes the feeling in a viewer  that a depicted figure is a living being that is really there, although the viewer is aware that this is not actually the case. So far, scholars who have used this term have not explicitly provided criteria for the assessment of the degree of presence in a work of art. However, such criteria are implicitly contained in a number of theoretical texts. Three important criteria for presence appear to be:
1. size – the larger a figure is depicted, the more likely this artwork will instil a feeling of presence.
2. deixis – the more the work is deictically orientated towards the beholder, e.g. if figures seem to look or point at the beholder, the higher the degree of presence.
3. obtrusiveness of medium – if there is a clash of different diegetic levels within an artwork, the degree of presence is reduced.

These criteria can be readily applied to a single image like a painting or a photograph. A comic, however, consists of multiple images, and the presence of each panel is influenced by the panels that surround it by means of contrast and progression. Another typical feature of comics is written text: speech bubbles, captions etc. do not co-exist with the drawings on the same diegetic level, thus betraying the mediality of their panels and reducing their degree of presence. A comic that makes striking use of effects of presence, which makes it a suitable example here, is the superhero series The Ultimates by Mark Millar and Bryan Hitch (Marvel 2002 – 2004). The characters in this comic are often placed on splash pages and/or seemingly address the reader, resulting in a considerable experience of presence.


Review: The Princess of Tennis

cover of "The Princess of Tennis" by Jamie Lynn Lano

Title: The Princess of Tennis. The true story of working as a mangaka’s assistant in Japan
Language: English
Author: Jamie Lynn Lano
Year: 2014
Publisher: self-published
Pages: 203
Price: US-$ 20
Website: http://www.jamieism.com/
ISBN: 978-1499797527

In a way, this book is similar to Julian Darius’s When Manga Came to America in that both are non-scholarly books about comics. The main difference is that I found The Princess of Tennis more enjoyable and less pretentiously written. However, is it of any use to the scholarly reader?

But first things first: what is this book about? It is an autobiographical* account of how Jamie Lynn Lano became a mangaka’s assistant in Japan. The events described took place between September 2008 and October 2010. Before that, Lano had already moved from the US to Japan and had been working as an English teacher there for several years. The book begins with her applying for a job as an assistant to mangaka Takeshi Konomi of The Prince of Tennis (テニスの王子様 / Tenisu no Ōjisama, 1999-2008) fame. Although the manga is available in English, German and other European languages, and has been adapted as an anime series, my impression is that it hasn’t had much success in America and Europe. However, Lano makes it clear that in Japan, “TeniPuri” is hugely popular and has e.g. its own comic festival and a long-running musical adaptation.

Nevertheless, Lano miraculously gets the job at Konomi’s studio to work on New Prince of Tennis, the sequel to The Prince of Tennis, even though she has never drawn manga before. (She graduated in Media Arts & Animation though.) She vividly describes the working conditions there, which are quite different from what one hears about comic production in Western countries. For instance (and to Lano’s initial surprise), all of Konomi’s 3-5 assistants are required to stay at the studio building overnight during their working sessions, which may take up to 10 days. Lano paraphrases the words of another assistant:

“Practicing speed lines, tennis shoes, and backgrounds gets boring when you’ve been at it for 48 hours with 4 hours sleep, haven’t seen the sun, and your boss is nowhere to be seen. […] He would text us at the last moment asking us to come in for a few days, which would actually turn out to be a week, at which point we had run out of clean underwear, and how we would be left on our own, Sensei [i.e. Konomi] not being in the office at all. All day, we’d be left alone, practicing.” (p. 95)

Lano begins to perceive the studio as a “dungeon” (p. 103), and eventually quits one and a half years later, after she was almost fired before when she dared to complain to Konomi about those working conditions.

The book is entertaining, thanks in no small part to Lano’s frank and emotional style of writing (at one point, she puts no less than 13 question marks and 7 exclamation marks at the end of one sentence (p. 11)). But can we learn anything from it about manga production? After all, we only gain insight into one mangaka’s studio, so it’s all anecdotal evidence at best. Konomi’s chief assistant even says, “Everyone is different. Some mangaka just let their assistants draw the whole thing and fax in the manuscript. But I’ve never heard of someone doing what Sensei does, leaving us alone for days without any work to do.” (p. 150)

On the other hand, many things described in the book must be similar in other manga studios, and for poetologically interested comic scholars it is worthwhile to read about details of the manga production process, such as drawing speed lines (p. 62), drawing backgrounds based on photographs (p. 63), division of labour between penciller and inker (p. 63), character design (p. 64), representing the manga at conventions (p. 69), and many more.

Thus The Princess of Tennis might serve as a starting point or source of inspiration for more serious inquiry. For instance, it would be interesting to find out how many other mangaka produce their manga in a completely analogue way like Konomi does, with photocopying machines instead of computers, and whether that has any effect on their productivity or the end result. One could also try to read The Princess of Tennis and New Prince of Tennis (if one can find it – as far as I know it hasn’t been translated) side by side and see which parts of the manga are mentioned in Lano’s book and what she says about them. All things considered, I’m glad Lano chose to make the effort to share her experiences in the form of a beautiful book.

Rating: ● ● ● ○ ○


*The Princess of Tennis belongs to the difficult genre of autobiographical texts that contain such a high level of detail, e.g. verbatim dialogues, that their credibility is rather dubious. Even if Lano took notes each day and blogged about her experiences (another similarity to Darius’s book: both have been published on a weblog before), I hesitate to call this book entirely non-fictional.

Social Network Analysis of co-occurring comic characters

Another thing I learned at my librarian job is that Social Network Analysis (SNA) methods seem to become increasingly popular in the Humanities. The basic idea of SNA is that you define a type of entity as nodes (actors), and some criterion for establishing edges (connections) between them. Once you have constructed such a network, you can analyse it by applying various mathematical operations. The difficult part is defining your nodes and particularly your edges in a way that is both feasible and meaningful.

Some Literature scholars have tackled this problem by using SNA for drama. Written plays are highly structured: speakers are indicated in fairly standardised ways, so that they can be used as nodes in a network. Edges between them can be formed by looking at which characters are on stage at the same time (i.e during the same scene), possibly indicating a dialogue or other interaction. Another benefit of using drama for SNA is that many older texts are available digitally. Crowdsourcing may be used to clean up this data, thus making it machine-readable for SNA purposes. The resulting graphs may provide insight into certain historic developments, e.g. the number of characters per play increasing over time (PDF, German).

In comics, such automatic processing is still a distant dream, but on a smaller scale, networks may be constructed manually. Identifying nodes is more problematic in comics, though, because unlike in drama, characters aren’t explicitly named each time they appear. They usually have to be identified by their looks, which isn’t always easy. Another problem is how to define the edges. A research group from Paderborn recently proposed (PDF, German) to establish an edge between two characters whenever they appear on a page together. In my opinion, a more suitable category than the page would be the panel, as there are sometimes narrative shifts between panels on the same page, so that the co-occurrence of characters on a page doesn’t necessarily imply interaction. Furthermore, some comics don’t have pages, but they all have panels.

To test the feasibility of this approach, I built a little character network based on co-occurrence within panels, once again using Akira. Here is a Gephi rendering of such a network from the first 16 pages of volume 3 (blue numbers indicate the number of panels on which both of the connected characters appear):

Character co-occurence network of Akira vol. 3, pp. 5-20I assigned the group of soldiers to one single node rather than one node per visible soldier, similar to a speaker designation for groups of people in a play. As we will see in the second example, these ‘crowd’ nodes may cause some headache. Anyway, the most striking thing about this network is that it consists of three unconnected clusters. In other words, the action takes place at three different places on these 16 pages: the military base, Miyako’s temple, and the streets of Neo Tokyo. (Actually there are two more locales – the site of the SOL laser beam impact and SOL in space – but no character interaction takes place there.) Keep that in mind as we look at the first 17* pages of the 4th volume:

character co-occurrence network of Akira, vol. 4, pp. 4-20

2 panels from p. 13 of Akira vol. 4 by Katsuhiro Ōtomo

Spot the Lieutenant.

At first glance, this graph is very different from the first: instead of three clusters, there is one small and one large cluster. However, this impression is misleading. Because I lumped all of Tetsuo’s henchmen together as “Great Tokyo Empire mob”, they act as a bridge between the actually unconnected scenes at the rescue helicopter on the one hand, and Lieutenant Yamada and his diving unit entering the city on the other. (Another problem here is that Yamada can’t be recognised until he takes off his diving suit – for simplicity’s sake I just assumed he is always among the group of divers depicted.)

Thus we can tentatively recognise a pattern in Ōtomo’s storytelling: rather than building his story around one central protagonist, he frequently jumps between parallel lines of action, with shifts taking place approximately every 2-8 pages.


*Why the different number of pages (16 and 17, respectively)? The reason is that I analysed both volumes until p. 20, but vol. 3 starts on p. 5, whereas vol. 4 starts on p. 4.

Some notes from the 33rd Kunsthistorikertag, Mainz, March 24-28, 2015

photograph by Peter Pulkowski from www.uni-mainz.de

Kunsthistorikertag, the conference of the German society of art historians (VDK), takes place every two years and is one of those huge events with hundreds of participants and up to four parallel tracks. I won’t even try to sum up all the talks I’ve heard. Instead I’ll just pick one ‘highlight’ from each of the five conference days with some connection to sequential art and/or Japan.

  • Tuesday: One of the three parallel talks that kicked off the conference was Miguel Taín Guzmán on “The views of the cities of Spain drawn by the Florentine artist Pier Maria Baldi [ca. 1630-1686]: the codex of the journey of prince Cosimo III of Medici in the Laurenziana Library” (one of the few presentations in English by the way). The codex consists of a written account of the prince’s journey, interspersed with 86 ink drawings of cities and other stations of the journey. Some of these drawings not only depict the place, but also a specific situation at the time of the prince’s visit: Cosimo’s travel procession, camels at Aranjuez, a thunderstorm over Santiago de Compostela, etc. In this huge book of 60×100cm, the drawings are arranged on double pages with two drawings on top of each other. As the placement of the drawings corresponds to the chronology of the journey, one could speak of juxtaposed images in deliberate sequence… Some of the digitised drawings can be seen at http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/Category:Pier_Maria_Baldi, and there’s also a huge PDF of a book reprint.
  • Wednesday: Irene Schütze examined the exhibitions of Jeff Koons, Takashi Murakami and Joana Vasconcelos at the Palace of Versailles in 2008, 2010, and 2012, respectively. It was the only talk at the conference, at least of the ones I heard, that mentioned manga: apparently, Murakami “learnt about Versailles through the girls’ comic book Rose of Versailles” (Riyoko Ikeda’s ベルサイユのばら / Berusaiyu no bara, also known as Lady Oscar), a quote (published in various places, e.g. The Independent) which has been used against him by his critics.
  • Thursday: Christian Berger re-introduced the almost forgotten conceptual artist Douglas Huebler (1924-1997). Many of his works consist of photographs accompanied by writing (or vice versa?). Compared to other conceptualists, the form in which he presents his images and texts is much more important and might even be considered as the artwork itself, not merely a documentation of some photography performance as the ‘actual’ work. Location Piece #5, for instance, is a series of ten pictures of patches of snow next to a highway, taken on a road trip in specific distances, as the text explains. Talk about juxtaposed images in deliberate sequence again.
  • Friday: Helmut Leder and Raphael Rosenberg presented results of someone else’s study which tracked eye movements of people from Austria and Japan who where looking at a digital reproduction of the same painting. The paths of the eye movements and the areas on which they focused were similar within the group of Austrian participants on the one hand and within the group of Japanese participants on the other hand, but there were notable differences between the Austrian and the Japanese average. For Rosenberg, this proves the cultural influence on perceptual physiology.
  • Saturday: On the last day of the conference, several field trips were offered. I joined the one to Tadao Andō‘s sculpture museum in Bad Münster am Stein. It consists mainly of Andō’s signature concrete blocks with their characteristic hole pattern, but the building is unusual for him in that it combines an old, relocated half-timbered barn with the new concrete parts. The guide at the museum suggested the concrete blocks were modeled after tatami mats, which might be true for their measurements (90×180cm), but the pattern in which they are arranged in the museum walls differs from traditional Japanese tatami floor layouts.

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