Manga talks at the 2015 ComFor conference

detail of the 2015 ComFor conference poster

A surprisingly large number of papers on manga were presented at this year’s conference of the German Society for Comics Studies, which was held in Frankfurt last weekend. Unfortunately I couldn’t hear all of them (among the ones I’ve missed were Sven Günther’s paper on Thermae Romae and Sylvia Kesper-Biermann’s on Barefoot Gen), but here are brief summaries of the ones I did attend:

  • Rik Spanjers spoke about Shigeru Mizuki’s Onward Towards Our Noble Deaths. In this classic manga set in the Pacific War (as well as in his other manga), Mizuki employs a distinctive art style in which cartoonish characters clash with photorealistic backgrounds. Spanjers explains this art style with Mizuki’s attempt to adequately represent the horrors of war. For instance, the opposition between these two distinct art styles mirrors the opposition between life and death in the story, etc.
  • Marco Pellitteri presented results from a survey on the arrival and impact of manga in several European countries. He attributes the success of manga in Europe mainly to two circumstances: the adoption of the ‘authentic’ tankobon format for translated editions, and the simultaneous broadcasting of anime series on European television channels.
    (Naturally, there is some overlap with my own PhD research, but also one major difference: when one tries to identify similarities and differences between so many different comic markets and within such a long time frame – 1970s to today –, the perspective is necessarily much wider, and the results coarser. Which doesn’t make it less valid, of course.)
  • Lukas Sarvari introduced three manga drawn by Kazuo Kamimura: Shinanogawa (1973-74, written by Hideo Okazaki), Furious Love (Kyōjin kankei, 1973-74, written by Kamimura himself), and Lady Snowblood (Shurayuki-hime, 1972-73, written by Kazuo Koike). Each of them is set in a different period of Japanese history: Shōwa (1926-89), Edo/Tokugawa (1603-1868) and Meiji (1868-1912), respectively. However, Sarvari’s hypothesis is that these manga tell us more about the time in which they were made than about the time in which their stories are set. Thus they convey views about the nihonjinron discourse, Japanese exceptionalism, and fascism that readers today might feel uneasy about.
  • Christian Chappelow identified similar elements in two manga about Adolf Hitler: Hitler (Gekiga Hittorā, 1971) by Shigeru Mizuki and Adolf (Adorufu ni tsugu, 1983-85) by Osamu Tezuka. Both manga can’t really be regarded as anti-war stories and lack a critical stance against nationalism, militarism and fascism. Chappelow suspects that this is the reason why Mizuki’s Hitler hasn’t been translated into a European language yet.

R.I.P. The New 52: a look back at Justice League Dark

Almost exactly four years ago, DC Comics cancelled all their monthly comic book series, just to relaunch most of them again as ‘The New 52’. I hesitate to call this a proper reboot, for reasons I have discussed here before. Anyway, now (in May/June) they have done the same thing once again, at last dropping the ‘New 52’ label: approximately half of the monthly series was cancelled, while the other half was renumbered to #1.

Several other weblogs have taken a look back at the 3 1/2 years of The New 52, among which I particularly recommend Steve Foxe’s “In Loving Memory: All 68 DC Comics That Have Come and Gone Within the New 52” at Paste. The general consensus seems to be that The New 52 was a bold marketing decision that may have made sense commercially, but in terms of the quality of the actual comics, not much really stood out.

If I get Foxe right, 93 ongoing series had been launched at some point during The New 52. Out of these, 25 have been relaunched and continued to the present day, while approximately 47 were cancelled already before this latest relaunch (i.e. after the ‘Convergence’ crossover event). The former consist of mainstays such as Batman and Action Comics, while among the latter we find mainly obscure oddities that were probably doomed from their very beginning, e.g. G.I. Combat or All-Star Western.

This leaves us with ~21 titles that sit in the middle, having made it to their 40th issue, but not being continued in this new iteration of the DC comics line. From a commercial perspective, these comic books seem to have ultimately failed too. But wasn’t there something in them that might be worth remembering? Didn’t all the effort that creators put into them amount to more than a mere footnote in the history of American superhero comics?

With this question in mind I re-read all 40 issues (plus Annuals and the like) of Justice League Dark, the only New 52 series I happened to have collected from start to finish. (More precisely, I started from #9, then got the first trade paperback and #7-8 later.) Instead of summarising the story, I picked the following 20 most memorable moments in Justice League Dark, in chronological order of publishing, to show that this series (and probably others with mediocre sales performances) might deserve a second look.


1. JLD #1 The very first issue (by Peter Milligan (w) / Mikel Janin (a) / Ulises Arreola (c)) is already full of brilliant ideas. Take the opening page, for instance: Madame Xanadu sits there and seems to look at the reader, while her tarot cards float around the room, some of them face-up towards the picture surface for the reader to see. (This is a composition that refers to earlier ones, two of them pictured in the Madame Xanadu Wikipedia Article.) The tarot cards show who be the protagonists of this first story will be: Deadman, Enchantress, Mindwarp (who actually turns out to not play much of a role), Constantine, June Moone, and Zatanna. The cards are labeled with the traditional tarot card names – ‘The Magician’, ‘The Fool’, ‘Death’, etc. What better way to start a story? You could even argue that the cards are on a different diegetic level and only there for the reader – after all, why and how would Madame Xanadu make such a tarot deck? Then again, the cards are shown several more times in the story and seen by other characters too.

panel from Justice League Dark #1

2. JLD #1 Peter Milligan lend a dark sense of humour to his stories that neither Jeff Lemire nor J. M. DeMatteis, Milligan’s successors as writer of the book, ever accomplished. In this issue, supernatural phenomena suddenly occur, most of them only briefly told in one panel. My favourite one has the following caption text: “In a neighboring town, a shower of books in a dead language kill six people.” Get it? “Dead”? “Kill”?

3. JLD #1 Generally, Peter Milligan’s version of the Justice League Dark was much darker than that of the writers that followed. Almost all of our ‘heroes’ are shown to have a dark side. Madame Xanadu, for instance – otherwise a rather bland character – is shown to be addicted to some kind of drug. “How much of this stuff are you doing?”, she is asked by Shade, holding a phial in his hand.

4. JLD #2 In the first few issues, Milligan needs to introduce a lot of characters, and he does a brilliant job of it when it comes to Deadman. Deadman is a ghost, and the only way he can touch and be touched is to possess a living person. Things get awkward when he wants to do that to sleep with his girlfriend, who is not so keen (“You’re asking me to sleep with another man”).

5. JLD #5 What all JLD writers emphasise is that the JLD is quite a fragile superhero team. Consequently, the first break-up of the JLD already happens in the fifth issue (and it’s not going to be the last). “I’m going, and I don’t ever want to see any of you again”, says Constantine.

6. JLD #8 John Constantine and his irreverent attitude has been the biggest draw of this book for me. Madame Xanadu: “My ‘project’ didn’t last as long as I’d hoped, but… but I truly believe… that is has been worthwhile.” – Constantine: “Worthwhile my jacksey. We might as well all have stayed home and got pissed.” (Jeff Lemire came up with some good Constantine one-liners too when he took over in #9 – Steve Trevor: “Around ARGUS we’ve even taken to nicknaming you the ‘Justice League Dark.'” – Constantine: “That is the stupidest name I’ve ever heard.”)

three panels from Justice League Dark #9

7. JLD #9 Jeff Lemire’s first JLD issue is generally another apex of the series. There’s an ingenious example of medium specificity in the scene in which Constantine wakes up with a “truly epic hangover”. A voice says to him, “We need to talk.”, and Constantine answers,  “You didn’t spend the night, did you, sunshine? I mean, I was drunk, but I don’t think I was that drunk…” Perhaps it needs to be mentioned that in this series, Constantine is not written as bisexual, so the reader might expect he is talking to a woman. On the next page, the person turns out to be Agent Steve Trevor, who visits Constantine strictly on JLD business. If this was a film, it wouldn’t be half as unexpected, because Trevor’s voice would be recognisable as a male one.

double page from Justice League Dark #9

8. JLD #9 Another brilliant display of medium specificity are the gutters between the panels in the same issue: when the JLD enter an ancient Peruvian temple, the gutters are shaped like spiderwebs. This is a kind of foreshadowing, because not until the next page, spiders (well, human/spider monsters) actually appear.

9. JLD #10 A trio of villains, the “Demons Three”, are introduced on a splash page. The way in which they are presented is charmingly old-school: facing the reader, delivering a short monologue, speaking in custom lettering. Throughout the series, beautifully designed villains are depicted in this way, most notably “Black Boris” and “Blackbriar Thorn” in #12, “Blight” in #27, and “The Between” in #32. This ‘Monster of the Week’ pattern, however, becomes tiresome at some point and brings us such underwhelming villains as “Pantheon”, “Pralayah”, and “The Beyond Beyond”.

two panels from Justice League Dark #12

10. JLD #12 Some more medium specificity: when Doctor Mist says to Zatanna, “I will deflect your backwards magic right back at you”, he turns her speech bubble with backwards speech into a sound effect (in which the letters appear in normal order) which he throws at her.

11. JLD #0 Each New 52 series got a ‘Zero Issue’ in which the origin story was told (similar to the later Secret Origins series, but tied to comic books rather than individual characters). A charming detail of this one (still written by Jeff Lemire, but pencilled by Lee Garbett) is that we get to see how Constantine got his iconic trench coat.

12. JLD Annual #1 Lemire’s story is hopelessly convoluted, but it’s a nice twist when the villain, Nick Necro, tells Zatanna that it was him who formed the JLD in the first place, in order to get the Books of Magic. “You weren’t so hard to get on the team, Zee, but can you imagine how difficult it was to convince anyone to put John Constantine onto a super hero team? I tell you, getting out of hell was easier.” Maybe a(nother) metatextual stab at the concept of the whole series?

panel from Justice League Dark #14

13. JLD #14 When Black Orchid explores the House of Mystery (Constantine’s home), she stumbles upon a room in which Constantine keeps files on many superheroes, including Orchid herself. This is a much-needed recap of some of the things going on in the DC universe (in other books mostly). At the same time, it’s fun to see how close Constantine is to revealing the secret identities of Superman and Batman (which the reader is only able to tell through extra-textual information).

14. JLD #15 The JLD is teleported to some kind of magical counter-world in which the JLD members turn into their opposites: the immortal, ageless Madame Xanadu turns into an old woman, Deadman becomes alive again, and Constantine can’t tell lies anymore. The latter aspect becomes relevant for the overall story arc when we learn that Constantine’s feelings for Zatanna are apparently true.

15. JLD #24 J. M. DeMatteis takes over as the new JLD writer, and he takes Constantine on a “Magical Misery Tour” on which he confronts his inner (?) demons. A well-written exploration of Constantine’s character – although one could argue it’s a little out of place in a team book.

panel detail from Justice League Dark #26

16. JLD #26 Swamp Thing has recently joined the JLD, and what I like best about him is when he transforms himself, e.g. grows wings. In this issue, he briefly turns into some sort of whale.

17. JLD #27 In order to defeat the villain Blight, who is the embodiment of evil, Constantine and Nightmare Nurse decide to fight fire with fire and invoke the “Blackmare Curse”. This spell “drills down into the deepest pits of the soul… unleashing all the darkness there”, which turns the two into fierce monsters. Naturally, the Curse works better the more corrupted and depraved its evocators are. Thus we are given another little piece of the puzzle that is the true nature of John Constantine’s character.

18. JLD Annual #2 Another interesting spell is the “K’Am’Deva Curse” with which Zatanna rips Constantine’s heart out of his chest so that he loses all feelings for her, and all memories of ever having loved her. The explanation why they do this is that the bond between them acts as a “magical battery” for some supervillains. At the end of the issue the two get separated when Zatanna is sucked into a “whirling hole in space and time” (#35). Things get awkward when they meet again in the final issue.

19. JLD #35 Zatanna emerges in another parallel world in which she meets her father, Zatara the magician, who was supposed to be long dead. Zatara tells her he had found a “doorway through time” through which he took his wife and little daughter with him and settled in a world were “thought itself would instantly become manifest reality” and “no one grows older”. Wait – his daughter? Zatanna realises there’s something not quite right about Zatara’s story… I won’t spoil the ending, but ultimately this story turns out to be a nice version of the old ‘dream within a dream’ theme. On the flipside, this is once again not much of a ‘team book’ story, and it’s too bad the book is no longer drawn by Mikel Janin at this point.

cover of Justice League Dark #36

20. JLD #36 Towards the end of the series, an old villain returns: Felix Faust, the ancient sorcerer. Except he is in the shape of a monstrous caterpillar now. I like him best in the cover image (by Guillem March and Tomeu Morey), in which I only saw the caterpillar monster gripping the herous with its tentacles at first, and only later did I spot Faust’s tiny head at the end of the monster. This is probably one of the best JLD covers after Ryan Sook had stopped doing them (#14 was Sook’s last one, I think).

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
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:

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
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.


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