[UPDATE: added 9 more lists – Hollywood Reporter, Comicbook.com, AiPT, ComFor, Comicgate, Comic Report, Unwinnable, 2× WWAC, plus some comments below.]
[UPDATE: added 8 more lists – ANN, The Beat, CBC, Entertainment Weekly, Major Spoilers, PW Graphic Novel Critics Poll, Tanuki Bridge, The Verge; arrows next to entries indicate that their rank went up or down compared to the previous version.]
Another year draws to its close, and that means: best-of lists! Once more I’ve compiled all the comics lists I found online into one ‘master list’. This time I’ve only applied my own ‘weighted’ method that takes into account the rank of a title on each list by assigning points from 1 to 30 (see last year’s list for a more detailed explanation), but I have included the number of lists on which a title is found in brackets for fans of the ‘traditional’ method (and used this number to break ties). Sources are indicated at the bottom of this blogpost. Please note that this post will probably be updated a couple of times as new lists are published.
THE TOP 25 COMICS OF 2017:
- My Favorite Thing Is Monsters by Emil Ferris (335 points / 19 lists)
- My Lesbian Experience With Loneliness by Nagata Kabi (210 / 10)
- The Best We Could Do by Thi Bui (197 / 12)
- Boundless by Jillian Tamaki (178 / 10)
- Mister Miracle by Tom King and Mitch Gerads (152 / 8) ⇧
- Spinning by Tillie Walden (151 / 8) ⇩
- Batman by Tom King et al. (119 / 7) ⇧
- S’enfuir. Récit d’un otage by Guy Delisle (117 / 8) ⇩
- Black Hammer by Jeff Lemire and Dean Ormston (116 / 6) ⇩
- You & A Bike & A Road by Eleanor Davis (112 / 6) ⇧
- Shade The Changing Girl by Cecil Castellucci et al. (104 / 8)
- Sex Fantasy by Sophia Foster-Dimino (95 / 4)
- Paper Girls by Brian K. Vaughan and Cliff Chiang (90 / 4) ⇧
- Everyone’s a Aliebn When Ur a Aliebn Too by Jomny Sun (88 / 5) ⇧
- The Mighty Thor by Jason Aaron et al. (88 / 4) ⇩
- Coquelicots d’Irak by Brigitte Findakly and Lewis Trondheim (79 / 4) ⇧
- My Brother’s Husband by Gengoroh Tagame (75 / 5) ⇧
- Wonder Woman by Greg Rucka et al. (71 / 5) ⇩
- Everything is Flammable by Gabrielle Bell (63 / 4) ⇩, tied with
Siúil, a Rún by Nagabe (63 / 4) ⇩
- Sticks Angelica, Folk Hero by Michael DeForge (63 / 5) ⇧
- Golden Kamuy by Satoru Noda (60 / 3) ⇩
- Black Bolt by Saladin Ahmed and Christian Ward (59 / 3) ⇩, tied with
Saga by Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples (59 / 3) ⇧
- Le Rapport de Brodeck by Manu Larcenet (59 / 2) ⇧
Two observations from further down the list:
- It doesn’t seem to have been a particularly great year for (the international recognition of) German comics – the only one in the top 50 is Nick Cave by Reinhard Kleist (45 points / 3 lists) at #37. Part of the problem is that it takes so long for some German comics to be translated into English; if e.g. Ulli Lust’s Flughunde / Voices in the Dark would have come out in the same year in both English and German instead of 4 years later, it would have ranked much higher. The same is true for French and Japanese comics, of course.
- Speaking of Japanese comics: with only 4 of them in the top 25, there’s still a clear divide in comics readership. Manga on lower ranks include Yakusoku no Neverland / The Promised Neverland by Kaiu Shirai and Posuka Demizu (50 / 2) at #33, and Fumetsu no anata e / To Your Eternity by Yoshitoki Ōima (49 / 2) at #34.
The following lists were evaluated: Adventures in Poor Taste, Amazon.com, Anime News Network, A.V. Club, Barnes & Noble (“new manga”, “comics”), The Beat (multiple mentions only), CBC, Chicago Public Library, ComFor (German), Comicbook.com, Comicgate (German), Comic Report (German, multiple mentions only), Entertainment Weekly, Forbes, Goodreads, Gosh (adult, kids), Guardian, The Hollywood Reporter, io9, Kono manga ga sugoi (English translation – male, female), Major Spoilers Podcast, NPR, Paste (kids), Publishers Weekly (Critics Poll), School Library Journal, Syfy Wire (ongoing), Tagesspiegel (German), Tanuki Bridge, Unwinnable, The Verge, Vulture, Washington Post, Women Write About Comics (big press, small press).
Arthur Danto’s The Transfiguration of the Commonplace. A Philosophy of Art (Harvard University Press, 1981) is similar to Nina Zschocke’s Der irritierte Blick in that they both make a specific point while at the same time serving as an introduction to their respective field at large. In the case of Danto’s book, we are given a comprehensive overview of Aesthetics from ancient Greece to the 1970s, although not in chronological order but arranged around the problem that is central to the book: in the light of artworks such as Marcel Duchamp’s Fountain or Andy Warhol’s Brillo Box, which look exactly (for the purposes of this discussion) like objects that are not artworks, what is the difference between these artworks and other urinals / brillo pad boxes (“mere objects”) that makes the former artworks and the latter not?
Danto critically engages with and rejects several theories before tentatively approaching something like his own definition of art: all artworks are to some extent self-referential; “in addition to being about whatever they are about, they are about the way they are about that” (p. 148-9). Put another way, “the way the content is presented in relationship to the content itself is something that must always be taken into consideration in analyzing a work of art” (p. 146-7). Therefore a lot depends on the person that does the presenting – the artist – and the production process. In a way, after the ‘Death of the Author’, he or she is thus resurrected, “as if the work of art were the externalization of the artist who made it, as if to appreciate the work is to see the world through the artist’s sensibility and not just to see the world” (p. 160).
In comics, however, we appear to have the opposite problem. Comics are rarely indistinguishable from mere objects. While a comic book can be used to swat a fly and a tankōbon put under a leg of an uneven table, the person (ab)using comics in such a way is aware that they are not mere flyswatters or furniture wedges. Instead, for many people (including some scholarly authors) a comic can change its form – e.g. from pamphlet to trade paperback to digital – and remain the same work.
Consider this example: below you see a photograph of a 4-panel comic by Reza Farazmand titled “Stereotype”.
It’s printed on a 17.7 × 17.7 cm paper page bound into a 200-page softcover book (Poorly Drawn Lines. Good Ideas and Amazing Stories, Plume 2015).
Compare this to the following screenshot:
Apart from minor differences such as the page number in the first picture and the URL “poorlydrawnlines.com” in the second, these two comics look pretty much the same, right? Wrong. The second comic has different dimensions (depending on my browser settings – currently I’ve blown it up to 24 × 24 cm), its colour shades are different (depending on my computer screen settings), light is reflected differently off its surface, it even glows by itself… Not to mention the different feel and smell. And yet, most people would say both are the same comic, “Stereotype” by Reza Farazmand.
Would Danto agree? Does he even consider two copies of a multiple to be the same work of art, two copies of a book for instance? He does, e.g. on p. 33:
I can, for example, burn up a copy of the book in which a poem is printed, but it is far from clear that in so doing I have burned up the poem, since it seems plain that though the page was destroyed, the poem was not; and though it exists elsewhere, say in another copy, the poem cannot merely be identical with that copy. For the same reason, it cannot be identified with the pages just burned. […] Often enough poets and philosophers have thought of artworks as thus only tenuously connected with their embodiments.
Doesn’t this contradict the emphasis Danto puts on “the way the content is presented” (see above)? Or doesn’t he count himself among the “poets and philosophers” who dismiss the physical form of an artwork? On p. 93-94 it looks like he does:
Cohen has supposed that Duchamp’s work is not the urinal at all but the gesture of exhibiting it; and the gesture, if that indeed is the work, has no gleaming surfaces to speak of […]. But certainly the work itself has properties that urinals themselves lack: it is daring, impudent, irreverent, witty, and clever.
How can this contradiction be resolved? On the one hand, we could interpret “the way the content is presented” as something that doesn’t have to be physical. On the other hand, Danto says on p. 113: “Interpretation consists in determining the relationship between a work of art and its material counterpart” – so a work of art necessarily has a material counterpart, and (if “analyzing” and “interpretation” can be considered equivalent) this material counterpart is essential for grasping the artwork.
I’m not a literary critic, but I think the problem here lies in the very different nature of poems (in the above example) and artistic artifacts such as sculpture (with which most other examples are concerned), or perhaps in the different perspectives of literary criticism and art history: for the literary critic, a poem remains the same work no matter if it is printed in a book or read aloud at a reading. For the art historian, the same content presented in two different media (e.g. the same view painted in oil and printed from a photograph, or perhaps photographed using two different cameras) constitute two different works. That’s why Danto’s theory doesn’t quite work for his poetry example, but it does work well for Duchamp’s Fountain for which its gleaming surface is a vital property.
And this distinction places us accidentally but directly into the current state of Comics Studies. We always like to think of our field as a place where scholars from vastly different disciplines gather to harmoniously discuss the same objects – but for some of us, they’re not the same objects. The way I understand Danto, he would interpret both the paper page of the first “Stereotype” example and the computer screen of the second as their respective self-referential setup.
Let’s think this example through: if paper and screen are “the way they [i.e. artworks] are about” something, what is it that “Stereotype” is about? There are, of course, many possible correct answers to that. You could say it’s about a wizard and another guy. You could also say it’s about political correctness gone too far when ‘racist’ is used as a ‘killer argument’ or ‘moral bludgeon’, even in situations when it isn’t applicable (unless you consider ‘wizards’ a race – see the comment thread on poorlydrawnlines.com for that…). Let’s go with that. If we take it as a socio-critical statement, it’s easy to imagine how, as a webcomic, “Stereotype” gets shared by readers who want to make the same statement, e.g. sending the link or graphic to a friend who is of the same (or opposite) opinion. Farazmand seems to have anticipated this kind of distribution of his webcomics and encourages it by putting the source reference “poorlydrawnlines.com” in the bottom right corner and offering “Share” buttons below.
However, when printing “Stereotype” in a book, the ‘way it is about political correctness’ is a different one. The comic is now part of product that costs money; purchasing a copy of the book is a way for the customer to say: I get Farazmand’s message, I agree with it, I want to support him by buying his book, and I want to spread the message by displaying the book on my shelf (or reading it on the train or whatever). In order to enable this kind of interaction, Farazmand creates and compiles comics that form part of a coherent message, or authorial voice, or persona, which is situated firmly in the political (moderate) left but also pokes fun at its own milieu (more straightforward comics such as this one, also included in the book, notwithstanding). This kind of coherence is far less important when putting a comic online, where it can be perceived (and disseminated further) in isolation – and for free.
All that being said, there isn’t much in Transfiguration of the Commonplace that is directly applicable to comics, but for anyone interested in readymades or philosophy of art, it’s required reading.
Thanks to Marvel’s ‘Legacy’ reboot, a new Moon Knight series with a new creative team has started recently (more on that in a later blogpost). The last 5 issues of the Lemire/Smallwood run have been collected as trade paperback vol. 3: “Birth and Death” (even though the story arc is titled “Death and Birth” in the individual comic books), and if there was any justice in the world, this comic would now show up on all of those year-end best-of lists for 2017 (it doesn’t – more on that in a later post). For what it’s worth, here’s why you should read it anyway.
Authors: Jeff Lemire (writer), Greg Smallwood (artist), Jordie Bellaire (colourist)
Pages per issue: 20
Price per issue: $3.99
Previously in Moon Knight: Marc Spector has escaped the mental asylum, but his friend Crawley is being held captive by the god Anubis. And Moon Knight has yet to confront Khonshu, the god who created him.
In the beginning of this new story arc, Moon Knight seeks out Anubis. They strike a deal: if Moon Knight succeeds in rescuing Anubis’s wife Anput from the Overvoid (a parallel dimension reminiscent of ancient Egypt, except that people ride on giant dragonflies through the air and pyramids float above the ground), Crawley will be released. This story is intertwined with another, Moon Knight’s origin, the two strands alternating in segments of 3-6 pages each.
The flashback to Moon Knight’s past starts early, in Marc Spector’s childhood. We learn that already back then he created an imaginary friend (or so his psychiatrist says), Steven Grant, who later becomes an aspect of his own personality. And Marc is already visited by Khonshu who introduces himself as Marc’s real father.
Later, we see Marc as a U.S. Marine in Iraq when he gets dishonorably discharged because of his mental illness. He stays in the region and becomes first an illegal prizefighter, then a mercenary. On a mission to plunder an archaeological excavation site “near the Sudanese-Egyptian border”, he turns against his employer, Bushman, when the latter ruthlessly kills the archaeologists. Spector is defeated by Bushman and left to die alone in the desert, but Khonshu resurrects him.
Then we’re back in the present again and Marc faces Khonshu. I won’t spoil the outcome of this confrontation, but let’s look instead at that last transition from past to present in detail: in issue #14, p. 4 we’re in the desert in Marc’s past. Then on p. 5, Moon Knight in his ‘Mr Knight’ persona in the white suit is in the mental asylum again. He enters a room where he is greeted by his “good friends Bobby and Billy and Doc Ammut” – hybrid creatures of asylum staff and mythological figures. They subdue Mr Knight and give him an injection which knocks him out.
On the first panel of p. 6, we’re in the Egyptian temple in the desert again, where Khonshu carries the dying Marc Spector onto an altar before the statue of Khonshu. Marc asks, “Wh-what is this? What’s happening to me?”, and Khonshu replies: “This is a flashback, Marc. It is being intercut with the present.” On the next panel, the unconscious Marc is put on a table too, but this time by Bobby and Billy in the mental hospital. Khonshu’s voice continues though: “Time means little here.” This back-and-forth goes on for the next 4 panels of the page and so does Khonshu: “So past and present intermingle. They blend together and become one. Just like different aspects of your broken mind. The moment of your birth is here and there. It is then and now. All times lead to this instant.”
This is the most (delightfully) confusing and metafictional transition sequence, but there are many more of these mind-bending moments in this comic, and they are the main reason why it’s so brilliant. Add to this all the clever design, layout, composition and colouring decisions that Jeff Lemire, Greg Smallwood and Jordie Bellaire have made and you get one of the most remarkable superhero comics in recent history.
Rating: ● ● ● ● ○
Regular readers of this weblog might have wondered why, after 2012, 2013, 2014 and 2015, there was no blogpost on the 2016 ComFor (German Society for Comics Studies) conference. There is a simple reason for that: I hadn’t attended last year’s conference. Two weeks ago, however, I took the trip to Bonn where this year’s conference (topic: “Comics and their Popularity”) took place. Please note that the following notes are not intended to adequately summarise the respective conference paper; instead they’re rather subjective and random – hence the title of this blogpost.
The conference started on Friday, December 1 with the “Open Workshops”, i.e. papers outside of the conference theme of “Comics and their Popularity”.
- The first presentation was by Zita Hüsing (Bonn) on “Being and Nature: The Significance of the Southern Space of the Swamp in Alan Moore’s The Saga of the Swamp Thing” in which she put forward connections between tropes of the American South and Swamp Thing, e.g. that both are hard to kill – no matter how badly they are maimed or burned down, they always come back from the dead. As was remarked in the discussion afterwards, however, it’s interesting how writers after Moore, such as Jeff Lemire, have expanded Swamp Thing’s backstory into a cosmology that shifts the focus from the local to the global.
- In the second paper, “Batwing, Batflügel oder Flügel-Bat. Die onimischen Einheiten im Comic” (“onimic units in comics” – all translations mine), Rafał Jakiel (Wrocław) looked at the names (poetonyms) of characters in superhero comics and identified characteristics such as their straightforward iconicity: for instance, Killer Croc is simply a murderous man who looks like a crocodile.
- Daniela Kaufmann (Graz) then presented “A Study in Black and White. Zur Signifikanz der Farben Schwarz und Weiß im Comic” (“on the significance of the colours black and white in comics”). Starting from Kazimir Malevich’s Black Square – featured e.g. in Nicolas Mahler’s comic Lulu und das Schwarze Quadrat – she proceeded to Krazy Kat and the racial ambiguity of both its creator George Herriman and its eponymous protagonist.
- This was followed by Elisabeth Krieber‘s (Salzburg) paper on “Subversive Female Performances in Visual Media – Phoebe Gloeckner’s and Alison Bechdel’s Graphic Narratives” which also considered the musical adaptation of Fun Home and the film adaptation of Diary of a Teenage Girl.
Unfortunately I missed the next two talks by Karoline M. Pohl and Sakshi Wason, respectively, who closed the “Open Workshops” section after which the papers on the “Popularity” theme began.
- The next presentation I attended was by Véronique Sina (Cologne / Tübingen) on “Comickeit is Jüdischkeit. Über das diskursive Zusammenspiel von Comic, Populärkultur und jüdischer Identität” (“on the discursive interplay of comics, popular culture, and Jewish identity”). Her main examples were the comics of Aline Kominsky-Crumb and Harvey Pekar, and she also discussed Jonas Engelmann’s hypothesis of popular culture as the dissolution of identity.
- Pnina Rosenberg (Haifa) talked about “Mickey au camp de Gurs: Political criticism and auto censorship in comics done during the Holocaust”, in which she presented three picture books made by Hans Rosenthal during his internment at a concentration camp in 1942.
- The first keynote of the conference was given by Julia Round (Bournemouth), titled “Canon or Common? Sandman, Aesthetics, Intertextuality and Literariness”. She discussed the ongoing struggle about the status of comics in general and Sandman in particular as literature (also: high vs. low art, “graphic novels” vs. comic books), how this is affected by the Romantic author notion around Neil Gaiman (“Mr Gaiman is the Sandman” – Clive Barker), and how this discourse comes to the fore in fan discussions at neilgaimanboard.com.
Saturday, December 2:
- In his talk on “Batmans queere Popularität. Ein comicwissenschaftlicher und kulturhistorischer Annäherungsversuch” (“Batman’s queer popularity. An approach from the perspective of comics studies and cultural history”), Daniel Stein (Siegen) discussed how Batman is appropriated as gay by some readers, while others are gripped by ‘queer anxiety’, i.e. the fear that their beloved character might officially become gay.
- Laura Antola‘s (Turku) paper “Marvel’s Comics in Finland: Translation, ‘Mail-Man’ and the popularity of superheroes” portrayed the eccentric figure of ‘Mail-Man’, a real-life translator and editor who also answered fan mail in the letter pages of Finnish Marvel comics from 1980 onward.
- “Das Popula(e)re und das Signifikante. Der Comic als Antwort auf die Krise liberaler Erzählungen?” (“The popular and the significant. Comics as an answer to the crisis of liberal narratives?”) by Mario Zehe (Leipzig) discussed Economix by Goodwin/Burr, Le Singe de Hartlepool by Lupano/Moreau, and Lucky Luke: La Terre promise by Jul/Achdé as examples of comics that show the limits of cosmopolitanism.
- Stephan Packard (Cologne) talked about “President Lex Luthor, Wakanda und der osteuropäische Schwarzwald. Zur populären Ideologie der Fiktionalität in Comics” (“President Lex Luthor, Wakanda and the Eastern European Black Forest. On the popular ideology of fictionality in comics”) and the sometimes problematic connection between fictional things and their real-world counterparts. A striking example is the recent “Alien Nation” story from Captain Marvel vol. 1 (2017) which is partly set in the “Black Forest”, albeit a Black Forest that doesn’t look anything like the real one in South Western Germany and is located, according to a caption, in “Eastern Europe”. Packard unfolded a compact theoretical framework which included the categories of fiction theory discussed by Marie-Laure Ryan such as the ‘principle of minimal departure’, but also Theodor Adorno’s ‘categorical imperative of the culture industry’, among others.
The next paper was David Turgay‘s (Landau) highly interesting “Das Alternative im Populären: Eine korpusgestützte Analyse von Mainstream-Comics” (“the alternative in the popular: a corpus-based analysis of mainstream comics”) in which he examined the panels of 150 American comic books from 1996 and from 2016 with regard to six criteria: politics / social criticism, narrative peculiarities, artistic peculiarities, metafictional elements, absence of fighting, and absence of text. The results of the analysis showed a significant increase of these criteria over time, but overall these characteristics (which David Turgay interpreted as the influence of independent comics) still occurred less often in 2016 than expected.
- In his presentation on “Der Fluch der Graphic Novel aus (hochschul)didaktischer Sicht” (“the curse of the graphic novel from the perspective of (tertiary) education”), Markus Oppolzer (Salzburg) discussed the dreaded g-word again, but he also mentioned Conan the Librarian from the film UHF – as a librarian myself, I can’t believe I had never heard of him before!
- Dietrich Grünewald (Reiskirchen) talked about “Grenzgänger. Comics und Bildende Kunst” (“border crossers. Comics and fine art”) and how fine art such as paintings are used in comics, e.g. as background details in Volker Reiche’s Strizz.
- Christian A. Bachmann‘s (Bochum) contribution was probably the one with the longest title: “Slippers and music are very different things, oder: von high key to low key. Zur Darstellung populärer Musik in Bildergeschichten des 19. und Comics des frühen 20. Jahrhunderts” (“from high key to low key. On the depiction of popular music in picture stories of the 19th and comics of the early 20th century”). Among his examples were Billy DeBeck’s Barney Google and Richard F. Outcault’s Buster Brown.
- Kirsten von Hagen (Gießen) presented a paper on “Tintin und die Recherche: Von der ‘ligne claire’ Hergés zu den synästhetischen Traumsequenzen bei Heuet” (“Tintin and the recherche: from Hergé’s ‘ligne claire’ to Heuet’s synesthetic dream sequences”). Stéphane Heuet adapted Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time as a series of comic volumes using a ligne claire style.
- Martin Lund (Växjo / New York) gave the second keynote on “Jack T. Chick, a Popular Propagandist”. With over 260 ‘Chick tracts’ since 1961 of which an estimated 900 million copies have been distributed, Chick might have been “the most widely distributed comics creator in the world” (Darby Orcutt 2010 – but see also https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_best-selling_comic_series). Chick’s comics are a wellspring of knowledge on topics such as evolution, abortion and climate change; for instance, did you know that “global warming experts pray to Ixchel“, the Mayan “goddess of the moon and creativity”? But seriously: according to Martin Lund, the Chick tracts were never intended to convert unbelievers to Chick’s twisted beliefs, but rather to reassure those people who already were on his side.
Sunday, December 3:
- Michael Wetzel‘s (Bonn) paper was titled “‘Graphic Auteurism‘: Von Kreativität und Copyright im Comic” (“On creativity and copyright in comics”). An interesting hypothesis was that the popular concept of a ‘Romanticist notion of authorship’ is flawed because Romanticist authors such as E. T. A. Hoffmann actually deconstructed authorship.
- Next was Joachim Trinkwitz (Bonn), one of the two conference organisers together with Rolf Lohse, on “Auteur-Serien im Comic” (“auteur series in comics”) and their different forms as magazine serialisations and collected editions, using the examples of V for Vendetta, Black Hole, and Jimmy Corrigan.
- Lukas R. A. Wilde (Tübingen) then gave the only paper of this conference that was (at least partially) about manga. Titled “Public Domain Superheroes, Jenny Everywhere und dōjinshi. Die Comic- und Manga-Figur als meta-narrativer Knotenpunkt der Partizipationskultur” (“The comic and manga character as meta-narrative node of participatory culture”), it presented the niji sōsaku / sanji sōsaku cycle (dōjinshi based on official franchises, dōjinshi based on dōjinshi, …), ‘Second Order Originals’ (detextualised characters such as Sherlock Holmes), the concept of Open Source characters (e.g. Jenny Everywhere), the kyara-kyarakutā distinction, and a new “participatory kyara” from the political far-right in Germany named AfD-chan.
- The last talk of this year’s conference was given by Jörn Ahrens (Gießen) on “Der Comic ist das Populäre. Zur populärkulturellen Gestalt eines Mediums der Massenkultur” (“The comic is the popular. On the popular cultural shape of a mass culture medium”) which examined the reception of 100 Bullets in a review of The Comics Journal and the problematic implicit notion therein of what ‘quality’ comics should be.
In comparison to previous ComFor conferences I attended, I had the impression there were more papers on superhero comics, but there were definitely even less on manga. Then again, I guess the organisers simply didn’t receive more submissions on manga, so it’s up to all manga researchers to do something about this skewed manga/non-manga ratio next year. Another point about the programming that’s always somewhat problematic is the integration of conference papers in English: this year there were 7 out of 24 papers given in English which were distributed among Friday and Saturday, so it must have been unattractive for non-German speakers to attend the conference. It will be interesting to see if the ComFor conferences can improve in the areas of both comics internationalisation and attendee internationalisation in the years to come.
This year’s Biennale is once again a spectacular art show and, like the 2013 Biennale, counts a famous comic artist among its participants (see below). It is still open until November 26. These are all the sequential artworks I’ve seen there:
Halloween is around the corner again, and that means reviews of recent and classic horror manga here at The 650-Cent Plague. Today’s three titles show once more how diverse this genre is, and that there are manifold (maybe even medium-specific?) ways for comics to elicit fear from their readers.
Scary Lessons (絶叫学級 / zekkyō gakkyū, lit. “Screaming Lessons”)
Language: German (translated from Japanese)
Author: Emi Ishikawa
Publisher: Tokyopop (originally Shūeisha)
Years: 2009-2017 (original run 2008-2015)
Number of volumes: 20
Volumes reviewed: 1
Pages per volume: ~190
Price per volume: € 6.50
Website: http://www.tokyopop.de/manga/tokyopop-manga/shojo/scary-lessons/ (German publisher), https://www.mangaupdates.com/series.html?id=35025 (MangaUpdates)
A horror manga for the shōjo demographic, can this possibly work? Well, it sure did scare the bejesus out of me – this is definitely the most frightening manga of the ones I’ve reviewed so far. Each chapter is a self-contained episode with a different cast of characters, only loosely held together by a framing narrative with a Crypt-Keeper-like narrator. All stories mostly take place at school (hence the “Lessons” part of the title) and have middle-school girl protagonists who are concerned with the usual things: boys, clothes, mobile phones, puppies, classmates… Each protagonist wants something, but when she gets it, it goes terribly wrong. In the first episode, for instance, a girl desperately wants a handheld gaming console, finds an abandoned one on the street and keeps it, but it turns out to be cursed and the game on it seems to affect people in the real world, even causing their death.
While death and violence do occur in this manga, they aren’t depicted that explicitly. In another episode, a girl is hit in the face by glass shards, but only her body from the chin down is shown in that panel. Still, I’m not sure if this manga is suitable reading material for readers of the same age as the middle school protagonists.
Another similarity to EC horror comics is the moralising and the gleeful twist ending in most episodes: our heroines eventually become aware of their vices and the mistakes they’ve made and resolve to behave better in the future. But often it’s already too late and they have to pay for what they’ve done.
Due to their self-contained nature, the individual stories are fast-paced and lack subtlety, but otherwise this first volume is a finely crafted manga, though I’m not sure if the suspense can be kept up for the remaining 19 (!) volumes.
Scariest moment in vol. 1: at the end of the fourth episode, when our young protagonist goes home and thinks she’s safe, only to find the killer is already waiting for her there.
Rating: ● ● ● ○ ○
Language: German (translated from Japanese)
Author: Yoshiki Tonogai
Publisher: Carlsen (originally Square Enix)
Years: 2010-2011 (original run 2007-2009)
Number of volumes: 4
Volumes reviewed: 1
Pages per volume: ~200
Price per volume: € 7.95
Website: https://www.carlsen.de/serie/doubt/18200 (German publisher), https://www.mangaupdates.com/series.html?id=18068 (MangaUpdates)
Protagonist Yū is a high school student who plays a mobile game called “Rabbit Doubt” which is based on “Mafia” a.k.a. “Werewolf” a.k.a. “Murder in Palermo”. In the beginning of the manga, he meets his five fellow players face to face for the first time and becomes friends with them. Then, however, the game turns into deadly reality when they are abducted and one of them murdered.
The plot shifts into more of an escape room / Fermat’s Room kind of setting when the kids explore their prison and are confronted with puzzles such as locked doors and corresponding keys, all the while suspecting that one of them is in fact the abductor rather than a victim. Like with Death Note and other similar manga, the author unfortunately doesn’t have much faith in the initially simple but intriguing premise (in this case, the “Mafia” game) and keeps adding more and more elements, characters and game rules in an attempt to stretch out the story.
Although Doubt (and its sequel, Judge) has found a place in some ‘best horror manga‘ lists, it has more of a mystery / detective thriller vibe to it because Tonogai takes great care to present all facts and details of the setting in great clarity to the readers so that they can guess along with the characters who the killer is. Which is a shame, because the first 50 pages set quite a different, subtle and atmospheric mood, which is then abandoned in favor of a still suspenseful but more ‘economic’ storytelling.
Scariest moment in vol. 1: when a guy believed to be dead suddenly comes alive again.
Rating: ● ● ○ ○ ○
Naru Taru (なるたる / narutaru, English title: Shadow Star)
Language: German (translated from Japanese)
Author: Mohiro Kitō
Publisher: Egmont (originally Kōdansha)
Years: 2001-2006 (original run 1998-2003)
Number of volumes: 12
Volumes reviewed: 1
Pages per volume: ~215
Price per volume: out of print (cover price € 5)
While swimming during her summer vacation, eleven-year-old Shiina finds a cuddly little alien on the bottom of the sea. The alien, Hoshimaru, can’t talk but has supernatural powers such as flying. An E.T.-like friendship begins. But then Shiina meets other children who also have alien companions, some of which are using their powers for sinister purposes.
Naru Taru has a reputation for starting harmlessly and then turning dark, deconstructing various shōnen manga tropes along the way and thwarting readers’ expectations. Some label it a horror manga, but I’ve just finished vol. 2 and at this point it’s more supernatural thriller than horror, although it’s hard to say which direction the story will take. From what I’ve read about the series, things are about to get darker still. Chances are that I won’t find out anytime soon, because the later volumes in particular are hard to find at reasonable prices.
Apart from this genre-wise ambiguous story, what makes this manga stand out is Mohiro Kitō’s art. As in his previous manga, Wings of Vendémiaire, there are many weird design ideas, but the true charm lies in how he depicts his characters and objects: from all angles, employing a real 360° ‘camera’, not shying away from daring foreshortenings.
Scariest moment in vol. 1: when another girl, Akira, quietly slits her wrists with a razor, it’s creepier than all the supernatural fighty-fighty before.
Rating: ● ● ● ○ ○
Back in July, Aaron Kashtan concluded his short review of Champions #10 which had come out that same month with the following words:
I’ll have to think twice before buying any more Mark Waid comics, and I say that as someone who’s been a fan of his for almost 25 years.
As a regular reader of both Aaron Kashtan’s weblog and Mark Waid’s comics, I had to check out this comic book for myself. Aaron’s problem with Champions #10 is that writer Mark Waid “defends” the fictitious internment camp in which most of the story is set (or maybe even internment camps in general?) and portrays it in an insensitive manner. Several other people have shared this sentiment on the Internet, e.g. Joe Glass at Bleeding Cool, but not that many to qualify it as a full-blown outrage. Anyway, here’s how I see Champions #10, and please note that this is only about the comic and not about the opinions of Aaron Kashtan or Joe Glass or Mark Waid (who identifies himself as a “liberal” and “progressive” writer for what it’s worth).
In the current status quo of the Marvel universe at the time of Champions #10, the villainous organisation Hydra has taken over the United States, and Inhumans (basically a superpowered alien race living among humans) “are being imprisoned in camps across the country”, as the introductory text puts it. The first three comic pages show life in one of these camps in a nutshell: behind the idyllic appearance, a surveillance regime is in operation in which merely talking about escape can get inmates killed immediately.
The action then switches over to the Champions, a superhero team consisting of (Miles Morales) Spider-Man, (Amadeus Cho) Hulk and Viv (daughter of Vision). They locate their missing fourth member, Ms. Marvel, in one of those camps, and set out to free her. After managing to break into the camp and incapacitating the guards, they face the unexpected problem that “some want to go, but some want to stay”, as Hulk says on p. 14 (or 15 – not sure whether the first page after the cover already counts as part of the story). Ms. Dawood, one of the detainees, expands: “What’s happening here is brutally unjust, but we and our children are well cared for here. Out there, we would be hunted relentlessly. It would be a life of fear and desperation. Some of us are willing to make that trade and fight, even though we may not win. But those who stay may be made to pay for their escape, and that terrifies them.”
So far, so good, but then Hulk comments (still on p. 14): “Trust me, as an Asian American, I have a deep historical hatred for internment, but we might have to retreat and try some other–“. This is the crucial point (the rest of the story is of no importance here): Hulk’s comment links the fictitious camp to real-world history. Even though (or rather because) he doesn’t really say much, it triggers questions in the reader’s mind such as whether Hulk thinks that the US government that imprisoned Japanese Americans (and also Korean Americans – Amadeus Cho is of Korean descent) in WWII is morally as bad as Hydra, or whether he feels that the conditions of living are as bad in the camp he is standing in as they were in WWII internment camps. Such ideas might be offensive to Asian Americans – but they are not explicitly expressed in the comic. (Who knows, maybe Hulk is merely thinking, it’s wrong to imprison someone because of his or her race, then and now.) Even if they were, it would be Hulk who has these controversial opinions, not Mark Waid. In the end, Amadeus Cho is only a teenager who hasn’t experienced WWII internment camps, so why should his opinion have such a weight that it could be mistaken for the ‘message’ of the whole comic or its writer? Waid could have devised a better stand-in for himself to broadcast his opinion, if that had been his aim.
Besides Hulk’s comment, is the plot point itself offensive that some of the inmates choose to stay imprisoned in this particular camp rather than break out? How can Ms. Dawood say she is safer inside than outside the camp when she all but witnesses the execution of two other prisoners? One could argue that, once outside the camp, Inhumans would have a good chance of escaping and hiding from Hydra by using their superpowers. However, the inmates are probably safer inside the camp, for as long everyone plays by the rules and doesn’t try to escape, no one is executed. This is an important difference from real-world Nazi concentration camps, many of which were death camps with the purpose of ultimately killing all inmates. Ms. Dawood is also right about “being well cared for”: from what we see of the Inhuman camp, it looks like they live in spacious, well-kept houses with their own lawns. This is an important difference from real-world Asian American internment camps in WWII, in which conditions were miserable.
However, the problem of Champions #10 lies not in the story but in how it is told. The comic has a serious problem with its pacing and crams too much action into too few pages. The situation of the Inhuman inmates and the opinions of their two conflicted groups are relayed mainly through the Champions instead of the Inhumans themselves, because they have already turned into a raging mob and are busy fighting each other. It’s also telling that – after the camp wall has been breached and the guards have been taken out – it’s up to the Champions to come up with a solution to the problem of approaching Hydra reinforcements. The Inhumans, even though they have superpowers too, are relegated to passive victims in need of rescue. And even though there are “hundreds” of inmates in the camp, the Champions only ever talk to two of them (not counting the terrified Inhumans they first meet on p. 10), so the majority of the Inhumans – despite their portrayal as heterogeneous – lack not only agency but also their own voices.
To sum up: is it allowed to allude to real-world internment camps in a superhero comic book? Of course it is. But if the comic is poorly written and the subject matter is not treated with the necessary sensitivity, don’t be surprised if people are offended. That being said, this whole ‘controversy’ seems to be a non-issue along the lines of Action Comics (2011) #1 / “GD” and Batgirl (2011) #37 / “But you’re a–“ (both of which I haven’t read though).