Antonia Levi’s sadness, environmentalism, and technoterror – in mangaPosted: March 8, 2023 Filed under: review | Tags: Antonia Levi, comics, ecology, manga, mono no aware, subject matter, technology, theory, Women's History Month 1 Comment
When I selected Antonia Levi’s 2013 article “The Sweet Smell of Japan. Anime, Manga, and Japan in North America” (Journal of Asian Pacific Communication 23.1, 3–18) as one of the readings for my manga course, I did so because I wanted to use it as a succinct introduction to, and discussion of, the concept of ‘cultural odourlessness’ (originally coined by Koichi Iwabuchi). But as I re-read the article, I found something perhaps even more interesting in there:
Another factor that explains why North Americans find anime and manga so appealing lies in the themes that dominate many of the offerings: sadness, environmentalism, and technoterror.
This trinity of thematic categories is reminiscent of Susan Napier’s three modes of anime, apocalyptic, festival, and elegiac. Only one of those three terms overlaps, however: both sadness and elegiac refer to the mono no aware aesthetic. Another difference is that Levi not only talks about anime but also explicitly includes manga.
In fact, Levi’s sentence can be broken down into two separate statements: (1) North Americans like (media that deal with) sadness, environmentalism, and technoterror, and (2) those three themes dominate “many” manga. It is the second statement that I’d like to take a closer look at. Levi only discusses very few examples in her article, so is this thematic dominance actually there in manga? Or at least in manga up to 2013, when Levi’s article was published, in case some major thematic shift occurred afterwards. (Ideally, one would also need to consider which manga were available to North Americans at that time… but let’s not make things overly complicated here.)
As a not-quite-but-almost random sample, let’s simply take all the manga (published before 2013) I have reviewed or otherwise discussed on this weblog so far. While certainly pretty much biased, this has the undeniable advantage that I am already familiar with their thematic configuration. This trip down memory lane through more than eleven (!) years of The 650-Cent Plague is going to be fun! For each manga, we can either identify any combination of Levi’s three themes, or the absence of all of them.
- Boyfriend by Daisy Yamada: as I argue in my review, this could have been a sad manga, had the issue of bullying been treated more in-depth. Instead, none of the three themes is present.
- Paris aishiteruze by J. P. Nishi: despite the crying protagonist depicted in my blogpost, this manga is rather lighthearted than sad. None of the three themes present.
- .hack//Legend of the Twilight by Rei Izumi and Tatsuya Hamazaki: a story about the dangers of being drawn into the virtual world of an immersive video game, which one might characterise as technoterror, although it’s not overly critical of technology.
- Shidonia no Kishi by Tsutomu Nihei: not every science-fiction manga needs to be a technoterror story, but that theme is definitely there, at least in the sub-plot concerning experiments on humans by ruthless scientists.
- Kozure ōkami by Kazuo Koike and Gōseki Kojima: one of many action manga in which the protagonist is haunted by a very sad backstory.
- Manga nihon keizai nyūmon by Shōtarō Ishinomori: the antagonist is a somewhat sad character, but by and large, none of the three themes is present.
- Hadashi no Gen by Keiji Nakazawa: definitely a sad story. While a manga about nuclear bombing could also feature environmentalism and technoterror, they are not dominant themes here.
- Haine by Kyōta Kita and Keiko Ogata: Heinrich Heine’s life had ups and downs, and while this manga biography is very dramatic and emotional, one can’t say that sadness dominates. None of the three themes present.
- Mai by Kazuya Kudō and Ryōichi Ikegami: some sinister science experiments here, but not enough to make technoterror a dominant theme. None of the three themes present.
- Asagao to Kase-san by Hiromi Takashima: sometimes sad, sometimes not. None of the three themes dominate.
- Pocha Pocha suieibu by Ema Tōyama: none of the three themes present in this comedy manga.
- Crayon Days by Kozue Chiba: fairly standard romance manga with none of the three themes dominating.
- Kimi ni todoke by Karuho Shiina: quite a sad story about a lonely high-school girl, at least in the beginning of the series.
- Namida usagi by Ai Minase: actually not as sad as the title suggests. None of the three themes present.
- Tempest by Yuiji Aniya: a sad sci-fi parable about gender dysphoria.
- Azumanga Daiō by Kiyohiko Azuma: another comedy manga with none of the three themes present.
- Akira by Katsuhiro Ōtomo: a lot going on in this manga, but at least some parts are clearly dominated by technoterror.
- Kirihito by Osamu Tezuka: quite a few sad things happen to the protagonist, but one can’t say sadness is the dominant theme in this medical thriller. Environmental pollution is only hinted at. None of the three themes present.
- Limit by Keiko Suenobu: sometimes quite sad, particularly the bullying backstory.
- Kiseijū by Hitoshi Iwaaki: some thoughtful environmental issues raised here.
- Tantei gishiki by Ryūsui Seiryōin, Eiji Ōtsuka, and Chizu Hashii: a weird mystery manga. None of the three themes present.
- Shiki by Fuyumi Ono and Ryū Fujisaki: there is some bleak countryside ennui, but sadness is not the dominant theme here. None of the three themes present.
- Orange by Ichigo Takano: what could be more sad than the protagonist’s futile attempts to save her classmate’s life?
- Akatsuki no Yona by Mizuho Kusanagi: another adventure manga that starts, like Kozure ōkami, with the sad events of the protagonist’s family being murdered and the protagonist forced into exile.
- Jikenya kagyō by Natsuo Sekikawa and Jirō Taniguchi: while one could call the protagonist a ‘sad’ figure, sadness doesn’t dominate this manga. None of the three themes present.
- Chichi no koyomi by Jirō Taniguchi: a sad story because, unlike in Harukana machi e, the protagonist revisits but can’t change the past.
- Furi Kuri by Studio Gainax and Hajime Ueda: hard to say what this manga is actually about, but there is the technoterror element of seemingly harmless machines turning into giant fighting robots.
- Ōkami kodomo no Ame to Yuki by Mamoru Hosoda, Yū, and Yoshiyuki Sadamoto: the tragic love story between a human and a werewolf, and the story of their children who are torn between two worlds, maybe has some environmental elements, but ultimately sadness dominates.
- Shinseiki Evangelion by Yoshiyuki Sadamoto and Studio Gainax: definitely a sad manga, and in the ambiguous depiction of the destructive power of giant robots there’s also a prominent element of technoterror.
- Narutaru by Mohiro Kitō: a dark, disturbing, and sad manga.
- Doubt by Yoshiki Tonogai: there is some technoterror potential in this story about a lethal mobile game, but its danger is, quite untechnologically, that the game is enacted in real life. Thus none of the three themes dominate.
- Zekkyō gakkyū by Emi Ishikawa: some of the episodes deal with the horrors of technological devices such as mobile phones and video games, but most of them don’t. None of the three themes present.
- Chikyū hyōkai jiki by Jirō Taniguchi: in vol. 1 of this science-fiction manga it isn’t clear whether the current ice age or the subsequent climate change are man-made. However, there are other elements of both environmentalism and technoterror: the technology that allows the mining company to operate in the Arctic also causes deadly accidents, and the technologically advanced miners are contrasted against the natives who live in harmony with nature, wear furs and ride camels.
- Ore monogatari by Kazune Kawahara and Aruko: in this charming rom-com, none of the three themes is present.
- Uzumaki by Junji Itō: dark and twisted, but not really sad, so none of the three themes dominate here.
- I Am a Hero by Kengo Hanazawa: at least in this first volume, there is a lot of sadness surrounding the protagonist.
- Ajin by Tsuina Miura and Gamon Sakurai: there are some hints of human experiments in vol. 1, but not enough to speak of technoterror. None of the three themes present.
- Icaro by Mœbius, Jean Annestay, and Jirō Taniguchi, on the other hand, very much revolves around the human subject of scientific experiments, thus making this manga an example of technoterror.
- Black Magic by Masamune Shirow: there are traces of environmentalism (e.g. terraforming), but the dominant theme is technoterror: tyrannic supercomputers, cyborgs gone rogue, etc.
- Ōkami shōjo to kuro ōji by Ayuko Hatta: another romantic comedy with none of the three themes present.
- Dororo by Osamu Tezuka: sadness surrounds the protagonist Hyakkimaru, whom his parents sacrifice to demons, and his sidekick Dororo.
- Appleseed by Masamune Shirow: this manga is interesting in terms of environmentalism, as a post-apocalyptic wasteland is contrasted against the lush city of Olympus. However, the dominant theme is once more technoterror: again there are cyborgs and a sinister computer-enhanced government.
- Jisatsu saakuru by Usamaru Furuya: a manga about clinically depressed teenagers is bound to be dominated by sadness.
- Devilman by Gō Nagai: there is something tragic about the protagonist’s transformation into a demon, but perhaps not actually sad. None of the three themes present.
- Furari by Jirō Taniguchi: not much of the sadness of some of Taniguchi’s other manga can be found here. None of the three themes dominate.
- Bonnōji by Aki Eda: another rom-com manga in which none of the three themes dominate.
- Sarah by Katsuhiro Ōtomo Takumi Nagayasu: as in quite a few other science-fiction stories, environmentalism and technoterror are linked here, as a nuclear war has eradicated all life on Earth, and now scientists try to fix that by tilting the Earth’s axis with another bomb.
- Berserk by Kentarō Miura: the protagonist’s backstory is probably sad, but not much about it is revealed in vol. 1. Thus none of the three themes is present.
- Tomoji by Jirō Taniguchi: the true story of the eponymous protagonist’s life is full of sad events.
- K by Shirō Tōzaki and Jirō Taniguchi: another adventure/action manga in which the sadness surrounding the mysterious protagonist remains vague. Nowadays, a story about Himalayan mountaineering would have to deal with environmental issues, but that was not the case in 1988. None of the three themes dominate.
Adding up the numbers, there are only 25 manga (50%) of which we can say that they are dominated by any of the three themes in question. That’s a far cry from “many of the offerings”. It’s also noteworthy that environmentalism and technoterror apply to only 3 (6%) and 9 titles (18%), respectively, i.e. the distribution of the three themes is markedly skewed in favour of sadness (15 titles / 30%). Incidentally, we obtained similar numbers in my manga course when applying Levi’s themes to the manga discussed in class.
Does that mean Levi is wrong? Are environmentalism, technoterror, and, to a lesser degree, sadness, irrelevant to manga and their (North American) reception? Not necessarily. Perhaps her statement is just a bit imprecisely phrased. I suspect that if we take a closer look at the most popular manga in the US in the late 1990s and early 2000s (which is perhaps the kind of manga that her article is actually about), rather than a more or less random sample, we might find that environmental and technological issues play indeed a large role – or at least a larger role than in contemporary American media.
Index to all ‘theory’ posts on this weblog
Manga Intro SyllabusPosted: February 26, 2023 Filed under: shop talk | Tags: art history, comics, manga, teaching 2 Comments
[This course was taught in German, and the following course details are translated from German.]
Course title: Manga – Introduction to History and Theory
Instructor: Martin de la Iglesia
As taught at: Heidelberg University (Germany), Institute for European Art History
As taught in: Winter 2022/23
Level: Undergraduate (B.A. / Proseminar)
Course description: A comics industry in Japan developed relatively late under the influence of U.S. newspaper strips, but since the second half of the 20th century, the Japanese comic market outperforms all others in terms of audience size and amount of turnover. Today, the ‘manga look’ dominates the pop cultural image production in Japan and has also reached a considerable impact abroad. It is appropriate that now the field of (European) Art History also approaches the manga phenomenon with its own methods. In this course we get to know some of the most important manga of the last 100 years (longer series in excerpts), so that at the end of the semester we will have gained an overview of the development of comics in Japan and its major genres and artists. At the same time we will acquire, by reading secondary literature, methods with which not only Japanese but also most other comics can be analysed.
• Miriam Brunner: Manga. Paderborn 2010. [German]
• Paul Gravett: Manga. 60 Years of Japanese Comics. New York 2007.
• Toni Johnson-Woods (ed.): Manga. An Anthology of Global and Cultural Perspectives. New York / London 2010.
• Brigitte Koyama-Richard: One Thousand Years of Manga. Paris 2007.
• Nicole Coolidge Rousmaniere and Ryoko Matsuba (eds.): Manga. London 2019.
In-class presentation assignments
(One per student and – usually – per week. Only the first volume in a series needs to be covered.)
1. Nobutsume Oda & Katsuichi Kabashima: Shō-chan no bōken (Shō-chan Adventures), 1923. Translated and narrated by Nicholas Theisen at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_h-th7P1GNg
2. Gajo Sakamoto: Tank Tankuro, 1934.
3. Osamu Tezuka: Janguru taitei (Kimba, the White Lion), 1950.
4. Chikako Urano: Attack No. 1 (Mila Superstar), 1968.
5. Kazuo Koike & Gōseki Kojima: Kozure ōkami (Lone Wolf & Cub), 1970.
6. Riyoko Ikeda: Versailles no bara (The Rose of Versailles), 1972.
7. Shigeru Mizuki: Sōin gyokusai seyo! (Onward Towards Our Noble Deaths), 1973.
8. Katsuhiro Ōtomo: Akira, 1982.
9. Masamune Shirow: Kōkaku Kidōtai (The Ghost in the Shell), 1989.
10. Jirō Taniguchi: Aruku hito (The Walking Man), 1990.
11. Naoko Takeuchi: Bishōjo senshi Sailor Moon, 1991.
12. Masashi Kishimoto: Naruto, 1999.
13. Kiyohiko Azuma: Azumanga Daiō, 1999.
14. Milk Morinaga: Kuchibiru tameiki sakurairo (Cherry Lips), 2003; OR (student’s choice):
Y. Fumino: Hidamari ga kikoeru (I Hear the Sunspot), 2013.
(Usually one per week.)
1. Scott McCloud: Understanding Comics. The Invisible Art. 1993. Chapter 1.
2. Scott McCloud: Understanding Comics. The Invisible Art. 1993. Chapter 3.
3. Nathalie Mälzer: “Taxonomien von Bild-Text-Beziehungen im Comic”, in: Nathalie Mälzer (ed.): Comics – Übersetzungen und Adaptionen. Berlin: Frank & Timme, 2015, pp. 47–63.
4. Ernst Gombrich: Chapter X, “The Experiment of Caricature”, from: Art and Illusion. A Study in the Psychology of Pictorial Representation. 1960.
5. Lambert Wiesing: “Die Sprechblase. Reale Schrift im Bild”, in: Realitätseffekte. Ästhetische Repräsentation des Alltäglichen im 20. Jahrhundert. Paderborn: Fink, 2008, pp. 25–46.
6. Neil Cohn, “Japanese Visual Language. The Structure of Manga”, 2007, https://www.visuallanguagelab.com/P/japanese_vl.pdf
7. Jan-Noël Thon: “Who’s Telling the Tale? Authors and Narrators in Graphic Narrative”, in: Daniel Stein / Jan-Noël Thon (eds.): From Comic Strips to Graphic Novels. Contributions to the Theory and History of Graphic Narrative, 2nd ed., Berlin / Boston: de Gruyter, 2015, pp. 67–99.
8. Jason Dittmer: “Serialization and Displacement in Graphic Narrative”, in: Rob Allen / Thijs van den Berg (eds.): Serialization in Popular Culture, New York / London: Routledge, 2014, pp. 126–140.
9. Lukas R. A. Wilde: “Meta-narrative Knotenpunkte der Medienkonvergenz: Zu den medienwissenschaftlichen Potenzialen des japanischen kyara-Begriffs”, in: Hans-Joachim Backe et al. (eds.): Ästhetik des Gemachten: Interdisziplinäre Beiträge zur Animations- und Comicforschung. Berlin: de Gruyter, 2018, pp. 109–149. DOI: 10.25969/mediarep/11963
10. Marco Pellitteri: The Dragon and the Dazzle. Models, Strategies and Identities of Japanese Imagination. A European Perspective. Latina: Tunué, 2010. Chapter IV until IV-2, i.e. pp. 177–204.
11. Antonia Levi: “The sweet smell of Japan”. Animation in Asia 23 (2013), No. 1, pp. 3–18.
Review, Jirō Taniguchi memorial edition: KPosted: February 11, 2023 Filed under: review | Tags: action, climbing, comics, Jirō Taniguchi, K, manga, Shirō Tōzaki, sports 2 Comments
Attempts at dividing Jirō Taniguchi’s († February 11, 2017) oeuvre into earlier ‘genre’ manga and later ‘mature’ manga are perhaps futile, as his two works in the mountaineering sub-genre show: K was first published in the late 80s, i.e. around the same time as Chikyū hyōkai jiki (Ice Age Chronicle of the Earth), but his other mountain climbing manga, Kamigami no itadaki (Summit of the Gods) – much longer and not written by Shirō Tōzaki – did not begin serialisation until 2000, long after Aruku hito, Chichi no koyomi, and Harukana machi e. Maybe this means that Taniguchi had a special fondness for the topic of mountaineering.
Language: German (originally Japanese)
Authors: Shirō Tōzaki (writer – credited as “Shiro Tosaki”), Jirō Taniguchi (artist)
Publisher: Schreiber & Leser (originally Futabasha)
Year: 2021 (originally 1988)
Number of volumes: 1
Price: € 17
Simply “K” is what the protagonist calls himself. A Japanese climber living near the Himalayan and Karakoram* mountain ranges, his identity and past are unknown, but his mountaneering skills are famous. He is the one to go to when a near-impossibly difficult expedition needs to be undertaken to the highest peaks of the earth, no matter how steep the walls of rock and ice, or how adverse the weather conditions.
And that’s how each of the 5 chapters plays out, more or less: someone (or something) goes missing in the mountain, then K is asked to rescue him. After some hesitation, he agrees, ventures out to the mountain, almost dies there in the rescue attempt, and – spoiler alert – always succeeds in the end.
For such a repetitively structured story to remain interesting, a great deal of realism and clarity in the depiction of the action is crucial. When conveying the spatial situation the climbers are in, their gear, movements, and the effects of the weather, it needs to be made clear to the reader what is at stake. Is the character about to fall off a cliff? Is he about to be hit by an avalanche? Is he in danger of freezing to death? In this, Taniguchi’s highly detailed drawings succeed. Particularly his landscapes – normally bleak, uniform masses of rock and snow, but rendered here in a great variety of techniques, such as different kinds of hatching and screentone – almost appear three-dimensional.
Then again, it should also be mentioned that Tōzaki and Taniguchi rely a lot on captions to tell the story. In a kind of solemn past-tense voice, the narrator often tells us what K is doing exactly, and why. As a result, K is unusually wordy for a Taniguchi manga.
The five chapters are self-contained, and there is little overarching development in the manga. In the final chapter, we learn a little bit more about K’s past, but he still remains an inscrutable character. Perhaps it is just as well that the series ended there, instead of dragging on and becoming boring. Consequently, what we have here is an action-packed, exciting little oddity that shows how Taniguchi could draw pretty much anything.
Rating: ● ● ● ● ○
* Some reviewers of this manga only speak of the Himalayas, but apparently, Himalaya and Karakoram are two different mountain ranges. The K2, which the first chapter is about, lies in the Karakoram range, not in the Himalayas.
Exhibition review: Cosey, Basel, 12.11.2022–26.2.2023Posted: January 29, 2023 Filed under: review | Tags: Basel, Cartoonmuseum, comics, Cosey, exhibition, French, museums, Swiss Leave a comment
After Tardi and Joann Sfar, Cartoonmuseum Basel celebrates another Franco-Belgian master, albeit from Switzerland this time: Cosey (Bernard Cosendai), born in Lausanne in 1950 and above all famous for his long-running adventure series, Jonathan (1975–2021). Recently he attracted some renewed attention with his two Mickey Mouse tribute albums, and over the years he has also produced a number of standalone albums, e.g. In Search of Peter Pan. Accordingly, the exhibition devotes the most space to Jonathan, displaying many original drawings, and also some sketches and even artifacts that he collected from Tibet and other places where his comics are set.
For someone who has read Cosey’s comics only in translation, it is fascinating to see his hand-lettered speech balloons and title pages, and to realise what a skilled calligrapher he is. One of the downsides of this presentation of the original drawings, however, is that once more – as in the Tardi exhibition – no translations of the French text are provided.
The other, perhaps more lamentable, downside is that all the drawings show the pages after inking but before colouring. That is a pity, because (as the accompanying texts in the exhibition mention too) Cosey colours his comics himself and does so with considerable success, using a reduced palette to great effect. Only a single page is displayed with an overlayed colour cel, and there are also some watercolour sketches.
As usual, the artist’s published oeuvre can be perused in the museum library, where one can also watch a documentary film about him – alas, again, in French only.
Rating: ● ● ● ○ ○
The best comics of 2022: a meta listPosted: December 20, 2022 Filed under: review | Tags: 2022, best-of lists, comics, ranking, year-end review 1 Comment
It’s that time of the year again: the Internet has picked the best comics of the year. More precisely, I have compiled several year-end best-of-2022 lists into one, awarding points to each title depending on its rank and the total number of entries on the list (full explanation here).
Shortly before Christmas, about two thirds of the usual sources have posted their lists. I’m going to update this blogpost with the data from the remaining lists in January, so make sure to come back here, as there are likely to be some major changes still.
Anyway, for the time being, these are…
THE TOP 25 COMICS OF 2022:
- Ducks: Two Years in the Oil Sands by Kate Beaton (269 points)
- The Night Eaters: She Eats the Night by Marjorie Liu and Sana Takeda (159)
- Immortal X-Men by Kieron Gillen and Lucas Werneck (131)
- Fantastic Four: Full Circle by Alex Ross (127)
- The Flash by Jeremy Adams and others (110)
- Wash Day Diaries by Jamila Rowser and Robyn Smith (99)
- A.X.E.: Judgment Day by Kieron Gillen and Valerio Schiti (90)
- Squire by Nadia Shammas and Sara Alfageeh (89)
- The Nice House on the Lake by James Tynion IV and Álvaro Martínez Bueno (88)
- Batman/Superman: World’s Finest by Mark Waid and Dan Mora (87)
- Who Will Make the Pancakes by Megan Kelso (85)
- Saga by Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples (83)
- The Many Deaths of Laila Starr by Ram V and Filipe Andrade (79)
- Akane banashi by Yuki Suenaga and Takamasa Moue, tied with
One Piece by Eiichirō Oda (73)
- Action Comics by Phillip Kennedy Johnson and others (72)
- Acting Class by Nick Drnaso (70)
- Clementine by Tillie Walden (68)
- Genkai chitai (a.k.a. The Liminal Zone) by Junji Itō (67)
- Shuna no tabi (a.k.a. Shuna’s Journey) by Hayao Miyazaki (66)
- The Human Target by Tom King and Greg Smallwood (64)
- Once & Future by Kieron Gillen and Dan Mora (62)
- Talk to my Back by Murasaki Yamada, tied with
The Keeper by Tananarive Due, Steven Barnes, and Marco Finnegan (61)
- Little Monarchs by Jonathan Case (59)
[UPDATE: 16 more lists added on January 15]
This time there are quite a few high-ranking manga on the list (possibly due to the inclusion of several new manga-specific lists). Who would have thought One Piece would make a return, and on rank 14 at that? Honourable mentions go to Sayonara Eri (a.k.a. Goodbye, Eri) and Look Back by Tatsuki Fujimoto, Jujutsu Kaisen by Gege Akutami, Yomi no tsugai (a.k.a. Daemons of the Shadow Realm) by Hiromu Arakawa, and Spy × Family by Tatsuya Endō, all having just missed the top 25 with 50+ points each.
It seems to have been not quite such a good year for (non-English) European comics. Geneviève Castrée: Complete Works 1981-2016, Malgré tout (a.k.a. Always Never) by Jordi Lafebre, and Dagen van Zand / Jours de Sable (a.k.a. Days of Sand) by Aimée de Jongh, the highest ranking ones, would not even make the top 50.
As for German comics, there were a few noteworthy ones in 2022, such as Das Gutachten by Jennifer Daniel, Stockhausen by Thomas von Steinaecker and David von Bassewitz, Rude Girl by Birgit Weyhe, and Das Humboldt-Tier by Flix. But the only way for them to reach the top 25 is to get picked by at least three of the four German lists, which didn’t happen.
The following lists were evaluated: Barnes & Noble, The Beat, Book Riot, Broken Frontier, CBC, CBR, Chicago Public Library, ComFor (German), ComicGate (German), Comickunst (German), DoomRocket, Entertainment Weekly, Forbes, Gamesradar, Goodreads, Gosh (adult, kids), The Guardian, IGN, Kono manga ga sugoi via Anime News Network, Kotaku, Looper, The Mary Sue, NPR, Paste, Polygon, Publishers Weekly (Holiday Gift Guide, Critics Poll), Screen Rant (“Best Comics”, combined “Best New Manga” and “Best Continuing Manga”), Tagesspiegel (German), Top-Selling Manga in Japan by Series via Anime News Network, The Washington Post, YALSA.
Manga review, Halloween 2022 edition: Chainsaw ManPosted: October 31, 2022 Filed under: review | Tags: action, Chainsaw Man, comics, Halloween, horror, manga, Tatsuki Fujimoto 1 Comment
Winner of Shōgakukan and Harvey awards, highest-ranking manga in our 2020 and 2021 best-comics-of-the-year lists… But does it live up to the hype?
Chainsaw Man (チェンソーマン Chensō man) vol. 1
Language: German (originally Japanese)
Author: Tatsuki Fujimoto
Publisher: Egmont (originally Shūeisha)
Year: 2020 (originally published 2018)
Total number of volumes: 12 so far in Japan
Price: € 7
Website: https://www.egmont-manga.de/series/Chainsaw%20Man (German publisher), https://www.mangaupdates.com/series/ylx5wzn/ (Baka-Updates)
The world of Chainsaw Man is similar to our own, except for the constant threat of so-called ‘devils’ – demons in various hideous shapes who seek to enslave or outright kill humans. Thankfully, the Japanese government has installed a devil-hunting task force to protect its citizens. The newest among those devil hunters is Denji, a teenager who himself has fused his body with a devil, which allows him to transform his head into a chainsaw and to grow chainsaw blades from his arms.
So far, so weird. But protagonist Denji has a backstory that endears him to the reader: having inherited his father’s debts to the yakuza, he was destitute before joining the devil hunters. All the money he earned went straight to the mob, and he could barely feed himself and his pet devil dog. It’s not as powerful a poverty narrative as e.g. Hideo Azuma’s Shissō Nikki (Disappearance Diary), but it seems to work well, as pretty much every reviewer on the Internet ends up rooting for Denji.
Unfortunately, as in so many other manga of this type, this origin story is quickly told and done away with, and then it’s monster slaying time. Denji continues to be an interesting and relatable character though, being driven by much more basic needs and desires than his co-workers who have more noble (or enigmatic) motives. The action scenes are also enhanced by Tatsuki Fujimoto’s drawing style. Some people have called the artwork crude, but it’s actually often quite elaborate on closer inspection. Fujimoto deliberately uses coarse-grained screentone effects to diversify the tonality of his artwork, and his sound effects are a masterclass in typographic design.
As for the design of the ‘devils’, however – they look more silly than terrifying. What is it with the Japanese and their rather ridiculous monsters, one is tempted to ask? Kiseijū, Evangelion, Naru Taru… Perhaps the look of those creatures fits the overall wackiness of Chainsaw Man, but that doesn’t mean you have to like it.
Scariest moment: there is a simple but effective sort of ‘jump scare’ when the devil hunters open a door to reveal a ‘fiend’ (a human body possessed and grotesquely altered by a devil).
Rating: ● ● ● ○ ○
Find the previous Halloween blogposts here: 2021, 2020, 2019, 2018, 2017, 2016, 2015.
German postal service issues Spider-Man stampPosted: October 3, 2022 Filed under: review | Tags: comics, German, Marvel, postage stamps, reception, Spider-Man, superheroes, US Leave a comment
It’s rare for Deutsche Post to dedicate a stamp to a trademarked character, owned by a foreign company at that, with that company’s name prominently placed. But on July 7, they did just that. According to the press release (German), the Spider-Man stamp is part of a new superhero series in which two stamps per year are going to be released, each with a different character.
Last month they also issued a Smurfs stamp, but that seems to belong to a different series called “childhood heroes”. Its design is different too, with neither Peyo’s nor the original publisher’s name visible. (The copyright info at the Deutsche Post website reads: “© Peyo -2022- Lic. I.M.P.S. (Brussels)”.)
Also remarkable about the Spider-Man stamp is the way in which the character is rendered, both the drawing style and the classic blue-and-red costume, which perhaps looks unfamiliar or at least old-fashioned to many comic readers (and moviegoers) today. Then again, the press release says that the stamp is meant to celebrate Spider-Man’s 60th birthday and explicitly mentions Stan Lee and Steve Ditko, so that old-school look may be intentional.
Essential Reading for Moon Knight fans? Review of Age of KhonshuPosted: July 1, 2022 Filed under: review | Tags: Avengers, comics, crossover, Jason Aaron, Javier Garrón, Marvel, Moon Knight, superheroes, US Leave a comment
In my last Moon Knight review I said I couldn’t be bothered to read “The Age of Khonshu”, a story arc involving Moon Knight that ran in Avengers in 2020. Eventually I did get around to it though.
Avengers vol. 7: The Age of Khonshu, collecting Avengers #31-38
Authors: Jason Aaron (writer), Javier Garrón (artist), Jason Keith (colourist) and others
Cover dates: April 2020 – January 2021 (= on-sale dates: February – November 2020)
In the life of every superhero, there comes a time when he or she briefly turns evil and fights other superheroes. This is essentially what “The Age of Khonshu” is all about. The explanation given here is threadbare to say the least: Moon Knight and his god Khonshu (allegedly) try to thwart Mephisto’s plans of world domination by stealing the superpowers of several heroes, which in turn makes Moon Knight and Khonshu powerful enough to achieve world domination themselves. Naturally, this does not sit well with the Avengers who take on the resistance against Moon Knight and Khonshu. Who will prevail? Will Moon Knight come to his senses again and realise who his real enemies are? And what will become of Mephisto and his sinister schemes?
Spoiler: we never learn what becomes of Mephisto. Presumably, that is resolved in one of the next Avengers trade paperbacks. And that is one of the major flaws of this TPB. It’s not a self-contained story at all; of the eight issues it collects, the first two and most of the last one have very little to do with Moon Knight and the actual “Age of Khonshu” plot. They might provide a pretext for Khonshu’s actions, but first and foremost, Avengers vol. 7 is meant to be read by people who have already read Avengers vol. 6, not by Moon Knight fans who have not been following Avengers.
That being said, parts of The Age of Khonshu are surprisingly entertaining. Especially the beginning, i.e. #33, when Moon Knight takes on some superheroes one by one. Or the design of Khonshu’s domain (even though once more Khonshu himself is not a very imposing figure for a god), ‘New Thebes City’, his mummies, moon priests and werewolves, the whole faux-Egyptian iconography. However, whenever one aspect of Moon Knight’s character – in this case, the Egyptian theme – is emphasised, his others are likely to fall by the wayside. His mental illness, for instance, is only passingly referred to by other characters. (Once again, the way in which Moon Knight’s mental health issues are handled borders on an insult to people in the real world struggling with such issues, as Connor Christiansen has pointed out in his review at AIPT.)
The Age of Khonshu is a mixed bag on all levels. Javier Garrón’s art has a great clarity to it and makes the action easy to follow, but if we single out individual panels, characters or poses, there is nothing particularly striking or outstanding about the way they are drawn. Likewise, Jason Aaron’s dialogue writing is sometimes genuinely funny, but sometimes all those witty quips are a bit too much and make every character seem like Spider-Man.
Needless to say, in the end the status quo is restored. “So I’m going back where I belong, to keep saving my crappy little corner of the world the only way I know how”, Moon Knight says in his last scene in this comic. There is no need for Moon Knight fans to read The Age of Khonshu to understand and enjoy his current solo series. It adds very little to his character, except maybe that it sheds some new light on his fraught relationship with his god. Then again, as far as Moon Knight comics go, it’s not the worst one either.
Rating: ● ● ○ ○ ○
Politics in Warren Ellis’s TransmetropolitanPosted: May 1, 2022 Filed under: review | Tags: comics, cyberpunk, DC, journalism, Labour Day, politics, science fiction, Transmetropolitan, US, Warren Ellis Leave a comment
In this year’s Labour Day / Warren Ellis blogpost, we’re going to examine what might be considered his chef d’oeuvre, Transmetropolitan (penciled by Darick Robertson and published in 60 issues from 1997-2002). It’s also probably Ellis’s most overtly political comic, so it comes as no surprise that there are already many texts, even some academic ones, on politics in Transmetropolitan. Most of those focus on the presidential election story arc (with a noticeable spike in 2016, on the occasion of Donald Trump’s candidacy and win), but I’m going to stick to the very first self-contained story which spans issues #1-3, as it already exhibits the main political mechanisms at work here.
The first issue serves mainly to introduce the protagonist, Spider Jerusalem, a journalist writing political columns for a newspaper in an unnamed American city, in a future that seems not too far away (but is apparently supposed to be the 23rd century). In issue #2 he pays the Transient community a visit – humans who, for some reason, chose to have their bodies genetically engineered to gradually take on the shape of aliens. Now these human-alien hybrids “can’t get jobs” and are “forced” to live in the slum quarter Angels 8, according to their leader, Fred Christ. They feel discriminated against by Civic Center (the City government), and their solution is to announce the secession of Angels 8 to the Vilnius Colony, a sovereign alien territory. “The threat of secession will force them to treat us decently”, says Fred.
The Transients erect barricades around Angels 8, but Spider already fears that the police are going to stifle that uprising: “It’s an election year for a law-and-order president. They’ll come in and stamp on your bones, Fred.” And indeed, bombs are thrown at a Transient demonstration, which prompts the police to crack down on the “Transient Riot”. Spider, however, realises what is actually going on in the district. He has witnessed how individual Transients got bribed to incite the riot. Otherwise, “It would never have happened. The Transients were too confused, gutless and dim to start a real confrontation on their own. Until some money changed hands.”
Spider goes to the scene of the crime to report, in a sort of live newsfeed, on the extremely and unnecessarily violent police action, and also to provide his background information on the cause of the riot (“They paid a few Transients off to start some trouble, deliberately marring a non-violent demonstration.”) People read his newsfeed, call Civic Center to complain, and the police are withdrawn from Angels 8 at last.
Comparing this story to the other Ellis comics we have covered here before, we find similarities as well as differences. The major commonality is the ‘abusive government’ trope: while we don’t know for sure whether the bribing lawyers who instigated the riot work for the President, we see the City government personified in the policemen who quash the Transient uprising. Not only do they beat unarmed men, women and children to death, they even enjoy doing it. The big difference to Ellis’s more supernatural and fantastical narratives seems to be that the protagonist who stands up to the government is not a superhero – it’s a journalist. Some people have read Spider Jerusalem’s character as an inspiration for ordinary people to do what they can and make a stand against (Trump’s) government. There’s nothing wrong with that, except that such readings are misinterpreting Spider’s character a little.
Spider Jerusalem is not an ordinary journalist but rather, for all intents and purposes, a kind of superhero. He is the only journalist brave (or mad, as he himself puts it) enough to enter the Angels 8 district. His astounding hand-to-hand combat skills allow him to overcome not only the Transient barricade guard but also two Transient bouncers at once, not to mention his proficiency in operating rocket launchers, hand grenades and handguns. And, perhaps his most superheroic trait: when at the end of the story he gets assaulted by a police squad and severely beaten, he is not intimidated at all – “I’m here to stay! Shoot me and I’ll spit your goddamn bullets back in your face!”
Without Spider, the public would never have learned the truth about the orchestrated Transient riot. Instead, the citizens would have been the CPD’s partners in crime, according to Spider: “You earned it. With your silence. […] Civic Center and the cops do what the fuck they like, and you sit still. […] They do what they like. And what do you do? You pay them.” Without Spider, there would be no critical journalism in the City, only “papers and feedsites that lie to you”.
In Transmetropolitan, there are evil individual politicians, but Ellis makes clear that it’s the complacency of the populace that allows them to thrive. Once more, society on its own is helpless against an oppressive government and needs the ‘strong man’ to protect them.
Griselda Pollock’s feminism – in comics?Posted: March 20, 2022 Filed under: review | Tags: art history, comics, feminism, Griselda Pollock, manga, Moe Yukimaru, Suisai, theory, Women's History Month 1 Comment
Between her two major books on feminist art history, Old Mistresses (1981, co-authored by Rozsika Parker) and Vision and Difference (1987), Griselda Pollock published an article titled “Women, Art, and Ideology: Questions for Feminist Art Historians”¹. In part a summary of the former book, it outlines Pollock’s notion of a feminist art history (or should that rather be “feminism in art history”?). The problem with previous feminist art historians, according to Pollock’s essay, is that they only tried to amend the canon of art history by adding female artists that had been omitted before. Pollock calls this an “unthreatening and additive feminism”. Instead, she argues, “a central task for feminist art historians is […] to critique art history itself”, because art history (as well as its object of study, art) is a system that “actively constructs and secures the patriarchal definitions for the category Woman”.
How, then, is a feminist art history possible at all? “The important questions” need to be asked: “how and why an art object or text was made, for whom was it made, for what purpose was it made, within what constraints and possibilites was it produced and initially used?” The importance of such questions to any art historical analysis seems self-evident today, and in fact they were already being asked back then – Marxist art history and the social history of art were a big thing. But they didn’t satisfy Pollock, who says that Marxist thinking about art, which treats “art as a reflection of the society that produced it”, has some severe shortcomings: it “oversimplifies the processes whereby an art product […] represents social processes that are themselves enormously complicated, mobile, and opaque”; it “condemns women effectively to a homogenenous, gender-defined category” and “effaces the specificity and heterogeneity of women’s artistic production”; it places works of art in ideological categories when in fact “ideologies are often fractured and contradictory”, etc.
So the overall tendency of Pollock’s feminist art history is: specificity, particularity, complexity and heterogeneity instead of generalisation and categorisation. Clearly, such a kind of art history is a radical shift away from scholarship as it is traditionally understood. It is perhaps best summed up in Pollock’s demand that “the relations between women, art, and ideology have to be studied as a set of varying and unpredictable relationships.” However, when Pollock’s essay provides some examples of what such an analysis might look like (taken from Old Mistresses), they don’t seem quite so radical after all. Sofonisba Anguissola’s 1561 Self Portrait With Spinet and Attendant is interpreted as a display of the artist’s aristocratic class position which allowed her to become a professional painter, unlike women of lower classes. Johann Zoffany’s 1772 The Academicians of the Royal Academy, in which the only two female Academy members are not part of the group in the room but represented as portrait paintings on the wall, shows how the system of the art academy actively constructed “distinct identities for the artist who was a man – the artist, and the artist who was a woman – the woman artist.” The late 18th-century family portraits by Élisabeth Vigée-Lebrun show how the ideal of the woman at that time had changed to that of “the happy mother, the woman fulfilled by childbearing and childrearing.”
Thus, in contrast to ‘mainstream’ art history, Pollock’s vantage point is always the (female) artist’s biography. Let’s see where this approach takes us when applied to a random comic.
The last comic by a female author that I read was Moe Yukimaru’s Suisai (more on that manga in a later post) vol. 1. What can we find out about this mangaka? Born in 1986, Yukimaru worked as an assistant to Nana Haruta (on another shōjo manga, Love Berrish) before debuting as a mangaka in 2006. Most of her manga were published in the shōjo magazine Ribon. Suisai started in 2015, i.e. when Yukimaru was 28 or 29. According to e.g. her Japanese Wikipedia page, her dream for the future is to become a “mangaka and charismatic housewife at the same time”. However, we don’t know when and under which circumstances she said that.
Yukimaru also has a weblog, yukimarublog.jugem.jp. She hasn’t posted for a while and her latest blogposts are about her current manga, Hatsukoi Retake, and transitioning from print to digital-first publishing. But her earlier posts from around the time when she was working on Suisai are quite interesting. In one of them, from late 2014, she apologises for “not having a particularly stylish lifestyle to blog about” and not being one of those “bloggers who write about highly feminine content with fashionable images every day”. Apart from promoting her manga work, though, there is quite a lot of cat content, food pics, and even a post about Yukimaru doing her fingernails.
So the image that we can perceive of Yukimaru is that of a ‘highly feminine’ artist who is firmly associated with the shōjo manga segment. Interestingly, Suisai doesn’t quite reflect this image. Although often labeled ‘romance’, this first volume at least is not so much of a girl-meets-boy story (there is something of that, too) but more of a ‘girl-meets-flute’ story of a high school student who enters her school’s brass band. It is a music manga first and foremost. Other music manga, e.g. Naoshi Arakawa’s Shigatsu wa kimi no uso / Your Lie in April, have been published in shо̄nen magazines. Granted, that one had both a male protagonist and a male author, but the point is that demographic categorisations such as shо̄jo or shо̄nen are often quite artificial, and that Suisai isn’t a particularly ‘girly’ manga.
Taking a closer look at Suisai, however, we find some interesting points being raised in terms of gender. Right at the beginning, we learn that the protagonist, Urara, had been a successful track-and-field athlete in middle school. But now in high school, she wants to “try something new” instead of a sports club – so that she can spend more time wearing the “cute” sailor uniform of her new school. “After quitting the [track-and-field] club, I have grown my hair long just for that”, she says, which prompts her classmate to say: “So there is an actual girl hidden in you after all.”
In the following course of the story, there are several scenes in which Urara’s energetic and bold nature is seen as undesirable and un-girly, and her lack of “cuteness” is pointed out. Thus we could read this coming-of-age story as the story of Urara moving on not only from middle to high school, but also from a sports to a music club, leaving her boyish childhood behind and becoming a woman. As Griselda Pollock would perhaps say, Urara succumbs to the allure of this artificially created category of Woman; a category created both by the fictional society in the manga and real society, including Moe Yukimaru, her publisher, and her readers.
Index to all “[theory] – in comics?” posts on this weblog
¹ First published in Woman’s Art Journal Vol. 4, No. 1 (Spring – Summer, 1983), pp. 39–47, https://doi.org/10.2307/1358100; re-published in Women’s Studies Quarterly Vol. 15, No. 1/2, Teaching about Women and the Visual Arts (Spring – Summer, 1987), pp. 2–9, https://www.jstor.org/stable/40004832.