The best manga of 2016? Review of Wolf Girl & Black Prince

Now that the Reiwa era has begun, some people are compiling lists of the best manga from the Heisei era, even though 1989–2019 seems like a ridiculously long time to do so, and comparisons to the previous Shōwa era (1926–1989) are difficult due to their different lengths. However, towards the end of this year, lots of people are going to wonder what the best manga of the 2010s were, and then it will come in handy that we’ve taken an in-depth look at manga from the middle of this decade (technically speaking its 7th year) in this series of blogposts.

Wolf Girl & Black Prince (オオカミ少女と黒王子 / Ōkami shōjo to kuro ōji) vol. 11
Language: German (translated from Japanese)
Author: Ayuko Hatta
Publisher: Kazé (originally Shūeisha)
Year: 2016 (originally 2011)
Number of volumes: 16
Pages: ~175
Price: € 7
Website: https://www.kaze-online.de/Programm/Manga/Wolf-Girl-Black-Prince-Band-11.html (German), https://www.mangaupdates.com/series.html?id=66333 (Baka-Updates)
ISBN: 978-2-88921-667-3

Even people who usually don’t read romance/shōjo stories seem to like this manga (and/or its anime adaptation). For some reason, though, apparently it has never been published in English. In 2016, the final two volumes came out in Japan, but in Germany, that year saw the publication of vols. 6-11, which is why I’ll deal with vol. 11 here.

Previously in Wolf Girl & Black Prince: in order to remain popular among her friends, 17-year old Erika pretends that her attractive classmate Kyōya is her boyfriend. She secretly begs him to play along so that her friends don’t find out that they’re not actually dating. He agrees to act as if they were a couple, but in private he is mean to her. In the end, however, they fall in love with each other and begin an actual relationship.

And that is the plot of about the first three volumes. The series could have ended there, but like with so many other long-running manga, the cash cow wasn’t dry yet. In the case of Wolf Girl & Black Prince, 13 more volumes followed which tell us of the romantic life of Erika and Kyōya, and of course their large cast of friends. In this eleventh volume, for instance, the first chapter is about Erika falling ill and Kyōya reluctantly caring for her, while the second and third chapters deal with romantic rivals (a co-worker at Erika’s job and a classmate who gets closer to Kyōya).

That isn’t to say that these ‘middle volumes’ are entirely without appeal. There are still moments in which Erika and Kyōya come across as compelling characters – she continues to be slightly selfish but also masochistic, he remains cool and distant. What really sets Wolf Girl & Black Prince apart from many other shōjo manga is its relatively mature content. For instance, the characters talk almost openly about sex (and also sometimes explicitly use that word), though sexual acts are never depicted.

One could probably say a lot about this manga from a gender perspective. The way in which Kyōya (“I’m going to steal your virginity!”) treats Erika, and the way in which Erika lets herself be treated by him, makes it clear that we’re not exactly reading a feminist manifesto here.

Another thing worth mentioning is that most volumes (at least in this Kazé edition) contain bonus stories. These can be spin-off stories from the main one, or unrelated one-shots. In the case of vol. 11, it’s a 38-page one-shot high school love story. On the flipside, though, this means that you only get 130 pages of the main story.

The artwork is of an extremely high quality and, in accordance with the humorous tone of this manga, is full of charming cartoonish characters. Too bad the story has lost its drive long ago and seems to go nowhere. Otherwise Wolf Girl & Black Prince would have indeed been one of the best manga of 2016.

Rating: ● ● ●

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Politics in Warren Ellis’s Dark Blue

On this year’s Labour Day we’re going to look at a comic that was published at around the same time as Planetary but which is not nearly as well-known: Dark Blue (Avatar Press, first collected edition 2001; apparently originally published in 2000 as part of an anthology series called Threshold, the cover images of which are definitely ‘not safe for work’…). The black-and-white artwork is by a young Jacen Burrows, with relatively elaborate screentones for which no less than three people are credited, Terry Staats, Jason Crager, and Mark Seifert.

About halfway into this 60-page story there is a major plot twist that has some relevance here, so just this once I’m giving a spoiler warning: if you haven’t read Dark Blue but intend to, you might want to stop reading now.

The story starts out as a violent cop tale. Protagonist Detective Frank Christchurch is introduced beating up a suspect in custody in an attempt to find out the whereabouts of a serial killer, Trent Wayman. Frank’s partner Debbie stops him before he kills the suspect and Frank is told off by his boss, Lieutenant Abbey, but in the end Frank gets away with it. Abbey has problems of his own: he is a heroin addict who even shoots up in his office. The whole police department is morally depraved, to say the least. According to Frank, one police officer is “trying to sell me pills when I come in for my shift”, another “was raping a whore in the holding cell” while a third one looked on, “jerking off into a firebucket”.

So far, this seems to be the typical Warren Ellis motif of a failed democratic government with a law enforcement that not only is ineffectual at fighting crime but commits crimes itself. However, then the aforementioned twist happens when the entire city in which the police department is located turns out to be a drug-induced consensual hallucination shared by three hundred people. “Every person who takes the drug goes to that city and believes it to be utterly real”, explains Debbie, who in reality is a doctor at the hospital in which the drugged people are actually located.

Furthermore, Frank isn’t a police officer either, but a CIA agent who was “gathering intel in the former Yugoslavia”, as Debbie reminds him. “You got caught outside when shelling started and you ran into the nearest big building. It was a schoolhouse. And some fucker shelled it anyway.”

The story continues with Frank returning to “narcospace” and continuing to chase the murderer, Trent Wayman, but the really interesting questions are left unexplored. What kind of hospital treats traumatised intelligence agents by administering experimental “shamanic” drugs for several months on end? What kind of government operates such hospitals? Is it morally justifiable for a government to lie to its citizens and entrap them in an illusory world, even if this is intended as mental health treatment? Is the risk acceptable that they end up permanently confusing their real life with their illusory one (as happens to Frank)?

One could also ask what exactly a CIA agent was doing in Yugoslavia in the first place. What are the interests of the CIA (or of the American government, or of the American people) in the Yugoslav Wars? As Debbie tells the story, it seems to be clear who the good and the bad guys are: Frank was only peacefully “gathering intel” and becomes the victim of an attack, whereas the attacker is a “fucker” who stops at nothing, not even killing schoolchildren. Debbie doesn’t say which of the factions of the Yugoslav Wars the attacker belonged to, or where the school was located. Ellis’s vagueness concerning Frank’s backstory is particularly regrettable in the light of a certain conspiracy theory according to which a “Former CIA Agent claims: They gave us Millions to split up Yugoslavia”.

In any case, in contrast to what it seemed like in the beginning of the comic, Ellis presents a vision of a government that is very much in control and doesn’t need any help from superheroes: apart from minor problems with individuals such as Frank Christchurch and Trent Wayman, the United States have total control domestically (as exemplified by the hospital) and a strong influence abroad. Civil rights and democratic legitimization, however, fall by the wayside once more. Thus Ellis’s view on democracy in Dark Blue is yet another cynical criticism.


Marie-Laure Ryan’s narrative – in comics?

Out of Marie-Laure Ryan’s many narratological works, one of the most cited appears to be “Toward a definition of narrative”, a chapter from The Cambridge Companion to Narrative (ed. David Herman, Cambridge 2007; Ryan’s chapter is on pp. 22–35). Prompted by the “inflation” of the term ‘narrative’ in the wake of the “‘narrative turn in the humanities'”, Ryan begins her text as a review of previous definitions of the concept of narrative, finds them all unsatisfactory and then comes up with her own.

Ryan proposes a “fuzzy-set definition” of narrative. Regardless of how appropriate the term ‘fuzzy set’ is here, the key idea is that this allows for “variable degrees of membership” to the set of narrative texts. In the application of such a definition, it becomes more meaningful to ask questions like “‘is Finnegans Wake more narrative than Little Red Riding Hood?'” rather than binary yes/no questions like “‘is Finnegans Wake a narrative?'”. Such a type of definition makes sense here, as it would for many other concepts, even though it is still met with opposition from many Humanities scholars.

Another feature of Ryan’s definition is that the criteria or conditions it is made of are not of equal value. Instead, they are presented in an order from broadest to narrowest, with each condition presupposing the previous ones, or from most to least necessary. (There are no sufficient conditions in this type of definition.) As these eight conditions are widely available online anyway, I’m going to list them here also, though I recommend reading them in their original context.

  1. Narrative must be about a world populated by individuated existents.
  2. This world must be situated in time and undergo significant transformations.
  3. The transformations must be caused by non-habitual physical events.
  4. Some of the participants in the events must be intelligent agents who have a mental life and react emotionally to the states of the world.
  5. Some of the events must be purposeful actions by these agents.
  6. The sequence of events must form a unified causal chain and lead to closure.
  7. The occurrence of at least some of the events must be asserted as fact for the storyworld.
  8. The story must communicate something meaningful to the audience.

Clearly, the further down the list we go, the more debatable the conditions become. However, while one might be able to imagine a narrative without e.g. “intelligent agents”, one cannot deny that these are typical of narratives.

So far, so good, but what does this have to do with comics? Earlier in her text, Ryan calls narrative a “temporally ordered sequence of events” and identifies the lack of “clearly definable ‘narrative units’ comparable to the words or phonemes of language” as one of the main problems in its definition. Couldn’t the sequentially arranged units of comics – the panels – serve as such a narrative unit?

In many cases, this analogy works well. Consider the following panels from Black Magic (ブラックマジック), Masamune Shirow’s first published manga from 1983 (read from right to left):

Each of the panels could be said to depict an action, and we could describe this sequence of events in one sentence each: “Typhon says, ‘here’s to humanity’. Then Yasha says, ‘right’. Then Kongoki says, ‘to my daughter’.” (Of course, that’s just one of many valid possibilities; one could just as well describe it as e.g. “Typhon lifts a bottle, then Yasha turns towards her, then Kongoki raises his glass”.) Not the most interesting narrative, perhaps, but one can easily imagine that these three panels are part of a whole, proper story if preceded and succeeded by many more like them.

However, this only works well because we are dealing with, in the terminology of Scott McCloud, subject-to-subject transitions between these panels. Another type of McCloudian panel transition which can easily be ‘translated’ to a narrative sequence of events is action-to-action (in which the agent stays the same). But what about other transition types? The subsequent panels are quite different in this regard:

The transition from the first to the second panel on this page is an action-to-action transition, but the next one is a little tricky. The perspective shifts from the interior of the bar to an exterior view of the city, and it is day instead of night (assuming that the characters at the bar are meeting for drinks in the evening – then again, the story takes place on Venus, so who knows). The first caption might be understood as an explanation of this shift: “Before anyone awoke the next morning, Duna Typhon left Venus behind.” So this panel shows the city on the next day, and there’s a building labeled “station” from which Typhon might have departed, or maybe she’s leaving the planet right now on one of the aircraft depicted. This would make the transition a scene-to-scene transition, but we could still incorporate it into a narrative structure: “The friends propose toasts. Then they raise their glasses. Then Typhon leaves Venus.”

However, there are two more caption boxes placed in this panel, and they complicate matters quite a bit: the second caption(“Government by humans began…”) extends the time frame to months and the scale from individual characters to the whole Venusian society. The third caption even stretches out chronologically to an entire “period” of possibly many years. This doesn’t change the transition between this panel and the preceding one – still scene-to-scene – but in Ryan’s definition of narrative, the first condition is now threatened as the story shifts its focus from “individuated existents” to more abstract entities (“government”, “Venus”) and from “intelligent agents” (the 4th condition) to seemingly ‘agentless’ actions (“war broke out”).

This doesn’t mean that Black Magic isn’t a narrative. But we can say that in this little six-panel sequence, its “degree of narrativity” decreases slightly towards the end. Such fluctuations in narrativity are nothing unusual and not specific to comics; they occur e.g. in novels too. With her definition of narrative, Ryan gives us a powerful tool to describe such developments and to compare different works in this regard. Even more complex is Ryan’s suggestion of her definition as a “basis for a semantic typology of narrative texts. While degree of narrativity depends on how many of the conditions are fulfilled, typology depends on the relative prominence” of the conditions fulfilled, i.e. not only how many but also which. Thus each work could be thought of as a specific configuration of fulfilled narrative conditions.

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


Review, Jirō Taniguchi memorial edition: Icaro

When Stan Lee died in November last year, I was reminded of Silver Surfer: Parable again, his collaboration with Mœbius. Another collaboration of similar titanic proportions was Ikaru/Icaro/Ikarus by Mœbius and Jirō Taniguchi.

Ikarus (イカル / Ikaru, English title Icaro)
Language: German (originally Japanese)
Authors: Mœbius, Jean Annestay, Jirō Taniguchi
Publisher: Schreiber & Leser (originally Kōdansha / Bijutsu Shuppan-Sha)
Year: 2016 (original run 1997)
Number of volumes: 1
Pages: 284
Price: € 24,95
Website: https://www.mangaupdates.com/series.html?id=1169
ISBN: 978-3-946337-06-5

One memorable line of dialogue in this manga is: “Often the most brilliant ideas are bigger than the man who conceived them. And they can be no longer controlled.”

Who knows, maybe Mœbius thought the same way about Ikaru. According to the interview included in this edition, Mœbius created the initial concept, then wrote a script together with Jean Annestay. As with some others of his comic projects, Mœbius didn’t have time to draw it himself, and in this case he wanted this story to be drawn by Jirō Taniguchi. Taniguchi, however, heavily re-wrote and above all radically shortened the script. Furthermore, the magazine serialisation in Morning was not popular enough with the readers to warrant a continuation, so that instead of the 10.000 pages written by Mœbius and Annestay, these less than 300 pages is everything that has ever been drawn of Ikaru.

The premise is simple and striking: in the near future, a child is born with the ability to levitate and fly through the air. The Japanese government takes the boy away from his mother and locks him up in a remote research facility to study (and ultimately weaponise) him. Twenty years later, Icaro, as he is named, rebels and breaks out of his captivity.

Ikaru could have been (and to some extent is) a fascinating science fiction mystery thriller, with great moments of psychologisation associated with the ‘Kaspar Hauser’ motif of a child growing up in isolation. However, Taniguchi didn’t cut enough from the original script so that the manga is bogged down with unnecessary subplots, such as a rebellion of supernaturally powered clones, or the lesbian relationship of the villainous minister of defence.

There is a lot of Katsuhiro Ōtomo’s Akira in Ikaru (even though Mœbius downplays this in the interview), from the theme of the child with mysterious powers that is experimented on – reminiscent of Tetsuo, Akira, and the ‘numbers’ who also depend on a regularly administered drug – to the depiction of the clones’ psychokinetic powers. Ikaru also shows Taniguchi excel as a draughtsman with subjects not commonly depicted in his other works. The highlights of the art in this manga are the backgounds that show Icaro’s prison, which looks like a huge old greenhouse, and the scenes in which soldiers try to entangle the fleeing Icaro in ropes.

One more particularly clever little scene needs to be pointed out: in the beginning, one of the scientists is told on the phone that a levitating child has been born. The next panel shows him wide-eyed and speechless holding the phone. The panel after that shows him in the same way (from a slightly different angle), but the whole panel is turned upside-down! Then the phone call continues depicted in the usual orientation. This one panel could be interpreted in many different ways, e.g. that the scientist’s world has just been turned ‘upside-down’ through this discovery, or that ‘up’ and ‘down’ are relative directions for someone who can fly.

Within Taniguchi’s oeuvre, Ikaru takes an odd place as it was made in 1997 in between two masterpieces that defined his style: Chichi no koyomi (1994) and A Distant Neighborhood (1998). Both of these are semi-autobiographical, so a science fiction story like Ikaru, at this time in Taniguchi’s career, seems like a throwback to the 1980s when he made Ice Age Chronicle of the Earth, and if I’m not mistaken, he never took on another science fiction project after Ikaru.

So is Ikaru required reading for the Taniguchi enthusiast? On the one hand, it is certainly interesting and relevant given the circumstances of its creation – the rather peculiar nature of this French-Japanese collaboration – as Taniguchi is often said to have been strongly influenced by French comics in general and Mœbius in particular, and also to have been more warmly received in Europe than in his native Japan. On the other hand, this is also a flawed manga and definitely not one of Taniguchi’s best, and not every reader might want to spend € 25 on a 290-page manga.

Rating: ● ● ● ○ ○

More Jirō Taniguchi memorial reviews on this weblog: Ice Age Chronicle of the Earth, Chichi no koyomi, Trouble Is My Business.


Kanji-kana ratio for stylometry?

I ended my blogpost on hiragana frequency as a stylometric indicator with the remark that, rather than the frequency distribution of different hiragana in the text, the ratio of kana to kanji is used as one of several key characteristics in actual stylometric analysis of Japanese texts. I was curious to find out if this number alone could tell us something about the 4 manga text samples in question (2 randomly selected scenes from Katsuhiro Ōtomo’s Akira and 2 series from Morning magazine, Miko Yasu’s Hakozume and Rito Asami’s Ichikei no karasu – in the following text referred to as A1, A2, M1 and M2, respectively). My intuition was that the results wouldn’t be meaningful because the samples were too small, but let’s see:

This time I chose a sample size of 200 characters (hiragana, katakana, and kanji) per text.

Among the first 200 characters in A1 (i.e. Akira vol. 5, p. 16), there are 113 hiragana, 42 katakana and 45 kanji. This results in a kanji-kana ratio of 45 : (113 + 42) = 0.29.

In A2 (Akira vol. 3, pp. 125 ff.), the first 200 characters comprise of 126 hiragana, 34 katakana, and 40 kanji, i.e. the kanji-kana ratio is 0.25.

In M1, there are 122 hiragana, 9 katakana, and 69 kanji, resulting in a kanji-kana ratio of 0.52.

In M2, there are 117 hiragana, 0 katakana, and 83 kanji, resulting in a kanji-kana ratio of 0.71!

6 hiragana, 2 katakana, 3 kanji in A2 (Akira vol. 3, p. 125).

Thus this time the authorship attribution seems to have worked: the two Ōtomo samples have an almost identical score, whereas those of the two Morning samples are completely different. Interestingly, this result contradicts the interpretation from the earlier blogpost in which I had suggested that the scientists in Akira and the lawyers in Karasu have similar ways of talking. The difference in the kanji-kana ratio between Akira and the two Morning manga, though, is explained not only through the more frequent use of kanji in the latter, but also through the vast differences in katakana usage (note that only characters in proper word balloons, i.e. dialogue, are counted, not sound effects).

Ōtomo uses katakana for two different purposes: in A1 mainly to reproduce the names of the foreign researchers, and in A2 to stretch syllables otherwise written in hiragana at the end of words, e.g. なにィ nanii (“whaaat?”) or 何だァ nandaa (“what is iiit?”). Therefore the similarity of the character use in the two Akira samples is superficial only and the pure numbers somewhat misleading. On the other hand, it makes sense that an action-packed scene such as A2 contains less than half as many kanji as the courtroom dialogue in M2; in A2 there are more simple, colloquial words for which the hiragana spelling is more common, e.g. くそう kusou (“shit!”) or うるせェ urusee (“quiet!”), whereas technical terms such as 被告人 hikokunin (“defendant”) in M2 are more clearly and commonly expressed in kanji.

In the end, the old rule applies: only with a large number of sample texts, with a large size of each sample, and through a combination of several different metrics can such stylometric approaches possibly succeed.


A sad anniversary: Review of Moon Knight #194-200

Language: English
Authors: Max Bemis (writer), various
Publisher: Marvel
Publication Dates: June – December 2018
Pages per issue: 20
Price per issue: $3.99
Website: http://marvel.com/comics/series/20488/moon_knight_2016_-_present

Another year has passed in which Moon Knight was largely ignored by critics. Rightfully so? The last story arc by Max Bemis and Jacen Burrows, collected in a trade paperback titled “Crazy Runs in the Family”, showed great potential. What came afterwards, though, was quite a mixed bag:

#194, drawn by Ty Templeton, is seemingly a one-shot which introduces Uncle Ernst, a supervillain from Marc Spector’s childhood.

#195-196, with brilliant artwork by Paul Davidson, is a weird and charming little story about The Collective, a new supervillain (or group of villains?).

#197-198, drawn by Jacen Burrows again, seem to tell a very similar tale about another group of adversaries, the Société des Sadiques. Their leader turns out to be none other than Uncle Ernst, which in hindsight makes #194 the first part of this story arc.

Although the story appears to be finished with #198 (which is also the last issue to be collected in the TPB, “Phases”), #199 (art by Davidson again) continues it with another face-off between Moon Knight and Ernst.

#200 (still drawn by Davidson), finally, brings back the supervillains from the previous arc, Sun King and The Truth, the former allying with Moon Knight while the latter has been corrupted by Ernst.

Thus, with the interruption of #195-196, we basically have a five-part finale, the cohesion of which is futher damaged by the change of artists. Bemis has injected a lot of clever and darkly humorous ideas into these issues, though their connections to the Nazi Holocaust are sometimes bordering on tastelessness. Still, the cancellation of this series after this anniversary issue is a remarkable marketing failure, even for Marvel. Usually, such an anniversary would be used to invigorate and generate new interest in a series at least for the next couple of issues (which has recently worked well for e.g. Action Comics at DC), but Marvel didn’t even seem to have had that much faith in Moon Knight. The 200th issue itself is not that flashy either: a slightly increased size (30 pages) for an increased prize ($5), some guest artist pages (one each by Jeff Lemire and Bill Sienkiewicz), and an action sequence of two double-page spreads by Davidson – that’s it.

What remains in memory of this Bemis/Burrows/Davidson run is a number of whacky characters, stunningly drawn panels, witty lines of dialogue, and ways of storytelling that at least feel fresh. And three comic creators to watch (although Bemis seems to identify more as a rock musician). However, the lack of success of a rock-solid series such as Moon Knight also says a lot about the current state of American superhero comics in which such a vast amount of material is published each week that the comic books are cannibalising each other in their competition for reader attention.

Rating: ● ● ● ○ ○


Exhibition review: Le Monde de Tardi, Basel

At age 72, after 50 years of making comics, Jacques Tardi is more than worthy of his own exhibition at the Cartoonmuseum. I can’t say how this Tardi exhibition, which ends on March 24, relates to the one at the 2015 Fumetto festival in Lucerne. Anyway, it’s always worth reminding people through such a show that the author of the WWI comics for which he is perhaps best known, C’était la guerre des tranchées and Putain de guerre, is the same who created the Belle Époque mystery series Adèle Blanc-Sec in the seventies, and who also authored the Nestor Burma detective comics, as well as the historical comic Le Cri du peuple in the early 2000s, and, most recently, the WWII comic Stalag II B, to name but a few. A dazzling array of comics, and the Basel exhibition covers them all.

The primary medium of presentation are framed original drawings, of which there are apparently more than 200 on display. Here, however, it becomes obvious why the exhibition is titled “Le Monde de Tardi” (and not “Die Welt des Tardi”): while the commentary texts on the walls are in German, no translation is provided for the French speech balloon texts. Which is a pity, given that Tardi is not only a masterly draughtsman but also a witty wordsmith. At least this aspect of Tardi can be appreciated in the library room of the museum which is well stocked with German translated editions of many of his albums. In the library one can also watch a film about Tardi in – again – French only: Tardi en noir et blanc, also available on YouTube with German audio.

My impression was that the previous exhibition I had seen at the Cartoonmuseum, Joe Sacco – Comics Journalist, had done a slightly better job at telling something about the artist himself and his working process instead of just the finished works. But this is a common shortcoming in comic exhibitions.

Le Monde de Tardi must be a highly enjoyable exhibition if you’re fluent in both French and German, but I doubt you get much out of it if you speak neither.

Rating: ● ● ○ ○ ○