Tokyopop loves shōjo, but Kōdansha doesn’t love Tokyopop

I Love Shojo logo

Some weeks ago, manga publisher Tokyopop Germany launched a website, <http://iloveshojo.tokyopop.de>, as part of a promotional campaign for their shōjo manga titles. Readers can ask questions by using a form on this site, which are then answered publicly by Tokyopop staff. Without counting them, I guess the topics most frequently brought up by readers are:

  1. recommendations which new manga Tokyopop should publish next (which the fans, I believe, have discovered via illegal scanlations);
  2. questions around promotional items, such as “ShoCo Cards” (“Shojo Collectors Cards”);
  3. publication of drawings, a.k.a. fan art.

Many postings contain an awful lot of typos, which makes me believe that these are real readers’ writings and there is not much editing going on. I guess the published posts are carefully filtered by the Tokyopop editors, though.

Occasionally, some really interesting information can be found amidst all this fannish chatter. For instance, about a week ago, there was this question:

Screenshot from iloveshojo.tokypop.de

My translation: “I keep hearing you’re unable to publish works by Kōdansha, why is that?” – “The publisher Kōdansha told us some time ago that they had decided to let the contracts for all current series expire, and that they won’t license any new series to us. We weren’t given any reasons for this decision. We were only told that the decision was unrelated to the previous collaboration between Kōdansha and Tokyopop Germany. Therefore we won’t publish any new Kōdansha titles for the time being. If the situation changes, we’ll inform you immediately!”

A few days later, a similar question was posted:

Screenshot from iloveshojo.tokypop.de

My translation: “Which Japanese publishers collaborate with you?” – “Basically all the major ones – except for Kōdansha and Square Enix… Of course there are still many smaller ones from which we haven’t requested any titles yet – but this is always worth a try.”

In other words, some Japanese publishers license their manga to some Western publishers and some don’t. This means that the selection of manga that get translated into European languages often appears, for all intents and purposes, to be random. For if the business decisions of Japanese publishers are apparently inscrutable even to their Western partners, how are we researchers supposed to comprehend them?

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Owens’s postmodernism, Foster’s postmodernism – in comics?

Although some people have already proclaimed the death of postmodernism, it is still a relatively new phenomenon, and the term is quite ambiguous. Therefore it makes sense to approach it by reading several texts which reflect different opinions, for instance “The Allegorical Impulse: Toward a Theory of Postmodernism” by Craig Owens alongside “Postmodernism: A Preface” by Hal Foster (the art historian, not the comic artist). Both were published in the early 1980s already – Owens’s in the journal October in 1980, Foster’s as an introduction to a book he edited in 1983 (The Anti-Aesthetic. Essays on Postmodern Culture), and this timeliness might have contributed to the differences between their respective understanding of postmodernism.

Owens lists six artistic strategies which distinguish postmodernist from modernist art: appropriation, site specificity, impermanence, accumulation, discursivity, and hybridisation. As with Foucault’s heterotopian principles, these strategies are not necessary characteristics – the artists discussed by Owens employ some of them, but not all six at the same time. In this sense, many comics can be identified as “postmodernist”.

Take, for instance, Shotaro Ishinomori’s マンガ日本経済入門 / Manga Nihon Keizai Nyūmon (translated as Japan Inc.: Introduction to Japanese Economics in the English edition), first published in 1986. Sometimes referred to as a non-fictional comic, it actually tells a fictional story of two young managers in a Japanese company, while at the same time introducing the reader to economic facts and theories. However, it’s not the content that makes this comic a postmodernist comic, even though it would have lent itself to a discursive treatment of e.g. economic policy. It is a postmodernist comic in Owens’s sense because it is a hybridised medium (at least in the German edition from 1989 which I’m referring to in the following): apart from the comic panels, Manga Nihon Keizai Nyūmon consists of three repetitive pictureless elements. There are hand-lettered notes of usually about 3 to 5 lines length at the bottom of approximately every other page, which provide economic background information that may or may not be connected to the events on the same page. Then there are longer, typeset texts on their own pages (pp. 27, 41, 105, 167, 223, 257) in the same vein, and quotations from economists on the chapter title pages (pp. 9, 71, 125, 179, 233, 285). This clash of regular comic layouts and non-comic elements shows that hybridisation is at work here, one of Owens’s six postmodernist strategies. (A similar example of this strategy would be the use of text-only pages in Alan Moore’s and Dave Gibbons’s Watchmen, of course.)

japan_incWhile Manga Nihon Keizai Nyūmon and many other comics could be called postmodernist in Owens’s sense, it would be more difficult for them to qualify as postmodernist in Foster’s sense. More precisely, in “Postmodernism: A Preface”, Foster distinguishes two kinds of postmodernism: a “postmodernism of reaction”, and a “postmodernism of resistance”. The difference between the two is that the resistant postmodernism “seeks to question rather than exploit cultural codes, to explore rather than conceal social and political affiliations.” For the resistant postmodernism, which Foster clearly champions, the trait which Owens calls discursivity is essential.

Although the cultural codes and social and political affiliations of the business world are extensively featured in Manga Nihon Keizai Nyūmon, they are never put into question. Economic doctrines are presented as irrevocable truth. One of the protagonists, the young idealistic manager, has his employees’ welfare on his mind and tries to change things for the better, but he does so from within the business system, by playing along with its rules. Neither are paternalistic and sexist tendencies criticised. Because of this lack of discursivity, I doubt that Foster would regard Ishinomori’s comic as (resistant) postmodernist.

The difference between Owens’s and Foster’s definition of postmodernism is symptomatic for the twofold meaning that the term “postmodern” has taken on. On the one hand, it denotes the era after modernity – postmodernity. All art produced in that era is by definition postmodern. On the other hand, it denotes a certain style that some artists choose to employ and others don’t. Around 1980, in a period of transition, this distinction is still blurry, so I wouldn’t equate Owens’s postmodernism with the former meaning and Foster’s with the latter. Yet, both Owens’s postmodernism and the concept of postmodernity as an era are broader definitions than their counterparts – more works of art fit into them than into Foster’s definition and into the concept of postmodernism as a movement.

All of these notions of postmodernism are valid. They unfold their usefulness in different contexts: broader definitions stress the similarities of contemporaneous works, while narrower definitions stress the differences. When we’re talking about “postmodern” art, artists, or comics, we just need make clear which definition we’re referring to.

For a different take on postmodernism and comics, see Noah Berlatsky’s essay on Fredric Jameson at The Hooded Utilitarian.