Manga talks at the 2015 ComFor conference

detail of the 2015 ComFor conference poster

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

  • Rik Spanjers spoke about Shigeru Mizuki’s Onward Towards Our Noble Deaths. In this classic manga set in the Pacific War (as well as in his other manga), Mizuki employs a distinctive art style in which cartoonish characters clash with photorealistic backgrounds. Spanjers explains this art style with Mizuki’s attempt to adequately represent the horrors of war. For instance, the opposition between these two distinct art styles mirrors the opposition between life and death in the story, etc.
  • Marco Pellitteri presented results from a survey on the arrival and impact of manga in several European countries. He attributes the success of manga in Europe mainly to two circumstances: the adoption of the ‘authentic’ tankobon format for translated editions, and the simultaneous broadcasting of anime series on European television channels.
    (Naturally, there is some overlap with my own PhD research, but also one major difference: when one tries to identify similarities and differences between so many different comic markets and within such a long time frame – 1970s to today –, the perspective is necessarily much wider, and the results coarser. Which doesn’t make it less valid, of course.)
  • Lukas Sarvari introduced three manga drawn by Kazuo Kamimura: Shinanogawa (1973-74, written by Hideo Okazaki), Furious Love (Kyōjin kankei, 1973-74, written by Kamimura himself), and Lady Snowblood (Shurayuki-hime, 1972-73, written by Kazuo Koike). Each of them is set in a different period of Japanese history: Shōwa (1926-89), Edo/Tokugawa (1603-1868) and Meiji (1868-1912), respectively. However, Sarvari’s hypothesis is that these manga tell us more about the time in which they were made than about the time in which their stories are set. Thus they convey views about the nihonjinron discourse, Japanese exceptionalism, and fascism that readers today might feel uneasy about.
  • Christian Chappelow identified similar elements in two manga about Adolf Hitler: Hitler (Gekiga Hittorā, 1971) by Shigeru Mizuki and Adolf (Adorufu ni tsugu, 1983-85) by Osamu Tezuka. Both manga can’t really be regarded as anti-war stories and lack a critical stance against nationalism, militarism and fascism. Chappelow suspects that this is the reason why Mizuki’s Hitler hasn’t been translated into a European language yet.
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ComFor 2014: Färber, Ingold, Owens

Last month, the 9th annual conference of the German Society for Comics Studies (ComFor) took place in Berlin. Unfortunately I missed half of it, so instead of a proper conference report (not that my previous ComFor conference posts – 2012, 2013 – were proper reports), I thought I’d just point out my favourite talk out of the ones I have heard:

Julia Ingold (Kiel University) presented an allegorical reading of Markus Färber‘s comic Reprobus. Reprobus seems to be Färber’s first standalone comic, and was published only two years ago. In this comic, Färber re-tells the legend of Saint Christopher (who was called Reprobus before he met Jesus), albeit with some twists. Reprobus is a beautifully drawn comic, and its non-linear story is cleverly written. But that’s beside the point.

The dog-headed giant Reprobus has yet to become Christophorus.

Reprobus, the dog-headed giant, has yet to become Christophorus.

In her talk, Julia Ingold referenced Craig Owens’s text “The Allegorical Impulse” (which I have discussed on this weblog last year), and placed Reprobus in a postmodern context. That latter statement was more of an incidental remark, if I remember correctly, as her main point was the reading of Reprobus as allegory through Owens. Therefore I won’t hold it against her that she didn’t take the time to expand on what’s postmodern(ist) about Reprobus.

It’s easy enough to recognise Reprobus in “The Allegorical Impulse”, or vice versa: Reprobus is a typical example of a “palimpsest”, of “reading one text through another”, of the artistic strategy of “appropriation”, in that Reprobus “confiscates” the legend of Saint Christopher (all quotations from Owens). The problematic point is that for Owens, this allegorical impulse is already the characteristic that distinguishes postmodernist from modernist art. Nowadays, as I have tried to show in the aforementioned blog post on Owens, Foster and Ishinomori, Owens’s view of postmodernism is only one of many.

Hal Foster, on the other hand, emphasises (in “Postmodernism: A Preface”) the challenging stance of postmodernism towards the social context of objects.* I find it hard to see such a thrust in Reprobus. The “realm of myths and legends” is “sinking into oblivion”? The people in the big city “have almost forgotten” about Jesus? If this story was really intended as a critique of contemporary society, it’s about 100 years late. This comic combines rather old-fashioned aspects with some undeniably timely traits – which isn’t a bad thing, but makes me reluctant to classify it as entirely postmodernist.

The papers of the ComFor conference aren’t published yet, but an earlier article by Julia Ingold on Reprobus can be read in the latest issue of the journal helden. heroes. héros. (PDF, German).


* Why do I keep returning to those two texts by Owens and Foster? Certainly not because they’re the most convincing, or best written, on postmodernism. They do, however, have the advantage of having been published at a relatively early point in that discourse, of representing quite different – almost contrary – views, and of exerting a lasting influence.

Some keywords from the 2013 ComFor conference

ComFor 2013 conference logo by Thomas GilkeIn comparison to last year, the 8th ComFor conference (full title: „Comics und Naturwissenschaften“ – 8. Wissenschaftstagung der Gesellschaft für Comicforschung), which took place in Erlangen this month, was less international with only one out of 22 talks in English. On the other hand, there were two papers on manga – a small step in the right direction.

Here are some terms that I’ve heard at this conference for the first time and found noteworthy, in alphabetical order, with the paper in which they were mentioned added in brackets.

  • apocalyptic riskscape – a place where impending doom is tangible, e.g. New York City in Watchmen. (Mentioned in Laura Oehme: Alien Science and Risk Technologies in Dystopian Science Fiction Comics)
  • “basic”, “qualified” and “technical” media – categorisation of aspects of mediality by Lars Elleström, described in his text “The Modalities of Media: A Model for Understanding Intermedial Relations” in 2010. (Lukas Wilde / Kay Kirchmann et al.: Wenn Comics Medien erklären – Google-Werbung vom Paul McCartney der Comictheorie)
  • euchronia – the “good time”; a golden age, usually bygone. (Markus Oppolzer: Utopie und Dystopie im Werk von Shaun Tan)
  • jadarite – a mineral discovered in 2007. Its chemical formula is similar to the fictional formula of kryptonite as shown in the film Superman Returns, prompting headlines such as “Superman beware, kryptonite is real”. (Markus Prechtl: Chemie & Comic – Grenzgänge und Herausforderungen)
  • MAC-10 – a machine pistol, or submachine gun, designed by Gordon Ingram for the Military Armament Corporation (MAC). Its unrealistic use in popular media is criticised by cartoonist Marion Montaigne. (Rolf Lohse: Die Naturwissenschaften im Blick der französischen bande dessinée)
  • mechanomorphism – here: turning something into a machine, e.g. turning a human into a robot by means of cybernetic implants. (Markus Oppolzer: Utopie und Dystopie im Werk von Shaun Tan)
  • “strong” and “weak” images – distinction made by Gottfried Boehm between images that are merely mechanical reproductions (weak) and ambiguous images that require some interpretative effort (strong). (Jens Meinrenken: Comics als Archiv historischer Wissen(schafts)formationen und -entwürfe)
  • Titor, John – name used by an internet forum user claiming to be a time traveller from the future. Appears as a fictional character in the video game Steins;Gate. (Kristin Eckstein: „Beyond the 1% barrier“: Die Zeitreise und ihre Funktion in Sarashi Yomis Steins;Gate)

Review: Triëdere #6

My review of the Triëdere magazine issue on comics was published on the ComFor weblog four days ago. If you’re interested in German-language comics research, here’s my English translation of the review:

Triëdere – Zeitschrift für Theorie und Kunst #6 (1/2012), „Art moyen & Yuma: Spezifische Potentiale des Comics“ [specific potentials of comics], Vienna: Verein Zeitschrift Triëdere, 133 pages, 11 €. (ISSN 2075-5031)

The wording “magazine for theory and art” suggests that Triëdere (the name refers to a term coined by Robert Musil) is a scholarly journal. However, Triëdere is not primarily about theoretical texts about art, but art (in the sense of visual arts and literature) and theory, i.e. primary and secondary literature, are on a par here. This premise explains the “anachronistic” materiality of the magazine as a “bibliophile’s limited edition on real paper” (http://www.triedere.com). An aspect of the bookbinding design which deserves a positive mention is the paper dust jacket, which is glued onto the outsides of the cardboard cover (“french brochure”), so that it can’t slip or even fall off, but its inner sides can still be used as bookmarks.

The short editorial (pp. 1-2) reviews the current state of comics scholarship, but says little about the place of this magazine within it. Therefore, the questions remain as to why comics were chosen as the topic (topics of previous issues were e.g. “memory” or “drawing”), how the authors were chosen, and how this magazine is different from other publications in the field. Furthermore the statement seems strange that it is “a central characteristic of comics […] to be free from the demand to be realistic”. You would have thought we would have overcome this old prejudice by now that comics are per se less realistic than other art forms.

The first article is Thomas Becker’s “Wer hat Angst vor der Neunten Kunst? Kurze Archäologie eines Legitimierungsdiskurses” [Who is afraid of the Ninth Art? A short archaeology of a legitimisation discourse] (pp. 5-13). In this article, Becker gives an account of the tentative development of the field of comics from an art moyen in Pierre Bourdieu’s sense towards a legitimate art, while listing the well-known key events: the Louvre exhibition in 1967, the Guardian literature award for the comic Jimmy Corrigan in 2001, etc. At the same time one gets the impression that Becker not only describes a discourse, but also takes a stance within it by regarding Art Spiegelman’s and Chris Ware’s comics as somehow superior to, for example, “trivial science fiction”. On the formal side of the essay, it is striking that it only contains six footnotes, so that many statements remain unreferenced; the four images are not explicitly referenced in the text and only have a vague connection to it; the captions are very short and don’t contain the dimensions of the original pictures (which would be appropriate if a Roy Lichtenstein painting is juxtaposed with its comic source, as in figure 1). Here what I said earlier becomes evident: even if the contents of the Triëdere articles seem scholarly, they are not scholarly articles in the strict sense of the word.

This also becomes clear in the second contribution, “A Sense of Yuma” by Ole Frahm (pp. 14-21), which primarily aims at a semiotic analysis of the humour in George Herriman’s Krazy Kat. In doing so, Frahm quickly expands the scope to comics in general, which doesn’t seem very convincing, e.g. when he says, comics “combine the sign repertoire of drawings and writing” (when it is well-known that many comics do away with written text), or when he cryptically phrases: “[comics] reject the question of hermeneutics, which determines a sense after the reading, and instead raise an epistemological question.” In common with Thomas Becker’s article, there are some inaccuracies in the captions (two out of the three pictured Krazy Kat strips are undated) and the limitation of a mere six references.

Barbara Eder’s text “Horror vacui & Outer Space. Das ‘gelobte Land’ der 8×6 Zentimeter” [the ‘promised land’ of the 8×6 centimetres] (pp. 23-33) makes loose connections between the philosophy of Gilles Deleuze and various comics. This results in debatable, over-generalised hypotheses such as: “deterritorialised people […] have become preferred figures in comics.” In addition to the almost incomprehensible content, formal carelessness can be found here, too, for instance quotes that differ from the speech bubble texts in the images (e.g. Eder quotes, “Still the wisest is the man, who knows what he truely hungers for.”, but Jon Macy’s pictured comic reads, “Still, the wisest is the man who knows what he truly hungers for.”).

The most convincing article in the magazine is probably Doris Neumann-Rieser’s (pp. 35-46), above all because it has a clearly defined subject matter: the reception of comics in the communist magazine (Österreichisches) Tagebuch in the 1940s and 50s. The essay title “In der Uniform des Gegners. Der Comic im Österreich des Kalten Krieges” [in the uniform of the enemy. The comic in Cold War Austria] is somewhat inaccurate, though, because the “Cold War Austria” can hardly be represented by a single magazine. At any rate, on the one hand Neumann-Rieser points out the Tagebuch authors’ anti-comics stance, grounded in anti-Americanism and pacifism, and on the other hand she shows examples of “very peculiar usages of the medium of drawn picture sequences” which were printed in Tagebuch. However, it would have been preferable if the author would have taken the trouble of tracing the sources for the pictured comic panels of the Tagebuch article she references (including a panel from Jack Cole’s “Murder, Morphine and Me” that was also pictured in Frederic Wertham’s Seduction of the Innocent, which suggests that the Tagebuch author presumably only knew Wertham’s book and not the original comic).

The following contribution is not an essay but an excerpt from a comic album titled Inmates (pp. 47-65), written by Thomas Ballhausen, drawn by Jörg Vogeltanz and published by his own publishing house edition preQuel. In contrast to the rest of the magazine, these comic pages were not printed in shades of grey, but with additional colour, which results in a kind of sepia look. It is a pity, though, that the comic pages have been fit too tightly into the magazine pages, so that towards the middle of the magazine, parts of the drawings and the speech bubble writing are unrecognisable. Not much can be said about the content of this excerpt, which is much too short and obscure for that. Ballhausen himself says in the introduction, “set in a dark, fantastical world at the edge of collapse, these highly charged, tragic figures perform their deadly endgame.” This prompts the fundamental questions as to why this specific comic was chosen to be printed in Triëdere and in what way it is supposed to be connected to the text contributions.

The next contribution also focuses on comics themselves. Elena Messner introduces four “Zeitgenössische Comics aus Serbien und Bosnien-Herzegowina” [contemporary comics from Serbia and Bosnia-Herzegovina] (pp. 66-100), each of which are pictured on several pages (with German and English text respectively) and commented by Messner on one page. The commentaries on these authors, who are virtually unknown in the German-speaking world, are helpful and make this contribution seem less out of place in the context of this magazine than Inmates. For some reason, however, these commentaries are unfortunately printed in a smaller, lighter, and thus harder to read font than the rest of the magazine.

This is followed by another textual contribution. Under the title “Poetik des Naheliegenden im Comic” [poetics of the nearby in comics] (pp. 101-115), Walter Pamminger explores a thoroughly fascinating formal phenomenon: the “compositional concatenation”. This term refers to pictorial structures that connect over panel boundaries with structures in adjacent panels to larger compositions, which sometimes oppose the traditional reading sequence. It is striking, though, that Pamminger refrains from referencing any of the relevant formalist research literature, which surely exists (Scott McCloud, at least, could have been mentioned).

“Chantal Montellier, der Comic und der Fall der Frauen” [Chantal Montellier, comics, and the downfall/case of women] (pp. 117-123) is an extract from Mira Falardeaus book Femmes et humour, which is supposed to be published in 2013. In the bilingual text – French original and German translation – Falardeau introduces some texts (no comics) by comic author Chantal Montellier, in which she accuses the comic industry of sexism. In this short excerpt, Falardeau barely expresses her own opinions, but only reproduces Montellier’s views, and after reading this one is left with the feeling not to have learned much about Falardeau’s book.

The last contribution in the magazine is “Der Künstler mit der Maus. Oder: wie sich Claes Oldenburgs Kunst Comic-Elemente aneignet” [the artist with the mouse. Or: how Claes Oldenburg’s art appropriates elements from comics] (pp. 125-130) by Wolfgang Pichler. The subtitle clearly defines the object of research, and yet Pichler’s solution of this problem is not entirely satisfactory. For instance, there are several inaccuracies which weaken the power of the reasoning: is Mickey Mouse’s head really the corporate logo of Walt Disney, or isn’t it rather the fairytale castle? Does this mouse head really unequivocally refer to comics, or doesn’t it rather refer to animation? Then there are some examples (the picture “Ray Gun Poster Dog”, the reading of The Scarlet Pimpernel in a performance) of which the connection to comics is so vague that they could just as well not have been mentioned at all. Then again, if in this article really “only the most important and self-evident examples of comic influences in Oldenburg’s works […] could have been shown”, such examples raise the question whether these influences really were as important as Pichler claims. Furthermore, Pichler contradicts himself regarding the status of comics as art: on the one hand, Pichler sees comics as merely “a phenomenon of popular culture that is close to the fine arts”. He also claims a clear distinction between the “different cultural forms of expression” of popular culture (which includes comics) and art. On the other hand, in the last sentence of the article, comics are called an “art form” and one of the “areas of fine art” (without basing either position on art theory).

An aspect of this issue of Triëdere as a whole that needs to be praised is that apparently the authors were allowed to chose their own style of gender-neutral language. Thus, different solutions such as “NutzerInnen” (Neumann-Rieser, Pichler), “Leser_innen” (Eder) or only the male form like “Leser” (the majority of authors) can be found. This shows the respect of the editors towards the authors, instead of patronising them by a unified style. Another striking thing about this magazine is the clear predominance of Austrian authors – out of the 14 people listed in the back matter, 7 are from Austria. This is, of course, related to the location of the editorial office of the magazine. However, it also shows a certain bias in the selection of the contributors that would be out of place if this was a scholarly journal. All in all, Triëdere #6 is a sort of hybrid creature, neither fish nor fowl. According to the subject matter, the magazine seems to address a scholarly audience. And yet, hardly any of the articles would satisfy scholarly criteria, and therefore it would be misleading to call Triëdere an academic periodical. But it isn’t sophisticated comics criticism in the vein of The Comics Journal either. Most likely this issue of Triëdere may serve the German-language comics research audience as a source of inspiration and possibly entertainment. However, it can not be considered compellingly relevant secondary literature.


Not a conference report: some notes on ComFor 2012

These are just some things that I looked up after the annual conference of the German Society for Comics Studies had ended last Sunday:

  • In his opening speech, Dietrich Grünewald mentioned Jacques Callot’s series of etchings, Les Misères de la Guerre, as an early example of a political picture story. I wondered if this series is available digitally in its entirety somewhere on the web. This doesn’t seem to be the case: all 18 prints can be found, but not in one place. The most complete sites I could find are an article by Katie Hornstein (plates no. 2-6, 8, 10-11, 15-18), and a website of the Université de Liège (4, 6-7, 9, 12-13, 17). The remaining plates (1/title page and 14) can be found at Wikimedia Commons.
  • Louise C. Larsen mentioned Peter Kürten in her talk, a German serial killer in the 1920s and 30s. His English and German Wikipedia entries are quite detailed. Kürten’s case is quite similar to that of Fritz Haarmann, which has already been adapted into a comic by Peer Meter (German homepage: http://peermeter.de/ – see also Juliane Blank’s talk at last year’s ComFor conference): both committed their crimes at around the same time, both were called “vampire” (“vampire of Düsseldorf” and “vampire (or werewolf) of Hanover”, respectively), and the brains of both were examined and preserved by scientists after their execution.
  • In Rikke Platz Cortsen‘s presentation on Rasmus Klump (a.k.a. Petzi), I saw the original Danish strips for the first time, and realized that the German translations are drastically shortened. Furthermore, the German translations vary from edition to edition: the German website http://www.petzi-forschung.de offers an interesting overview of all the German editions.
  • Was Martin Frenzel‘s presentation the longest ever (338 slides)? Not even close. The longest I found on slideshare has 919 slides, and there’s a YouTube video consisting of 1604 slides (although I doubt that these were really shown in a talk).
  • Hartmut Nonnenmacher mentioned a Spanish comic creator called Kim. Could this be the same Kim who was the artist on the German comic Kleiner Thor? No, they are two different people: the Spanish Kim’s real name is Joaquim Aubert Puigarnau (cf. his Spanish Wikipedia entry), whereas the other Kim is from Germany and called Kim Schmidt (German Wikipedia).