Random notes from the 2017 ComFor conference

Regular readers of this weblog might have wondered why, after 2012, 2013, 2014 and 2015, there was no blogpost on the 2016 ComFor (German Society for Comics Studies) conference. There is a simple reason for that: I hadn’t attended last year’s conference. Two weeks ago, however, I took the trip to Bonn where this year’s conference (topic: “Comics and their Popularity”) took place. Please note that the following notes are not intended to adequately summarise the respective conference paper; instead they’re rather subjective and random – hence the title of this blogpost.

The conference started on Friday, December 1 with the “Open Workshops”, i.e. papers outside of the conference theme of “Comics and their Popularity”.

  • The first presentation was by Zita Hüsing (Bonn) on “Being and Nature: The Significance of the Southern Space of the Swamp in Alan Moore’s The Saga of the Swamp Thing” in which she put forward connections between tropes of the American South and Swamp Thing, e.g. that both are hard to kill – no matter how badly they are maimed or burned down, they always come back from the dead. As was remarked in the discussion afterwards, however, it’s interesting how writers after Moore, such as Jeff Lemire, have expanded Swamp Thing’s backstory into a cosmology that shifts the focus from the local to the global.
  • In the second paper, “Batwing, Batflügel oder Flügel-Bat. Die onimischen Einheiten im Comic” (“onimic units in comics” – all translations mine), Rafał Jakiel (Wrocław) looked at the names (poetonyms) of characters in superhero comics and identified characteristics such as their straightforward iconicity: for instance, Killer Croc is simply a murderous man who looks like a crocodile.
  • Daniela Kaufmann (Graz) then presented “A Study in Black and White. Zur Signifikanz der Farben Schwarz und Weiß im Comic” (“on the significance of the colours black and white in comics”). Starting from Kazimir Malevich’s Black Square – featured e.g. in Nicolas Mahler’s comic Lulu und das Schwarze Quadrat – she proceeded to Krazy Kat and the racial ambiguity of both its creator George Herriman and its eponymous protagonist.
  • This was followed by Elisabeth Krieber‘s (Salzburg) paper on “Subversive Female Performances in Visual Media – Phoebe Gloeckner’s and Alison Bechdel’s Graphic Narratives” which also considered the musical adaptation of Fun Home and the film adaptation of Diary of a Teenage Girl.

Unfortunately I missed the next two talks by Karoline M. Pohl and Sakshi Wason, respectively, who closed the “Open Workshops” section after which the papers on the “Popularity” theme began.

  • The next presentation I attended was by Véronique Sina (Cologne / Tübingen) on “Comickeit is Jüdischkeit. Über das diskursive Zusammenspiel von Comic, Populärkultur und jüdischer Identität” (“on the discursive interplay of comics, popular culture, and Jewish identity”). Her main examples were the comics of Aline Kominsky-Crumb and Harvey Pekar, and she also discussed Jonas Engelmann’s hypothesis of popular culture as the dissolution of identity.
  • Pnina Rosenberg (Haifa) talked about “Mickey au camp de Gurs: Political criticism and auto censorship in comics done during the Holocaust”, in which she presented three picture books made by Hans Rosenthal during his internment at a concentration camp in 1942.
  • The first keynote of the conference was given by Julia Round (Bournemouth), titled “Canon or Common? Sandman, Aesthetics, Intertextuality and Literariness”. She discussed the ongoing struggle about the status of comics in general and Sandman in particular as literature (also: high vs. low art, “graphic novels” vs. comic books), how this is affected by the Romantic author notion around Neil Gaiman (“Mr Gaiman is the Sandman” – Clive Barker), and how this discourse comes to the fore in fan discussions at neilgaimanboard.com.

Saturday, December 2:

  • In his talk on “Batmans queere Popularität. Ein comicwissenschaftlicher und kulturhistorischer Annäherungsversuch” (“Batman’s queer popularity. An approach from the perspective of comics studies and cultural history”), Daniel Stein (Siegen) discussed how Batman is appropriated as gay by some readers, while others are gripped by ‘queer anxiety’, i.e. the fear that their beloved character might officially become gay.
  • Laura Antola‘s (Turku) paper “Marvel’s Comics in Finland: Translation, ‘Mail-Man’ and the popularity of superheroes” portrayed the eccentric figure of ‘Mail-Man’, a real-life translator and editor who also answered fan mail in the letter pages of Finnish Marvel comics from 1980 onward.
  • “Das Popula(e)re und das Signifikante. Der Comic als Antwort auf die Krise liberaler Erzählungen?” (“The popular and the significant. Comics as an answer to the crisis of liberal narratives?”) by Mario Zehe (Leipzig) discussed Economix by Goodwin/Burr, Le Singe de Hartlepool by Lupano/Moreau, and Lucky Luke: La Terre promise by Jul/Achdé as examples of comics that show the limits of cosmopolitanism.
  • Stephan Packard (Cologne) talked about “President Lex Luthor, Wakanda und der osteuropäische Schwarzwald. Zur populären Ideologie der Fiktionalität in Comics” (“President Lex Luthor, Wakanda and the Eastern European Black Forest. On the popular ideology of fictionality in comics”) and the sometimes problematic connection between fictional things and their real-world counterparts. A striking example is the recent “Alien Nation” story from Captain Marvel vol. 1 (2017) which is partly set in the “Black Forest”, albeit a Black Forest that doesn’t look anything like the real one in South Western Germany and is located, according to a caption, in “Eastern Europe”. Packard unfolded a compact theoretical framework which included the categories of fiction theory discussed by Marie-Laure Ryan such as the ‘principle of minimal departure’, but also Theodor Adorno’s ‘categorical imperative of the culture industry’, among others.
  • Lecture hall IX at Bonn University during David Turgay’s talk. Photograph by Ronny Bittner

    The next paper was David Turgay‘s (Landau) highly interesting “Das Alternative im Populären: Eine korpusgestützte Analyse von Mainstream-Comics” (“the alternative in the popular: a corpus-based analysis of mainstream comics”) in which he examined the panels of 150 American comic books from 1996 and from 2016 with regard to six criteria: politics / social criticism, narrative peculiarities, artistic peculiarities, metafictional elements, absence of fighting, and absence of text. The results of the analysis showed a significant increase of these criteria over time, but overall these characteristics (which David Turgay interpreted as the influence of independent comics) still occurred less often in 2016 than expected.

  • In his presentation on “Der Fluch der Graphic Novel aus (hochschul)didaktischer Sicht” (“the curse of the graphic novel from the perspective of (tertiary) education”), Markus Oppolzer (Salzburg) discussed the dreaded g-word again, but he also mentioned Conan the Librarian from the film UHF – as a librarian myself, I can’t believe I had never heard of him before!
  • Dietrich Grünewald (Reiskirchen) talked about “Grenzgänger. Comics und Bildende Kunst” (“border crossers. Comics and fine art”) and how fine art such as paintings are used in comics, e.g. as background details in Volker Reiche’s Strizz.
  • Christian A. Bachmann‘s (Bochum) contribution was probably the one with the longest title: “Slippers and music are very different things, oder: von high key to low key. Zur Darstellung populärer Musik in Bildergeschichten des 19. und Comics des frühen 20. Jahrhunderts” (“from high key to low key. On the depiction of popular music in picture stories of the 19th and comics of the early 20th century”). Among his examples were Billy DeBeck’s Barney Google and Richard F. Outcault’s Buster Brown.
  • Kirsten von Hagen (Gießen) presented a paper on “Tintin und die Recherche: Von der ‘ligne claire’ Hergés zu den synästhetischen Traumsequenzen bei Heuet” (“Tintin and the recherche: from Hergé’s ‘ligne claire’ to Heuet’s synesthetic dream sequences”). Stéphane Heuet adapted Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time as a series of comic volumes using a ligne claire style.
  • Martin Lund (Växjo / New York) gave the second keynote on “Jack T. Chick, a Popular Propagandist”. With over 260 ‘Chick tracts’ since 1961 of which an estimated 900 million copies have been distributed, Chick might have been “the most widely distributed comics creator in the world” (Darby Orcutt 2010 – but see also https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_best-selling_comic_series). Chick’s comics are a wellspring of knowledge on topics such as evolution, abortion and climate change; for instance, did you know that “global warming experts pray to Ixchel“, the Mayan “goddess of the moon and creativity”? But seriously: according to Martin Lund, the Chick tracts were never intended to convert unbelievers to Chick’s twisted beliefs, but rather to reassure those people who already were on his side.

Sunday, December 3:

  • Michael Wetzel‘s (Bonn) paper was titled “‘Graphic Auteurism‘: Von Kreativität und Copyright im Comic” (“On creativity and copyright in comics”). An interesting hypothesis was that the popular concept of a ‘Romanticist notion of authorship’ is flawed because Romanticist authors such as E. T. A. Hoffmann actually deconstructed authorship.
  • Next was Joachim Trinkwitz (Bonn), one of the two conference organisers together with Rolf Lohse, on “Auteur-Serien im Comic” (“auteur series in comics”) and their different forms as magazine serialisations and collected editions, using the examples of V for Vendetta, Black Hole, and Jimmy Corrigan.
  • Lukas R. A. Wilde (Tübingen) then gave the only paper of this conference that was (at least partially) about manga. Titled “Public Domain Superheroes, Jenny Everywhere und dōjinshi. Die Comic- und Manga-Figur als meta-narrativer Knotenpunkt der Partizipationskultur” (“The comic and manga character as meta-narrative node of participatory culture”), it presented the niji sōsaku / sanji sōsaku cycle (dōjinshi based on official franchises, dōjinshi based on dōjinshi, …), ‘Second Order Originals’ (detextualised characters such as Sherlock Holmes), the concept of Open Source characters (e.g. Jenny Everywhere), the kyara-kyarakutā distinction, and a new “participatory kyara” from the political far-right in Germany named AfD-chan.
  • The last talk of this year’s conference was given by Jörn Ahrens (Gießen) on “Der Comic ist das Populäre. Zur populärkulturellen Gestalt eines Mediums der Massenkultur” (“The comic is the popular. On the popular cultural shape of a mass culture medium”) which examined the reception of 100 Bullets in a review of The Comics Journal and the problematic implicit notion therein of what ‘quality’ comics should be.

In comparison to previous ComFor conferences I attended, I had the impression there were more papers on superhero comics, but there were definitely even less on manga. Then again, I guess the organisers simply didn’t receive more submissions on manga, so it’s up to all manga researchers to do something about this skewed manga/non-manga ratio next year. Another point about the programming that’s always somewhat problematic is the integration of conference papers in English: this year there were 7 out of 24 papers given in English which were distributed among Friday and Saturday, so it must have been unattractive for non-German speakers to attend the conference. It will be interesting to see if the ComFor conferences can improve in the areas of both comics internationalisation and attendee internationalisation in the years to come.

Advertisements

Upcoming talk: Japanese art in the contact zone

Not directly comics-related, but hopefully relevant to anyone interested in manga readership outside Japan: later this week, I’m going to give a talk titled “Japanese Art in the Contact Zone: between Orientalism and ‘Japansplaining'” at the 3rd International Conference for PhD Students and Recent PhD Graduates in Belgrade on “Migrations in Visual Culture”. Below you’ll find the abstract as I had submitted it; in the meantime, I cut the examples of Takashi Murakami and manga/anime mentioned therein and made some other changes.

Hat tip to Nicholas Theisen on whose weblog What is Manga? I first encountered the beautiful word “Japansplain”!

Japanese Art in the Contact Zone: between Orientalism and ‘Japansplaining’

Whenever migrations of works of art and other artifacts become the subjects of scholarly analysis, those that originate in one culture and end up within a different culture are the ones that generate the most interest. Scholars who study such cross-cultural migrations operate within a methodological paradigm that has been shaped by theories such as Fernando Ortiz’s transculturation and, building upon it, Mary Louise Pratt’s contact zone.

These theories suggest that artifact-based communication between different cultures – including the reception of works of art – often takes place „in contexts of highly asymmetrical relations of power“ (Pratt). Such contexts have been strikingly examined by postcolonial studies, which identify these relations between colonising and colonised cultures, First and Third World countries, etc. Most famously, Edward Said located such a relation between Occident and Orient. The Far East, however, is where we find an example (though probably not the only one) that does not quite fit in this paradigm.

After WWII, Japan has come to be perceived as economically and politically on eye-level with its former enemy nations. The Japanese cultural industry is nowadays largely self-sufficient: as a rule, its products reach Western markets through a ‘pull’ rather than a ‘push’ mechanism, i.e. (some) Western consumers demand Japanese products, but Japanese producers and distributors are not desperate to break into an American or European market. Therefore, one cannot say that the Western reception of Japanese artworks takes place within a context of an asymmetrical power relation. Yet, this context is far from homogeneous. From the imagery of Takashi Murakami to the films of Akira Kurosawa, the photographs of Nobuyoshi Araki to manga and anime, Japanese artworks seem to divide European and American audiences into those who admire them, and those who cannot make sense of them.

In a way, these two audience groups reiterate the context of asymmetrical power relations, but in contrary ways: on the one hand, the ‘worshippers’ of Japanese art perceive it – and, by extension, the whole Japanese culture – as vastly superior to their own, up to the point where Japanese pedigree in itself becomes a decisive quality. The mode of reception in this group places Japan as the dominant culture, and its own Western culture as the subordinate. On the other hand, the ‘sceptics’ of Japanese art perceive it as inferior because they find it less accessible, thus reversing the power relation. The phenomenon of ‘Japansplaining’, i.e. attempting to explain Japanese culture (often in order to help make sense of Japanese works of art), works in both of these ways, and is at any rate an indicator of the perceived foreignness of Japanese art. This paper seeks to discuss this and the other aforementioned concepts related to the idea of the contact zone, and on that basis to critically examine the theoretical and methodological foundations underlying the study of cross-cultural migrations in visual culture.


Article “The Task of Manga Translation: Akira in the West” published

task

My conference paper from 2014, which so far had been only published in German and in print, is now available online and in English:

de la Iglesia, Martin 2016, ‘The Task of Manga Translation: Akira in the West’. The Comics Grid: Journal of Comics Scholarship 6(1), http://dx.doi.org/10.16995/cg.59

There’s also a PDF version.

Abstract:
Translated editions of Katsuhiro Ōtomo’s manga Akira played an important role in the popularisation of manga in the Western world. Published in Japan between 1982 and 1990, editions in European languages followed as soon as the late 1980s. In the first US edition (Epic 1988–1995) the originally black and white manga was printed in colour and published in 38 issues, which were designed not unlike typical American comic books. The first German edition (Carlsen 1991–1996) marked the beginning of Carlsen’s manga publishing efforts. It was based on the English-language edition and also printed in colour, and combined two American issues in one.

This article analyses the materiality of these two translated editions with a focus on three main issues – the mirroring (or ‘flipping’) which changes the reading direction from right-to-left into left-to-right, the colouring of the originally black and white artwork, and the translation of different kinds of script (sound effects, speech bubble text, and inscriptions or labels) – before concluding with a brief examination of their critical reception.


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.

Conference paper “Akira im Westen” published

panel from Akira by Katsuhiro Ōtomo

Last year at a conference on “the translation and adaptation of comics” in Hildesheim, Germany, I gave a talk on the first English and German editions of Katsuhiro Ōtomo’s Akira . The conference proceedings have now been published as a book, albeit with most of the papers in German, including my own. I’m working on making an English-language, Open Access version of my talk available soon. Anyway, here’s the bibliographic data:

de la Iglesia, Martin. “Akira im Westen.” In Comics. Übersetzungen und Adaptionen, edited by Nathalie Mälzer, 355-373. Berlin: Frank & Timme, 2015.

The ISBN of the book is: 978-3-7329-0131-9


“Presence in Comics” article published

detail of a panel from The Ultimates #3 by Mark Millar and Bryan Hitch

Remember the conference paper I announced on this weblog in 2012? It took some time, but now this paper has been published as an article in Studies in Visual Arts and Communication – an international journal and is available online for free: http://journalonarts.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/01/SVACij-Vol1_No2_2014-delaIGLESIA_Martin-Presence_in_comics.pdf

Here’s the abstract:

The term ‘presence’ is often used to denote a trait of an artwork that causes the feeling in a viewer  that a depicted figure is a living being that is really there, although the viewer is aware that this is not actually the case. So far, scholars who have used this term have not explicitly provided criteria for the assessment of the degree of presence in a work of art. However, such criteria are implicitly contained in a number of theoretical texts. Three important criteria for presence appear to be:
1. size – the larger a figure is depicted, the more likely this artwork will instil a feeling of presence.
2. deixis – the more the work is deictically orientated towards the beholder, e.g. if figures seem to look or point at the beholder, the higher the degree of presence.
3. obtrusiveness of medium – if there is a clash of different diegetic levels within an artwork, the degree of presence is reduced.

These criteria can be readily applied to a single image like a painting or a photograph. A comic, however, consists of multiple images, and the presence of each panel is influenced by the panels that surround it by means of contrast and progression. Another typical feature of comics is written text: speech bubbles, captions etc. do not co-exist with the drawings on the same diegetic level, thus betraying the mediality of their panels and reducing their degree of presence. A comic that makes striking use of effects of presence, which makes it a suitable example here, is the superhero series The Ultimates by Mark Millar and Bryan Hitch (Marvel 2002 – 2004). The characters in this comic are often placed on splash pages and/or seemingly address the reader, resulting in a considerable experience of presence.


Some notes from the 33rd Kunsthistorikertag, Mainz, March 24-28, 2015

photograph by Peter Pulkowski from www.uni-mainz.de

Kunsthistorikertag, the conference of the German society of art historians (VDK), takes place every two years and is one of those huge events with hundreds of participants and up to four parallel tracks. I won’t even try to sum up all the talks I’ve heard. Instead I’ll just pick one ‘highlight’ from each of the five conference days with some connection to sequential art and/or Japan.

  • Tuesday: One of the three parallel talks that kicked off the conference was Miguel Taín Guzmán on “The views of the cities of Spain drawn by the Florentine artist Pier Maria Baldi [ca. 1630-1686]: the codex of the journey of prince Cosimo III of Medici in the Laurenziana Library” (one of the few presentations in English by the way). The codex consists of a written account of the prince’s journey, interspersed with 86 ink drawings of cities and other stations of the journey. Some of these drawings not only depict the place, but also a specific situation at the time of the prince’s visit: Cosimo’s travel procession, camels at Aranjuez, a thunderstorm over Santiago de Compostela, etc. In this huge book of 60×100cm, the drawings are arranged on double pages with two drawings on top of each other. As the placement of the drawings corresponds to the chronology of the journey, one could speak of juxtaposed images in deliberate sequence… Some of the digitised drawings can be seen at http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/Category:Pier_Maria_Baldi, and there’s also a huge PDF of a book reprint.
  • Wednesday: Irene Schütze examined the exhibitions of Jeff Koons, Takashi Murakami and Joana Vasconcelos at the Palace of Versailles in 2008, 2010, and 2012, respectively. It was the only talk at the conference, at least of the ones I heard, that mentioned manga: apparently, Murakami “learnt about Versailles through the girls’ comic book Rose of Versailles” (Riyoko Ikeda’s ベルサイユのばら / Berusaiyu no bara, also known as Lady Oscar), a quote (published in various places, e.g. The Independent) which has been used against him by his critics.
  • Thursday: Christian Berger re-introduced the almost forgotten conceptual artist Douglas Huebler (1924-1997). Many of his works consist of photographs accompanied by writing (or vice versa?). Compared to other conceptualists, the form in which he presents his images and texts is much more important and might even be considered as the artwork itself, not merely a documentation of some photography performance as the ‘actual’ work. Location Piece #5, for instance, is a series of ten pictures of patches of snow next to a highway, taken on a road trip in specific distances, as the text explains. Talk about juxtaposed images in deliberate sequence again.
  • Friday: Helmut Leder and Raphael Rosenberg presented results of someone else’s study which tracked eye movements of people from Austria and Japan who where looking at a digital reproduction of the same painting. The paths of the eye movements and the areas on which they focused were similar within the group of Austrian participants on the one hand and within the group of Japanese participants on the other hand, but there were notable differences between the Austrian and the Japanese average. For Rosenberg, this proves the cultural influence on perceptual physiology.
  • Saturday: On the last day of the conference, several field trips were offered. I joined the one to Tadao Andō‘s sculpture museum in Bad Münster am Stein. It consists mainly of Andō’s signature concrete blocks with their characteristic hole pattern, but the building is unusual for him in that it combines an old, relocated half-timbered barn with the new concrete parts. The guide at the museum suggested the concrete blocks were modeled after tatami mats, which might be true for their measurements (90×180cm), but the pattern in which they are arranged in the museum walls differs from traditional Japanese tatami floor layouts.