Nina Zschocke’s visual irritation – in comics?

Happy Women’s History Month, everyone! Last year I realised I had written only one single blog post about a female art historian / scholar / theoretician, so this year I scheduled two posts on women (that I would have written anyway) for March. This first one is about a German book that was published only ten years ago, Der irritierte Blick: Kunstrezeption und Aufmerksamkeit by Nina Zschocke. Unfortunately there doesn’t seem to be an English translation of it yet. The title can be roughly translated as, “The irritated gaze: art reception and attention” (albeit “irritated” in the sense of “confused”, not “annoyed”).

The first ~70 pages of Der irritierte Blick form an introduction to reception aesthetics and its psychological prerequisites. This first part is well worth reading in itself, but the second part introduces Zschocke’s concept of visual irritation with which we’ll deal today. Recipients are visually irritated when they “think their visual interpretation is ‘wrong’ because it contradicts other assumptions or information about the perceived situation” (all translations mine). Within visual irritations, those that contradict basic rules of perception acquired during childhood (regarding the formal attributes of colour, shape and space) can be distinguished from phenomena that contradict assumptions “of a higher level”, i.e. regarding the perceived content. Another distinction can be made between stable “illusions” and multistable phenomena: multistability occurs when several mutually exclusive interpretations appear equally plausible. In any case, the viewer sooner or later experiences a sense of failed perception and irritation.

Zschocke’s point is that visual irritation is an artistic strategy. Contemporary artists (Zschocke examines the examples of Josef Albers, Anish Kapoor, and Thomas Demand, among others) deliberately compose their works in such a way that the recipients are astonished, their perceptual sensitivity is heightened and their attention is turned back on itself, so that they are encouraged to reflect on the act of perception.

Does visual irritation occur in comics too? A prime example of a visually irritating comic might be L’Oud Silencieux (Die Schweigende Laute / “the silent oud” or “lute”) by Martin tom Dieck (L’Association, 1996). This wordless 22-page comic has a page layout of two panels on top of each other. From the panel transitions it soon becomes clear that the horizontal connections across pages are stronger than the vertical ones on the same page. In other words, the upper panels tell one story (a man playing an oud) and the lower panels another (a man dreaming of some sort of fairy).

p. 4 from Martin tom Dieck's L'Oud Silencieux

p. 4 from Martin tom Dieck’s L’Oud Silencieux

So far, so interesting. While the two stories seem entirely unconnected at first, it is fun to look for similarities between them. For instance, both men watch television at some point. Furthermore, one man falls asleep and wakes again when (i.e. on the same page as) the other stops and starts playing his oud.

The real point of visual irritation occurs on the fourth page: on the top panel, the oud player sits on his rooftop, while on the lower panel we see the other man’s television. The funny thing is, the television screen shows the oud player on the rooftop from the top panel. So clearly the two stories are connected after all. However, what is their exact chronological or spatial relation? I can’t think of a single completely satisfying explanation. For instance, the upper story cannot be a film that is shown on the TV in the lower story, because when the man in the lower story wakes up (p. 20), his TV is blank instead of showing what’s going on in the upper panel. Thus L’Oud Silencieux contradicts the reader’s assumptions about comics, as the sequence of images in a comic is usually thought to be “intended to convey information”, as Scott McCloud’s famous definition says. (The second part of this quote, “… and/or to produce an aesthetic response in the viewer”, is often forgotten.) Ultimately, the recipient is left visually irritated and, perhaps, pleasantly amazed.

[EDIT: Speaking of Martin tom Dieck, another “multistable” comic is his Hundert Ansichten der Speicherstadt, because one cannot decide whether it depicts the real warehouse district in Hamburg or not. I have written about this ambiguity in a conference paper from 2011, albeit without having read Zschocke’s book back then.]

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

Jamie-Lee Kriewitz, “manga singer”?

photograph from The Voice of Germany by ProSiebenA couple of weeks ago, a headline in a local German newspaper caught my eye: “Manga singer wins The Voice of Germany” (a television talent show similar to Idol(s)/Superstar). What on earth could a “manga singer” be? Maybe someone who writes songs about manga stories? There is one German YouTuber I know of, Daniela Winkler a.k.a. Horrorkissen, who sings not only cover versions of anime theme songs but also her own songs about anime characters, cosplayers, etc.

Jamie-Lee Kriewitz, the aforementioned “manga singer”, does no such things as far as I know. Instead, her designation as “manga singer” (sometimes also “manga voice” or “manga girl”) in the media seems to be based on three other things:

  1. According to one newspaper article I’ve found, she likes to draw manga, and she is pictured drawing something (in a photograph provided by her television channel). Unlike Daniela Winkler, however, I don’t think she has published any manga, and there’s no connection between her manga drawing and her singing.
  2. Jamie-Lee Kriewitz said she is a fan of K-pop, i.e. pop music from South Korea. This has very little to do with manga, but some journalists still manage to link together Kriewitz’s music to “animation film pop” to anime to J-pop to her K-pop endorsement.
  3. Something all media outlets comment on are her stage outfits, which are apparently inspired by Japanese fashion – particularly Decora style, or Decora Kei. I have to take Kriewitz’s word for it because I can’t tell all the Japanese fashion styles apart, but the funny thing is that her clothes form the basis on which the media draw the connection to manga. On her first The Voice performance, she wore a hooded sweater modeled after Stitch from Lilo & Stich – i.e. a character from an animated film, not even from a comic – and this seems to have triggered an amalgamation of “Japan” and “animation” into “manga” in some people’s heads. This idea was further cemented at the Voice of Germany season final on which one of the coaches wore a Dragon Ball outfit as an allusion to Kriewitz’s style. She also said she cosplays at conventions, but her stage outfits aren’t strictly speaking cosplay in the sense that she portrayed a particular character (let alone a manga character).

photograph from The Voice of Germany, ProSieben

So Jamie-Lee Kriewitz’s “manga singer” denomination stands on shaky ground, to say the least. But I bet we’ll hear a lot more of that sort when she competes in the German preliminaries for the Eurovision Song Contest on February 25.

Exhibition review: Going West!

entrance of Wilhelm Busch Museum, Hanover, with "Going West!" exhibition bannerAfter having been shown in Basel, Troisdorf, Backnang and Dortmund, the exhibition “Going West! Der Blick des Comics Richtung Westen” (“comics look West”) can now be seen in Hannover until February 21, 2016. After that it will travel on to Wadgassen (April-June 2016).

The American West is understood broadly here, meaning not only ‘cowboys and Indians’ stories, but also settings like the giant trees of Yosemite (exemplified by a Katzenjammer Kids page by Rudolph Dirks from 1909) or the Arizona desert landscapes of George Herriman’s Krazy Kat. That being said, the exhibition tells the history of Western comics from both sides of the Atlantic from the early to the late 20th century.

All of the comics exhibits are either original drawings or original publications, i.e. fortunately there are no enlarged reproductions as in some other comics shows. I was particularly fond of some pages from Bob Powell’s story “Vigilante Hideout” from 1951, of which both original drawings and the original comic book are on display. Another highlight is a huge Sunday page of Hal Foster’s Prince Valiant from 1965 (in which Prince Arn returns to America).

While there is an impressive amount of early newspaper strips and other old comics to see, the exhibition stops short with a section on avant-garde/underground “post-western” comics such as Kyle Baker’s Cowboy Wally Show. It would have been interesting to look at more ‘traditional’ or ‘mainstream’ contemporary Western comics, e.g. the All-Star Western relaunch from The New 52, and examine why there doesn’t seem to be any more demand for them.

2 panels from Kyle Baker's The Cowboy Wally Show

Generally I felt the exhibition could have done more to discuss the intricate temporal dynamics of Western comics (and Western fiction in general), which are set in diverse levels of time: distant past (e.g. Prince Valiant, Oumpah-pah), the relatively recent past of the classic “Old West” (i.e. ca. 1850-1900), the present (Tintin, Greg’s Rock Derby)* and even the future (Hermann’s Jeremiah). In film, for instance, there’s a discourse around the problematic term “Spätwestern” (“late Western”), which may or may not be identical with what Wikipedia calls “Revisionist Western“. How do these concepts work in comics?

All things considered, though, this is the most enjoyable comics exhibition I have seen in a long time.

Rating: ● ● ● ● ○

*Sadly, Derib’s Red Road is not on display in the exhibition, but it is featured in the (massive) catalogue.

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

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

photograph by Peter Pulkowski from

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, 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.

Conference report: The Translation and Adaptation of Comics, Hildesheim, 31 Oct–2 Nov 2014

detail from conference posterTwo weeks ago, a conference on The Translation and Adaptation of Comics brought together scholars from comics studies and translation studies, as well as other fields. Without further ado, I’ll sum up all the talks here (except for 5 that I didn’t attend due to parallel sessions, plus the poster presentations, plus my own paper – I’ll announce its publication in a separate post).

The opening keynote was given by Klaus Kaindl, who has also published a book on comics translation. In his talk (and also in his book), he asked the question, What can translation studies learn from comics? [All title translations are mine – most papers were given in German.] He argues for an integral notion of comics translation studies that is concerned with comic-specific aspects. Kaindl identifies the translation of images as a desideratum in the context of the iconic/pictorial/visual turn. Three categories are central to the translation of comics: genre (for Kaindl, manga and webcomics are genres, too), mode (comics are multimodal, i.e. they combine verbal and non-verbal elements, but so does any written text too), and medium (medium-specific aspects need to be considered when analysing adaptations, not “loss” or “faithfulness”).

Next was conference organiser Nathalie Mälzer, who evaluated taxonomies of image-text-relations in comics, more precisely those of Scott McCloud and Klaus Kaindl’s aforementioned book. Three different levels are mixed up in both taxonomies, which should be considered separately: spatial (ratio of image to text in a panel), syntactical (references to other panels, e.g. text and image belonging to different points in time), and semantic (e.g. text confirming the image, text expanding the image, or no semantic connection between text and image at all).

Susanne Pauer analysed the translation of onomatopoeia in comics. She defined comics onomatopoeia as any sound-imitating words in a comic, regardless of whether they appear in a speech bubble or as sound effects integrated into the drawing. I guess that makes sense from a language-oriented point of view. Another thing I noticed about translation scholars is a tendency to make quality judgements about translation examples; thus Pauer spoke of “bad”, “pleasing”, or “faulty” translations etc. [EDIT: see comments.]

In his paper Reading comics, reading cultures?, David Orrego-Carmona presented preliminary results from a study involving a questionnaire survey and an eye-tracking experiment. In this experiment, the researchers compared the reception of “domesticated” and “foreignized” versions of manga translated into Spanish, the former containing original Spanish words in the place of Japanese words (e.g. “tortilla” instead of “okonomiyaki”). The main finding is that foreignized manga require a higher cognitive load and result in less comprehension – even though the participants were already experienced manga readers.

The first day of the conference ended with Carsten Sinner presenting another translatological reception study as a basis of assessing successful translations, using the Argentinian comic Mafalda. According to Sinner, the opinions of many non-experts should be given more weight than those of few individual scholars. Therefore his study involved around 20 participants per target language.

Mathias Bremgartner kicked off the second day with a talk on comics in the theatre, and specifically the stage adaptation of the manga Barefoot Gen. This play premiered in Düsseldorf in 2006 and adapted selected scenes from all four volumes of the manga. The production included projections of found-footage and animated films, spoken-word recording playbacks, and musical numbers. In comparison to the manga, the play shifted the emphasis from criticism of Japan towards criticism of the US. Some of the aesthetics of Barefoot Gen were carried over onto the stage, e.g. the cartoonish simplification of the characters. However, at least in this play, no general comic-specific aesthetics were adapted.

Then Rolf Lohse talked about Joann Sfar’s The Rabbi’s Cat and its adaptations into an animated film and a radio play. One scene in particular, a dream sequence, was compared in all three forms. Some content was left out in the adaptations, possibly in order to downplay sexual and religious elements to widen the target audience.

Sebastian Bartosch did two different things in his talk: on the one hand, he traced appearances of Lewis Carroll’s white rabbit from Alice in Wonderland through different comic adaptations. On the other hand, he looked at Nicolas Mahler’s literature (for lack of a better word – I mean the sort of literature without pictures here. Novels and the like.) adaptations, particularly that of Robert Musil’s The Man Without Qualities, which combines elements from the original novel in a new way. In the discussion it was argued that adaptations should be regarded as works in their own right on the same level as the original works.

Steffen Richter‘s talk on comic storytelling techniques in contemporary German-language literature had been announced in the programme with the subtitle “Christian Kracht und Thomas von Steinaecker”, but in the end it was only about von Steinaecker and not the better-known Kracht. Richter identified four main storytelling techniques in von Steinaecker’s 2009 novel Schutzgebiet which are similar to comics: 1. ekphrastical blocks of text divided by blank lines are the equivalent of panels and gutters; 2. prolepsis (flash-forward) is the equivalent of simultaneous perception of several panels on a page at once; 3. figurative language is similar to pictures in comics; 4. (not sure if this was meant to be part of 3.) repetition in the novel is similar to repetitive elements (panels, characters, stereotypes) in comics.

Posy Simmonds’s Gemma Bovery as a “translation” of Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary was the subject of Florian Trabert‘s talk. Ironically, Flaubert was a staunch opposer of any kind of illustrations in novels. Simmonds’s comic is quite different from a mere illustration of the novel, however. By transferring the story into the present day, it seems more immediate to the readers. As a “meta comic”, a framing narrative is added that has a (possibly unreliable) narrator make explicit references to Flaubert’s novel. The plot significantly deviates when Gemma Bovery dies, in contrast to Madame Bovery.

Maximilian Gröne presented a selection of adaptations of Dante’s Divine Comedy into comics and a video game. The main object of analysis was the “media cluster” Dante’s Inferno from 2010, consisting of a comic by Christos Gage and Diego Latorre Relancio (DC 2009) and a PlayStation 3 / Xbox 360 game (EA 2010). In the comic, the characters are trivialised, textual elements are reduced, and there’s no connection to neither the original wording nor the traditional iconography established by Gustave Doré.

The topic of Janwillem Dubil‘s paper was the British TV series Misfits. Although Misfits is not based on a particular comic, it can be regarded as a “meta comic film” (similar to Unbreakable or Hancock) in that it draws on superhero stories, which of course were popularised through comics. Therefore, one can still speak of a transfer from one medium to another here. Several comic-like elements can be found in Misfits: moments of near motionlessness, artificial imagery such as animated film sequences, display of actual drawn comic panels, and a plot point of magically animating drawings through superpowers.

The last talk on Saturday was Rike Bolte on poetry in comics. In particular, Bolte looked at Julian Peters’s comic Les aventures de Rimbaud (, in which he adapts Arthur Rimbaud’s poem Sensation. While the wording remains unchanged, the pictures give a different impression; for instance, the speaker is invisible in the comic, while the poem emphasises the first person.

Comics conferences often feature comic artists as keynote speakers, so it’s only fitting that a comics translation conference should feature a comics translator – in this case, Gudrun Penndorf, probably the most famous living German comics translator. Everyone in the German-speaking world knows her Astérix translations (she translated every album until the 29th), but fewer know that she also translated the other René Goscinny classics Iznogoud and Lucky Luke. Her career as a comics translator began already in 1966 with Disney comics. In her presentation she focussed on her work on Astérix though, and the difficulties posed by Goscinny’s love for puns. According to Penndorf, the most important things in translating comics are to convey the relevant information and to make the reader smile, rather than retaining the exact wording of the original.

Sunday morning continued with parallel panels. I chose to attend the one in which Caterina Bosco spoke about Translation, Pseudotranslation and Adaptation of the Disney Comics into Italian. It is a well-known fact that today, the majority of Disney comics are produced in Italy rather than the US, but how did the Italian production begin? The first Disney comics in Italy were published in the 1930s. These were translations from American comics at first, but by the 1950s, increasingly original Italian comics appeared in the Italian Disney anthology magazine, Topolino. Due to the lack of credits, which continued until the 1960s, it’s hard to tell them apart though. The situation was further complicated when Disney comics were re-issued with new, re-translated or “pseudo-translated”, text from the 40s/50s onwards.

Hasuria Che Omar presented a paper on the translation of Crayon Shin-Chan in Malaysia. Due to the many cultural taboos in Malaysia – sex, bodily functions, morbidity – both the textual and the pictorial content of comics need to be altered to become acceptable at all. In the case of Crayon Shin-Chan, such changes can be quite extensive, of course. Often attempts are made to preserve the humour by substituting the original gag for a more harmless one. It is the “social responsibility” of translators that makes them perform this kind of alterations, not the fear of judicial consequences. Only in rare cases are Malaysian translators who fail to perform this duty declared “sinners” by religious authorities.

Archaic language in historical comics was examined by Frank Paulikat. Using the examples of Les Aigles décapitées, The Towers of Bois-Maury, and Les Compagnons du crépuscule, he showed that the archaic French used in these comics doesn’t quite match the actual historical French spoken at the time in which these comics are set (the High Middle Ages). The official German translations of these comics, however, don’t even try to retain the archaic outlook of the original texts.

Sylvia Jaki‘s talk on translation of humour in comics concluded the conference. She compared Calvin & Hobbes to Mutts: while the humour of the former is based on (often purely visual) incongruity, the latter more often relies on puns and language-games. In the German translation of Calvin & Hobbes, footnotes may provide explanations for US-specific references. In Mutts, punchlines can even get lost in translation altogether, as they are not found in every strip of the original comic, so readers are already used to the lack of gags.

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.