Article “Has Akira Always Been a Cyberpunk Comic?” published

Earlier this year I gave a talk at MSU Comics Forum, and now a journal article based on that talk has already been published:

Has Akira Always Been a Cyberpunk Comic?
Arts 7(3), https://doi.org/10.3390/arts7030032

Here’s the abstract again:

Between the late 1980s and early 1990s, interest in the cyberpunk genre peaked in the Western world, perhaps most evidently when Terminator 2: Judgment Day became the highest-grossing film of 1991. It has been argued that the translation of Katsuhiro Ōtomo’s manga Akira into several European languages at just that time (into English beginning in 1988, into French, Italian, and Spanish beginning in 1990, and into German beginning in 1991) was no coincidence. In hindsight, cyberpunk tropes are easily identified in Akira to the extent that it is nowadays widely regarded as a classic cyberpunk comic. But has this always been the case? When Akira was first published in America and Europe, did readers see it as part of a wave of cyberpunk fiction? Did they draw the connections to previous works of the cyberpunk genre across different media that today seem obvious? In this paper, magazine reviews of Akira in English and German from the time when it first came out in these languages will be analysed in order to gauge the past readers’ genre awareness. The attribution of the cyberpunk label to Akira competed with others such as the post-apocalyptic, or science fiction in general. Alternatively, Akira was sometimes regarded as an exceptional, novel work that transcended genre boundaries. In contrast, reviewers of the Akira anime adaptation, which was released at roughly the same time as the manga in the West (1989 in Germany and the United States), more readily drew comparisons to other cyberpunk films such as Blade Runner.

Read the article online for free at http://www.mdpi.com/2076-0752/7/3/32.

Fun fact: this is my 10th publication (not counting reviews, translations, and articles related to my library ‘day job’)! Find them all here: https://www.bibsonomy.org/cv/user/iglesia

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Exhibition review: Craving for New Pictures, Berlin

Whenever there’s an exhibition with a (sub)title like “From Broadsheet to Comic Strip”, the question for the comic aficionado is: how much comics is there really? As a history museum, the aim of the Deutsches Historisches Museum (DHM) is to show how printed pictures changed the way ideas are communicated (with a focus on sensational news, propaganda, and education, the three sections in which the exhibition is organised). Thus the exhibits span from late medieval woodcuts to present day political cartoons, and such a wide time frame leaves little room for comics, of course. (There’s also a marked but neither exclusive nor explicit emphasis on Germany.)

Still, some items on display are noteworthy in this context. The earliest are broadsheet picture stories from the mid-nineteenth century – maybe not quite comics yet, but see Andreas Platthaus’s analysis of one of them in his opening speech which was also published in English.

Next to them we have a small section of early American newspaper comic strips (shown as facsimiles), and within it there’s the highlight of the whole show: two Katzenjammer Kids episodes, translated into German and published in Lustige Blätter des Morgen-Journals in 1905 and 1908 (!), respectively. Not quite as early but still remarkable is a German collected book edition of Felix the Cat from 1927.

Famous but seldom exhibited is Pablo Picasso’s two-part etching, Sueño y mentira de Franco (1937), also mentioned by Platthaus.

At the end of the education section there are three examples of the best-selling comic magazines in postwar Germany: Micky Maus #1 (a copy of the valuable original magazine is on display), Fix und Foxi from 1956 (original drawings by Werner Hierl plus published pages) and part of a 1974 Digedags story from Mosaik (drawings + published pages). As interesting as these comics may be, though, I find it hard to see the connection between them and the overall exhibition topic.

That being said, it’s still an exhibition worth visiting if your interest is not limited to comics alone, because there are many fascinating non-comic prints to see. Furthermore, the DHM currently also hosts the excellent and much larger show, 1917. Revolution. Russia and Europe, so your overall museum visiting experience might be better than my rating below suggests.

Craving for New Pictures: From Broadsheet to Comic Strip at Deutsches Historisches Museum, Berlin, is still open until the 8th April 2018.

Rating: ● ● ○ ○ ○

Sascha L., islamist and Dragon Ball fan?

“This is you when you watch a new chapter of Dragon Ball Super”

Due to internet connection problems, The 650-Cent Plague had been on hiatus for some weeks, but now it’s back with another anime-related news item that I just can’t resist to share. In an otherwise serious and sad story, here’s a hilarious detail that doesn’t seem to have been picked up by any other media on the web: last month, the trial of Sascha L. from Northeim (Germany) began, a former supporter of the Islamic State who had built a bomb which he planned to use against German policemen or soldiers. This part of the story is well known and had also been reported in international media (e.g. Washington Post).

The regional daily newspaper, Braunschweiger Zeitung, revealed some details of the court hearing in an article by Johannes Kaufmann in its September 21 issue (not freely available online), including this one (my translation):

By now he [Sascha L.] would have renounced all radical plans, and he would be ready to participate in an opt-out program. Why, then, had he put up a flag of the Islamic State and an oath of allegiance to the ‘caliph’ Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi in his cell, assessor Petra Bock-Hamel wanted to know. ‘I don’t like white walls,’ was Sascha L.’s reply. After speaking to a psychologist he would have actually wanted to take the IS flag down, ‘but then there was Dragon Ball Super on television, and unfortunately I forgot about it.’ Later, judicial officers had photographed the walls of his cell – with flag and oath.

Several things are remarkable about Sascha L.’s statement, but the most striking of all is the way in which it is reported in the newspaper article: no explanation at all is given what “Dragon Ball Super” actually is. As comic experts, we know that it is a current anime series by Akira Toriyama, a sequel to his earlier series Dragon Ball / Dragon Ball Z, and even if we haven’t watched it ourselves, we have some idea what Toriyama’s art style looks like and what the story is about. But how many of the newspaper readers would know? One might have expected at least a gloss in brackets such as “… Dragon Ball Super [a Japanese animated series] on television…”, but no more is said about that subject in the article.

By leaving readers in the dark, Kaufmann relegates the nature of the TV show in question to an unimportant aspect – which it most likely is. But there are probably quite a few readers who wonder: what is this TV program that has the power to distract viewers from important tasks? And is there something about this Dragon Ball Super show that makes it particularly appealing to islamists? Then again, maybe we should be thankful for every moral panic that did not happen. One can all too easily imagine alternative newspaper headlines for the same subject along the lines of: “JAPANESE CARTOON CREATES ISLAMIST BOMBERS”…


Marcel H., anime killer?

This is the second blog post of a series on the occasion of ‘100 Years of Anime’. Read the first post here.

On this day three months ago, the memorial service for Jaden F. was held in Herne, Germany. Jaden had been the first of two victims stabbed to death by Marcel H., whom the media has linked to anime. One German news magazine in particular, Stern (No. 12, March 16), has emphasised the ostensible connections of the murders to anime.

The events were also covered by international media (e.g. Daily Mail, Telegraph, Independent), but none of them even mentioned anime. Therefore, the (thankfully limited and short-lived) ‘moral panic’ regarding anime doesn’t seem to have reached the Anglophone anime blogosphere either, which is why I’ll sum up the story here.

These are the facts: Marcel H. is a 19-year old NEET who had unsuccessfully applied to join the Army in February. On March 6, he lured the nine-year old neighbours’ son into his house and killed him with a knife. Then he went to an acquaintance’s, 22-year old Christopher W., and killed him early in the morning on March 7. Marcel H. stayed at Christopher W.’s apartment until March 9, when he set it on fire, went to a Greek diner, told the owner to call the police, and let himself be arrested.

So far, these events have nothing to do with anime. But Barbara Opitz and Lisa McMinn, the authors of the Stern article, point out the following details: when Marcel H. was arrested at the diner, he carried an umbrella and a bag of onions with him. These items are mentioned in other news articles too, but only Stern offers an explanation, according to which the umbrella and the onions refer to two cards from the Yu-Gi-Oh! Trading Card Game, “Rain of Mercy” and “Glow-Up Bulb” (“Aufblühende Blumenzwiebel” in German; “Zwiebel” can also mean “onion”), respectively. Furthermore, on one of the pictures Marcel posted online on which he poses with a knife, a poster of the anime series Yu-Gi-Oh! GX can be seen in the background. (Interestingly, in the Daily Mail article, the image – pictured below on the right hand side – was altered so that the poster doesn’t refer to Yu-Gi-Oh! anymore.)

Another connection to Yu-Gi-Oh! is Christopher W., Marcel H.’s second victim, who ran a Yu-Gi-Oh! site on Facebook; apparently they got to know each other through the game and used to play Yu-Gi-Oh! video games together. Finally, Stern points out that there are two characters in the Yu-Gi-Oh! anime with the same first names as Marcel H. and Jaden F.: Yu-Gi-Oh! GX protagonist Jaden Yuki and his antagonist Marcel Bonaparte. Stern implies that Marcel H. identified with the villain and acted out the Yu-Gi-Oh! story by attacking Jaden. The only detail that doesn’t quite fit is that the Stern article also says that Marcel H. had been learning Japanese in order to be able to read manga and watch anime in their original language; in the Japanese original version of Yu-Gi-Oh! GX, however, Jaden is called “Jūdai” and Marcel “Marutan” or “Martin”.

Apart from the Yu-Gi-Oh! connection, there’s not much that links Marcel H. to anime. Some chat messages have surfaced in which Marcel H. talks to another person about the murders at the time when he committed them, and in one message he says, “See you space cowboy”, which indeed is a quote from the anime Cowboy Bebop.

The other things mentioned in the Stern article are rather vague connections to Japan than to anime specifically: at the time of committing the murders, Marcel H. posted a picture of a handwritten note on which he had signed his name in Japanese, and he owned “bamboo swords which he kept under his bed like a treasure. Furthermore a wooden bow and five Japanese ceremonial knives” (all translations mine).

The sad and disturbing thing (apart from the murders themselves, of course) is how Stern chose to focus on Marcel H.’s anime fandom, instead of e.g. his obsession with martial arts, computer games, or 4chan (as other news outlets did, sometimes inaccurately calling it “darknet”). For instance, the entire Stern article is titled, “‘Viel Spaß in der Anime-Welt” (“‘Have Fun in the Anime World'”), which isn’t even a quote by Marcel H. but by his unnamed chat partner. The way in which the Stern authors desperately try to link the content of anime to the murderer is simply journalistically unethical: “‘Space Cowboy’ refers to a character from the anime series, ‘Cowboy Bebob’ [sic], in which a hero says sentences like this one: ‘I don’t go to die, but to find out if I’m still alive.’ Marcel H. is obsessed with the world of anime, Japanese animated films, often dark dystopias, the protagonists have spiky hair and shiny, big eyes. […] the heroes […] are often outsiders, but with hidden powers. Quirky, awkward and at the same time infallible. Outsiders like Marcel H.”

Luckily, the Stern article has failed to start a witch hunt on anime fans like the ones that e.g. video gamers and heavy metal fans have had to endure in past decades. But the article shows that anime has still a long way to go before it can be said to be part of the mainstream.


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.