Linda Hutcheon’s Postmodernism – in comics?

There have already been five posts about postmodernism on this weblog, so why a sixth one? Linda Hutcheon’s 1988 book A Poetics of Postmodernism: History, Theory, Fiction is interesting because it directly engages in a dialogue – or should I say, argument – with previous texts on postmodernism such as Fredric Jameson’s.

Hutcheon defines postmodernism as:

  • “fundamentally contradictory”,
  • “resolutely historical”, and
  • “inescapably political” (p. 4, my emphasis).

This seems to contradict Jameson’s and other authors’ view of postmodernism as ahistorical and depthless. But what exactly does Hutcheon mean by ‘historical’ and ‘political’?

The treatment of the past in postmodern works is indeed different from earlier, modernist works. Postmodernism “suggests no search for transcendent timeless meaning, but rather a re-evaluation of and a dialogue with the past in the light of the present. […] It does not deny the existence of the past; it does question whether we can ever know that past other than through its textualized remains.” (pp. 19-20, emphasis LH).

Likewise, the political nature of postmodernism is a complex one, “a curious mixture of the complicitous and the critical” (p. 201). “The basic postmodernist stance [is] a questioning of authority” (p. 202), but at the same time it is also “suspicious of ‘heroes, crusades, and easy idealism’ […]” (p. 203, quoting Bill Buford). “The postmodern is ironic, distanced” (p. 203).

The contradictory nature of postmodernism, on the other hand, is something everyone can agree on. This characteristic seems to be more of a prerequisite for or superordinate concept of the other two.

Hutcheon’s idea of postmodernism is a relatively narrow one. Although she references many examples of postmodernist works (mainly novels), it becomes clear that those examples represent only a part, and probably not a large one at that, of contemporary cultural production. Which brings us to today’s comic, which is not quite as randomly selected as previous examples in this column: it might fit Hutcheon’s criteria (well, see below), but some other comics that have a more ‘postmodern’ feel to them might not.

Brahm Revel’s Guerillas vol. 1 (Oni Press, 2010) opens with a quotation attributed to French Prime Minister Georges Clemenceau (1841–1929). The first words of the comic proper are in a caption box that says, “Vietnam, 1970.” For the next 50 pages, the story follows John Francis Clayton, an “FNG” (Fucking New Guy) in a military unit in the Vietnam War. Revel pays a lot of attention to detail, such as military equipment and jargon. There are references to historic figures like Richard Nixon or Jane Goodall. And the depicted events are typical of what is commonly known about the Vietnam War: U.S. soldiers raping native women, torching villages, falling victim to the Viet Cong’s guerilla tactics, etc.

All of this serves to create a sense of historical accuracy. While the story narrated by Clayton can with some certainty be identified as fictional, the events just might have happened as depicted, in Vietnam, in 1970.

Then there’s a rupture around p. 56, at the end of the first chapter, when the chimpanzees are introduced, a rogue squad of trained apes equipped and dressed as U.S. soldiers, who fight against the Viet Cong on their own. Chapter 2 tells their origin as an experiment conducted by scientists (of German descent, of course). The chimpanzees exhibit a mix of human and animal behaviour; they thump their chests but smoke cigarettes.

This appears to be the contradiction that is central to Guerillas: the outlandish, ‘unrealistic’ motif of the scientifically enhanced apes clashes with an historically accurate, ‘realistic’ setting. While the beginning of this comic might be read as Revel’s version of what really happened in Vietnam, the story of the chimpanzees can hardly be interpreted this way: here we’re clearly in the realm of fiction, or entertainment, or fantasy. Of course, earlier fantasy and science fiction stories have used similar setups (e.g. Bram Stoker’s Dracula). However, the main difference is that in those classic stories, the authors went to great lengths to make the improbable seem plausible and fit into the realistic setting, whereas it’s harder to suspend one’s disbelief when reading Guerillas (not least because we’re reading it with the experience of many of those older similar stories).

According to Hutcheon, such a treatment of the past tells us something about the present, and this is also where the political nature of the work comes from. It is unreasonable to assume that the depiction of the grimness of the Vietnam War is a protest against, reassessment of, or coming-to-terms with it, given that the comic was made over 30 years after the end of the war. The ostensible reason for the Vietnam setting is that it makes more sense to deploy chimpanzee soldiers in the Vietnamese jungle than e.g. in the desert of the Gulf Wars, or in WWII in which the U.S. experience of the tropical regions was dominated by naval and aerial warfare (The Thin Red Line perhaps being the exception that proves the rule). But maybe Guerillas isn’t so time-specific after all. One of its themes is that a man learns from animals what humanity truly is, and this is a message that is relevant regardless of time and place: not unlike Pride of Baghdad by Vaughan and Henrichon, Guerillas can also be read as a commentary on the dehumanising effects of the war in Iraq, and by extension also Afghanistan and any other armed conflict.

But wouldn’t this – i.e. extrapolating from the specific to the universal – be a rather modernist reading? Indeed, Guerillas doesn’t seem to be the ideal example of Hutcheon’s postmodernism, but then again, few comics would meet her criteria without reservation. Still, Guerillas comes close. One can easily imagine how it might have qualified if Revel had made some different choices, e.g. if the protagonist would have been made identifiable as a real person (thus creating a contradiction between the genres of biography and fiction, cf. Hutcheon p. 9), or if the chimpanzee experiment would have been based on more advanced science and technology (thus creating a contradiction between different time layers, cf. Hutcheon p. 5). The resulting work would have been postmodern in Hutcheon’s sense, but whether it would have been a better comic is another question.

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.