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: ● ● ○ ○ ○

Arthur Danto’s Transfiguration of the Commonplace – in comics?

Arthur Danto’s The Transfiguration of the Commonplace. A Philosophy of Art (Harvard University Press, 1981) is similar to Nina Zschocke’s Der irritierte Blick in that they both make a specific point while at the same time serving as an introduction to their respective field at large. In the case of Danto’s book, we are given a comprehensive overview of Aesthetics from ancient Greece to the 1970s, although not in chronological order but arranged around the problem that is central to the book: in the light of artworks such as Marcel Duchamp’s Fountain or Andy Warhol’s Brillo Box, which look exactly (for the purposes of this discussion) like objects that are not artworks, what is the difference between these artworks and other urinals / brillo pad boxes (“mere objects”) that makes the former artworks and the latter not?

Danto critically engages with and rejects several theories before tentatively approaching something like his own definition of art: all artworks are to some extent self-referential; “in addition to being about whatever they are about, they are about the way they are about that” (p. 148-9). Put another way, “the way the content is presented in relationship to the content itself is something that must always be taken into consideration in analyzing a work of art” (p. 146-7). Therefore a lot depends on the person that does the presenting – the artist – and the production process. In a way, after the ‘Death of the Author’, he or she is thus resurrected, “as if the work of art were the externalization of the artist who made it, as if to appreciate the work is to see the world through the artist’s sensibility and not just to see the world” (p. 160).

In comics, however, we appear to have the opposite problem. Comics are rarely indistinguishable from mere objects. While a comic book can be used to swat a fly and a tankōbon put under a leg of an uneven table, the person (ab)using comics in such a way is aware that they are not mere flyswatters or furniture wedges. Instead, for many people (including some scholarly authors) a comic can change its form – e.g. from pamphlet to trade paperback to digital – and remain the same work.

Consider this example: below you see a photograph of a 4-panel comic by Reza Farazmand titled “Stereotype”.

It’s printed on a 17.7 × 17.7 cm paper page bound into a 200-page softcover book (Poorly Drawn Lines. Good Ideas and Amazing Stories, Plume 2015).

Compare this to the following screenshot:

Apart from minor differences such as the page number in the first picture and the URL “poorlydrawnlines.com” in the second, these two comics look pretty much the same, right? Wrong. The second comic has different dimensions (depending on my browser settings – currently I’ve blown it up to 24 × 24 cm), its colour shades are different (depending on my computer screen settings), light is reflected differently off its surface, it even glows by itself… Not to mention the different feel and smell. And yet, most people would say both are the same comic, “Stereotype” by Reza Farazmand.

Would Danto agree? Does he even consider two copies of a multiple to be the same work of art, two copies of a book for instance? He does, e.g. on p. 33:

I can, for example, burn up a copy of the book in which a poem is printed, but it is far from clear that in so doing I have burned up the poem, since it seems plain that though the page was destroyed, the poem was not; and though it exists elsewhere, say in another copy, the poem cannot merely be identical with that copy. For the same reason, it cannot be identified with the pages just burned. […] Often enough poets and philosophers have thought of artworks as thus only tenuously connected with their embodiments.

Doesn’t this contradict the emphasis Danto puts on “the way the content is presented” (see above)? Or doesn’t he count himself among the “poets and philosophers” who dismiss the physical form of an artwork? On p. 93-94 it looks like he does:

Cohen has supposed that Duchamp’s work is not the urinal at all but the gesture of exhibiting it; and the gesture, if that indeed is the work, has no gleaming surfaces to speak of […]. But certainly the work itself has properties that urinals themselves lack: it is daring, impudent, irreverent, witty, and clever.

How can this contradiction be resolved? On the one hand, we could interpret “the way the content is presented” as something that doesn’t have to be physical. On the other hand, Danto says on p. 113: “Interpretation consists in determining the relationship between a work of art and its material counterpart” – so a work of art necessarily has a material counterpart, and (if “analyzing” and “interpretation” can be considered equivalent) this material counterpart is essential for grasping the artwork.

I’m not a literary critic, but I think the problem here lies in the very different nature of poems (in the above example) and artistic artifacts such as sculpture (with which most other examples are concerned), or perhaps in the different perspectives of literary criticism and art history: for the literary critic, a poem remains the same work no matter if it is printed in a book or read aloud at a reading. For the art historian, the same content presented in two different media (e.g. the same view painted in oil and printed from a photograph, or perhaps photographed using two different cameras) constitute two different works. That’s why Danto’s theory doesn’t quite work for his poetry example, but it does work well for Duchamp’s Fountain for which its gleaming surface is a vital property.

And this distinction places us accidentally but directly into the current state of Comics Studies. We always like to think of our field as a place where scholars from vastly different disciplines gather to harmoniously discuss the same objects – but for some of us, they’re not the same objects. The way I understand Danto, he would interpret both the paper page of the first “Stereotype” example and the computer screen of the second as their respective self-referential setup.

Let’s think this example through: if paper and screen are “the way they [i.e. artworks] are about” something, what is it that “Stereotype” is about? There are, of course, many possible correct answers to that. You could say it’s about a wizard and another guy. You could also say it’s about political correctness gone too far when ‘racist’ is used as a ‘killer argument’ or ‘moral bludgeon’, even in situations when it isn’t applicable (unless you consider ‘wizards’ a race – see the comment thread on poorlydrawnlines.com for that…). Let’s go with that. If we take it as a socio-critical statement, it’s easy to imagine how, as a webcomic, “Stereotype” gets shared by readers who want to make the same statement, e.g. sending the link or graphic to a friend who is of the same (or opposite) opinion. Farazmand seems to have anticipated this kind of distribution of his webcomics and encourages it by putting the source reference “poorlydrawnlines.com” in the bottom right corner and offering “Share” buttons below.

However, when printing “Stereotype” in a book, the ‘way it is about political correctness’ is a different one. The comic is now part of product that costs money; purchasing a copy of the book is a way for the customer to say: I get Farazmand’s message, I agree with it, I want to support him by buying his book, and I want to spread the message by displaying the book on my shelf (or reading it on the train or whatever). In order to enable this kind of interaction, Farazmand creates and compiles comics that form part of a coherent message, or authorial voice, or persona, which is situated firmly in the political (moderate) left but also pokes fun at its own milieu (more straightforward comics such as this one, also included in the book, notwithstanding). This kind of coherence is far less important when putting a comic online, where it can be perceived (and disseminated further) in isolation – and for free.

All that being said, there isn’t much in Transfiguration of the Commonplace that is directly applicable to comics, but for anyone interested in readymades or philosophy of art, it’s required reading.

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

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.


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)