Homi K. Bhabha’s mimicry – in comics?Posted: November 19, 2020 Filed under: review | Tags: colonialism, comics, Devilman, Gō Nagai, Homi K. Bhabha, Japan, manga, mimicry, music, theory, Transculturation, US 3 Comments
Homi K. Bhabha’s 1984 journal article “Of Mimicry and Man: The Ambivalence of Colonial Discourse” is often cited, even though (or perhaps because?) it is a rather opaque, difficult text. In it, he outlines the concept of mimicry, “one of the most elusive and effective strategies of colonial power and knowledge.” Mimicry is a kind of “colonial imitation”: colonised subjects imitating the manners of their colonisers. One of the few examples given by Bhabha, quoting a 19th century text, is the “mimic representation of the British Constitution” in British colonies with its “fancied importance of speakers and maces, and all the paraphernalia and ceremonies of the imperial legislature”. Another is the adoption of the Christian faith and rites.
Mimicry is thus similar to two other postcolonial concepts, transculturation and the contact zone, both of which I have written about elsewhere. Fernando Ortiz’s transculturation is a general framework of cultural exchange, whereas Mary Louise Pratt’s contact zone, developed after Bhabha’s article, focuses on those instances of cultural exchange that take place “in contexts of highly asymmetrical relations of power”. This is also true for mimicry, but in contrast to transculturation and the contact zone, which both stress reciprocity, mimicry only takes in to account one direction of acculturation: from the colonising culture to the colonised.
At first glance, the act of mimicry seems to be something rather objectionable, as if it was fake – a poorly understood but not truly internalised behaviour, worn like a fancy dress which conceals, or is at odds with, the true nature of the colonised. Bhabha’s point, however, is a different one. It is the ambivalence of being “almost the same, but not quite” that “poses an immanent threat” to, “disrupts” and has a “profound and disturbing effect” on colonial authority so that “mimicry is at once resemblance and menace”. At least part of the subversive power of mimicry is due to its effect to point to the colonisers’ hypocrisy when the colonised are e.g. granted a parliament but no actual political participation, or baptism but no equality as Christian brethren.
Is mimicry actually a “strategy”? If so, who actively employs it, the colonisers or the colonised? And why would they want to do it? Bhabha implies that mimicry is voluntarily performed by the colonised as well as encouraged by the colonisers, both parties seeking to benefit from it while being unaware of its drawbacks. If we follow Ortiz, transculturation is inevitable when two cultures meet, which would thus include the process of mimicry in the case of colonial encounters.
Are there any traces of the phenomenon of mimicry to be found in comics, or specifically in manga? Of course, Japan has never been a colony; quite the contrary: for decades, Japan ruled over colonial territories such as Korea and Taiwan, and one could also regard the Japanese settlement of the island of Hokkaidō as a kind of colonisation. Then again, there were times when the relations between the United States and Japan resembled something not unlike a subtle form of colonisation: in the 1850s, the U.S. Navy forcefully “opened” Japan. Unsurprisingly, the first embassy to be established in Japan was the American. From the Meiji period onward, Japan turned to several Western powers, including the U.S., as models for the reform of many aspects of society – e.g. baseball was introduced in Japan at that time. In 1939, Friedrich Sieburg summed up this trend of industrialisation, modernisation, and, ultimately, Westernisation, in his book Die Stählerne Blume: “Whatever its [Japan’s] world politics are going to be, it will always depend on contact with the ‘West’ – and by that, one can by all means understand ‘America’.” (On the other hand, Sieburg also wrote that this modernisation process was what enabled Japan to resist being colonised.) At that time, the Japanese economy relied heavily on oil imported from the United States. Then, of course, after WWII, Japan was under American occupation for almost seven years. (As I show in the aforementioned paper, some of these events, especially the latter, have had a lasting impact on the image of Japan in the Western world which amounts to a kind of Orientalism.) In addition to these influences, throughout the 20th century, the same American cultural influence – some call it ‘cultural imperialism’ – had been at work in Japan as everywhere else in the world. Again, this is not to say that Japan has ever been an American colony, but these look like historical circumstances from which some form of mimicry might well have emerged.
Besides, if the concept of mimicry was only applicable to colonies in the strict political or legal sense, its usefulness would be rather limited. The popularity of Bhabha’s concept, which is invoked in all kinds of contexts, suggests otherwise. Perhaps Bhabha intended to describe a specific historical situation, but as with any methodological concept, I’d like to find out whether it is universally applicable.
So what about manga? Are manga mimicry? It is generally believed that foreigners working in Japan, such as the Englishman Charles Wirgman (1832-1891) and the Frenchman Georges Bigot (1860-1927), have significantly contributed to their formation. ‘Modern’-looking manga with speech bubbles reached maturity in the 1930s, most likely influenced by imported and translated American comic strips such as the wildly popular Bringing Up Father by George McManus.
Our example for today, however, shall be a later manga: the classic Devilman by Gō Nagai from 1972. Looking at its page layouts, we recognise a level of sophistication on par with contemporaneous European and American comics. Instead of earlier layouts in which the usual page was merely a stack of strips with strictly rectangular panels, Nagai uses a vast variety of layouts with different panel shapes, bleeds, splashes, and overlapping speech balloons and sound effects.
However, to explain the formal properties of Devilman with Western influences would be unnecessary and far-fetched. By the year 1972, 25 years had passed since Osamu Tezuka’s Shin Takarajima (New Treasure Island) revolutionised long-form manga – a lot of time for manga to evolve, with each new wave of mangaka building on the accomplishments of the previous one and adding their own innovations. Occasionally, mangaka would turn to Western comics for inspiration, but by and large, manga was (and still is) a self-contained, autonomous system.
Thus, if there is mimicry in Devilman, it is not to be found in its form, but perhaps in its content. In the early 1970s, Japanese attitudes towards the United States were ambiguous: on the one hand, resistance to the American-Japanese Security Treaty coincided with opposition against the Vietnam War to erupt in massive anti-American student protests. On the other hand, American pop- and counter-culture continued to be popular among young Japanese. Which brings us to the most famous scene in Devilman: the “Sabbath”.
In what must be the longest superhero origin story ever, by pages 178-179, Ryo has led his friend Akira to a secret party where people are indulging in frantic dancing, drinking and drug-taking. There is a band playing, which includes two dark-skinned musicians, surely meant to be African Americans. The line-up consists of two electric guitars, drums, electric organ, and an upright bass; there doesn’t seem to be a vocalist. As for the genre of music they are playing, we can only speculate (disregarding the soundtrack of the Devilman anime adaptations, which differ from the manga in the depiction of the band), but this line-up, and the intense, fierce way of playing their instruments, perhaps points to some kind of jazz rock. This genre was quite popular in 70s Japan and spawned several notable Japanese musicians, but for them, America was still the epicentre and point of reference of their music. They aspired to tour the United States and play with American musicians; Ryō Kawasaki even emigrated to New York in 1973.
This is the decisive difference between Japanese comics in 1972 and Japanese jazz rock in 1972: the former has become something completely domestic, while the latter is essentially still something American. Perhaps the entire band in Devilman is meant to be from the U.S. and merely visiting Japan, but then the act of mimicry could be located in the Japanese audience attending the gathering – some of them even wearing typical hippie clothes such as fringed vests. In the spirit of Bhabha, Nagai’s depiction of such mimicry is delightfully ambiguous: unknowingly and in combination with drugs, alcohol and promiscuity, the dancers enter a state of mind that allows demons to possess them, thus bringing about the Black Sabbath. Nagai’s America – as well as the whole Devilman manga – is cool and hip, and at the same time twisted and evil.
As ever so often, Bhabha’s mimicry turns out not to be a radically new concept for something that couldn’t be described otherwise. However, when we look at transculturation processes through the lens of mimicry, we might reach a deeper understanding of them.
Index to all “[theory] – in comics?” posts on this weblog
Comic book reviews, Fête de la Musique edition – part 3: Hellblazer #20-22Posted: July 7, 2018 Filed under: review | Tags: comics, Davide Fabbri, DC, Hellblazer, music, Tim Seeley, US Leave a comment
Here’s one more brief review of a current comic in which music is represented.
The Hellblazer #20-22
Authors: Tim Seeley (writer), Davide Fabbri (penciller), Christian dalla Vecchia (inker), Carrie Strachan (colourist)
Publication Dates: March – May 2018
Pages per issue: 20
Price per issue: $3.99
The music: In this Hellblazer story (“The Good Old Days”), John Constantine’s ex-girlfriend Margaret Ames is possessed by the soul of a criminal that has escaped from hell. John tries to magically locate Margaret through an object, a t-shirt that she had worn. It is a band shirt from John’s old band, Mucous Membrane, and this shirt is the only representation of music in those three issues. But it works remarkably well: not much is disclosed about Mucous Membrane (the members of which were last featured in Hellblazer a couple of issues earlier) except that they hadn’t been particularly successful, as evidenced by John having had “fifty of [these shirts] sitting in a moldy box” and having stayed at “rot holes” at that time. But from our knowledge of John’s background as an angry punk in late 70s England, and from their name, we get a pretty good idea of what their music must have sounded like. Interestingly, the band logo looks slightly different in each issue, event though it’s supposed to be the same shirt and it’s the same art team on all three issues…
The rest: It is a sick joke that DC cancelled Hellblazer just in time for its 30th anniversary special. But the writing had been on the wall for some time. While Tim Seeley (and his predecessor, Simon Oliver) nailed the dialogue more often than not, DC assigned a string of artists to this book who were mediocre at first and then gradually became worse. Which makes me wonder why they bothered to “rebirth” Hellblazer in the first place.
Rating: ● ● ○ ○ ○
Comic book reviews, Fête de la Musique edition – part 2: Black Science #35-36Posted: June 25, 2018 Filed under: review | Tags: Black Science, comics, Image, Matteo Scalera, music, Rick Remender, science fiction, US Leave a comment
This is the second short review blogpost (of three) in which representations of music in current comics are surveyed.
Black Science #35-36
Authors: Rick Remender (writer), Matteo Scalera (artist), Moreno Dinisio (colourist)
Publication Dates: May – June 2018
Pages per issue: 22
Price per issue: $3.99
The music: Dimension-travelling scientist Grant McKay and his ex-wife Sara are stranded at the ‘Interdimensional Institute for Marital Restoration’. In issue #35, said Institute sends Sara to another dimension in which her dream of becoming a musical actress on Broadway has come true. Sara is shown performing in her musical on three panels; musical notes around her speech balloons (plus her dramatic poses) indicate that she’s singing. It’s hard to tell what the music is supposed to sound like – if it is being performed by an orchestra or band, we don’t get to see it. Which says quite a lot about Broadway musicals and the end to which they are invoked here: to Grant and Sara, it doesn’t matter which genre the music belongs to, what the lyrics are about, or whether it is good or bad; the only thing that matters is that Sara has made it to Broadway.
In issue #36 there is another instance of music being performed. Grant and Sara are in a dream-like world in which they attend a wedding party. They meet old friends there, except everything and everyone looks like it’s 1920. Once more the music is depicted in three panels: the first two show wedding guests dancing, and in the background of the third we see the musicians playing; apparently a four-piece jazz band. Interestingly, there are no floating musical notes here, and before the musicians are shown, the only things that indicate music is being played are the dancers and a character prompting Grant and Sara to dance too.
The rest: The series is already announced to end with issue #42, which is a pity. Still, having the same creative team (except for the colourist) create a story of almost 1000 pages is a rare treat nowadays, and it makes for a coherent and homogeneous comic. Black Science is a complex and finely crafted psychological science fiction story – perhaps one of the finest in comic form.
Rating: ● ● ● ● ○
Comic book reviews, Fête de la Musique edition – part 1: Archie #30-31Posted: June 21, 2018 Filed under: review | Tags: Archie, Audrey Mok, comics, Mark Waid, music, US 1 Comment
Fête de la Musique is a worldwide celebration of (live) music that takes place each year on June 21st. In comics, depictions of music abound, and due to the purely visual nature of the comic medium, comic creators have found a vast variety of ways to represent the auditive medium of music. Here are some random examples from current American comic book series.
Authors: Mark Waid & Ian Flynn (writers), Audrey Mok (artist), Kelly Fitzpatrick (colourist)
Publisher: Archie Comic Publications
Publication Dates: April – June 2018
Pages per issue: 20
Price per issue: $3.99
The music: Both the regular cover of #31 and the Adam Gorham variant cover of #30 show Archie Andrews with a guitar, so you can tell already from the outside that music plays a certain role in this comic. In these two issues, the Spring Dance at Riverdale High is on, and Archie – instead of going there with either Betty or Veronica, his perennial love interests – is supposed to play live music there with a backing band. But for various reasons the band doesn’t show up. A replacement is found just in time with Josie and the Pussycats, a band that has its own Archie Comics title but co-exists in the Archie universe. This must be the first time they appear in the main Archie comic though, as Archie is apparently not familiar with them yet.
Despite the frequent occurrence of music in Archie, it’s often depicted unrealistically. The main problem in this particular instance is that Josie and the Pussycats are booked at the last minute, when the event has already begun, but they still seem to perform well with a guitarist and lead singer they have never seen before, let alone rehearsed with. But who knows, maybe “I’ll Never Let You Go”, the song they’re shown performing, is a ubiquitous, easy-to-play standard in the Archie universe, and not the obscure (probably made-up by Waid and Flynn) song it is in the real world. Apart from that, the performing musicians are depicted authentically; even all their instruments are plugged in.
The rest: After some artist shake-ups, a competent team with Mok and Fitzpatrick has been found at last who will hopefully stay around for some time. And even in its third year, Waid’s writing is still rock solid. Except for his tendency to take on big issues and then handle them with a certain heavy-handedness (see also Champions or his current Captain America run): recently it was disability (Betty’s car accident and miraculous recovery), now it’s gun-wielding at a high school. It will be interesting to see how Waid and Flynn resolve this.
Rating: ● ● ● ○ ○
“The Capsule’s Pride (Bikes)”: Bwana remixes Akira soundtrackPosted: April 7, 2016 Filed under: review | Tags: Akira, anime, Bwana, comics, film, manga, music, music video, reception, remakes, video Leave a comment
Bwana, producer of electronic music from Toronto/Berlin, has released an EP titled The Capsule’s Pride (Bikes) (Comicgate reported last week) for which he had rearranged the Akira anime soundtrack into 9 EDM tracks. This EP is available for free both as audio stream and YouTube video playlist. The latter is more interesting in this context: each video consists of a sparsely animated black-and-white still image from Akira. The funny thing is, the images are taken from the manga, not from the anime.
It’s funny because not only music samples were taken from the anime, but also dialogue samples (from the English dub) that directly refer to the major plot difference between the comic and its adaptation: “there is your messiah…” (in both track 1 and 5). At first I thought, whoever made those videos didn’t know the material well. On the other hand, at least two of the videos fit the titles of the corresponding tracks: the video for the title track “Capsule’s Pride (Bikes)” shows Kaneda on his motorcycle (pictured) – his first one, the one he has when he is still leader of the “Capsule” gang – and the video for “K&K (Lovers in the Light)” shows Kei and Kaneda. Another nice touch is that the Canon decal in the former image has been inconspicuously replaced by one bearing Bwana’s name.
Jamie-Lee Kriewitz, “manga singer”?Posted: January 19, 2016 Filed under: review | Tags: anime, comics, cosplay, fashion, German, Jamie-Lee Kriewitz, manga, music, reception, television, The Voice of Germany Leave a comment
A 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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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).
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.
2013: Searching for the music video of the yearPosted: December 21, 2013 Filed under: review | Tags: 2013, chronology, Daft Punk, Get Lucky, music, music video, publishing, reception, record covers, video, year-end review Leave a comment
Something slightly off-topic for the end of the year: this is a translation of a post originally published in German at Perlen der Popgeschichte on December 18.
The historical scholarly disciplines often shy away from judging the immediate past. In contrast to journalism: usually already in December, a lot of magazines publish year-end reviews, e.g. the current issue of Musikexpress (cover-dated January 2014, published on December 12, 2013: “Das war 2013” [“this was 2013”]). Apart from a 29-page chronology and a 12-page list of the “50 records of the year”, it also contains, albeit only on one page, “the songs of the year”.
Which one was the song of the year, actually? In comparison to the previous year, which brought us two all-time hits with “Somebody That I Used to Know” and “Call Me Maybe” (both of which already came out in 2011, but didn’t achieve worldwide fame until 2012), 2013 gives a less clear picture. Possible candidates are, among others, “Thrift Shop” by a rapper named Macklemore (single of the year according to Billboard), “Blurred Lines” by a Robin Thicke (“bestselling single of the year” according to Musikexpress) and “Do I Wanna Know?” by the apparently still existing Arctic Monkeys (ranked 1st in the aforementioned Musikexpress charts).
A lot could be said about those songs and their reception, but there is another song that is maybe still a little bit more entitled to the title “song of the year 2013”: “Get Lucky” by Daft Punk feat. Pharell Williams. “There is no question that Daft Punk have penned the summer hit of the year 2013” (my translation), says Musikexpress and ranks “Get Lucky” 2nd in its year-end charts, after all. For some, that song is timeless, for others (i.e. me) it’s quite an old-fashioned disco funk tune, which nevertheless has somehow proven to be catchy. Perhaps that’s a sign of the times in which errors in taste from the 70s and 80s have almost become acceptable again.
More interesting than the song itself appears to be the accompanying music video. Or is there an official “Get Lucky” video at all? A legitimate question in times of alternative distribution methods. On the one hand, there’s the advertisement clip shown at the Coachella festival for the album Random Access Memories, in which we see, among other things, the two Daft Punk musicians with guest guitarist Nile Rodgers and guest vocalist Pharell Williams, seemingly performing “Get Lucky”. However, this clip only covers 1:40 of the 4 minutes of the song. On the other hand, a 47-second preview for the video of the official remix was published on the YouTube channel of the record label. It shows a crowd dancing in the moonlight and, again, the Daft Punk robots. This means there were several video shootings in the context of “Get Lucky”, although they weren’t used for a regular video clip.
I think such a video clip exists indeed, albeit not always recognised as such and instead referred to as “pseudo video” or even only as “Audio”. Even though this video is a stroke of genius. Similar to a record cover (indeed similar to the cover of the “Get Lucky” single), the silhouettes of the four musicians are set against the evening sun in this video, motionless. (Whether that is actually a reference to George Lucas’s directing debut THX 1138 or not, the similarity can’t be denied.) Only in the second half of the song, at the beginning of the vocoder break, subtle movement is brought into the image, by means of which it can now be clearly identified as a video and not as a still image. Then the figures freeze again, and with this static image (which now exactly matches the single cover) the clip ends.
The ingenuity of this video clip is that it imitates other timely manners of visual accompaniment of music through the appearance of a still image: the displaying of record covers in MP3 player software or streaming services, as well as the usage of static images with audio files illegally uploaded on YouTube. Furthermore, the video runs counter to the notoriously short average attention span of the internet audience, as nothing “happens” in it for two minutes. Thus the “Get Lucky” video plays wittily with the recipients’ expectations – and may well be the music video of the year. At the same time, the question arises how valid the traditional 1:1 relation between single and video clip still is these days.
New article published – “I’m always touched by your presence, dear: Blondie album covers and the concept of presence”Posted: September 2, 2013 Filed under: shop talk | Tags: art history, Blondie, music, New Wave, photography, presence, publication, reception aesthetics, record covers, theory, US 1 Comment
I’m pleased to announce the publication of my latest journal article. You can read the abstract at the ERAS journal website and directly download the PDF here: http://www.eras.utad.pt/docs/JUN%202013%20estudos%20interdisciplinares1.pdf
In case you were wondering: no, this article isn’t about comics. But my previous blog posts about Michael Fried from February last year and photography theory from January last year are connected to it (and of course my conference paper on “presence in comics“, which will be published too, eventually).