Remember the conference paper I announced on this weblog in 2012? It took some time, but now this paper has been published as an article in Studies in Visual Arts and Communication – an international journal and is available online for free: http://journalonarts.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/01/SVACij-Vol1_No2_2014-delaIGLESIA_Martin-Presence_in_comics.pdf
Here’s the abstract:
The term ‘presence’ is often used to denote a trait of an artwork that causes the feeling in a viewer that a depicted figure is a living being that is really there, although the viewer is aware that this is not actually the case. So far, scholars who have used this term have not explicitly provided criteria for the assessment of the degree of presence in a work of art. However, such criteria are implicitly contained in a number of theoretical texts. Three important criteria for presence appear to be:
1. size – the larger a figure is depicted, the more likely this artwork will instil a feeling of presence.
2. deixis – the more the work is deictically orientated towards the beholder, e.g. if figures seem to look or point at the beholder, the higher the degree of presence.
3. obtrusiveness of medium – if there is a clash of different diegetic levels within an artwork, the degree of presence is reduced.
These criteria can be readily applied to a single image like a painting or a photograph. A comic, however, consists of multiple images, and the presence of each panel is influenced by the panels that surround it by means of contrast and progression. Another typical feature of comics is written text: speech bubbles, captions etc. do not co-exist with the drawings on the same diegetic level, thus betraying the mediality of their panels and reducing their degree of presence. A comic that makes striking use of effects of presence, which makes it a suitable example here, is the superhero series The Ultimates by Mark Millar and Bryan Hitch (Marvel 2002 – 2004). The characters in this comic are often placed on splash pages and/or seemingly address the reader, resulting in a considerable experience of presence.
When I first heard about this book, I was looking forward to it (even though most of it had been published before as a series of blog posts), because it seemed to be about roughly the same topic as my PhD research project, or at least some aspects of it. The more other people write about it, the less I still need to write. However, When Manga Came to America turned out to be of not very much use to me, and I doubt it’s of much use to scholarly research in general.
Darius’s book is divided into three chapters, plus an Introduction (pp. 1-11). The very first sentence of this introduction is already telling: “In early 1987, Eclipse introduced American comics readers to manga with three translated series” (p. 1). This sentence tells us that the book isn’t really about the manga Mai by Kazuya Kudō and Ryōichi Ikegami per se, but rather about its American edition. Granted, the title of the book is When Manga Came to America, but it is striking that Darius doesn’t say anything at all about the original Japanese publication – even though sometimes he really should, e.g. when he critisises the narrative structure of the comic on p. 7 (which may be better explained by its original serialised magazine publication than by the three ‘acts’ Darius has made up), when he compares it to other comics published in the US at the same time on p. 41 (instead of comparing it to other manga originally created at the same time), when he talks about Mai as an example of an “extended finite” comic book series on p. 49 (thus again ignoring its original publication format), or when he says that a dialogue “simply feels off” on p. 53 (without mentioning that it’s only a translation).
It’s also noteworthy that Darius says “American comics readers” in that first sentence. Rather than considering the reception of Mai among Americans in general, including those who haven’t read comics before, Darius imagines a specific type of reader who is familiar with superhero comic books and who sees Mai in this context. (It should be noted that Darius doesn’t talk about the actual reception history of Mai – i.e. no empirical evidence is presented, such as contemporary reviews or interviews -, and probably not even his personal reception as he was only 10 years old when Mai first came out in May 1987. Instead, he speculates about what the reading experience must have been like at that time.)
The first two chapters must be read with this particular angle in mind. In the chapter “The Depiction of Super-Powers in Mai, the Psychic Girl” (pp. 12-40), Darius offers a lengthy summary of the plot of the series with an emphasis on its supernatural, psychic elements in comparison to superpowers in standard American superhero comic books. While doing so, Darius dishes out his subjective, ungrounded opinions, e.g. “there’s no doubt that the third act is rushed” (p. 30).
The second chapter, “Mai, the Psychic Girl and Revisionism” (pp. 41-49), is much shorter and examines Mai in the context of superhero comics of the late 80s, above all Alan Moore’s Marvelman/Miracleman. Again, I find this comparison somewhat pointless without considering the original publication, as the American readers must have been well aware that Mai was a Japanese comic. Darius makes quite a bold statement again when he says, “Mai was published in English at the height of the revisionism, and it couldn’t help but be understood in this context, even if this wasn’t the context in which Mai had been created in Japan” (p. 41).
In the third chapter, “Sexuality in Mai, the Psychic Girl” (pp. 50-66), Darius thankfully does away with the superhero comparisons. He identifies several scenes with nudity or other sexual content and comes to the conclusion that Mai, even though it “is pretty restrained” (p. 63), is really “a story of sexual self-discovery” (p. 65), and “a story in which this [Mai’s psychic abilities] is linked to sexual maturity” (p. 58). This looks to me as if Darius misses the mark and over-interprets the story in a desperate attempt to make sense of the occasional suggestive imagery (which definitely feels out of place in this comic). The question is indeed “whether Mai is entirely of good taste” (p. 63). This chapter gets more awkward the further Darius digresses from the comic, saying things like “breasts, in particular, are a traditional symbol of nature’s bounty” (p. 61), or “healthy male brains often find girls attractive at around the age that girls become capable of reproduction” (p. 62). (Why male, by the way? What about female readers?) This excursus on paedophilia, by the way, contains the only footnote reference in the whole book. I’m not saying a text without formal literature references can’t have any scholarly merit, but it is certainly indicative.
It’s not as if When Manga Came to America wasn’t worth your time or your money, as it is both short and affordable. The reason why I’m reviewing it at all is connected to a larger issue within Comics Studies, as well as within Humanities as a whole: there is a widespread attitude that a researcher may choose which secondary literature to read and cite, and which to ignore – unlike in the Sciences, where it is usually clear which literature needs to be cited in a text on a specific topic. I’ve always felt the Humanities could and should do better in this regard. Therefore, I’d like to suggest how to deal with Darius’s book in a scholarly context, because it is a piece of secondary literature that isn’t easily defined as either a scholarly book or a journalistic review. Its merits notwithstanding, in my opinion, this book may be safely ignored in scholarly discourse, at least as a secondary source alongside proper scholarly texts. Of course, the author probably never intended it as a contribution to scholarly discourse in the first place. And who knows, When Manga Came to America may still serve as an entertaining book for fans who can’t stop thinking about Mai, the Psychic Girl, and who appreciate the opinions of another well-read fan.
Rating: ● ○ ○ ○ ○
I’m looking forward to present some more preliminary results from my PhD research, more precisely on Katsuhiro Ōtomo’s manga Akira and its first English and German editions, at a conference on “Übersetzungen und Adaptionen von Comics / The Translation and Adaptation of Comics” at Hildesheim University, Germany, from October 31 – November 2, 2014. Information on where to read this paper to follow.
In my PhD research I don’t deal with 21st century reception of Akira, but recently I’ve come across some interesting adaptation projects which I wanted to share here, just in case you haven’t heard about them already:
The Akira Project – Live Action Trailer (via Major Spoilers)
A three-minute fan-made “trailer” for a live-action film that doesn’t exist (i.e. not the one that was recently announced to be at the scriptwriting stage).
Player Piano – Akira (via Geek & Sundry)
An elaborate video of a performance of the anime soundtrack.
A faithful panel-by-panel remake of the manga – except all original characters have been replaced by Simpsons characters.
In November last year, I gave a talk at Comics Forum in Leeds on “Early manga translations in the West: underground cult or mainstream failure?”
That paper is now online at the Comics Forum website: http://comicsforum.org/2014/07/14/early-manga-translations-in-the-west-underground-cult-or-mainstream-failure-by-martin-de-la-iglesia/.
If you always wanted to know what my PhD research is about, this is the place to go.
Some weeks ago, manga publisher Tokyopop Germany launched a website, <http://iloveshojo.tokyopop.de>, as part of a promotional campaign for their shōjo manga titles. Readers can ask questions by using a form on this site, which are then answered publicly by Tokyopop staff. Without counting them, I guess the topics most frequently brought up by readers are:
- recommendations which new manga Tokyopop should publish next (which the fans, I believe, have discovered via illegal scanlations);
- questions around promotional items, such as “ShoCo Cards” (“Shojo Collectors Cards”);
- publication of drawings, a.k.a. fan art.
Many postings contain an awful lot of typos, which makes me believe that these are real readers’ writings and there is not much editing going on. I guess the published posts are carefully filtered by the Tokyopop editors, though.
Occasionally, some really interesting information can be found amidst all this fannish chatter. For instance, about a week ago, there was this question:
My translation: “I keep hearing you’re unable to publish works by Kōdansha, why is that?” – “The publisher Kōdansha told us some time ago that they had decided to let the contracts for all current series expire, and that they won’t license any new series to us. We weren’t given any reasons for this decision. We were only told that the decision was unrelated to the previous collaboration between Kōdansha and Tokyopop Germany. Therefore we won’t publish any new Kōdansha titles for the time being. If the situation changes, we’ll inform you immediately!”
A few days later, a similar question was posted:
My translation: “Which Japanese publishers collaborate with you?” – “Basically all the major ones – except for Kōdansha and Square Enix… Of course there are still many smaller ones from which we haven’t requested any titles yet – but this is always worth a try.”
In other words, some Japanese publishers license their manga to some Western publishers and some don’t. This means that the selection of manga that get translated into European languages often appears, for all intents and purposes, to be random. For if the business decisions of Japanese publishers are apparently inscrutable even to their Western partners, how are we researchers supposed to comprehend them?
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.