Griselda Pollock’s feminism – in comics?

Between her two major books on feminist art history, Old Mistresses (1981, co-authored by Rozsika Parker) and Vision and Difference (1987), Griselda Pollock published an article titled “Women, Art, and Ideology: Questions for Feminist Art Historians”¹. In part a summary of the former book, it outlines Pollock’s notion of a feminist art history (or should that rather be “feminism in art history”?). The problem with previous feminist art historians, according to Pollock’s essay, is that they only tried to amend the canon of art history by adding female artists that had been omitted before. Pollock calls this an “unthreatening and additive feminism”. Instead, she argues, “a central task for feminist art historians is […] to critique art history itself”, because art history (as well as its object of study, art) is a system that “actively constructs and secures the patriarchal definitions for the category Woman”.

How, then, is a feminist art history possible at all? “The important questions” need to be asked: “how and why an art object or text was made, for whom was it made, for what purpose was it made, within what constraints and possibilites was it produced and initially used?” The importance of such questions to any art historical analysis seems self-evident today, and in fact they were already being asked back then – Marxist art history and the social history of art were a big thing. But they didn’t satisfy Pollock, who says that Marxist thinking about art, which treats “art as a reflection of the society that produced it”, has some severe shortcomings: it “oversimplifies the processes whereby an art product […] represents social processes that are themselves enormously complicated, mobile, and opaque”; it “condemns women effectively to a homogenenous, gender-defined category” and “effaces the specificity and heterogeneity of women’s artistic production”; it places works of art in ideological categories when in fact “ideologies are often fractured and contradictory”, etc.

So the overall tendency of Pollock’s feminist art history is: specificity, particularity, complexity and heterogeneity instead of generalisation and categorisation. Clearly, such a kind of art history is a radical shift away from scholarship as it is traditionally understood. It is perhaps best summed up in Pollock’s demand that “the relations between women, art, and ideology have to be studied as a set of varying and unpredictable relationships.” However, when Pollock’s essay provides some examples of what such an analysis might look like (taken from Old Mistresses), they don’t seem quite so radical after all. Sofonisba Anguissola’s 1561 Self Portrait With Spinet and Attendant is interpreted as a display of the artist’s aristocratic class position which allowed her to become a professional painter, unlike women of lower classes. Johann Zoffany’s 1772 The Academicians of the Royal Academy, in which the only two female Academy members are not part of the group in the room but represented as portrait paintings on the wall, shows how the system of the art academy actively constructed “distinct identities for the artist who was a man – the artist, and the artist who was a woman – the woman artist.” The late 18th-century family portraits by Élisabeth Vigée-Lebrun show how the ideal of the woman at that time had changed to that of “the happy mother, the woman fulfilled by childbearing and childrearing.”

Thus, in contrast to ‘mainstream’ art history, Pollock’s vantage point is always the (female) artist’s biography. Let’s see where this approach takes us when applied to a random comic.

The last comic by a female author that I read was Moe Yukimaru’s Suisai (more on that manga in a later post) vol. 1. What can we find out about this mangaka? Born in 1986, Yukimaru worked as an assistant to Nana Haruta (on another shōjo manga, Love Berrish) before debuting as a mangaka in 2006. Most of her manga were published in the shōjo magazine Ribon. Suisai started in 2015, i.e. when Yukimaru was 28 or 29. According to e.g. her Japanese Wikipedia page, her dream for the future is to become a “mangaka and charismatic housewife at the same time”. However, we don’t know when and under which circumstances she said that.

Yukimaru also has a weblog, She hasn’t posted for a while and her latest blogposts are about her current manga, Hatsukoi Retake, and transitioning from print to digital-first publishing. But her earlier posts from around the time when she was working on Suisai are quite interesting. In one of them, from late 2014, she apologises for “not having a particularly stylish lifestyle to blog about” and not being one of those “bloggers who write about highly feminine content with fashionable images every day”. Apart from promoting her manga work, though, there is quite a lot of cat content, food pics, and even a post about Yukimaru doing her fingernails.

So the image that we can perceive of Yukimaru is that of a ‘highly feminine’ artist who is firmly associated with the shōjo manga segment. Interestingly, Suisai doesn’t quite reflect this image. Although often labeled ‘romance’, this first volume at least is not so much of a girl-meets-boy story (there is something of that, too) but more of a ‘girl-meets-flute’ story of a high school student who enters her school’s brass band. It is a music manga first and foremost. Other music manga, e.g. Naoshi Arakawa’s Shigatsu wa kimi no uso / Your Lie in April, have been published in shо̄nen magazines. Granted, that one had both a male protagonist and a male author, but the point is that demographic categorisations such as shо̄jo or shо̄nen are often quite artificial, and that Suisai isn’t a particularly ‘girly’ manga.

Taking a closer look at Suisai, however, we find some interesting points being raised in terms of gender. Right at the beginning, we learn that the protagonist, Urara, had been a successful track-and-field athlete in middle school. But now in high school, she wants to “try something new” instead of a sports club – so that she can spend more time wearing the “cute” sailor uniform of her new school. “After quitting the [track-and-field] club, I have grown my hair long just for that”, she says, which prompts her classmate to say: “So there is an actual girl hidden in you after all.”

In the following course of the story, there are several scenes in which Urara’s energetic and bold nature is seen as undesirable and un-girly, and her lack of “cuteness” is pointed out. Thus we could read this coming-of-age story as the story of Urara moving on not only from middle to high school, but also from a sports to a music club, leaving her boyish childhood behind and becoming a woman. As Griselda Pollock would perhaps say, Urara succumbs to the allure of this artificially created category of Woman; a category created both by the fictional society in the manga and real society, including Moe Yukimaru, her publisher, and her readers.

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

¹ First published in Woman’s Art Journal Vol. 4, No. 1 (Spring – Summer, 1983), pp. 39–47,; re-published in Women’s Studies Quarterly Vol. 15, No. 1/2, Teaching about Women and the Visual Arts (Spring – Summer, 1987), pp. 2–9,

Alois Riegl’s group portraiture of Holland – in comics?

On the surface, Alois Riegl’s 1902 book The Group Portraiture of Holland (German full text here) is about a quite specific kind of artwork – Dutch portrait paintings from the 16th and 17th century. However, it also provides some concepts and terms applicable to any group portrait. Among those, the following three oppositional pairs are arguably the most intriguing:

  • subjectivism vs. objectivism: in a subjective mode of depiction, the figures in the portrait present themselves as they would to a spectator present at the same site. They are embedded in the landscape and affected by their surroundings, so that e.g. their outlines may “evaporate”. In the objective mode, in contrast, figures appear in a sort of ideal or neutral view and are detached from their surroundings, resulting e.g. in clear outlines.
  • subordination vs. coordination: in many groups there is a hierarchy, e.g. different ranks in a military unit. When such a hierarchy is clearly visible in a portrait, for instance by gestures, dress, symbolic objects, or placement of figures, Riegl speaks of subordination.
  • symbolism vs. genre*: in 1902 the Symbolist art movement was in full swing, but that’s not what Riegl means by this term. Figures in a group portrait often perform actions and/or hold objects, and when those actions seem believable, i.e. when it looks as if the sitter actually performed that action, the action itself threatens to overshadow the individuality of the figure and the painting is in danger, so to speak, of becoming a genre painting instead of a portrait. Symbolic actions and objects, however, are metonymic signifiers of something else, most often character traits of the respective sitter. A telltale sign by which symbolism and genre can be told apart is how much attention the figure is paying to the action it performs or the object it is holding: if the figure is looking somewhere else (e.g. out of the picture), the action/object is probably symbolic.

Does it make sense to look at comics the same way Riegl looks at paintings? It is not unusual to compare individual comic panels to paintings, and many panels feature three or more figures. It can be argued that such panels sometimes resemble portraits – for instance, superhero comics books often contain a splash panel that introduces the main characters.

Let’s look at two examples from a fairly standard current superhero series, Batman/Superman by Gene Luen Yang and Ivan Reis. In issue #17, our protagonists encounter a supervillain team on a parallel world. This is the panel that introduces the villains:

Panel from Batman/Superman #17 by Gene Luen Yang and Ivan Reis

Is the subjective or objective mode of depiction at work here? On the one hand, all four characters are bathed in the same turquoise light, which suggests subjectivism. On the other hand, the composition ensures that most of the figures is clearly visible, especially their faces, and there is no interaction between them – the Penguin is pointing upwards, but the other three are looking elsewhere – so that each is shown in isolation, as it were.

The composition also emphasises subordination: the foremost figure, and also the one who seems tallest (i.e. who is drawn to the largest vertical extent), is that of Warden Luthor, the leader of the quartet. The quality that definitely allows us to speak of this panel as a portrait, though, is its symbolism. As mentioned before, the only real action of the Penguin pointing to the sky is unrealistic because the others are not able to perceive it. Joker, Warden and Jones appear to be engaged in conversation with Batman and Robin, but their gestures have little to do with that conversation. Instead, the gestures tell us something about those characters: Jones is holding a bauble because that’s the weapon he throws at his opponents, Warden Luthor is depicted adjusting his tie and having a hand in his pocket to show how conceited and overconfident he is, and the Joker is laughing because that’s what he always does.

A few issues later (#20), the arrival of our protagonists on another parallel world is shown in this double page spread:

Double page from Batman/Superman #20 by Gene Luen Yang and Ivan Reis

Despite the orange reflections of the fire on the figures’ clothes and skin, the subjectivism of this image is doubtful: while the threatening demons are situated next to and behind the heroes, the latter don’t interact with them (nor with each other really) and look towards the picture surface, as if they are posing for us, each on his or her own in empty space.

Again there is a clear subordination, with Superman – normally Batman’s equal, but temporarily the leader here on his home turf in the Metropolis of the “World of Tomorrow” – depicted much more prominently than the others, especially the diminutive figures of Alanna and El Diablo (throwaway sidekicks introduced in #19 who now tag along with Batman and Superman on their inter-dimensional journey).

As for symbolism, this is again the dominant mode in which the figures’ gestures are depicted. Everyone has this mildly concerned look on his or her face and isn’t really interacting with anyone or anything. Even Alanna, who carries El Diablo with her jetpack, isn’t all too focused on her task. With the exception of Superman and his wide-open mouth, one could cut each figure out and stick it on a poster against a neutral background, each character a model of typical superhero stoicism.

Just to show that not all comic panels serve as portraits, here is another panel from earlier in the same issue that features the same five characters (who are wearing cowboy hats now because they’re in yet another parallel world):

Panel from Batman/Superman #20 by Gene Luen Yang and Ivan Reis

Here the figures are very much absorbed in their respective actions – firing grapple guns, swinging a whip, flying to escape the quicksand – and we don’t get a clear view of all of them; poor Alanna in particular is mostly concealed. In this panel, the focus is on what happens, and not so much on who the characters are. This only shows that in typical superhero comics like Batman/Superman, creators purposefully insert panels resembling group portraits only every now and then.

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

* ^ More precisely, Riegl presents a multi-tiered model of the development of Dutch group portraiture in which symbolism and genre are only two of the stages, the other two (sometimes combined into one) being ‘novella’ and ‘drama’. Genre, novella and drama are all in opposition to symbolism and the status of the painting as a portrait.

Benedict Anderson’s Imagined Communities – in comics?

First published in 1983, Benedict Anderson’s book Imagined Communities. Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism remains tremendously influential in the Humanities today. In it, the nation is defined as “an imagined political community […]. It is imagined because the members of even the smallest nation will never know most of their fellow-members” (p. 6; all page numbers here refer to the 2016 revised edition by Verso). By using the word “imagined”, Anderson emphasises that national consciousness it not something pre-existing that only needs to be “awakened” – it needs to be actively created.

One of the instruments through which a nation can be created is what Anderson calls “print-capitalism”, a system within which e.g. newspapers forge a community out of their readers (pp. 35-36). This process is aided by “the fatality of human linguistic diversity” as readers felt “connected” to their “fellow-readers” due to their sharing the same “language-field”, regardless of their location on the globe (pp. 43-44). Furthermore, newspapers “brought together, on the same page” a variety of commercial, political and cultural news items of regional or local interest, which instilled in readers the feeling that all these things they read about were connected to each other and to the readers themselves, and thus “created an imagined community” (p. 62).

Language itself can facilitate the formation of nations, particularly when the vernacular language in which people speak and write differs from the official language-of-state, as was the case in the various nations of the Austro-Hungarian Empire in the 19th century (p. 78). Then again, rulers can also be “naturalized” and employ an “official nationalism” in order to culturally homogenify their territory and counter popular national movements (p. 86).

Education is another factor that contributed to the creation of imagined communites; for instance, the colonial subjects of the multiethnic Dutch East Indies “knew that from wherever they had come they still had read the same books and done the same sums” (pp. 121-122). Then there is the complex of “Census, Map, Museum” (ch. 10, pp. 163-185) – devices through which colonial rulers categorised their subjects and at the same time inadvertently helped form their national identities.

Thus Anderson discusses various ways to create nations, but the point is that they need someone to create them. Otherwise, the idea of a particular imagined community would fail to catch on and people would not identify with it as their nation. For our example today, we’re going to examine such failed creations of nations in a comic. While this isn’t going to prove Anderson’s theory right or wrong, it will hopefully illustrate some of his ideas.

Our example is going to be Sarah (沙流羅 sarura, also known in English as The Legend of Mother Sarah), written by Katsuhiro Ōtomo, drawn by Takumi Nagayasu, and originally published from 1990-2004 – more specifically its first (German) volume. In a war-torn future, the eponymous protagonist gets separated from her four children and sets out on an epic quest to reunite with them. The background of this plot is mainly told in a prologue text: there has been a nuclear war which has left Earth uninhabitable. The survivors fled to space colonies. There, scientists developed a bomb to tilt the earth axis, which would slowly cleanse the planet of radiation and eventually allow it to be settled again. This plan split people into a supporting and an opposing faction who called themselves “Epoch” and “Mother Earth”, respectively. The hostilities between these factions led to terrorism and even civil war. The bomb was launched after all, and even though the terrestrial climate is still somewhat hostile, people started returning to the earth’s surface, where the fighting between Epoch and Mother Earth continues. The bone of contention is no longer the use of the bomb, though, but global domination.

Epoch guards against civilians. Detail of p. 19 from Sarah vol. 1 by Katsuhiro Ōtomo and Takumi Nagayasu.

Can Epoch and Mother Earth be regarded as nations in Anderson’s sense? In the very first scene of the manga, which still is a kind of prologue to the actual story, we already see representations of Epoch: while people are fleeing from a space station which is shattered by explosions, they are watched by armed men with the letter E on their hats, helmets and bandanas. The same E logo is crudely painted on walls inside the space station, indicating that Epoch rules this place. The ordinary people, however, do not sport any Epoch signs. They are no so much protected by the Epoch gunmen as controlled, the latter sifting through the crowd looking for enemies. And when a panic breaks out and everyone tries to board the escape shuttles at once, the Epoch men indiscriminately shoot into the crowd to stop them.

A Mother Earth officer. Panel from Sarah vol. 1, p. 73 by Katsuhiro Ōtomo and Takumi Nagayasu.

Then the action shifts to earth in the present day, i.e. some time after the exodus from the space stations. Sarah, accompanying a travelling merchant, reaches a small settlement adjacent to a gigantic mine. The mine is operated by the Mother Earth military, the soldiers being identifiable by small “ME” (plus a winged globe icon) logos on parts of their uniform. The workers in the mine are prisoners of war from Epoch, more clearly marked by large “E”s on their clothing or bare backs.

Epoch prisoners of war guarded by Mother Earth soldiers. Panel from Sarah vol. 1, p. 36 by Katsuhiro Ōtomo and Takumi Nagayasu.

There is a discernible divide between the soldiers overseeing their high-tech mine, and the local populace who farm the land using few machines and live in primitive-looking brick buildings. It is a science-fiction trope that we know from e.g. Star Wars: the common folk are simply trying to get by while there’s a war raging around them which they have not the slightest stake in (but which some of them, of course, ultimately get caught up in). The only link between them is the character Toki, a young man who comes from a farming family but has joined the military. Unlike his stepsister Lucia, Toki hates Epoch and blames them for devastating the earth. Lucia retorts by reminding him of Mother Earth’s constitution, which says war is bad and that “we shall live in harmony with mother earth and preserve its treasures”. Toki dismisses this as idealism that one cannot live by.

The local ‘neutral’ civilian population. Panel from Sarah vol. 1, p. 31 by Katsuhiro Ōtomo and Takumi Nagayasu.

But when Toki and Lucia discover the secret purpose of the mine, the military wants to see both of them dead. The ensuing brutal raid, in which both a soldier and Toki’s and Lucia’s grandfather are shot, epitomises the divide between military and civilians. (In later volumes, we even see tanks firing into crowds.)

Clearly, nation-building has failed in Sarah. The only ones who identify with the nations of Epoch and Mother Earth are soldiers, whereas the civilians don’t seem to have any national identity whatsoever. With the sole (and only temporary) exception of Toki, the soldiers appear not to belong to the folk who settle at the mine. The military rather seems like an occupying force from a distant country, only there to exploit the natural resources and possibly gone again soon.

This should not come as a surprise, as none of Anderson’s nation-forming devices are visible in this manga: no print-capitalist products (except for a pornographic magazine), no ‘naturalised’ rulers, no education, no maps, no census, no museums. And as in many other science-fiction stories, everyone seems to speak the same mother tongue (despite signs of some racial diversity), so that no separate language communities could form within the overall population.

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

Linda Nochlin’s fallen woman – in comics?

Though not quite as famous as her 1971 essay “Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?”, Linda Nochlin’s “Lost and Found: Once More the Fallen Woman” from 1978 is still a classic text of feminist art history. At its core, this article is an interpretation of the unfinished painting Found, which Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828-1882) had been working on intermittently for decades. It shows a woman in a London street who “has sunk under her shame upon her knees” (Rossetti) as she has recognized a man from the countryside whom she, apparently, knows from a happier, rural past which she has left behind.

Nochlin identifies this female figure as a “fallen woman”, a popular trope in nineteenth-century art and literature. “Fallen” is defined as “any sort of sexual activity on the part of women out of wedlock, whether or not for gain”. Nochlin points out the following typical features of fallen-woman imagery:

  • The moral fall often goes hand in hand with a literal fall.
  • Sinful urbanity is contrasted with innocent rurality.
  • The bleak present is opposed to a blissful past.
  • Another contrast to the fallen woman (or her possible way of redemption) is the woman who fulfils her role within the family as daughter, wife and/or mother, the “angel in the house”.
  • This contrast is also depicted as an outside-inside dichotomy (fallen woman in the street vs. family inside the home). However, this dichotomy may also be reversed, as Nochlin shows using the example of other pictures, to become the “contrast of inside and outside, the crowded, body-packed realm of sin opposed to the pure realm of nature outside the windows”.

In a move that seems a bit old-fashioned today, Nochlin then connects Rossetti’s artistic “obsession” towards this topic to his biography and personality in which, she presumes, “contradictory urges of chivalrous purity and sexual lust [were] burning”; he was a “man of strong sensuality who at the same time believed fervently in some kind of ideal of goodness but could rarely bring himself to act upon this belief.” Thus the fallen woman becomes a “symbol of his moral and erotic idealism” (as Nochlin says about another Rossetti painting).

So far, all of this might not seem relevant to you (unless you happen to be interested in Victorian art). But it will be if we take Nochlin’s observations as universal, i.e. applicable not just to Rossetti and Found but to anyone at almost any time and to a wide range of works of art. Bear in mind though that this may go beyond what Nochlin intended to say. Still, given the universality of the male gaze, it seems unlikely that Rossetti was exceptional in his attitude towards and depictions of fallen women. Of course, when moving to a different time period, the definition of falling as extramarital sexual activity might need to be extended to other forms of moral misconduct.

That being said, let us take a more-or-less random comic and see how much of the fallen woman concept we can find in there. Bonnouji (煩悩寺) by Aki Eda originally came out in 2010 already, but has only now been translated into German (and apparently not yet at all in English). It tells the love story between the young single man Oyamada and his female neighbour from three floors above, Ozawa. Both are in their twenties, and while Ozawa has an office job, Oyamada works from home. When one day Ozawa finds out that Oyamada’s apartment is full of trinkets, curiosities, and mysterious unopened parcels sent to him by his brother, she starts hanging out at this “temple of earthly desires” (bonnōji).

Is Ozawa a fallen woman? It’s not as if she was a prostitute or anything like that, but there is definitely a contrast built up between her and Oyamada in terms of morality. On the very first page, she comes to his place for the first time because she’s had too much to drink and wants to use his bathroom, then tells him that her long-term boyfriend has just left her. Ozawa also smokes and regularly gets drunk at Oyamada’s. He, on the other hand, lives like a hermit and rarely leaves his apartment. Sexually inexperienced and shy around Ozawa, there is something innocent and pure about him. (At least in the first volume; in the second, this dynamic is somehow reversed.)

table of contents page from Bonnouji vol. 1

As for Nochlin’s five typical features:

  • There is sort of a literal fall right at the beginning of the manga. The table of contents before the first actual comic page is illustrated with a little scene in chibi style that doesn’t occur in the story. Ozawa, surrounded by cans and bottles of alcohol, has passed out on the floor, and Oyamada is smiling and holding a blanket, about to tuck her in.
  • Unlike in many other manga, the urban-rural dichotomy does not play much of a role in Bonnouji. However, one could read a subtle critique of urbanity into it, e.g. into the anonymity of the apartment house in which no one really knows their neighbour and in which the inhabitants dwell in tiny flats, probably paying outrageously high rents.
  • present vs. past: after having broken up with her boyfriend, Ozawa frequently hangs out at Oyamada’s place because she dislikes her present situation of living alone. She ultimately wants to restore her past of being in a relationship.
  • angel in the house: even before they start dating, Ozawa secretly tidies up Oyamada’s apartment. This intrusion shows that she would like to be something more like a homemaker to him, even though presently she is not in the ‘official’ position to do so.
  • outside vs. inside: in the second volume, the two realise that they’re spending too much time inside Oyamada’s flat, and that going outside more often would be the right thing to do.
page detail from Bonnouji vol. 1

We can even see something of Rossetti (as characterised by Nochlin) in the character of Oyamada who also has “contradictory urges of chivalrous purity and sexual lust”, which is epitomised in the scene in which Ozawa spends her first night as his girlfriend at his place: she sleeps in a coffin – another of Oyamada’s brother’s gifts – and he sleeps on the floor next to it.

panel from Bonnouji vol. 1

So there we have it: we have identified Ozawa as a fallen woman, and it looks like once we start looking, we find fallen women everywhere; Nochlin’s concept is useful for attuning our attention to this topic, and we can leave it at that. Right?

Wrong. As ever so often in the Humanities, an interpretation can easily be turned into its opposite, which then appears to be at least equally as valid.

In Bonnouji, the case could be made that Ozawa is anything but a fallen woman. After all, she and her boyfriend broke up because she wanted to marry and he didn’t. Her readiness to become someone’s wife appears rather virtuous (in the fallen woman context) compared to Oyamada who doesn’t seem to have had any interest in women – and thus in eventually becoming someone’s husband – so far.

The aforementioned five typical features of the fallen woman trope can be reversed as well:

  • literal fall: as mentioned before, the scene in which he is standing and she has passed out drunk on the floor doesn’t actually happen in the manga, but there is a reverse situation of sorts when she enters his apartment and finds him asleep, and then proceeds to tidy the place up without waking him up. Also note the moral implication there of her being busy (i.e. virtuous) while he is being idle (i.e. sinful).
  • urban vs. rural: the absence of rurality in this manga can also be taken as a celebration of urbanity. The protagonists have everything they need in their urban surroundings and never need to leave them.
  • present vs. past: Ozawa is actually glad that her ex-boyfriend has moved out. For her, falling in love with Oyamada feels like a completely new experience. They both live in the present and are not longing for their past lives.
  • angel in the house: apart from that one tidying-up episode, the role of the housewife is neither acted out by Ozawa, nor by anyone else to represent a counterpoint to her.
  • outside vs. inside: the name bonnōji says it all: Oyamada’s apartment is glorified as a magical place filled with endless wonder. Consequently, most of the action of the manga takes place inside, and the characters only go outside if they can’t avoid it.

So Ozawa may or may not be a fallen woman after all. But is Nochlin’s concept applicable to 21st century comics in the first place? Or, more generally: is sexual morality (in a wider sense, i.e. including the ethics of gender roles) still relevant enough nowadays to provide a meaningful lens through which we can read comics?

At least in the case of romance manga, it would be absurd not to assume any connection to the sexual ethics of Japanese society. There is an unbroken preoccupation – or fascination? – in the West with Japanese sexuality and its purportedly vast differentness (or even perceived moral inferiority, as I have argued elsewhere). Therefore, when reading any comic featuring a female character, one can ask: what are the rules that govern her behaviour within her specific society? What would need to happen for her to become a fallen woman? How would that change her role in society? What would her options for redemption be? And how is all of that expressed in the comics medium? That being said, we need to be aware that comics need not accurately represent the society in which they are made and read, but rather tell us something about the conscious or unconscious desires and fears of that society.

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

Homi K. Bhabha’s mimicry – in comics?

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.

Japanese mimicking Americans? Baseball players in Hiroshima, 1937. Photograph by Dietrich Seckel.

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.

P. 180 from Devilman. Note the 2nd panel, an isosceles trapezoid – a device already used by Osamu Tezuka before, e.g. in Dororo.

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”.

P. 179 from Devilman, part of a double-page spread.

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

Susan Sontag’s Regarding the Pain of Others – in comics?

Perhaps the lack of willingness of some people to comply to lockdown regulations is related to the lack of shocking imagery in the media. Hardly any images of people suffering from Covid-19 are shown in the news, which makes the threat posed by this disease appear abstract and remote. Which brings us to this month’s topic.

Susan Sontag’s last book to be published in her lifetime, Regarding the Pain of Others (2003) is a long essay, or short monograph, of about 120 pages. Its topic is mainly war photography, but also other photographic depictions of human suffering, and their effects on recipients. She even briefly mentions comics once (p. 100 in the Farrar, Straus and Giroux edition): “As everyone has observed, there is a mounting level of acceptable violence and sadism in mass culture: films, television, comics, computer games.”

Yeah, right. More interesting are Sontag’s observations of the difference between photographed and hand-drawn violence, her example being Francisco Goya’s series of etchings, Los desastres de la guerra (p. 47):

That the atrocities perpetrated by the French soldiers in Spain didn’t happen exactly as pictured – say, that the victim didn’t look just so, that it didn’t happen next to a tree – hardly disqualifies The Disasters of War. Goya’s images are a synthesis. They claim: things like this happened. In contrast, a single photograph or filmstrip claims to represent exactly what was before the camera’s lens. A photograph is supposed not to evoke but to show. That is why photographs, unlike handmade images, can count as evidence.

This difference, however, does not diminish the potential of handmade pictures “to awaken, shock, wound the viewer” (p. 44). At another point in the book, Sontag refers to a treatise on painting by Leonardo da Vinci (pp. 75-76):

Leonardo is suggesting that the artist’s gaze be, literally, pitiless. The image should appall, and in that terribilità lies a challenging kind of beauty. That a gory battlescape could be beautiful – in the sublime or awesome or tragic register of the beautiful – is a commonplace about images of war made by artists. The idea does not sit well when applied to images taken by cameras: to find beauty in war photographs seems heartless. But the landscape of devastation is still a landscape. There is beauty in ruins.

Sontag traces this ambiguous perception back to Antiquity (pp. 96-97):

Plato’s Socrates describes how our reason may be overwhelmed by an unworthy desire, which drives the self to become angry with a part of its nature. […] Plato appears to take for granted that we also have an appetite for sights of degradation and pain and mutilation.

It would now be all too obvious to turn to depictions of war and violence in non-fictional comics, e.g. those by Joe Sacco or Keiji Nakazawa, and see if the effects described by Sontag with regard to photography can be found there too. But wouldn’t it be more interesting to examine fictional depictions of war and violence? These are largely absent from Sontag’s text (except for Jeff Wall’s Dead Troops Talk, which, however, is based on a real conflict), and while they probably lack the power to incite viewers to anti-war activism, some of the other effects should hold true regardless.

pp. 4-5 of Appleseed vol. 1 by Masamune Shirow

Consider the beginning of Masamune Shirow’s Appleseed from 1985. Set in a post-World War IV (see Jason Thompson’s review at future, the 2nd and 3rd page form a lovely double-page spread of a war-ravaged cityscape. One cannot help but be reminded of Katsuhiro Ōtomo’s spectacular renderings of Neo Tokyo after the cataclysm in the middle of Akira (which was probably published too late to have been an inspiration for Shirow). Both creators have a fondness – and talent – for drawing both buildings and their destruction. Add to this a few carefully placed vehicles (another forte of both Shirow and Ōtomo) and you get “beauty in ruins” indeed.

detail from p. 4 of Appleseed vol. 1 by Masamune Shirow

Note, however, the corpse hanging out of the tank in the foreground. His firearm lying on the ground before him, we can imagine that he was shot just as he was about to climb out of his tank which maybe had got stuck in a chasm, and also one of its chains had come off. This soldier is only a tiny figure, but it shows that the conflict that presumably caused the destruction of the city is a recent – perhaps still ongoing – and deadly one. As the only human figure in this panel, the reader might empathise with him, but there is no blood or wound visible on him, and we don’t get to see his face. This body isn’t exactly an appalling sight; it hardly disturbs the beauty of the ruins.

p. 34 from Appleseed vol. 1 by Masamune Shirow

A few pages later (p. 34 in the German edition by Feest) we get to see quite a different depiction of a dying soldier. The protagonists, Deunan and Briareos, defend themselves against an attack by mercenary-type combatants. Deunan shoots one of them with an automatic rifle. The force of the hail of bullets is so strong that it not only kills her opponent but also chips off pieces from the surrounding walls. In panel 3, his body gets folded up by the impact so that we don’t see how badly he gets wounded, but in panel 4, black blotches rise from his chest, up to the level of his head, so that it looks like he is bleeding from his mouth, which is wide open as if in a silent scream. The last panel shows him lying on his back, his speech bubble containing only a sort of open-centre asterisk that may signify his last breath.

A pretty grisly scene, if you think about it. Sure, he was only a villain. Granted, Deunan acted in self-defense. And yet, someone’s life was just cut short, and we don’t even know why they were fighting. Deunan isn’t completely cold-blooded (let alone malicious), as the look on her face tells us when she looks back at her target (panel 6). But Shirow’s art aestheticises death so successfully that we don’t think about it in such existential terms. One powerful device is ‘slow motion’ in panels 3 and 4 in which the figure and the surrounding debris seem to be frozen in mid-air. Another is the convincingly imagined circle that the shots have carved out of the walls (although strictly speaking it was the villain’s weapon that caused it, as shown on the previous page), a rendering of a physical effect once more reminiscent of Ōtomo, e.g. in Dōmu (1980-81) – a ‘safe’ kind of violence as it appears to affect only things, not living beings.

Naturally, images of a real-world, present-day war would always be more shocking than those of a science-fiction conflict, even though the former can at the sime time have that “challenging kind of beauty” too. Perhaps the ability of images “to awaken, shock, wound the viewer” depends on two variables: on the one hand, the degree of the relationship of their content to reality, and on the other, the inverse degree of aestheticisation of their form. In itself, the choice of pictorial medium, i.e. whether it is a photograph or a drawn comic, probably doesn’t matter as much. As Sontag says herself, “A narrative seems likely to be more effective than an image” (p. 122), without acknowleding that ‘image’ and ‘narrative’ need not be mutually exclusive.

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

Marie-Laure Ryan’s narrative – in comics?

Out of Marie-Laure Ryan’s many narratological works, one of the most cited appears to be “Toward a definition of narrative”, a chapter from The Cambridge Companion to Narrative (ed. David Herman, Cambridge 2007; Ryan’s chapter is on pp. 22–35). Prompted by the “inflation” of the term ‘narrative’ in the wake of the “‘narrative turn in the humanities'”, Ryan begins her text as a review of previous definitions of the concept of narrative, finds them all unsatisfactory and then comes up with her own.

Ryan proposes a “fuzzy-set definition” of narrative. Regardless of how appropriate the term ‘fuzzy set’ is here, the key idea is that this allows for “variable degrees of membership” to the set of narrative texts. In the application of such a definition, it becomes more meaningful to ask questions like “‘is Finnegans Wake more narrative than Little Red Riding Hood?'” rather than binary yes/no questions like “‘is Finnegans Wake a narrative?'”. Such a type of definition makes sense here, as it would for many other concepts, even though it is still met with opposition from many Humanities scholars.

Another feature of Ryan’s definition is that the criteria or conditions it is made of are not of equal value. Instead, they are presented in an order from broadest to narrowest, with each condition presupposing the previous ones, or from most to least necessary. (There are no sufficient conditions in this type of definition.) As these eight conditions are widely available online anyway, I’m going to list them here also, though I recommend reading them in their original context.

  1. Narrative must be about a world populated by individuated existents.
  2. This world must be situated in time and undergo significant transformations.
  3. The transformations must be caused by non-habitual physical events.
  4. Some of the participants in the events must be intelligent agents who have a mental life and react emotionally to the states of the world.
  5. Some of the events must be purposeful actions by these agents.
  6. The sequence of events must form a unified causal chain and lead to closure.
  7. The occurrence of at least some of the events must be asserted as fact for the storyworld.
  8. The story must communicate something meaningful to the audience.

Clearly, the further down the list we go, the more debatable the conditions become. However, while one might be able to imagine a narrative without e.g. “intelligent agents”, one cannot deny that these are typical of narratives.

So far, so good, but what does this have to do with comics? Earlier in her text, Ryan calls narrative a “temporally ordered sequence of events” and identifies the lack of “clearly definable ‘narrative units’ comparable to the words or phonemes of language” as one of the main problems in its definition. Couldn’t the sequentially arranged units of comics – the panels – serve as such a narrative unit?

In many cases, this analogy works well. Consider the following panels from Black Magic (ブラックマジック), Masamune Shirow’s first published manga from 1983 (read from right to left):

Each of the panels could be said to depict an action, and we could describe this sequence of events in one sentence each: “Typhon says, ‘here’s to humanity’. Then Yasha says, ‘right’. Then Kongoki says, ‘to my daughter’.” (Of course, that’s just one of many valid possibilities; one could just as well describe it as e.g. “Typhon lifts a bottle, then Yasha turns towards her, then Kongoki raises his glass”.) Not the most interesting narrative, perhaps, but one can easily imagine that these three panels are part of a whole, proper story if preceded and succeeded by many more like them.

However, this only works well because we are dealing with, in the terminology of Scott McCloud, subject-to-subject transitions between these panels. Another type of McCloudian panel transition which can easily be ‘translated’ to a narrative sequence of events is action-to-action (in which the agent stays the same). But what about other transition types? The subsequent panels are quite different in this regard:

The transition from the first to the second panel on this page is an action-to-action transition, but the next one is a little tricky. The perspective shifts from the interior of the bar to an exterior view of the city, and it is day instead of night (assuming that the characters at the bar are meeting for drinks in the evening – then again, the story takes place on Venus, so who knows). The first caption might be understood as an explanation of this shift: “Before anyone awoke the next morning, Duna Typhon left Venus behind.” So this panel shows the city on the next day, and there’s a building labeled “station” from which Typhon might have departed, or maybe she’s leaving the planet right now on one of the aircraft depicted. This would make the transition a scene-to-scene transition, but we could still incorporate it into a narrative structure: “The friends propose toasts. Then they raise their glasses. Then Typhon leaves Venus.”

However, there are two more caption boxes placed in this panel, and they complicate matters quite a bit: the second caption (“Government by humans began…”) extends the time frame to months and the scale from individual characters to the whole Venusian society. The third caption even stretches out chronologically to an entire “period” of possibly many years. This doesn’t change the transition between this panel and the preceding one – still scene-to-scene – but in Ryan’s definition of narrative, the first condition is now threatened as the story shifts its focus from “individuated existents” to more abstract entities (“government”, “Venus”) and from “intelligent agents” (the 4th condition) to seemingly ‘agentless’ actions (“war broke out”).

This doesn’t mean that Black Magic isn’t a narrative. But we can say that in this little six-panel sequence, its “degree of narrativity” decreases slightly towards the end. Such fluctuations in narrativity are nothing unusual and not specific to comics; they occur e.g. in novels too. With her definition of narrative, Ryan gives us a powerful tool to describe such developments and to compare different works in this regard. Even more complex is Ryan’s suggestion of her definition as a “basis for a semantic typology of narrative texts. While degree of narrativity depends on how many of the conditions are fulfilled, typology depends on the relative prominence” of the conditions fulfilled, i.e. not only how many but also which. Thus each work could be thought of as a specific configuration of fulfilled narrative conditions.

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

Paper “Japanese Art in the Contact Zone: Between Orientalism and ‘Japansplaining’” published

More than two years ago, I gave a conference paper titled “Japanese Art in the Contact Zone: Between Orientalism and ‘Japansplaining’”. The proceedings of this conference, Migrations in Visual Art, have now been published as an Open Access PDF at (doi: 10.4312/9789610601166, ISBN: 978-961-06-0116-6). There you’ll also find a table of contents with links to the PDFs of the individual papers. Again, this paper isn’t about comics, but I dare say it’s relevant to anyone interested in transnational manga reception. Here’s the abstract as published in the proceedings:

After WWII, Japan came to be economically and politically at eye level with its
former enemy nations. Therefore, one cannot say that the Western reception of
Japanese artworks takes place within an actual context of an asymmetrical power
relation. Yet, European and American audiences often approach Japanese art from
a position of perceived superiority. Overt and subtle traces of this attitude can be
detected in reviews and other texts on Japanese artworks ranging from the films of
Akira Kurosawa to the photographs of Nobuyoshi Araki.

Judith Butler’s gender performativity – in comics?

Judith Butler’s article “Performative Acts of Gender Constitution: An Essay in Phenomenology and Feminist Theory” from 1988 (Theatre Journal 40.4, pp. 519-531) is, of course, a classic. But when it gets reduced to the buzzword of ‘gender performativity’, there’s a danger of missing all the implications of this concept, so it’s still worth reading the original article. Building primarily on Simone de Beauvoir and Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Butler’s basis in this essay is the sex/gender distinction: a gender isn’t something one is born with – it is constituted during one’s lifetime. Furthermore, Butler says, the gender binary (the idea that there are exactly two genders, male and female) is likewise artificial. As is the prevalent “system of compulsory heterosexuality” in which “‘attraction’ to the opposing sex/gender” is seen as “natural”. (The term ‘heteronormativity’ isn’t used by Butler yet.)

Butler’s groundbreaking idea is that, as the title already says, gender is consituted through acts of performance. What is a performative act? Butler doesn’t explicitly define that, but hints at a wide range of possibilities: “acts, gestures, the visual body, the clothed body, the various physical attributes usually associated with gender”. Her only example is a “transvestite” who is not further described. This transvestite challenges the binary male/female distinction by combining traditionally female clothes with physical features usually seen as male, or vice versa.

This seems to be a crucial point that often gets overlooked: performative acts aren’t only ways of speaking, dressing and moving, but “the gendered body acts its part in a culturally restricted corporeal space”. While these corporeal restrictions can be overcome to some extent through clothes, make-up and surgery, it’s important to always consider physical attributes as potential acts of gender constitution. Comics might be interesting objects to analyse from this perspective because they’re good at rendering visual performance acts but not so great at depicting movement or sound (e.g. the tone of one’s voice – though this can be used for humorous effect, as I’ve noted here).

Frank Miller’s comics have frequently been accused of misogyny and sexism, but his Rōnin (DC, 1983-84, colours by Lynn Varley) has been lauded for a strong female main character, Casey McKenna. Casey isn’t exactly a feminist role model either, but that’s not the point here – let’s look at how her gender is performed.

As head of security of a futuristic corporation, Casey wears a gender-neutral uniform that isn’t much different from those of her male subordinates. (At least for most of the first half of the comic – things get weird after that, including her clothes.) It isn’t so tight as to reveal much of her physical features as female either. Only when she stands next to them, the shape of her body appears female, with a waist-to-hip ratio usually associated with women, and the subtle curve of her chest. The pose she strikes, hip slightly thrust, might also be read as female. Her face is a combination of traditionally male (bushy eyebrows) and female (long eyelashes) features; others such as the angular jaw and full lips are more of a stylistic peculiarity of Miller’s applied to male and female characters alike. Thus Casey’s gender is indeed somewhat complex. It needs to be, if 1980s superhero comic readers were to accept her as both tough (a traditionally male trait) and sexy (traditionally female).

The gender of two other characters in Rōnin is interesting because they are not human (three if we count the rōnin himself, but… it’s complicated; if you’ve read the comic you’ll have noticed I’m trying to avoid spoilers this time): the demon Agat, and the Artificial Intelligence Virgo. Agat’s ‘natural’ form is roughly human, but without genitals. His (Agat is referred to with male pronouns) overly muscular, broad-shouldered body can be read as male though, and consequently he later assumes the form and identity of male human character.

Virgo, on the other hand – referred to with female pronouns and even jokingly called a “lady” (and, later, a “bitch”) – is “the sentient computer who commands every function of [the corporate complex,] Aquarius”. She interacts with people both through voice alone and through an audiovisual screen signal on which a blurred, ‘scanlined’ head of a maybe elderly, perhaps female person is visible, possibly wearing earrings. This character is reminiscent of the AI “Mother” in the film Alien (released only four years before Rōnin), but it’s unclear whether Virgo was programmed by humans to look that way – as a powerful and wilful AI, she might have chosen her screen persona herself.

All that being said, we haven’t even talked about the characters’ words and actions as performative acts yet. A scene highly relevant to this matter, for example, is at the end of the comic when Casey accuses the rōnin of unmanly behaviour. But I’ll leave this analysis to others.

Butler’s concept of gender performativity doesn’t explain everything about gender and sexuality, but reading comics with her theory in mind helps us to ask important questions in this context: which characters can be identified as male, female, or something else? (And which can’t?) On which criteria (i.e. performative acts) are these identifications based? Do these acts conform to a traditional gender attribution in a character or are they conflicting? Is the gender attribution of a character stable or does it change in the course of a story? Is all this likely to be the creators’ intention, or a product of their subconscious, or a reading “against the grain”? If the gender configuration in a comic is presumably intentional, what is its function in the story? And is Frank Miller really a sexist?

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

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 “” 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 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 “” 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