Antonia Levi’s sadness, environmentalism, and technoterror – in mangaPosted: March 8, 2023 Filed under: review | Tags: Antonia Levi, comics, ecology, manga, mono no aware, subject matter, technology, theory, Women's History Month 1 Comment
When I selected Antonia Levi’s 2013 article “The Sweet Smell of Japan. Anime, Manga, and Japan in North America” (Journal of Asian Pacific Communication 23.1, 3–18) as one of the readings for my manga course, I did so because I wanted to use it as a succinct introduction to, and discussion of, the concept of ‘cultural odourlessness’ (originally coined by Koichi Iwabuchi). But as I re-read the article, I found something perhaps even more interesting in there:
Another factor that explains why North Americans find anime and manga so appealing lies in the themes that dominate many of the offerings: sadness, environmentalism, and technoterror.
This trinity of thematic categories is reminiscent of Susan Napier’s three modes of anime, apocalyptic, festival, and elegiac. Only one of those three terms overlaps, however: both sadness and elegiac refer to the mono no aware aesthetic. Another difference is that Levi not only talks about anime but also explicitly includes manga.
In fact, Levi’s sentence can be broken down into two separate statements: (1) North Americans like (media that deal with) sadness, environmentalism, and technoterror, and (2) those three themes dominate “many” manga. It is the second statement that I’d like to take a closer look at. Levi only discusses very few examples in her article, so is this thematic dominance actually there in manga? Or at least in manga up to 2013, when Levi’s article was published, in case some major thematic shift occurred afterwards. (Ideally, one would also need to consider which manga were available to North Americans at that time… but let’s not make things overly complicated here.)
As a not-quite-but-almost random sample, let’s simply take all the manga (published before 2013) I have reviewed or otherwise discussed on this weblog so far. While certainly pretty much biased, this has the undeniable advantage that I am already familiar with their thematic configuration. This trip down memory lane through more than eleven (!) years of The 650-Cent Plague is going to be fun! For each manga, we can either identify any combination of Levi’s three themes, or the absence of all of them.
- Boyfriend by Daisy Yamada: as I argue in my review, this could have been a sad manga, had the issue of bullying been treated more in-depth. Instead, none of the three themes is present.
- Paris aishiteruze by J. P. Nishi: despite the crying protagonist depicted in my blogpost, this manga is rather lighthearted than sad. None of the three themes present.
- .hack//Legend of the Twilight by Rei Izumi and Tatsuya Hamazaki: a story about the dangers of being drawn into the virtual world of an immersive video game, which one might characterise as technoterror, although it’s not overly critical of technology.
- Shidonia no Kishi by Tsutomu Nihei: not every science-fiction manga needs to be a technoterror story, but that theme is definitely there, at least in the sub-plot concerning experiments on humans by ruthless scientists.
- Kozure ōkami by Kazuo Koike and Gōseki Kojima: one of many action manga in which the protagonist is haunted by a very sad backstory.
- Manga nihon keizai nyūmon by Shōtarō Ishinomori: the antagonist is a somewhat sad character, but by and large, none of the three themes is present.
- Hadashi no Gen by Keiji Nakazawa: definitely a sad story. While a manga about nuclear bombing could also feature environmentalism and technoterror, they are not dominant themes here.
- Haine by Kyōta Kita and Keiko Ogata: Heinrich Heine’s life had ups and downs, and while this manga biography is very dramatic and emotional, one can’t say that sadness dominates. None of the three themes present.
- Mai by Kazuya Kudō and Ryōichi Ikegami: some sinister science experiments here, but not enough to make technoterror a dominant theme. None of the three themes present.
- Asagao to Kase-san by Hiromi Takashima: sometimes sad, sometimes not. None of the three themes dominate.
- Pocha Pocha suieibu by Ema Tōyama: none of the three themes present in this comedy manga.
- Crayon Days by Kozue Chiba: fairly standard romance manga with none of the three themes dominating.
- Kimi ni todoke by Karuho Shiina: quite a sad story about a lonely high-school girl, at least in the beginning of the series.
- Namida usagi by Ai Minase: actually not as sad as the title suggests. None of the three themes present.
- Tempest by Yuiji Aniya: a sad sci-fi parable about gender dysphoria.
- Azumanga Daiō by Kiyohiko Azuma: another comedy manga with none of the three themes present.
- Akira by Katsuhiro Ōtomo: a lot going on in this manga, but at least some parts are clearly dominated by technoterror.
- Kirihito by Osamu Tezuka: quite a few sad things happen to the protagonist, but one can’t say sadness is the dominant theme in this medical thriller. Environmental pollution is only hinted at. None of the three themes present.
- Limit by Keiko Suenobu: sometimes quite sad, particularly the bullying backstory.
- Kiseijū by Hitoshi Iwaaki: some thoughtful environmental issues raised here.
- Tantei gishiki by Ryūsui Seiryōin, Eiji Ōtsuka, and Chizu Hashii: a weird mystery manga. None of the three themes present.
- Shiki by Fuyumi Ono and Ryū Fujisaki: there is some bleak countryside ennui, but sadness is not the dominant theme here. None of the three themes present.
- Orange by Ichigo Takano: what could be more sad than the protagonist’s futile attempts to save her classmate’s life?
- Akatsuki no Yona by Mizuho Kusanagi: another adventure manga that starts, like Kozure ōkami, with the sad events of the protagonist’s family being murdered and the protagonist forced into exile.
- Jikenya kagyō by Natsuo Sekikawa and Jirō Taniguchi: while one could call the protagonist a ‘sad’ figure, sadness doesn’t dominate this manga. None of the three themes present.
- Chichi no koyomi by Jirō Taniguchi: a sad story because, unlike in Harukana machi e, the protagonist revisits but can’t change the past.
- Furi Kuri by Studio Gainax and Hajime Ueda: hard to say what this manga is actually about, but there is the technoterror element of seemingly harmless machines turning into giant fighting robots.
- Ōkami kodomo no Ame to Yuki by Mamoru Hosoda, Yū, and Yoshiyuki Sadamoto: the tragic love story between a human and a werewolf, and the story of their children who are torn between two worlds, maybe has some environmental elements, but ultimately sadness dominates.
- Shinseiki Evangelion by Yoshiyuki Sadamoto and Studio Gainax: definitely a sad manga, and in the ambiguous depiction of the destructive power of giant robots there’s also a prominent element of technoterror.
- Narutaru by Mohiro Kitō: a dark, disturbing, and sad manga.
- Doubt by Yoshiki Tonogai: there is some technoterror potential in this story about a lethal mobile game, but its danger is, quite untechnologically, that the game is enacted in real life. Thus none of the three themes dominate.
- Zekkyō gakkyū by Emi Ishikawa: some of the episodes deal with the horrors of technological devices such as mobile phones and video games, but most of them don’t. None of the three themes present.
- Chikyū hyōkai jiki by Jirō Taniguchi: in vol. 1 of this science-fiction manga it isn’t clear whether the current ice age or the subsequent climate change are man-made. However, there are other elements of both environmentalism and technoterror: the technology that allows the mining company to operate in the Arctic also causes deadly accidents, and the technologically advanced miners are contrasted against the natives who live in harmony with nature, wear furs and ride camels.
- Ore monogatari by Kazune Kawahara and Aruko: in this charming rom-com, none of the three themes is present.
- Uzumaki by Junji Itō: dark and twisted, but not really sad, so none of the three themes dominate here.
- I Am a Hero by Kengo Hanazawa: at least in this first volume, there is a lot of sadness surrounding the protagonist.
- Ajin by Tsuina Miura and Gamon Sakurai: there are some hints of human experiments in vol. 1, but not enough to speak of technoterror. None of the three themes present.
- Icaro by Mœbius, Jean Annestay, and Jirō Taniguchi, on the other hand, very much revolves around the human subject of scientific experiments, thus making this manga an example of technoterror.
- Black Magic by Masamune Shirow: there are traces of environmentalism (e.g. terraforming), but the dominant theme is technoterror: tyrannic supercomputers, cyborgs gone rogue, etc.
- Ōkami shōjo to kuro ōji by Ayuko Hatta: another romantic comedy with none of the three themes present.
- Dororo by Osamu Tezuka: sadness surrounds the protagonist Hyakkimaru, whom his parents sacrifice to demons, and his sidekick Dororo.
- Appleseed by Masamune Shirow: this manga is interesting in terms of environmentalism, as a post-apocalyptic wasteland is contrasted against the lush city of Olympus. However, the dominant theme is once more technoterror: again there are cyborgs and a sinister computer-enhanced government.
- Jisatsu saakuru by Usamaru Furuya: a manga about clinically depressed teenagers is bound to be dominated by sadness.
- Devilman by Gō Nagai: there is something tragic about the protagonist’s transformation into a demon, but perhaps not actually sad. None of the three themes present.
- Furari by Jirō Taniguchi: not much of the sadness of some of Taniguchi’s other manga can be found here. None of the three themes dominate.
- Bonnōji by Aki Eda: another rom-com manga in which none of the three themes dominate.
- Sarah by Katsuhiro Ōtomo Takumi Nagayasu: as in quite a few other science-fiction stories, environmentalism and technoterror are linked here, as a nuclear war has eradicated all life on Earth, and now scientists try to fix that by tilting the Earth’s axis with another bomb.
- Berserk by Kentarō Miura: the protagonist’s backstory is probably sad, but not much about it is revealed in vol. 1. Thus none of the three themes is present.
- Tomoji by Jirō Taniguchi: the true story of the eponymous protagonist’s life is full of sad events.
- K by Shirō Tōzaki and Jirō Taniguchi: another adventure/action manga in which the sadness surrounding the mysterious protagonist remains vague. Nowadays, a story about Himalayan mountaineering would have to deal with environmental issues, but that was not the case in 1988. None of the three themes dominate.
Adding up the numbers, there are only 25 manga (50%) of which we can say that they are dominated by any of the three themes in question. That’s a far cry from “many of the offerings”. It’s also noteworthy that environmentalism and technoterror apply to only 3 (6%) and 9 titles (18%), respectively, i.e. the distribution of the three themes is markedly skewed in favour of sadness (15 titles / 30%). Incidentally, we obtained similar numbers in my manga course when applying Levi’s themes to the manga discussed in class.
Does that mean Levi is wrong? Are environmentalism, technoterror, and, to a lesser degree, sadness, irrelevant to manga and their (North American) reception? Not necessarily. Perhaps her statement is just a bit imprecisely phrased. I suspect that if we take a closer look at the most popular manga in the US in the late 1990s and early 2000s (which is perhaps the kind of manga that her article is actually about), rather than a more or less random sample, we might find that environmental and technological issues play indeed a large role – or at least a larger role than in contemporary American media.
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Griselda Pollock’s feminism – in comics?Posted: March 20, 2022 Filed under: review | Tags: art history, comics, feminism, Griselda Pollock, manga, Moe Yukimaru, Suisai, theory, Women's History Month 1 Comment
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, yukimarublog.jugem.jp. 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, https://doi.org/10.2307/1358100; 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, https://www.jstor.org/stable/40004832.
Linda Nochlin’s fallen woman – in comics?Posted: March 27, 2021 Filed under: review | Tags: Aki Eda, Bonnouji, comics, feminism, Linda Nochlin, manga, romance, theory, Women's History Month 2 Comments
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.)
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.
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.
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
Susan Sontag’s Regarding the Pain of Others – in comics?Posted: March 31, 2020 Filed under: review | Tags: Appleseed, comics, manga, Masamune Shirow, Susan Sontag, theory, war, Women's History Month 2 Comments
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.
Consider the beginning of Masamune Shirow’s Appleseed from 1985. Set in a post-World War IV (see Jason Thompson’s review at https://www.animenewsnetwork.com/house-of-1000-manga/2011-07-21) 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.
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.
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.
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Marie-Laure Ryan’s narrative – in comics?Posted: March 23, 2019 Filed under: review | Tags: Black Magic, comics, manga, Marie-Laure Ryan, Masamune Shirow, narratology, Scott McCloud, theory, Women's History Month 2 Comments
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.
- Narrative must be about a world populated by individuated existents.
- This world must be situated in time and undergo significant transformations.
- The transformations must be caused by non-habitual physical events.
- 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.
- Some of the events must be purposeful actions by these agents.
- The sequence of events must form a unified causal chain and lead to closure.
- The occurrence of at least some of the events must be asserted as fact for the storyworld.
- 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
Judith Butler’s gender performativity – in comics?Posted: March 27, 2018 Filed under: review | Tags: comics, critical theory, DC, feminism, Frank Miller, gender, Rōnin, sexism, theory, US, Women's History Month 1 Comment
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?
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Linda Hutcheon’s Postmodernism – in comics?Posted: March 31, 2017 Filed under: review | Tags: Brahm Revel, comics, Guerillas, history, Linda Hutcheon, politics, postmodernism, theory, US, Vietnam War, war, Women's History Month 1 Comment
There have already been five posts about postmodernism on this weblog, so why a sixth one? Linda Hutcheon’s 1988 book A Poetics of Postmodernism: History, Theory, Fiction is interesting because it directly engages in a dialogue – or should I say, argument – with previous texts on postmodernism such as Fredric Jameson’s.
Hutcheon defines postmodernism as:
- “fundamentally contradictory”,
- “resolutely historical”, and
- “inescapably political” (p. 4, my emphasis).
This seems to contradict Jameson’s and other authors’ view of postmodernism as ahistorical and depthless. But what exactly does Hutcheon mean by ‘historical’ and ‘political’?
The treatment of the past in postmodern works is indeed different from earlier, modernist works. Postmodernism “suggests no search for transcendent timeless meaning, but rather a re-evaluation of and a dialogue with the past in the light of the present. […] It does not deny the existence of the past; it does question whether we can ever know that past other than through its textualized remains.” (pp. 19-20, emphasis LH).
Likewise, the political nature of postmodernism is a complex one, “a curious mixture of the complicitous and the critical” (p. 201). “The basic postmodernist stance [is] a questioning of authority” (p. 202), but at the same time it is also “suspicious of ‘heroes, crusades, and easy idealism’ […]” (p. 203, quoting Bill Buford). “The postmodern is ironic, distanced” (p. 203).
The contradictory nature of postmodernism, on the other hand, is something everyone can agree on. This characteristic seems to be more of a prerequisite for or superordinate concept of the other two.
Hutcheon’s idea of postmodernism is a relatively narrow one. Although she references many examples of postmodernist works (mainly novels), it becomes clear that those examples represent only a part, and probably not a large one at that, of contemporary cultural production. Which brings us to today’s comic, which is not quite as randomly selected as previous examples in this column: it might fit Hutcheon’s criteria (well, see below), but some other comics that have a more ‘postmodern’ feel to them might not.
Brahm Revel’s Guerillas vol. 1 (Oni Press, 2010) opens with a quotation attributed to French Prime Minister Georges Clemenceau (1841–1929). The first words of the comic proper are in a caption box that says, “Vietnam, 1970.” For the next 50 pages, the story follows John Francis Clayton, an “FNG” (Fucking New Guy) in a military unit in the Vietnam War. Revel pays a lot of attention to detail, such as military equipment and jargon. There are references to historic figures like Richard Nixon or Jane Goodall. And the depicted events are typical of what is commonly known about the Vietnam War: U.S. soldiers raping native women, torching villages, falling victim to the Viet Cong’s guerilla tactics, etc.
All of this serves to create a sense of historical accuracy. While the story narrated by Clayton can with some certainty be identified as fictional, the events just might have happened as depicted, in Vietnam, in 1970.
Then there’s a rupture around p. 56, at the end of the first chapter, when the chimpanzees are introduced, a rogue squad of trained apes equipped and dressed as U.S. soldiers, who fight against the Viet Cong on their own. Chapter 2 tells their origin as an experiment conducted by scientists (of German descent, of course). The chimpanzees exhibit a mix of human and animal behaviour; they thump their chests but smoke cigarettes.
This appears to be the contradiction that is central to Guerillas: the outlandish, ‘unrealistic’ motif of the scientifically enhanced apes clashes with an historically accurate, ‘realistic’ setting. While the beginning of this comic might be read as Revel’s version of what really happened in Vietnam, the story of the chimpanzees can hardly be interpreted this way: here we’re clearly in the realm of fiction, or entertainment, or fantasy. Of course, earlier fantasy and science fiction stories have used similar setups (e.g. Bram Stoker’s Dracula). However, the main difference is that in those classic stories, the authors went to great lengths to make the improbable seem plausible and fit into the realistic setting, whereas it’s harder to suspend one’s disbelief when reading Guerillas (not least because we’re reading it with the experience of many of those older similar stories).
According to Hutcheon, such a treatment of the past tells us something about the present, and this is also where the political nature of the work comes from. It is unreasonable to assume that the depiction of the grimness of the Vietnam War is a protest against, reassessment of, or coming-to-terms with it, given that the comic was made over 30 years after the end of the war. The ostensible reason for the Vietnam setting is that it makes more sense to deploy chimpanzee soldiers in the Vietnamese jungle than e.g. in the desert of the Gulf Wars, or in WWII in which the U.S. experience of the tropical regions was dominated by naval and aerial warfare (The Thin Red Line perhaps being the exception that proves the rule). But maybe Guerillas isn’t so time-specific after all. One of its themes is that a man learns from animals what humanity truly is, and this is a message that is relevant regardless of time and place: not unlike Pride of Baghdad by Vaughan and Henrichon, Guerillas can also be read as a commentary on the dehumanising effects of the war in Iraq, and by extension also Afghanistan and any other armed conflict.
But wouldn’t this – i.e. extrapolating from the specific to the universal – be a rather modernist reading? Indeed, Guerillas doesn’t seem to be the ideal example of Hutcheon’s postmodernism, but then again, few comics would meet her criteria without reservation. Still, Guerillas comes close. One can easily imagine how it might have qualified if Revel had made some different choices, e.g. if the protagonist would have been made identifiable as a real person (thus creating a contradiction between the genres of biography and fiction, cf. Hutcheon p. 9), or if the chimpanzee experiment would have been based on more advanced science and technology (thus creating a contradiction between different time layers, cf. Hutcheon p. 5). The resulting work would have been postmodern in Hutcheon’s sense, but whether it would have been a better comic is another question.
Nina Zschocke’s visual irritation – in comics?Posted: March 30, 2016 Filed under: review | Tags: art history, comics, German, L'Oud Silencieux, Martin tom Dieck, Nina Zschocke, reception aesthetics, theory, visual irritation, Women's History Month 2 Comments
Happy Women’s History Month, everyone! Last year I realised I had written only one single blog post about a female art historian / scholar / theoretician, so this year I scheduled two posts on women (that I would have written anyway) for March. This first one is about a German book that was published only ten years ago, Der irritierte Blick: Kunstrezeption und Aufmerksamkeit by Nina Zschocke. Unfortunately there doesn’t seem to be an English translation of it yet. The title can be roughly translated as, “The irritated gaze: art reception and attention” (albeit “irritated” in the sense of “confused”, not “annoyed”).
The first ~70 pages of Der irritierte Blick form an introduction to reception aesthetics and its psychological prerequisites. This first part is well worth reading in itself, but the second part introduces Zschocke’s concept of visual irritation with which we’ll deal today. Recipients are visually irritated when they “think their visual interpretation is ‘wrong’ because it contradicts other assumptions or information about the perceived situation” (all translations mine). Within visual irritations, those that contradict basic rules of perception acquired during childhood (regarding the formal attributes of colour, shape and space) can be distinguished from phenomena that contradict assumptions “of a higher level”, i.e. regarding the perceived content. Another distinction can be made between stable “illusions” and multistable phenomena: multistability occurs when several mutually exclusive interpretations appear equally plausible. In any case, the viewer sooner or later experiences a sense of failed perception and irritation.
Zschocke’s point is that visual irritation is an artistic strategy. Contemporary artists (Zschocke examines the examples of Josef Albers, Anish Kapoor, and Thomas Demand, among others) deliberately compose their works in such a way that the recipients are astonished, their perceptual sensitivity is heightened and their attention is turned back on itself, so that they are encouraged to reflect on the act of perception.
Does visual irritation occur in comics too? A prime example of a visually irritating comic might be L’Oud Silencieux (Die Schweigende Laute / “the silent oud” or “lute”) by Martin tom Dieck (L’Association, 1996). This wordless 22-page comic has a page layout of two panels on top of each other. From the panel transitions it soon becomes clear that the horizontal connections across pages are stronger than the vertical ones on the same page. In other words, the upper panels tell one story (a man playing an oud) and the lower panels another (a man dreaming of some sort of fairy).
So far, so interesting. While the two stories seem entirely unconnected at first, it is fun to look for similarities between them. For instance, both men watch television at some point. Furthermore, one man falls asleep and wakes again when (i.e. on the same page as) the other stops and starts playing his oud.
The real point of visual irritation occurs on the fourth page: on the top panel, the oud player sits on his rooftop, while on the lower panel we see the other man’s television. The funny thing is, the television screen shows the oud player on the rooftop from the top panel. So clearly the two stories are connected after all. However, what is their exact chronological or spatial relation? I can’t think of a single completely satisfying explanation. For instance, the upper story cannot be a film that is shown on the TV in the lower story, because when the man in the lower story wakes up (p. 20), his TV is blank instead of showing what’s going on in the upper panel. Thus L’Oud Silencieux contradicts the reader’s assumptions about comics, as the sequence of images in a comic is usually thought to be “intended to convey information”, as Scott McCloud’s famous definition says. (The second part of this quote, “… and/or to produce an aesthetic response in the viewer”, is often forgotten.) Ultimately, the recipient is left visually irritated and, perhaps, pleasantly amazed.
[EDIT: Speaking of Martin tom Dieck, another “multistable” comic is his Hundert Ansichten der Speicherstadt, because one cannot decide whether it depicts the real warehouse district in Hamburg or not. I have written about this ambiguity in a conference paper from 2011, albeit without having read Zschocke’s book back then.]
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