Tuesday, May 3, 2016

"Authenticity Has Many Faces": Manga Translation Outside of the Speech Bubbles

Note: I wrote this a long time ago and it's sat around.  I was inspired by a handful of twitter discussions the awesome Deb Aoki kept curating about different adaptation choices.  Since then, a few things have popped up here and there, the most thorough of which is probably Zack Davisson's piece for TCJ.  Thanks to all of the busy folks who took time out of their schedules to answer all of my questions, and thanks to Alexander Lu for comments on an early draft of what follows.  Thanks also to my seven lovely children, all of whom were born and moved out of the house in the time this sat on my hard drive.  Just kidding.  Seriously though.

Translation is a delicate process.  Part of capturing the spirit of the original text involves a translator doing his or her best to find ways to deploy the idiosyncrasies of the original text in a new language.  When translating manga from Japanese to English, this can involve toying with honorifics (“Tanagawa-sensei” will often be changed to “Mr. Tanagawa,” with other honorifics often being dropped altogether), changing rhyming dialogue so that it rhymes in English, and altering entire jokes that simply don’t make sense outside of a Japanese cultural context.  When translating sound effects (SFX), the editorial team responsible for the English adaptation, on top of finding analogous onomatopoeias, is tasked with making sure the visual aesthetic is itself a reliable transfer of the original, since SFX translation involves the alteration of the original artwork.  The task of Japanese-to-English SFX translation presents a somewhat unique convergence of traditional translation difficulties and aesthetic considerations.

Manga produced in English have their dialogue translated from Japanese into (gasp!) English, but publishers of English-language manga diverge on their approach to translating the Japanese SFX (the majority of what Viz puts out is fully translated, whereas Dark Horse is more of a mixed bag, for instance).  If you pick up an issue of Viz Media’s Weekly Shonen Jump, you will see all of the new, simultaneously published chapters contain the original Japanese SFX captioned gingerly within the panel with the English onomatopoetic equivalent.  Later, if you pick up a collected Viz graphic novel (or “tankobon”)  edition of the same story, the Japanese SFX will be completely replaced by new English lettering.  At Dark Horse, The Kurosagi Corpse Delivery Service volumes maintain the integrity of the original Japanese SFX with no captions at all.  They also include a glossary in the back matter with translations and a sizable chunk of cultural context.

Roughly speaking, then, there are three distinct approaches to presenting Japanese SFX to an English audience: captioning them with English equivalents, re-lettering them entirely into English, and leaving them alone with no addition.  Each of these has slight variations (there are multiple ways to caption, for instance), but each more-or-less occupies a distinct spot on a continuum of artistic, narrative, and editorial decisions.

The main reason a publisher might leave the Japanese SFX un-translated (with captions or without) is that it preserves the mangaka’s original work as they intended it to be read.  Some readers may find this unnecessary: if you’re changing what’s in the speech bubbles, why not go all the way and alter the SFX as well?  But if you consider the SFX work done by a particularly expressive mangaka—say, Bleach’s Tite Kubo—it’s easy to see why his SFX might be worth keeping.

In this spread from Bleach 634, Bazz-B sends “Burning Full Fingers” flying at Haschwalth (not seen), and Kubo’s SFX appear to be flying along.  “Sometimes the Japanese SFX are as dynamic as the art itself,” says Alexis Kirsch, current editor of Bleach’s English language releases, “and there is concern that something could be lost by replacing them.  Bleach is one of those series.”  You can see why Kirsch says this: Kubo’s choice of “ゴ” (sounds like “GO”) is not just an onomatopoetic choice: it’s an aesthetic one.  Just look at how dramatically the symbol (the katakana character for “ko” and the quotation mark called a “dakuten” which changes the “k” sound to a “g” sound) reaches out across the page in tandem with Bazz-B’s attack.

Roman characters appear garish by comparison.  No combination of English letters on this page, when it is ultimately re-lettered, will mesh quite as well with the art as Kubo’s original lettering choice.  Some readers are likely to think that doing anything more than captioning Kubo’s art as is done here (notice the tiny “VWOOSH” below the original SFX) is thus altering the original material to an unacceptable level.

Carl Horn, manga editor at Dark Horse, thinks that what it means to be true to the original material is itself up for debate.

“Suppose a manga panel has a scene with roaring flames,” Horn asks us to imagine, “and the manga creator decides to put in an FX like ‘ゴオオオオオオ.’  Consider the perspective of the original Japanese reader: are they really seeing, as we are here, the ‘Japanese way to write’ a roar and hearing in their head the ‘Japanese sound of’ a roar?”

As Horn aptly puts it, “authenticity has many faces,” and the cognitive element of how we cannot help but experience foreign symbols as native English speakers is one that cannot be discounted when discussing our experience of a particular manga.

Returning to the Bleach example, though roman characters will seem garish to many when the page is re-lettered in comparison to the elegant kana character that is already there, that kana character (or any other) might very well appear garish to a native Japanese speaker.  In that case, re-lettering into English actually preserves that part of the experience as Kubo intended, despite the loss of the particular artistic choice made specifically for a Japanese audience.

So why caption and then re-letter into English later, as Viz does?  Simple: time.

“With the weekly schedule,” says Kirsch, “we just don’t have time to retouch pages for the digital magazine.  With the graphic novels, we have the time to replace all the SFX with the English versions.”

Not all the considerations here are linguistic or aesthetic ones, as you can see.  Even when the question arises as to why you might want to leave the original Japanese SFX intact, there can be pragmatic reasons to do so independent of the art.  For instance, according to Horn, a condition of Dark Horse licensing Neon Genesis Evangelion in the late 90’s was that when published in English, it would read right-to-left, and that there would be no retouches to the SFX.

The mangaka who draws The Kurosagi Corpse Delivery Service, Housui Yamazaki, has a way of being almost pedantic with his SFX.  I don’t mean that in an insulting way. Just consider the above panels. A trip to Kurosagi’s SFX glossary informs us that  the sound occurring in the lower-left panel is “ZABABABA” and that this noise represents Kuro pulling himself out of the water.  In contrast to the dramatic SFX of the rushing water in the right hand panel, these SFX are pulling weird expositional double-duty.

It’s really not uncommon in manga for there to be SFX that, when abstracted and compared to how we treat SFX in the west, seem silly.  Often you’ll see things like “TMP TMP TMP TMP” as characters run.  In a western comic, there would be no SFX for such an action unless a particular context called for the noise of the running to be notable.  It can thus be argued that increasing readability by fully translating the SFX in a work which deploys them this freely comes at the cost of acknowledging how foreign the deployment of these SFX actually is. In this way, Kurosagi’s SFX glossary can be seen as an acknowledgment of the pervasive use of SFX within the manga’s pages. Further, for the English-speaking reader, the glossary leverages the idiosyncrasies of Japanese SFX as a chance for commentary, while maintaining Yamazaki’s brisk and original aesthetic.

It’s important to recognize that leaving Japanese SFX as such (even without extensive commentary in the form of a glossary) is in itself an editorial decision, not the absence of one. Horn is pretty forward about this when he tells me “I wouldn’t use this option in the first place if I thought it had more negatives than positives.”  This does not imply that other approaches to different works, such as fully translating the SFX into English, cannot themselves provide felicitous adaptations. However, readers shouldn't ignore the strengths of each different approach, and how those strengths constitute the best vehicle for adapting a particular work.

Of course, just because translating SFX into English can be felicitous doesn’t mean that just any translation and any re-lettering job will cut it.  “It’s a big balancing game,” says Annaliese Christman, who letters titles like Viz Media’s World Trigger for both simulpub and graphic novel format, “and very much a team effort between the translator, the editor, and the letterer.”  While letterers of native English comics are no strangers to designing SFX that are unobtrusive and that mesh with the art, letterers of English-adapted manga like Christman are further constrained by the original lettering decisions made by the mangaka.

The creator of World Trigger, mangaka Daisuke Ashihara, is noticeably expressive with his SFX, albeit in a different manner than Kubo.  He’s not particularly dramatic, but Ashihara does like to frequently switch up the color and style of his SFX to indicate differences in the scope and type of sound that’s occurring, as seen above.  Notice also Christman’s captions are in place in these panels, as they appeared in Weekly Shonen Jump.  Here, the goal of her lettering, even moreso than usual, is to stay out of the way.  Still, care must be taken by the letterer even with these captions.  “Since you’re adding to the panel instead of replacing something that’s already there it can be a totally different challenge than redesigning the sound effect completely,” notes Christman.

She did emphasize, however, that this didn’t make captioning as difficult as totally redesigning the letters.  I can see what she means.

Here is her re-lettered page, which appears in the World Trigger tankobon.  There are a lot of things to notice here (especially if you’re as nitpicky as a letterer), but a few stand out to me.  

First, notice how the final re-lettered SFX are exact matches for the English captions (down to the number of B’s and R’s).  The simulpub captions aren’t exactly a dress rehearsal, but do demonstrate that these editorial teams always have their eye on the final graphic novel manuscripts.

Second, Christman keeps Ashihara’s SFX notably consistent: the “THUMS” are stretched out with the same frayed edges, the “WHIRRR” occurs in cleaner lettering to represent the steady precise manner in which the batteries prepare to fire, and the “B-B-BOOM” switches from hollow white to full black letters, bringing a heaviness (especially by contrast!) to the battery fire.

Third, the “H” in “THUM” straddles the large white energy sword just like Ashihara’s original kana, which also happened to have an H-like characteristic.  So, “THUM” is not only a non-literal-but-accurate transliteration of the onomatopoeia on this page: it is also a lettering choice that allows Christman to preserve a very specific aesthetic feature of the original Japanese lettering.  “It’s a big matching game as well,” Christman pointed out to me, noting that you don’t want to cover up too much with the new lettering, but you don’t want to uncover too much either.  By preserving such specific artistic lettering choices made by Ashihara, Christman demonstrates what happens when you play this matching game at a high level of competence.

While it is common to heap praise on Kubo and Ashihara for their lettering choices, editors like Horn and Kirsch; and letterers like Christman are also deserving of praise for juggling original artistic decisions in the face of adapting foreign works to a new audience.

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Hand-Sewn Domestic Female Aesthetic: An Interview with Kendra Josie Kirkpatrick

This is the first in what I'm loosely referring to as a "Post-MoCCA Spotlight" series of interviews with creators whose work I discovered because they were exhibiting at MoCCA.  Kendra was the first table I went to, so hers is the first interview I wanted to publish.  More coming soon!

I got to MoCCA on its opening Saturday this year well before the 2 pm rush came and flooded the hall with bodies, noise, and dozens of people who seemed way too miffed that the elevator wasn’t working.  The very first table I went to go find was Kendra Josie Kirkpatrick’s.  Of the people whose names I did not recognize when scrolling through the exhibitor list, Kendra’s work stood out with her ability to coax both humor and horror out of historical events, all while sticking to a stark black and white aesthetic.  Her penchant for non-fiction extends to both the biographical and autobiographical, making for some poignantly candid comics told with a great degree of visual care.

Despite still being in school and probably (almost definitely) being way too busy for my nonsense, Kendra was nice enough to answer some questions I had for her.  You’ll find her answers below, along with further exploration of the things in her work I find interesting.

Austin: How did you get into making comics?

Kendra: If I’m remembering correctly I started making comics in 2nd grade. The first extensive project I remember making was this Power Puff Girls rip-off that went on for multiple pages. I might have made more comics before that but that’s the one I remember.

Austin: What made you decide to major in cartooning?  Was there ever the thought of just having the comics on the side?

Kendra: I was in 10th grade, disgruntled in an art program I hated because it was fine-art oriented and dismissed all comic art- and I found a course book for SVA and saw they had comics as an actual major and it was tunnel vision from there.

Ironically it’s now that I’m about to have a BFA in comics that I’m thinking of just having comics on the side.

Austin: All of your work is black and white, but not just in the sense of lacking color: it’s very specifically black and white and leans heavily on negative space.  Was this just something that immediately clicked as part of your personal aesthetic or was it something that developed over time?  Do you have any plans to work with color?

Kendra: The first project I can say used the negative space the way I do stylistically now was PENDLE, [which you can read here] and from there I just pursued it as an aesthetic. I actually just finished a zine that’s in color, it was done with Risograph.

"Pendle" is a full-length comic about one of many nasty witch trials that occurred outside of the far more well-known Salem.  The cover alone is indicative of Kirkpatrick’s style.  It should be no mystery to the reader that black and white themselves will be substance in the forthcoming comic. The first page is a great example.

Reading the text alone, Kirkpatrick’s introduction to the Pendle witch trial reads like a typical history essay.  What’s impressive is that she wraps up this introduction in a single page with thoughtful text that isn’t verbose.  The lettering alternates in a similar black and white contrast to all other elements of the book.  Obviously this is out of necessity at times (sort of hard/completely impossible to read black text on a black background), but because Kirkpatrick makes such stylish use of negative space throughout the book’s pages, the lettering often oozes the same kind of design-conscious flair.

The overall way in which black and white are going to interplay to create the substance of this work is clear-as-day after this first page.  Kirkpatrick is not only using negative space to create panels: she is using it to build entire pages.  Black and white juxtapose to form the very first panel of this page; however, they also juxtapose to give the overall page its feel.  A black page-width panel alternates with three open panels, then to another black panel, finishing with a wide open panel.  What takes this page over the top is the fact that Kirkpatrick winds her story beats through the page in a way that allows the reader to navigate the stark contrast of the overall page.

Even when this vertical juxtaposition of black and white is played slightly more straightforward and more verbose, Kirkpatrick demonstrates that she’s not afraid to do interesting and narratively significant things with the page.  The magistrate is a visually imposing figure on this page, even more so perhaps than Jennet on page one.  The penultimate panel in which Old Demdike is framed by witchy icons breaks up the hard edges of the rest of the page, while making a particularly small but verbose story beat feel like it fits without much shoehorning.  Kirkpatrick constantly finds new and interesting ways to fit things into what would otherwise be a monotonous aesthetic.

Austin: What is it that draws you to working with non-fiction in particular?

Kendra: There are two things, one is not as elegant, but here’s both:

I cannot fucking write original stories or characters. I’m horrible at it. And I also hate working with other people’s stories or characters, I’m perpetually not interested (the exception being an adaption, which occasionally intrigues me).

Mostly though I’ve always been interested in history, and then that kind of branched out into true crime, etc. There’s so much interesting stuff that actually occurred, so I almost find it pointless for me to struggle to create some kind of original narrative when there’s so much great non-fiction material to work with.

Austin: Do you have a preference between working on the more strip-like works  “Informative Ancient Egypt Comics” or longer projects like “Pendle”?

Kendra: You know it really depends. I only make longer projects if there’s a topic I’m very very interested in and want to get out there. With shorter strips you don’t really need to have that intensity to finish them, and ironically people tend to respond overwhelmingly to shorter strips over a long project you’ve nearly killed yourself over. It really depends.

Kirkpatrick has range, something made impressive by her willingness to work within a particular aesthetic.  The creepy play between blank spaces in “Pendle” and her still ongoing “Isabella” (being serialized page-by-page here) is morphed into an exploration of the clumsier aspects of ancient Egypt.  Below is my favorite of the “Informative Ancient Egypt Comics."

This is wildly different in tone than “Pendle.”  The first obvious reason for this is that the subject matter is in itself wildly different.  The visual aproach to telling the story, however, is also much different.  For some of you, this is obvious and I’m saying something really uninteresting; but, I think it still bears pointing out, especially as far as Kirkpatrick’s range as a storyteller is concerned.  Kirkpatrick could never in a million years tell “Pendle” the same way if she was confined to a grid; similarly, the comedic effect of this cartoon is very at home in this simple, storyboard format.  The ability to co-vary the design-conscious approach to storytelling with the distinct story beat approach required for simple grids is a huge boon to any cartoonist.  That kind of flexibility is the thing that allows for a variety of stories and tones to come through in the creator’s voice.

Austin: What do you feel the bigger challenge is for you?  Cutting loose and opening up the page in an original way, or fitting what you want to say into a neat grid?

Kendra: Grids are much much easier. That’s why I enjoy grids, they make it easier, but at the same time it’s not a cop-out if you use it in a way for you to organize your material/create pacing etc. Grids are much less daunting because from the very beginning it’s a way of organizing your ideas down to a simpler form you can process and execute.  

Austin: In your Waldorf comic (I did not know about Waldorf education by the way and got sidetracked while coming up with these questions in a Wikipedia-enabled rabbit hole) you discuss your experience of Waldorf education when you were a child.  You hint it a little at the end, but I’m curious how much and in what way you think that education impacted your artistic leanings? 

Kendra: I’m incredibly biased towards working traditionally over digital. I’m convinced that’s their fault.

Also, I think they may have pushed me farther into my interest in working more graphically, because I remember being in elementary school and they had us draw everything rounded and colored. I also got bitched at for drawing “outlines” on my characters and giving them faces, and now all my work is very face-centric, black and white, sharp shapes etc.

So basically I have some of their biases still but I’m also convinced my tastes may have been shaped by what they didn’t want me to draw.

To be fair though, I think Waldorf Education is a big part of the reason I even ended up going to an art school because they do put an emphasis on having kids draw, etc. even if it’s weirdly regimented.

My real issue with them is their inability to accommodate kids with learning disabilities.

If you don’t know anything about Waldorf education, then I’ll let you have your introduction to it as I did: go check out Kendra’s autobiographical take.

What really grabbed me before I discovered the longer autobiographical stuff, however, were some of the shorter, one-page comics, my favorite of which is a one-page biographical comic, “Miscarriage.”

For this, Kendra interviewed someone and then presented their story in this comic.  I often see discussions about the power of comics as journalism, but this is something even more personal.  Of course, out of that personal, emotional frankness comes something that’s universal.  In order not to represent the person directly in the story, Kirkpatrick opts for more general looking cartoon figures.  In doing so, she not only achieves anonymity, but also nods to the prevalence of miscarriage and the many women it effects.

Formally what stood out to me about this comic were the panels dedicated to lettering.  One of the first things I brought up to Kendra when I met her at MoCCA was that I loved the sort of bubbles she put the letters in when she made those panels, and I was wondering why she chose to present them in that way.  She confessed a main reason was that she was tired of using the white ink.  Despite this being a functional decision, it’s interesting to see how it works both aesthetically and narratively.  The circle in which the words appear plays visually off of the image of the fetus in the womb.  Coming back to that image gives the reader a sense of becoming that’s never quite fulfilled.  And, of course, having these lettering-dedicated panels at all helps pace the “easy” grids of which Kirkpatrick is so fond.

Austin: Most (if not all) of your stuff is brush and nib, which makes sense since it’s all black.  Are there any other mediums you like to work with?

Kendra: Yes actually, I enjoy screen-printing a lot, particularly on textiles and wood, and I also just got into Risograph.

Austin: Answer one or a few or all: Best thing you’ve eaten recently, best thing you’ve read recently, best thing you’ve listened to recently.

Kendra: Eaten: Paris Baguette’s fruit tart.

Read: I barely ever read but I finished Tezuka’s “MW” a few months ago and it’s great.

Listened: BEHEMOTH’s album “The Satanist”. I’m seeing it live Saturday and may cry.

Monday, March 28, 2016

Don't Trust The Humanoids: Liz Suburbia & Your Pituitary in Panels

My high school years were absolute shit.  I was an all-state trumpet player and mathlete, but the only real highlight for me was the senior prom after-party where I smoked pot for like, the third time in my life, with a kid I hadn’t seen since elementary school as we proceeded to talk about our Pokemon club in third grade.  I never got as messed up ever again in my life as I did at that party and the various graduation parties after.  They were never about socializing for me, they were purely and completely about getting fucked up for free and with the help of some really irresponsible adults.

When the parties ended and high school ended, I was left at home with no similar outlet, however unhealthy and destructive that outlet might have been.  One day I broke down and explained how empty I felt to my mother and a few years of therapy went a long way.  The other stories I have—the worst ones, the ones we all have about when we were at our most lonely and vulnerable—still aren’t anywhere near the experiences of so many others.  Still, I can tell you honestly that I believe I am lucky to be here.

The world didn’t end.  But it was close.  The psycho-sexual existential lurch comprised by the chemical warfare occurring in a teenager’s brain is The Formative Thing for us.  And, for me, without parents that were as supportive, it is quite literally not something I would have survived.

Sacred Heart takes us to a world that is identical to ours.  The kids in this book are just that: kids.  The one differences is that, at some point, you realize that none of their lives are circumscribed by responsible adults; or, you know, by any adults.  The truly unchecked flare-ups in teen angst are not cute and unfortunate, but monstrous, tragic, and sad.  What’s worse is that without any guidance at all, the tragic does not even register as such with these teens.

Maybe some of that has something to do with the cultishness instead of the outright lack of adults.  But make no mistake, even within the confines of this cult, the cult itself is fundamentally changed by its lack of adults.  It becomes a cult of angst alone, which looks much less like selfies, votes for Bernie Sanders, and--I don’t know, however else young kids are stereotyped these days—and more like a mix of cliche sex in parked cars and, oh, you know, dead bodies all over the fucking place.  Sacred Heart is a mix of horror story and a really great, really straight-shooting coming of age high school drama.  These kids won’t, in fact, be alright, but god damnit even in this intensely fucked up reality, they’re sort of managing.

Voices literally fade into the background as Empathy focuses in on approaching the cute lead singer. 
My love of this book doesn’t emanate primarily from my probably only mildly jacked up high school years; no, as usual, what first reached out and grabbed me was Suburbia’s supreme ability visual narrative tricks right where they need to be. 

A huge part of this… what’d I call it?  Yes, the “psycho-sexual existential lurch” of teenagery— a huge part of that is not what happens to us but the intensity and pure novelty with which we experience the things that happen to us.  Seeing the boy across the room as a pure visual story beat is actually really fucking uninteresting.  Even if every reader knows that it’s a big character moment because of how similar situations felt to them, the goddamn book isn’t about the reader’s experience.  (Now, cut me some slack: sometimes it very well is, as I have talked about before).  Suburbia is constantly interested in driving the point home.  At moments where she could let the reader do the work and lose very little, she instead gains a lot with some clever choices.

On another of my favorite pages, while being chatted up by some guy with the typical “meh meh no makeup natural beauty bleh” lines, his dialogue actually goes in one ear and out the other.  Christ, everything about this page is fantastic.  Look how the story beats are broken up.  You get a little bit of the convo happening to the left, and then don’t get another piece until later in the page.  Her tunnel vision can only be so… tunnely because she’s wasted at this point, so her attention is sort of popping around here and there, with the exception of the cockbag next to her who is just so easy to ignore.  That top panel that could have been one single panel broken into three instead gets zoomed slightly as we step to the right.  This gives it a cinematic effect because it makes it feel more like a pan than a weird show-offy comic thing; at the same time, though, it is an effective comic show-offy thing because it paces that top sequence better.  Reading that top line of panels as a single panel is impossible, so you have to stop, read, stop, read, and then boom, you get to Ben drunk on the couch.

At another point, Ben confronts her friend-with-benefits Otto about wanting to forego any further sexual encounters in favor of saving their friendship, making for an obviously awkward encounter.  The well-paced, flowing visual narrative of Sacred Heart comes to a grinding halt, begetting nine-panel grids of awkward back and forth between the star-crossed not-lovers-but-sort-of-lovers-but-mostly-friends.  And you’ve had these conversations: the ones where everything else drops away and it’s just you and another person and it’s just gut-wrenchingly hard to say what you planned on saying because the other person is making it as hard as possible for you, or at least it seems that way because of the hours you spent having a pre-meditiated version of this conversation alone in the dark with some weirdly idealized imaginary version of your interlocutor.

And there’s even more to like about this book.  I adore how often Suburbia injects two or three panel moments of innocence into what is really a grim story.  I would read a comic strip by her in a *snap*, which isn’t something I often come away from such a long, substantial work saying.  There’s a chapter in the middle told from the dog’s perspective, and not in the incredibly convuluted Pizza Dog way but in the sense of literal perspective.  Interestingly enough, that chapter is the heaviest with a sense of foreboding and something being amiss: the lack of caregivers is face-punchingly obvious when the story is shifted to the perspective of the one character in the story who actually has a caregiver.  It’s just such a mature, big-picture storytelling choice.  Another of my favorite things throughout the book is the way that Suburbia juxtaposes rigid depictions of light with flowing, ethereal depictions of both light and sound.

I could go on and on, but honestly this is one of those great books where I want to open up to a sequences and shove it in a friend’s face and yell “LOOK AT WHAT SHE DID HERE.  DO YOU SEE THIS.”  I was on such a comic-high coming off of A Drifting Life (which I did write about, by the way, but my essay is such a behemoth that it needs a lot of work) that whatever came next had to be good.  And goddamn this book was good.

Friday, March 11, 2016

"Gekiga" roughly translates to, "Depressing as Fuck"

Usually when I write something, I like to focus in on a particular thing and if I happen to wander into some concentric topical circles, then that’s OK.  Writing about Yoshihiro Tatsumi has proven to be a slightly more complicated task.  I made the mistake (not that it hasn’t been a pleasant and interesting one) of reading Abandon the Old in Tokyo, a compilation of Tatsumi’s shorter works, at the same time as A Drifting Life, a beat-up-somebody-without-leaving-bruises length autobiography.  I could give you any amount of historical context for Tatsumi’s notable and historically important approach to storytelling in comics; however, since Holmberg has already written on this, any attempt by me to contextualize gekiga or Tatsumi any better would be in vain.

Actually, that’s not true: some guy fucks a dog in one of these stories (not the autobio).  Does that paint a picture for you?  Yes?  Ok.  There you go.

Perspicuous as fuck.

Previously, I have written about one of Tatsumi’s contemporaries, Tadao Tsuge.  The two share important similarities in the themes they tackle, and the intersection of those similarities is really the heart of what gekiga was trying to accomplish.  These shorter stories from each author, often seen in the alt-manga publication Garo, are almost always deeply Japanese.  It is impossible to separate most of these stories from their taking place in post-war Japan.  Perhaps you can draw connections to broader themes (as I did when I was ranting about Tsuge and Hume), but even when a story is about a search for identity in society, it is very specifically in that society at that point in its history.  Tsuge’s story about the man who vanishes is most felicitously considered as being reflective of a real missing persons problem at that period in Japanese history.  Similarly, when the twisted steel and concrete of the city imposes itself on Tatsumi’s characters, it is not just a general statement about men finding their place in a cold world: it is always wrapped tightly in the chaotic, often depressing cocoon of post-war Japan.

What blows me away about Tatsumi is how he succeeds in accomplishing the same kinds of deep dark themes as Tsuge while playing his stories entirely realistic and straight.  Tsuge’s pages are ethereal, and the stories typically play out somewhere between the shadows and the people themselves, with inanimate objects often acting as mere extensions of the persons being drawn.  For Tatsumi, however, people are placed firmly in reality and goodness gracious what a reality it is.

Tatsumi achieves the darkness of a story by letting things play out in a fucked up way.  It’s sort of shockingly simple, but it’s not something many artists were doing before Tatsumi.  I want to avoid overstating his influence, since many folks who eventually figured out they could do this with comics likely had no exposure to his work, but that doesn’t take anything away from his accomplishments as a storyteller.

Unlike many other artists exploring the dark corners of the ways in which humans deal with living amongst each other, Tatsumi does not marry us to visual metaphors.  He draws much more from the dark, unseen internal motivations of his characters.  His stories are not loaded with captions and, in some stories, the main character rarely speaks at all.  Tatsumi knows that if he writes just a weird enough story, the darkness will make its way through to the reader with fairly minimal effort

A balancing act ensues with this approach to telling a story.  The story must be simultaneously extraordinary and everyday.  Tsuge reached this balance by honing in, almost pedantically, on one particularly normal thing—say, an encounter with a friend you haven’t seen in awhile, or some reporters interviewing a guy about his disappearance—and then surrounding that painfully simple thing with absurd visual asides.  Tatsumi similarly leans on absurdity; however, he works hard to find the absurdity in the mundane.  For instance, “The Washer” revolves around a man who, through a window he is cleaning, finds his daughter caught up in a love affair with her boss.  An absurd situation, yes, but one that is at least nomologically possible as presented on the page: it could happen and, if it did, this is what it would look like.

The obtuse aspects of the story are not mysterious, conceptually thick visuals. Instead, the reader will find themselves being rapped on the eyes by the blunt end of realistically shitty situations.  In the titular “Abandon the Old in Tokyo,” a man who just wants to spend time with his fiancée without worrying about his elderly mother finds himself desperately carrying the body of his dead abandoned mother through the streets.  Tatsumi’s story formula is to take these simply relatable but inherently complex real life situations and then realize something approximating the reader’s worst fears at the very end.  Sometimes, as in “The Washer,” these fears are darkly comical; other times, as in “Abandon the Old,” they are powerful and tragic.

Tsuge liked to visually demonstrate people losing their humanity.  In Abandon, Tatsumi is much more interested in the essential but secondary bestal nature of man.  Stories that aren’t centered around the omni-present gekiga theme of sexual humiliation show characters being lowered to the level of animals, either by acting like them or by, erm… dog sex.  The loss of humanity is something that happens in the company of fellow humans, but is shown explicitly as a descent from whatever the human was before.

To me, that’s where Tatsumi shines.  I didn’t like Abandon the Old in Tokyo as much as A Drifting Life, and found it wanting in a lot of ways.  However, when you keep seeing this descent from human to animal in Tatsumi’s work, there’s a point at which you have to find yourself asking, “okay… but what were they before?  What is it that placed us above the monkeys and the dogs and the eels such that these stories characterize a descent from some higher place?”

Nothing.  Tatsumi’s answer in these stories assumes no separation!  There is an inevitability to these stories such that the ending is not a demarcation of the character’s final descent: it’s a curtain being pulled back as to what they were all along.  Though the character who fornicates with the dog claims that he wanted to hang on to the last bit of his dignity after forfeiting it, the manner in which Tatsumi presents the story makes it clear that this character could not get lower.  He only appears lower, finally, in the eyes of others, than he was before.  But as a person, very little has changed.

I mean, fuck, let’s be serious here: a person who is inclined to have sex with a dog—a person who is even in possession of that disposition in some robust sense—is probably at rock bottom in some way already.  Is there a meaningful loss of humanity still awaiting that person?  Tatsumi argues, quite reasonably, no.

"Unpaid" (the dog story) is a good example for this because of the main character’s own reflection that he wanted to hold onto the last of his dignity: the fact of the matter is, there was very little of substance to be lost.  The first story in the book, "Occupied," underscores this.  The main character is clearly a pretty harmless pervert, like most of us are.  Yet he makes this decision to draw a naked woman on a bathroom stall and through the fact that everyone starts calling him out on it we are supposed to believe that he has somehow descended into the dregs of society.  "Occupied" is more about sexual humiliation than loss of humanity, but there's a common thread of some kind of dignity being lost by someone in some substantial way throughout all of these stories.

Tatsumi’s storytelling embraces the reality that his art depicts.  We are unambiguously inhabitants of a modern society; a garbage-filled, over-populated, smoggy swamp that locks us by the ankles in its filth at birth (it should not be lost on the reader, by the way, that the one somewhat comedic moment in this whole book involves a newborn being dragged into this crap).  The only difference between people is the that some decisions quicken our descent into darkness. 

If Abandon the Old in Tokyo isn’t nihilistic, then it is a series of questions that roughly equate to, “but what am I to do?” in the face of a familiar series of desperation-inducing problems.  I don’t fault Tatsumi for not answering, but by the end of the book I at least wish he asked a different question once or twice.

Next week: I’m going to write about A Drifting Life, Tatsumi’s autobio and really just a genuinely lovely book; tremendously uncynical.

Saturday, March 5, 2016

New School: Dash Shaw and Comics as Collage

Sometime around 2010 I had a thought ‘comics are a collage medium — they’re collages that you can read.’  Everything I’ve done since then has been extrapolating from that idea in different ways.” - Dash Shaw

[I'm at it again with the cell camera pictures, this time because I wrote this and put it together mostly in a waiting room.  I think this is actually the second of my posts done while one of my parents was in surgery (both are doing well, independent of the genes that begot me).  And oh yeah, I didn't crop my distractingly blue striped shirt out of the pictures because I thought it fit with talking about Shaw.]

Not all collages are comics.  But, if you think about it (as Dash Shaw clearly has), all comics are collage.  While I think we can probably define comics more loosely than I sometimes want to admit, I don’t think that definition can ever (meaningfully) become identical with something as broad as collage.  Taking comics as an aspect of collage seriously in one’s work, however, leads to interesting results: New School is an example of quite a few of the ways that this exploration can both succeed and fail.

As you enter into the world of New School, for a brief time, the art is underwhelming.  It’s not that it feels unfinished, per se; but, the reader is left wanting some color, some environment, some movement—something more from the world that Shaw is building.  In rather short order, the layouts become more interesting, with panel borders willing to slant, sometimes even become triangular, and with lovely hand-lettering that serves to flourish awkwardly (but charmingly) flowery dialogue from the book’s main characters.

Then come the blocks of color.

New School’s most unique and deservedly noteworthy feature is Shaw’s use of blocks of color that occur outside the lines on the majority of his pages.  Not only is it unorthodox as deployed at all, but it especially stands out because of its centrality to this work’s identity.  Perhaps the story is the same without any of these color blocks, but New School would certainly not be the same book in any real, interesting sense without them.

Above is an early use of the color blocks and one of the more successful ones.  Readers who are not used to this—really, any reader, I would think—will need to spend extra time on these pages absorbing what Shaw is up to.  Maybe people who have spent more time viewing different types of art than me will be able to go through New School at a medium pace.  I, however, found myself having to pause on pages like this one and really consider what Shaw was trying to acheive: what is this page doing?  Does it work?

The color blocks are intentionally haphazard, but do have a degree of order to them that is important to notice.  The above green block envelops the tree; additionally, the reader ought to notice that the pervasive sunset-violets are lined up to contrast within specific points of surrounding panels.  Yes, this is coloring outside the lines; however, where Shaw colors outside the lines often has specific narrative and aesthetic impacts that match and sometimes extend the typical, inside-the-lines colors that readers expect from a comic.

Here, another of my favorite sequences combines two of the most aesthetically salient and successful things that Shaw does: the block coloring approach and the intentionally stilted captions in lovely hand-lettering.  Here, in a significant character moment, the main character goes on a bike ride with his brother to the beaches of the island of X.  Here is one of the first places where Shaw demonstrates that the block colors can achieve both the avant-garde narrative functions that the reader is becoming accustomed to, and the more traditional environment-building we’ve come to expect from comics.  The last two panels in particular are gorgeous renderings of a beach at sunset that impinge upon everything in the scene, including the characters.

The last panel is something I adore: here is a boy who is coming to terms at that very moment with the fact that he can trust strangers in some context, as opposed to the very stark, typical reality that strangers are often something to be feared and implicitly reviled.  That is a big moment for a young man, and it’s important for him that he’s having it right there.  The environment is brought to the forefront by Shaw’s block color approach, and exaggerated to match its narrative importance by the way the block colors are deployed across the page.

Syrupy coloring *outside the lines* becomes, on pages like this one, a ray of light emanating from a significant discovery, which here impresses itself upon the main character in waves that reflect the ocean coming through the glass.  Shaw does not spend a lot of New School doing physical world-building: most of Clockworld is just a jumble of anachronisms without any real character of its own.  The customs of the Xians are where most of the world-buildery is focused.  Sequences like the one above, however, show that even where novel world-building is concerned, Shaw is leaning on his idiosyncratic color choices to take us somewhere we haven’t seen before, even if that “somewhere” is comprised mostly of unfamiliar collisions between aesthetic feelings.

As the story continues, Shaw’s coloring becomes more adventurous.  Above is yet another great example of the block colors accentuating the bold lettering choices, while emanating out to envelop several more items of the narrative on the same page.  I like this page in particular because Shaw’s artistic choices leave a fair amount of ambiguity as to how you ought to see them.  While one part is clearly getting you to focus on the books, the choice of stripes is one that could elicit different feelings—some concrete and others looser—in a variety of readers.

The more adventurous Shaw gets the more overwhelming it sometimes becomes.  The blocks of color give way to actual pictorial elements, overlayed with the comic’s panels in such a way that the collages are, by the end, obfuscatory on a regular basis.  For the less avant-garde-inclined reader, I think a lot of New School is worth the effort; by the end, however, the story starts to unravel as the Comics con Collage becomes mostly just… Collage.

While this page is as effective as earlier pages despite taking a bigger risk artistically, many of the pages using real-world elements for the collage around this point in the story are far too over-the-top for my tastes.  It’s clear why a timelessly beautiful bust would make sense as being visually fused with a woman’s smile at this moment in time to this character.

Is there a correlation there?  Should Shaw’s blocks of colors and collage had been limited to being easily interpretable to a neophyte (wannabe) art critic like myself?

I don’t think so.  Even as far as pure color blocks are concerned, Shaw makes plenty of choices that you cannot always put your thumb on.  But that’s art, and narrative art in particular, isn’t it?  As much as some creators will try to convince you otherwise, not every creative choice that gets made is one with a big, specific purpose.  That’s one of the reasons that people need editors (or at the very least, a very good editing eye): a lot of small things add up (or fail to add up) to bigger aesthetic impacts or narrative functions on a comics page, or throughout an issue.  In an important respect, as odd as Shaw’s artistic choices appear in the context of our typical comic expectations, the collage-esque coloring choices are really just cogs in the narrative machine.  The difference is mostly one that lies with the reader: you aren’t used to it, so you have to struggle with it.

Still, I have a nose for when I’m offering an interpretation of something where there is no clear felicitous interpretation to be offered; or, if you prefer, I have a good sense for when I'm going to have to talk bull shit about something.  While much of New School coalesces in a way such that the colors fold into the story in a new and exciting way, the crescendo of the story in parallel with the crescendo of the collage elements brings the two into conflict such that the dissonance you feel at the end of the story is not satisfying, but frustrating.