Comics, Manga, Pop Culture, Visual Cultural Theory

The Problem with Graphic Novels

 

I have loved comic books right from when I first learnt how to read. It started with Tintin and Asterix and Obelix as a child, which my mum introduced me to. I later discovered superheroes as a teenager – Batman and X-Men were (and still are) particular favourites. Not long after that I started to widen my reading list to include series’ like Hellblazer, Sandman, Lucifer, The Authority, Phonogram and Watchmen, as well as many popular manga titles like Death Note, Cardcaptor Sakura, Neon Genesis Evangelion, D-Gray Man, Black Butler and Ouran High School Host Club. So that’s me: nowhere near an expert, but very much an avid fan-girl.

There were of course more innocent times when I pondered things like, ‘Wait, is that guy Marvel or DC?’ And ‘So what is the difference between manga and anime?’ It’s all part of the learning curve. It was while reading the blurb of Watchmen (and very much still curving the learn) that I first remember coming across the term ‘graphic novel.’ It was used in a quote from Time magazine: “[Watchmen is] one of the greatest graphic novels of all time.” ‘Graphic novel?’ I wondered. ‘So this isn’t just regular comic I’m reading then…’ I mean, the word ‘novel’ as opposed to ‘book’ somehow sounds superior doesn’t it? Coupled with the sheer strength of Moore and Gibbon’s work I naively believed that the formula must be:

graphic novel > comic book

As though ‘graphic novel’ was a higher title bestowed upon a higher quality of comic book. Like a knighthood or something. I also found out that Watchmen was the only comic book to have made Time’s 100 Greatest Novels of All Time list, which cemented all this further in my mind. ‘Wow!’ I thought, whilst probably brushing my hair into a frizzy hell. ‘This comic book is so good its ranked among real books!’

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Of course graphic novel is not any determining value for quality. What ‘graphic novel’ is actually defined as is merely collected issues of a continuing storyline of a particular character/team/franchise. It’s a volume, really. I don’t know why they didn’t use volume as the name for it in the first place as they do in Japan for manga collections. According to Wikipedia (because I’m a lazy researcher) the term first appeared in 1978, was thrown around a bit for similar titles to Watchmen,and eventually become popularised enough to be inducted as an official category in bookshops and publishing companies. I suppose the thinking was that as the stories became longer, each issue served as a chapter, and so to collect all of these chapters together meant that the volume resembled a regular book…but with pictures. So yes, the term makes sense. (Certainly in my mind, a graphic novel is a more fitting description for the format that most illustrated books take – particularly children’s books, in which image and word are separated rather than integrated.)

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I’m not certainly not against collecting issues of comics together – my comic book consumption these days is largely centred around waiting for collected volumes to be published as I simply do not have the time, space or money anymore for every individual issue of every millions of titles that apparently are necessary for every bloody character…*SHARP INTAKE OF BREATH* Long story short: I like volumes. (Manga titles are collected as ‘volumes’, FYI.) My problem is that the term has become so ubiquitous that comic book and graphic novel are used as interchangeable names now even when the technical definition is incorrect. In the same way I thought a graphic novel was a fancy word for a comic book as a kid, nowadays it is commonplace for people to use the former rather than the latter for one of two reasons:

  1. They genuinely think that the comic they have read is ‘too good’ to be classed ‘simply’ as a comic.
  2. They don’t want to admit they enjoy reading comic books.

The first point I think I’ve talked about already. If you are reading a collected volume of issues, then yes, you are technically reading a graphic novel and I’ll let you off. If not, there’s no excuse: It’s a comic book. If you enjoyed it then you enjoyed it because it was a well-written and well-drawn comic book.

The second point is what I call the Harry Potter factor. Do you remember when Harry Potter started to emerge as really big thing? Like a massive-all-consuming-religious-behemoth-of-literature thing? It was enjoyed by millions of children everywhere (myself included) but it was also enjoyed by millions of slightly ashamed adults. They were ashamed because they actually enjoyed reading a kid’s book on the train to work. So rather than these poor ashamed adults just removing the dust jackets, the publishing company came up with an alternative solution for them: they published new editions with fancy-schmancy ‘adult’ covers. I’m guessing this was also quite handy for the sales figures (as if they needed help…)

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This issue is to do with elevation. Usually when a product has to be ‘elevated’ it means that its original form is not deemed palatable enough for consumers beyond the product’s normal fan circle. So it has to be re-branded. You can also see this exemplified in the re-release of old films in 3D – same content; different jacket (and more money to be made). A more complex example is the elevation of graffiti to street art. Where graffiti or tagging is illegal, certain examples by certain artists – Banksy, for instance – are now protected and treasured by the communities of whose walls they adorn. Of course in the case of Banksy a conscious decision was made by the artist to elevate his own work by exhibiting it in gallery spaces and selling it, and in doing so I don’t think he intentionally meant to dilute the graffiti art genre away from subversive, transient and – most importantly – free pieces into the massively fashionable and collectable commodities that they have become. It’s hard to get on a bus these days without seeing some dude or lady-dude sporting the ‘Obey’ motif by Shepard Fairey on a beanie, for instance. Now, as a commercial artist I of course recognise and understand the need and want to make a living from doing what you love. However, donning my critics’ hat (which is covered with coffee stains and glitter in case you were wondering) I can’t help but see this tale of a rebellious medium being eaten up and then spat back out in glossier, commercialised packaging as an all too familiar and cautionary one.

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Comic books, however, were born into commercialism. They began life as satirical cartoon strips in newspapers and magazines, where they still survive today, and morphed into the form we know them in today through fantasy, sci-fi and Superheroe stories. (I am ignoring the history of manga here, which is far older and culturally rooted in classical Japanese art.) Comic books never had to worry about the whole ‘selling out’ thing. That’s the beauty of them in a way: crude, intelligent, arty, surreal or serious; as long as they found a fan base, big or small, they could survive. They had no formal rules of content or conduct really – aside from the obvious self-defining ‘must integrate pictures with text’ one. Comics are a true art form for the masses. Comics were born to be sold. In the same way that retro-fitted 3D doesn’t improve a film and a fancier dustcover doesn’t improve a Harry Potter book, calling a comic book a graphic novel doesn’t improve the comic book. If we make the mistake of assuming that a graphic novel is an elevated comic then we could make the mistake of thinking that a comic book is a downgraded graphic novel by default, in the same way we could assume that a black and white film is a downgraded colour film.

Let’s not forget either that comic books were once – and sort of still are – aimed at children and teenagers. The fact that these kids grew up and continued to enjoy them speaks for the strength of the storytelling in having universal and enduring appeal, not for the strength of the marketing campaign or the category it can be found under in a bookshop.

“[I write graphic novels not comics books?] Meant as a compliment I suppose. But all of a sudden I felt like someone who’d been informed that she wasn’t actually a hooker; that in fact she was a lady of the evening.” – Neil Gaiman, The Sandman Companion (1999)

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Comics, Manga, Pop Culture, Visual Cultural Theory

Disability Visibility in Comics & Manga

 

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Roughly a year ago now I started reading a manga called Gangsta online and became pretty much hooked from the first few pages. I lapped up every chapter that was available, and every subsequent chapter that was painfully slowly uploaded by the scanlators (I would explain what a ‘scanlator’ is, but the clue really is in the title.) A year later (the present) the manga has FINALLY had its first volume released in English and I didn’t hesitate to order it, despite having already read the first 20 or so chapters, and I can’t wait to re-read it again in print.

What is it about this manga that grabbed me so much? Honestly, I can’t put my finger on one single thing. Gangsta has just got that magic formula of great characters, plot, artwork, and writing that sing off of the page for me. Overall it tries very hard to keep away from the usual trappings of its genre, but there is one element that I find particularly unique: it has the first deaf character I’ve ever encountered in manga.

Disability, whilst still hugely underrepresented, is by way no way unheard of in comics and manga. The most obvious example is Daredevil – the blind lawyer by day and the blind superhero by night. His is the classic tale of turning what most would view as a disadvantage into an advantage – his lack of sight is compensated (or overcompensated, perhaps) by superhuman hearing. And he can also kick the shit out of you. Another is of course Oracle. Oracle, aka the original Batgirl, aka Barbara Gordan, was dealt horrific spinal injuries by the Joker and rendered unable to walk ever again. Again, rather than wallowing in self-pity or giving up entirely on superhero life, she became Batman’s technological eyes and ears as Oracle.

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There is also the alternate tale of continually struggling with disability. Cloak – of the superhero duo Cloak & Dagger – suffers from a terrible stutter which, as a teenager, prevents him from being able to warn his friend of the oncoming car that hits and kills him. His ability to literally engulf himself in darkness represents his own longing to disappear in silence from the world.

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Other examples are more allegorical. Bruce Banner’s ability to transform into a raging green giant when angry can easily be interpreted as a metaphor for a mental health condition. Maybe he is just a guy who loses control over his emotions so extremely that he also loses control of reality. The Hulk could all be in his own head, and we see what he sees because the story is told from his point of view. I doubt I’m the first person to make this point either. The X-Men, who have been born with their abilities rather than gained them, are classified as Mutants, which automatically has an inherent linguistic negativity.Image

They are the embodiment of every feared and misunderstood ‘abnormal’ or minority group in our society, and similarly vary between defensive separatism and active outreach. Every single mutant has a unique mutation in the same way that every disabled person has a unique disability. There may be some general similarities or common characteristics, but ultimately the severity and the effects of that mutation/disability depend on the individual.

Returning to manga, I have to say I can think of far less examples. Very often, if a character is in a wheelchair – which is the most common visible example I’ve seen – they are very much defined by that disability to the detriment of their characters. Nanalie in Code Geass, who is both blind and in a wheelchair, is presented as being so emotionally and childishly weak as direct result of her disability that she borders on being pathetic. She cannot go anywhere without being nursed by someone. It infuriates me so much I wish she wasn’t in the show at all. Sometimes just being representative isn’t enough when that representation is so profoundly negative.

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Implied mental health problems are a bit more common in manga. Light in Death Note is quite clearly a high functioning sociopath and – by the end of the story – develops megalomania to boot. Shinji in Neon Genesis Evangelion is an undiagnosed manic-depressive who happens to also be trapped in the most bleak and apocalyptic world imaginable. His frequent declarations of ‘I might as well be dead’ and ‘I really don’t care about anything’ seem to enhance the intense melancholia and crushing sense of hopelessness that hangs permanently over the story of Evangelion. Luckily his initial reluctance is slowly purged by a latent heroism that develops partly thanks to his confused yet affectionate feelings towards one of his co-pilots, Rei. Shinji is a protagonist who discovers the will to live as the world around him conversely ebbs closer to destruction. Never mind, Shinji.

So… in light off all of this waffling contextual analysis, how and what does Gangsta do differently to represent disability? In the first few pages in which the two central characters – Nic and Worick – are introduced, there is nothing to suggest Nic’s hearing impairment. And why would there be? The only way you would know if someone was deaf would be if there was a physical indication – you might see that they have a hearing aid, for instance. Nic’s physical presence is that of the strong, silent, and vaguely disinterested type. The revelation of his disability is not revelatory in the slightest. So much so that I actually missed it on the first reading – which I think is a good thing. Rather than being the be all and end all of his character, it is simply presented as a different way for him to communicate. This is partly due to the constraints of the medium itself. If it were moving images, or perhaps even a book, his deafness might have been instantly apparent in the scene in question. As still images it is a little harder to grasp.

This is how it goes: Nic taps the hood of the car he is sat on to get the attention of the other characters around him who are all having a verbal conversation. His hand gesture is drawn to suggest movement. His speech bubbles are black with white text – the inverse of everyone else’s speech bubbles. As this is the first time I have ever seen a deaf character in a comic/manga, I don’t think there is a standard method of presenting one – I had no reference point to think ‘ah yes, he’s signing’ in the cartoonish way that you often see a blind character drawn with sunglasses and a stick and get that they are blind, for example. I think I just assumed his speech bubbles were different to make him seem cooler or something.

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It is not until much later on that his disability is specifically made reference to and that was when I clocked it and the ‘Wha-?’ moment happened. In the scene, Nic becomes angry, and his speech bubbles suddenly became white with black text. But the shape of the bubbles is jagged and the text is all in capitals and differently sized.

 “Wait! Nicolas, did you just speak?” One of the male characters asks him in surprise. “Say something again!”

Nic taps his chest.

“Sorry I…don’t know sign language.” The man replies.

“He says he’s too tired to do it again.” Worick interprets, and he exits the scene with Nic.

Given my ignorance in realising that Nic had been signing the whole time, I think it was good that the creator – Kohske – added this little bit in for other thick people like me, but I was also impressed that she managed to avoid being too expositional. Nic chooses to verbally speak only to vent his frustration directly to the characters that are non-sign language fluent, but refuses to indulge them again, completely fitting with his ‘fuck you’ character (which I am completely in love with, btw.) Without going into too much detail, Nic does have superhuman abilities in strength and speed, but unlike your average Daredevil or Hulk or X-Man, these have nothing to do with his disability. He is a superhuman assassin who just happens to also be deaf. It does not define his character, but merely adds another ‘FYI’ layer to it.

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In fact, the only time in the story so far when his deafness is central to his characterisation is possibly my favourite bit of the manga so far. The word ‘bromance’ gets thrown around a lot lately, and very often is used to comic effect with not-very-subtle-and-borderline-offensive-gay-jokes scattered around, because how else can heterosexual men express love for each other without it being (tee hee) a bit gay? Well, let me introduce you to Nic and Worick: a truly legit bromance. I don’t want to give too much away because I genuinely want people to go out and buy this manga, so all I’ll say for context is that Nic and Worick share a pretty traumatising childhood together. At first, Nic is totally alone – silent and illiterate (which I ironically just misspelt about 5 times…). He has absolutely no way of communicating with people other than vaguely miming, and none of the adults around him are remotely interested in making an effort to understand or reach out to him. He is emotionally blank. It is Worick – an equally isolated child of similar age – who teaches him to not only read and write but to sign (he discovers the language in a book). It becomes not only Nic’s communicative liberation, but also their own private language, and this special world of two stays with them into adulthood and remains beautifully impenetrable. Worick is also Nic’s connection to the outside verbal world, but there isn’t any point that you get the sense that Nic is dependant on him. He stalks rooftops alone, disappears around corners, and sneaks down alleyways while Worick struts his stuff down main roads and runs his prostitution racket – (yep, Worick is a gigolo) on the side of their delivery business.

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Before writing this I did a quick Google search on the author and manga but failed to find much on either of them unfortunately. Specifically, I wanted to know why she had decided to make Nic deaf, but then I realised that just by asking this question I was being discriminatory. Why shouldn’t Nic be deaf? It would be the same as asking why a character was a woman, why a character was gay, or why a character was non-white. The answer is they just are. There could be a reason why Nic was an assassin. There could be a reason why he decided to only wear black. There could be a reason why he possessed superhuman abilities – and all of these are answered in Gangsta (except the black clothing thing, I think its just to make him look like real dude tbh.) There doesn’t have to be a reason why he is deaf unless it is a crucial factor in understanding his character – which it isn’t. The proof of this is that I read the first few chapters not realising he had an impairment and still understood his character; still empathised with him; and still wanted to read more. When I became aware of the impairment, my feelings towards him did not change. If anything, I warmed to him even more. This is a real testament to the story-telling abilities of the author, Kohske, and if Gangsta gets popular enough, will hopefully encourage the creation of other more positive and well-balanced disabled characters in this medium.

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You can buy Gangsta Volume 1 now from Amazon and Forbidden Planet. And you really should.

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Comics, Pop Culture, Visual Cultural Theory

Comic Lore: Batman, Superman, and The Third Identity

 “As you know, I’m quite keen on comic books. Especially the ones about superheroes. I find the whole mythology surrounding superheroes fascinating. Take my favorite superhero, Superman. Not a great comic book. Not particularly well-drawn. But the mythology… The mythology is not only great, it’s unique…Now, a staple of the superhero mythology is, there’s the superhero and there’s the alter ego. Batman is actually Bruce Wayne, Spider-Man is actually Peter Parker. When that character wakes up in the morning, he’s Peter Parker. He has to put on a costume to become Spider-Man. And it is in that characteristic Superman stands alone. Superman didn’t become Superman. Superman was born Superman. When Superman wakes up in the morning, he’s Superman. His alter ego is Clark Kent. His outfit with the big red “S”, that’s the blanket he was wrapped in as a baby when the Kents found him. Those are his clothes. What Kent wears – the glasses, the business suit – that’s the costume. That’s the costume Superman wears to blend in with us. Clark Kent is how Superman views us. And what are the characteristics of Clark Kent. He’s weak… he’s unsure of himself… he’s a coward. Clark Kent is Superman’s critique on the whole human race.”

Bill, Kill Bill Volume 2

 

So far so good, Bill. Except I would dig a little deeper into this.

Superman’s origin story is so cemented into pop culture history that I know I needn’t even bother re-telling it…but I’m going to anyway. Superman, as you’ll know, was not born Superman. He was born as Kal-El on the planet Krypton. He did not have super special powers on Krypton. He was just your average Kryptonian baby. It was not until he was (luckily) jettisoned into space just before Krypton exploded and arrived on Earth that he started the transition to become super (due to the effects of our yellow sun on his physiology, as opposed to the red son of his birth planet). He did not, however, become Superman. Not right away anyway.

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His identity as Kal-El was temporarily lost as he grew up. Instead, he became Clark Kent – a human identity – the adopted son of Martha and Jonathon Kent. He eventually rediscovered his original identity as Kal-El from the ingrained knowledge within his fortress of solitude from his birth father, Jor-El. Kal-El is what evolves into Superman: the human translation of his Kryptonian heritage. And what does Clark Kent become? A caricature. As Bill rightly says – the suit, tie and glasses are the mask. Bumbling and stumbling around the Daily Planet by day and soaring through Metropolis’ skies by night. The mortal vs. the God.

But what happens when neither the Clark nor Superman personas are needed? Which role does he play when he is sitting at home reading Lois’ articles? Or buying dog food for Krypto? Or visiting Ma and Pa back home on the farm? Clark Kent the country boy becomes Clark Kent the reporter; and Kal-El the fallen alien becomes Superman the world’s first superhero. This fracturing of two identities leaves behind a third persona that could be the true identity of the character. This is his private self – Supes with his guard down that only his nearest and dearest will see.

We can see this puzzling trinity of identities in one other comic book character. And it so happens to also be Superman’s direct counterpart – Batman (Who is also my favourite. Sorry Bill.) Again, his origin story is well imprinted into pop culture lore. And again, I’m going to re-tell it.

Bruce Wayne was the son of Martha and Thomas Wayne – Gotham City’s foremost philanthropists and gothic mansion-dwellers. Just like Superman, their sudden deaths triggered the birth of Bruce’s superhero persona – Batman: a physical manifestation of his childhood fears. But unlike Superman, Batman witnessed the death of his parents firsthand. Their killer was not the natural demise of an entire world. Their killer had a human face. Something to punish. Whilst Superman learns of his birth planet’s death in a history lesson, Batman’s knowledge of his parent’s murder is a memory he can never forget. Hence the dramatic contrast between their identities as crime fighters. Justice vs. Revenge. Light vs. Darkness. This binary opposition between the World’s Finest seems to always bind them together like Yin and Yang at the forefront of DC Comics’ empire.

This mysterious third identity draws a distinct parallel. Because just as Clark Kent becomes a secondary costume to Kal-El, Bruce Wayne projects a fabricated public persona of himself to protect his identity as Batman. The Hugh Hefner style billionaire playboy. Clark Kent was created to assimilate, but Bruce Wayne was created to hide in plain sight. And the Bruce Wayne that returns home to the mansion where Alfred is always on hand with a sandwich and a cup of hot chocolate (or a first aid kit) removes the mask or the tuxedo and becomes…what? The third persona. The face beneath the mask beneath the mask. The real Bruce Wayne.

Another option is one that has probably been argued before: That Bruce Wayne’s identity died with his parents. The Bruce that could have been if they had lived. Batman becomes his true identity and the version of Bruce Wayne that shows up to all the charity galas with a model on his arm is the costume. I believe this is interesting but too simplistic. What about all those times that Batman has ‘revealed’ himself to those he trusts? When the mask comes off, Bruce Wayne – the real Bruce Wayne – is what is underneath, very much alive. Not a promiscuous rich kid or a psychotic detective, but a world-weary man.

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But does the celebrity face of the Bruce Wayne identity have hidden depth as well? Is it the way Batman thought he would have turned out should his parents have lived? Or could it be seen as a form of escape…from his original form of escape? Batman was the coping mechanism that gave a grief-stricken child a purpose to go on living for. But as time goes on this mechanism becomes bigger, heavier, and darker. Sometimes it even seems like a burden. This certainly makes the lazy and debouched costume of Bruce Wayne certainly seems like a lighter and easier one to play. But the fact that he constantly returns to the cape and batarangs tells us that – even if it is the harder road to walk down – it is one he can never turn back from.

These two characters, as I hope I’ve shown, are far more complex and intricately built than first meets the eye. As our oldest comic book superheroes, they could have faded into obscurity, but thanks to the strength of their characters and unique origin stories they instead became the two templates of practically all subsequent heroes. The first being those who were born with powers, and the second being those who were given/created their own. The stories of their creation have become our modern day myths and folklore – continually re-told and re-packaged in hundreds of different voices, pens and languages but never straying away from their original formulas.

(And yes, Batman is a superhero. Could you do any of the cool shit that he does? I don’t think so.)

* More of my illustrations and arty stuff can be seen on my tumblr page*

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