Anime, Feminist/Gender Theory, Manga, Pop Culture, Visual Cultural Theory

How The Female Gaze was Celebrated and Censored in Cardcaptor Sakura

Originally published for Bitch Flicks as part of their ‘Female Gaze’ theme week, 26th August 2015.


With their starry eyes, cutesy costumes, Barbie-esque features, and catchphrases overflowing with dreamy positivity, the magical girls of the shojo (girls) genre of anime might not seem like the most feminist of heroines upon cursory glance. Yet, the plucky sorceress’ of such cult classics as Sailor Moon can be seen as emblematic of a counter-movement of female action heroes in Japanese culture – the antidote to the hyper-masculinity of the shonen (boys) genre.

Sailor Moon female gaze anime manga iwantedwings

Sailor Moon from Sailor Moon

Goku Dragon Ball anime manga female gaze feminism iwantedwings

Goku from Dragon Ball

This assessment by no means disregards the problems of the magical girl genre – glorification of the traditionally ultra feminine, fetishisation and infantilisation. Shojo characters with their typically doe-eyed innocence can be easily corrupted to cater to a specific male fantasy of virginal femininity. However, the work of the all-female team of manga/anime creators known as ‘CLAMP’ not only combats these issues, but also, as Kathryn Hemmann in The Female Gaze in Contemporary Japanese Culture writes, “employs shojo for themselves and their own pleasure.”

I became a fan of CLAMP – like most people of my age – in the 1990s. As a child, my introduction to the wonderfully weird world of Japanese cartoons consisted of the standard diet for most children of that era: Pokemon, Yu-Gi-Oh! and Dragon Ball Z. Imported, dissected, re-dubbed, and re-packaged to suit the tastes of a western – and more specifically – male audience. But amongst the shouts of “Gotta Catch ‘Em All!” and “Kamehameha!” there was one show that really left a lasting impression on me. It was about a little girl gifted with great power through capturing and using magical ‘Clow’ cards. She wasn’t muscly; she wasn’t self-assured; and she certainly wasn’t male. She was Sakura Kinomoto, the show was called Cardcaptors (Cardcaptor Sakura in it’s original Japanese format), and it was my first exposure to both CLAMP and the magical girl or ‘mahou shoujo’ genre they helped to popularise.

CLAMP anime manga magical girls feminism female gaze iwantedwings

CLAMP at the Phoenix Anime Convention, 2006

Like most adolescent heroes, Sakura seems hopelessly ill-equipped to begin with, and yet her sheer determination to achieve her full potential sees her through to becoming a magical force to be reckoned with without ever surrendering her loving personality. Rather than conforming to the ‘strong female character’ stereotype that implies that women must act more masculine to achieve truly equal footing with male action heroes, Sakura’s power stems from traits considered more conventionally feminine: love, empathy, and pureness of heart. Even her wardrobe changes into unapologetically girly battle outfits aesthetically reinforce CLAMP’s refusal to bow to a male audiences’ preferences.

Cardcaptor Sakura anime manga female gaze feminism

Sakura’s signature battle outfit.

These themes of romance and friendship are a core part of the story development and instrumental in the viewer’s investment in the characters. Through Cardcaptor Sakura, CLAMP explores the complexities of both platonic and romantic female love – both heterosexual and homosexual – from an almost exclusively female perspective. In almost soap opera-esque melodrama, Sakura pines for her older brother’s best friend (who unbeknownst to her, is also his love interest) as Sakura’s best friend Tomoyo pines for her. Tomoyo, who lives a rich and sheltered life in a female-centric household, seems to live vicariously through Sakura. Upon discovering her secret heroics at night, she begins to capture Sakura’s adventures on camera and even provides her with her signature battle costumes, which cause Sakura huge embarrassment. Yet, at the risk of hurting her friend’s feelings, she grudgingly wears them anyway.

As the show develops, we are shown more and more just how deeply Tomoyo’s feelings run. In episode 11, Tomoyo gives Sakura a rare tour of her impressive mansion home, including a cinema room in which she confesses that she watches her recordings back of Sakura in battle constantly. It seems that Tomoyo is as much a part of the audience to Sakura’s life as we – the viewers – are. It also strikes me that this obsessive behaviour might translate entirely differently if Tomoyo were male.

Tomoyo Kero Cardcaptor Sakura anime manga female gaze feminism

Tomoyo and Kero-chan spy on Sakura.

Tomoyo’s idolisation of Sakura is far from veiled, and yet it is not revealed to be unmistakably romantic until Episode 40, in which Sakura must capture a Clow card that makes people dream about their hidden desires. Sakura, Tomoyo, Syaoran Li (Sakura’s rival and male love interest) and his cousin Meilin visit a fun fair. Sakura and Meilin team up to play a Whack-A-Mole game and Tomoyo – as usual – picks up her camera to film Sakura in action. Suddenly, the Clow card appears in the form of a glowing butterfly and lands on Tomoyo’s shoulder. Tomoyo falls into a dream sequence, in which we see her deepest desire play out through her eyes. On a pink background of falling cherry blossom, copies of Sakura dressed in Tomoyo’s outfits call her name and dance playfully around her. We are shown a shot of Tomoyo’s face – staring in awe at first, and then relax into a smile. ‘I’m so happy!’ she says to herself, and runs towards the dancing copies of Sakura – still filming.

It seems like an odd moment to be sexually awakened – watching your crush play a ‘Whack-A-Mole’ game at a fun fair – and perhaps if the show had been targeted at a more mixed audience (or the characters were older) this moment might have been filled with more obvious sexualised content. But through Tomoyo’s own eyes, CLAMP visually summarise the complex feelings of romance, admiration, obsession, and innocent love she feels for her best friend. Not only this, but as Sakura dances continually out of Tomoyo’s physical reach, the implication becomes one of wanting something you know you can never have. Tomoyo knows by now of Syaoran’s feelings for Sakura, and like a true friend, encourages their romance for the sake of Sakura’s happiness rather than her own.

This ‘doomed’ romance trap seems to be a family curse, as we discover in episode 10 that Tomoyo’s mother appeared to also be hopelessly in love with Sakura’s mother (who happens to also be her cousin). Similarly, Sakura’s mother didn’t return her cousin’s feelings as she was in love with an older man (Sakura’s father) in the same way that Sakura is attracted to Yukito – an older boy. Both mothers are absent from their lives – Sakura’s mother through death, and Tomoyo’s through continual business trips – yet their daughters seem fated to play out their romantic histories.

Tomoyo Sakura Cardcaptors anime manga female gaze feminism

Tomoyo invading Sakura’s personal space…

Suffering from a bout of nostalgia, I decided to revisit the show as an adult, first in it’s Americanised form, and then the original Japanese version to compare the differences. I was shocked to discover that in an effort to make the show fit the perceived needs of their rigidly defined demographic of young boys, the executives at Kids WB had hacked all elements of ‘toxic’ feminisation from it – romance, homosexuality, and the agency of Sakura has a protagonist (even her name is removed from the title) – dramatically reducing the series from 70 to just 39 episodes. In fact, if they had been able to “maximise” their cuts, the show would reportedly have run for merely 13 episodes. In other words, there was a concerted effort to twist the female gaze into a male one under the belief that CLAMP’s blend of hyper-femininity and action would be unappealing for the male audience it was being sold to. In Japanese Superheroes for Global Girls, Anne Allison quotes this from an executive from Mattel, “[…] In America, girls will watch male-oriented programming but boys won’t watch female-oriented shows; this makes a male superhero a better bet.”

Whilst moaning about all this to my partner recently, I asked him if he had watched the dubbed version of the show as a child. He said that he had, but didn’t realise until he was older that the show had probably been intended for girls. I asked him if he remembered being turned-off that the show’s hero was a little girl as opposed to the ultra-masculine characters of his favourite childhood anime, Dragon Ball Z. His answer totally undermines Mattel’s assumptions about the show’s gender appeal: “I thought Sakura was really cool. In fact, I loved her so much I begged my mum for roller-skates that Christmas so that I could skate around to be like her.” Even more affirming than this is the fact that whilst the dubbed version of the show ended up being cancelled, the original Japanese one ran to its intended conclusion; spawned two films; and inspired two spin-off series’ using the same characters – Tsubasa: Reservoir Chronicle and xxxHolic.

Tsubasa Resevoir Chronicles Clamp manga anime female gaze feminism

Tsubasa: Reservoir Chronicles

xxxHolic Clamp manga anime female gaze feminism

xxxHolic

Sadly, by ‘butching’ Cardcaptor Sakura up to be squeezed into the TV schedule alongside Pokemon and Dragon Ball Z, western children were deprived of the tender and emotionally complex storytelling and character development behind all the magic and swordplay – and even from getting a satisfying ending to the show. It seems that whilst Japanese children are considered mature enough to deal with female superheroes, complex pre-pubescent emotions, and LGBTQ+ representation from a female perspective, western children are unfortunately not treated with the same respect or intelligence.


iwantedwings (aka Hannah) is a freelance writer, artist, anime-nerd, and Britney Spears apologist based in the UK.

 

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Wonder Woman
Comics, Feminist/Gender Theory, Pop Culture, Superheroes, Visual Cultural Theory

A Female Character’s Waistline Should be as Realistic as Her Job Description

Originally published on the Fanny Pack Blog.


There’s no denying that body image is a prickly issue within Feminism and our cultural landscape in general. As women, we live in a confusing world in which certain cosmetic companies *cough Dove cough* tell us to love our imperfections whilst simultaneously selling us products to fix imperfections we never realised we had (dry underarms, anybody?); in which we are apparently dicing with death when we order diet pills from the Internet; and in which our most shamed body parts one month could become our most fantasised about the next, depending on which female celebrity ranks highest on Google.

Dove Advert

Dove ‘Beautiful Underarms’ Campaign

It is no surprise then that our precious imaginary worlds, both on page and on screen also suffer from the same real-world problems. A recent trend happening online that has caught my attention has been identifying and even ‘fixing’ the unrealistic proportions of our favourite super heroines and Disney princesses. From hair, to historical accuracy, to waistlines – if there’s something to be changed, there’s someone with a Photoshop brush poised to change it.

Disney princesses with realistic waistlines

Disney Princesses with ‘Realistic’ Waistlines

The reason is certainly well-intentioned. These fictional characters – however much we kid ourselves – are intended for the consumption of younger audiences, and as such, impractical standards of beauty can have a negative impact on their perception of it and their sensitive self-confidence. But, does that mean that every ridiculously proportioned female character rendered in ink or animation is a problem waiting to be fixed? I would argue no, or at least, not in certain circumstances.

This thought struck me after I came across this particular image of Wonder Woman from Bulimia.com, whose creative team came up with the idea of giving superheroes ‘realistic waistlines’ after seeing people do the same for Disney princesses.

Wonder Woman Parody Bulimia

Wonder Woman Parody from Bulimia.com

The incentive was completely worthy: highlighting to young people that these fictional characters sport similarly fictional body shapes. Whilst it’s pleasing to see that adding a few extra pounds has certainly not lessened these super heroines’ appeal in the slightest, I did take issue with this treatment being performed on Wonder Woman specifically, and let me explain why.

I grew up in the late 90s/early 00s glued to the exploits of small-screen action heroines like Buffy and Xena as they high-kicked and shrieked their way through their improbable lives. They may have worn short skirts and metallic bras, but they were, and still are, hugely empowering to me, and their athletic physiques were a big part of that.

Xena Warrior Princess

“‘Sup, Bro?”

As the grand matriarch of all our pop cultural warrior women like Buffy and Xena, Wonder Woman still looms large today as the physical embodiment of female strength; the kind of strength that enables her to go toe-to-toe fearlessly with her muscular male equivalents. She is a warrior, a Goddess, and a champion of women’s rights. She’s the comic book answer to Rosie the Riveter.

The crux of what I’m saying is thisA female character’s waistline has to be as realistic as her job description.

If she was raised on an all-female island of warrior women, then she should have a warrior’s body. However, if she was raised in a fairy tale castle where her only physical activity was to sweep the floor and cook dinner for an ungrateful and demanding surrogate family then there is no logical necessity for her to sport a 24” waist and tiny slipper-sized feet. The same goes for nearly every princess in the Disney school of character design, in which being impossibly slim is as requisite as singing to birds and having at least one dead parent.

Not only can excessively small waistlines be a problem, but excessively sexualised ones too. And whilst exaggerated idealisation can be acceptable for certain characters as I’ve discussed, exaggerated sexualisation is often totally unnecessary and voyeuristic. This usually comes through not in the way that certain female characters are built, but how they are clothed and posed, and one that has attracted a lot of scrutiny recently is Starfire from DC’s Teen Titans.

Starfire Bikini

Starfire, from Red Hood and the Outlaws #1, 2011

Like Wonder Woman, Starfire is a warrior princess from a faraway fantastical place and as such she is pretty darn ripped. Her idealised toned body poses no problem to me, and her hyper-positive personality makes Starfire one of my favourite members of the Titans. However, her wrestling-inspired barely-there costume and the leering angles artists often choose to draw her at distract from her ungendered qualities as a powerful crime-fighter to make you constantly aware that she is a woman with very womanly parts.

There is of course nothing wrong with female characters utilising their feminine wiles. Poison Ivy and Catwoman, for example, use the femme fatale shtick as part of their villainous arsenal, and Starfire is in fact a very playful and flirtatious character – she even worked as a model at one point in the 80s. But I refuse to believe that even such a body-confident beauty like Starfire would decide that an outfit that risked her boobs popping out every time she threw a punch.

The Bulimia.com parody artwork was of course not intended to criticise comic book art as a whole, but it did unintentionally hit upon the solution to the problem of unrealistic proportions in fictional characters: Diversity. As I said earlier, if we want our heroines to look more positively ‘realistic’ then the parameters of their realism need to be defined by their individual lifestyles just as we real women are defined by ours. If a female character is a brawler that spends every night kickboxing street thugs, give her a six-pack and killer thighs. But if she’s just rocked up as a new student at the Xavier institute with the power of telekinesis then she could be either over, under, or of an average body weight and it wouldn’t make any difference to her abilities or our ability to connect with her as a character.

Thankfully this positive change towards body diversity is already alive and well in pop culture as exemplified by excellent comics such as Rat Queens and excellent cartoons such as Steven Universe, which both feature refreshingly female-orientated super-powered teams of diversely powered and sized heroines to love and relate to.

Rat Queen

Rat Queens

Steven Universe

Steven Universe

In terms of costume, it’s also pleasing to see the small but significant changes made to powerhouse heroines recently like Wonder Woman, Ms. Marvel, and (yay!) Starfire, whose idealised but practical bodies are finally matched by practical clothing.

Wonder Woman, Starfire, and Ms Marvel Costume Re Design

(From left to right, clockwise) Wonder Woman (2015), Starfire (2015), and Kamala Khan, aka the new Ms. Marvel (2014)

We still need our Goddesses, warriors, and sirens, but there’s more than enough room for our chunky, scrawny, or just plain averagely shaped heroines to inspire us as well.

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sacred blacksmith manga anime review gender sex seinen japan woman female cecily campbell
Anime, Feminist/Gender Theory, Manga, Pop Culture

“You’d Better Become Aware That You’re Just a Woman”: Your New Favourite Feminist Manga.

Originally posted on the Cosmic Anvil Recommends blog. 


The Sacred Blacksmith or Seiken no Burakkusumisu is a fantastical story about knights, demons, medieval melodrama, magical swords, and reincarnation. At its core, however, it is essentially a story about a young woman asserting herself in a man’s world. In light of this it might be surprising to learn that the manga’s key demographic in Japan is the ‘Seinen’ audience – young to middle-aged men. Seinen stories are primarily characterised by soft-core sexual content and a female protagonist, but rather than rely solely on the usual fan service to satisfy male readers (panty shots, accidental nudity, nosebleeds, etc.) Sacred Blacksmith uses its genre trappings to instead highlight the causes and consequences of sexual violence with chilling realism, and handles it better than most live-action representations I’ve seen.

The Sacred Blacksmith began life as light novel series by Isao Miura with illustrations by Luna. The manga adaptation by Kotaro Yamada has been serialised in Monthly Comic Book Alive since 2009, and the (criminally short) 12-episode anime from Manglobe also aired in 2009. It’s hero is Cecily Campbell, a young woman who dreams of becoming a great knight like her Father. The problem is… Cecily doesn’t have a clue how to be a knight. In fact, she’s pretty useless at it. That is, until she teams up with Aria – a formidable spiritual sword who can take the form of a human – and Luke Ainsworth, a grumpy and isolated master Blacksmith who is attempting to forge a sword powerful enough to take out the evil presence that plagues the medieval world they live in. Aria quickly becomes Cecily’s ally and best friend, but Luke takes a lot more convincing. This is not because Luke has any prejudice against women (evidenced by his female assistant, Lisa) but simply because he finds Cecily’s incompetence really annoying.

sacred blacksmith manga anime review gender sex seinen japan woman female cecily campbell

Cecily getting on Luke’s last nerve.

Cecily, however, is unrelentingly ambitious, and slowly manages to become better and better at wielding Aria, and far more confident in battle. Luke finds that as their paths continuously cross, and Lisa and Aria conspire to push the two together, he begins to see past his initial impression of Cecily as a bumbling idiot and instead as a valuable ally and equal. These feelings predictably intensify into more romantic ones, but as Luke seems unsure if Cecily returns these feelings, he remains at a respectful distance from her… for now, anyway.

sacred blacksmith manga anime review gender sex seinen japan woman female cecily campbell

Shall we dance..?

Cecily and Luke’s tentative and courteous relationship throughout the story is put into stark contrast with Cecily’s encounters with the villain of the story – Siegfried. Siegfried is your standard ‘insert-villain-here’ kind of villain: power-hungry, ruthless, and very, very creepy. This creepiness doesn’t take long to become predatory, culminating in one of the most shocking moments I’ve ever come across in my years of reading comics and manga.

It comes after Cecily manages to claim a significant victory over Siegfried, and he – humiliated – physically and sexually assaults her when she is alone and off-guard. His intention is to not only humiliate her in the way she did him, but to demonstrate both his power over her as an enemy and, more importantly, as a man over a woman. He doesn’t even need to actually carry out the ‘act’ fully because the implication is enough, and the implication is that it would certainly not be a sexual act rooted in lust, but a violent one rooted in sadism. The ordeal is quite honestly extremely difficult to read – as you would expect it to be – but perhaps equally heart breaking is seeing the effect it has on Cecily, who is utterly psychologically destroyed by it.

sacred blacksmith manga anime review gender sex seinen japan woman female cecily campbell

Cecily in turmoil after the assault.

This internal collapse is physically represented – and powerfully visualised – by Cecily shutting herself away in bed at home, curled up under the covers with the curtains drawn, closed off to all of her friends and family. Aria tries to console her, but gets nowhere. Cecily seems to suffer in silence for many painful weeks. It is unclear if Siegfried’s actions are unique to his cruel character, or symptomatic of a larger culture of sexual violence in that world, but either way, the effect on Cecily would be the same. In a manga that had been fairly sweet natured up until this point, the gritty brutality of this arc was rendered all the more shocking to me, but I was also impressed at the balance of realism, brutality, and delicacy that Yomada conveyed through art and text, and all the more endeared to Cecily. I was reminded of a scene in the film G.I Jane (1997) which told the story of Jordan O’Neil – the first woman to go through a male-exclusive Navy Seal training programme, the toughest in the world. In the scene, the harsh reality of being prisoners of war is demonstrated to the new recruits, and to their horror, Master Chief Urgayle graphically simulates raping O’Neil to coldly remind them that sexual abuse is used as torture in war. Broadly speaking, he is also reminding O’Neil that she really is a woman in a man’s world, and could be taken advantage of in ways that her male peers probably wouldn’t. The only difference between G.I Jane and Sacred Blacksmith is that O’Neil’s abuse was simulated, but Cecily’s was all too real.

sacred blacksmith manga anime review gender sex seinen japan woman female cecily campbell

G.I Jane – the cold reality for women on the battlefield?

My expectation in Sacred Blacksmith was that Cecily would eventually confide in Luke leaving him to enact revenge on Siegfried as the resident valiant ‘Prince Charming’, but I was glad when this expectation turned out to be completely wrong. Instead – as you would hope from a self-motivated woman of action – Cecily manages to not only come to terms with the ordeal, but faces down Siegfried again with Aria in hand. Luke does aid her in doing this and there is an implication that he has some idea of what may have happened, but I don’t think this detracts from the significance of Cecily standing up to her attacker and finding strength as a survivor rather than continue to feel defeated as a victim. In fact, when Luke steps in to confront Siegfried alongside Cecily, he does so not as Cecily’s protector or superior, but as her friend and ally outraged on her behalf.

sacred blacksmith manga anime review gender sex seinen japan woman female cecily campbell

Luke has had enough of this shit.

The ‘woman in a man’s world’ trope maybe a well worn one, as is the ‘clumsy girl who learns strength through fighting’ one. And although Sacred Blacksmith doesn’t exactly reinvent the wheel, it is ultimately Cecily Campbell’s inner strength that pulls her through one of the toughest ordeals a woman can face, and handled with the appropriate mix of shock, brutality, and sensitivity through the beautifully drawn art. And don’t forget – this is all in a story aimed at young men.


@SpannerX23 on Twitter.

By night, Hannah is a geeky feminist blogger, but by day she is a freelance artist who specialises in unconventional and unique illustrations. Check out her website here to see her portfolio.

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Comics, Pop Culture, Superheroes

Make Your Ultimate Disney-owned Property Team in #TheBigFour Game!

This started as a little time-waster game at the comic book company I work for (Cosmic Anvil – producers of the Age of Revolution comic book series) but we found it so much fun I decided to spread it out into the wider world!

To form your team, all you have to do is choose ONE character from each of these Disney-owned properties:

1. Disney

2. Pixar

3. Marvel

4. Star Wars

OR you can upgrade your Big Four to a Big Five by adding a Kingdom Hearts character, which is Disney-affliated, not owned, with Sqaure Enix.

Here are my picks:

1. Elsa (Frozen) frozen-elsa-wallpaper-1-desktop-what-happened-when-these-kids-mistook-daenerys-for-elsa-from-frozen

2. Buzz Lightyear (Toy Story) 94 3. Rogue (X-Men) Rogue-rogue-9885636-1280-960 4. Qui-Gon Jinn (Star Wars: The Phantom Menace) Qui-Gon-Jinn_d89416e8

My optional fifth pick bends the rules a little, but I couldn’t resist!

5. Vincent Valentine (Final Fantasy VII) Vincent_Valentine

WARNING: This game could consume the rest of your day. Maybe even week.

Let me know what your picks are!

Plus, send your ultimate team to me by tweeting #TheBigFour to @AoRcomics or posting it to the Age of Revolution Facebook page, and I will draw the best ones over the next couple of weeks and send them to their creators. Get thinking, Mouseketeers and True Believers!

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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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