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New York Comic Con 2014 was my first in five years. I wasn’t around for the dissolution and complete integration of New York Anime Festival. I did not see the claustrophobia-inducing crowds created by people sneaking in that nearly drove some of my friends to never, ever go back. I was not around as the aging Jacob Javits Center itself expanded as best as it could to account for not only this convention but others as well. My experience with NYCC 2014 is almost that of a time traveler, as what I have to mainly compare it to is an old existence, before this convention was being labeled as the San Diego Comic-Con of the east coast.

As much as a convention should be about being a magical and informative experience where fans connect to the media they love as well as to their peers, the first thing worth mentioning about NYCC 2014 is its use of RFID badges. I was informed of their inaugural usage last year, but seeing them in action made me fully aware of the boon they provide to both the convention goers themselves and the staff running the entire thing. Essentially, attendees must use a card to check in and check out of the convention area, which not only cuts down on the number of people who shouldn’t be there but means that there are plenty of opportunities to actually relax and take in the con experience. Just having a space that is outside the convention building itself but still part of NYCC was so beneficial, as it allowed attendees to catch some fresh air if they needed it. Though I didn’t know anyone personally who had difficulty handling large crowds (and the NYCC attendance population is around a staggering 100,000), I suspect having not only the front entrance but other outside spots may have been a life saver for some.

Of course, all of this is not to say that New York Comic Con 2014 was neither magical nor informative, as I found it struck a fine balance as a convention of industries, artists, and fans in terms of activities and opportunities. New York Comic Con is a for-profit venture, designed to make money and to benefit all of those who take part in it on the industry. For one thing this means greater industry presence in both the panels and the showroom floor, and fewer fan panels where enthusiasts can analyze and discuss particular interesting angles of the things they love. However, as much as I’m used to industry panels being fairly by the numbers affairs about shilling products (not that there’s anything wrong with it), at NYCC these panels, although different from fan-run events, still carried with them a lot more meta-discussion of the industry and what it means to be “in” comics. You have to expect the sales pitch to some degree, but it was rarely much of an issue.

For example, I attended a couple of panels about women in comics (be they characters or creators or fans or anything else), and it involved industry professionals of all sorts who didn’t necessarily all agree with each other discussing an important topic in a way that encouraged further conversation instead of necessarily having as their primary agenda the sales of their own products. In the “Women of Color in Comics” panel, for instance, you had both industry veterans and independent creators. One veteran emphasized the idea that if you want to change how the big companies see women, you have to know how to communicate in their language, bring portfolios that old white men would understand, while some of the freelance artists stressed the importance of being able to work for yourself to create the characters you want.

The women in comics panels were illuminating and informative overall, though I do have one criticism for a prevailing sentiment I saw: when asked about how to deal with men who aren’t even aware that there is sexism and discrimination in the industry and its fandom, the answer I saw most often was “who needs those guys, forget them.” I understand that dealing with ignorance getting asked “what sexism?” for the 1000th time is a trying, perhaps soul-draining experience, but I do think that it’s still a group of people who need to be addressed and who might honestly just not know.

It’s actually quite impressive how supportive of female fans and creators New York Comic Con was. In addition to the panels, there were large “Cosplay is Not Consent” signs that were noticeable but not terribly intrusive which aimed to prevent sexual harassment of cosplayers by appealing to the human brain’s ability to think ahead. I hear it was largely effective, though without context I do wonder if some people thought that the signs were saying that cosplaying was not okay.

Maybe this has to do with the number of artists, writers, and creators as guests instead of marketing folks, but in a lot of the panels I attended I felt that the audience was let in on their creative processes at least to some extent. Obviously they’re not taking advice from attendees, but it seemed like the answers reflected the personalities and styles of those who gave them. Notably, when manga artist Obata Takeshi (Death NoteHikaru no Go) spoke, it was clear that he was not a people person, and was unaccustomed to the spotlight. When he explained how he worked, his answers were muddled like so many other artists I’ve met. In contrast, at one of the Image panels, Matt Fraction could talk up a storm and really present the job of comics writer as something not so much glamorous but intense and personal. While obviously I can’t agree with their sentiments, seeing the panelists at the European Comics Artists panel thinly veil their displeasure towards manga was also similarly revealing.

Before going to the con, I received some useful advice for attending panels: always line up an hour beforehand. It doesn’t matter how small a crowd you think a panel is going to get, because more likely than not you’ll be on the wrong end if you don’t play it safe. Bizarrely, the lines felt rather relaxing. They were times to rest one’s feet, to chit-chat with friends and sometimes strangers, and in my case to play against other people in Super Smash Bros. for Nintendo 3DS. I matched my Mega Man against others and had an exciting time. More importantly, though, the fact that the lines were able to remain these fairly civil affairs (aside from The Walking Dead panel according to what I heard at con feedback) indicates how effective this year’s organization was. At Otakon one year, I had a friend from England who found it mind-boggling that a place could be so bad at queueing. While I don’t know if NYCC could hold up to his superior English line standards either, I think it would have at least gotten a higher grade.

Overall, what might be the strangest thing about my NYCC 2014 experience is that I expected a rushed, frantic time where I would feel overwhelmed to the point of some bizarre euphoria. At times, coming down the escalator and seeing the absolute mob of people in the main lobby made it seem as if I were about to descend into a pit of madness. However, what I actually got was a relaxed, comfortable experience learning about the things I love and trying my best not to spend all of my money. Now if only I didn’t have to buy four 1-day tickets because all of the 3-day tickets sold out in like two minutes, then it would’ve been a lot better.

To conclude, here are some of my convention highlights.

  • Attending my first Avatar (Legend of Korra) panel only to realize that it might be the last Avatar panel ever.
  • Getting Obata Takeshi’s autograph on Volume 1 of Hikaru no Go.
  • Obata would have liked to draw Otter no.11 as an actual manga.
  • Meeting at last my long-time internet friend David Brothers.
  • Asking Juanjo Guarnido (author of Blacksad) about whether the extremely popular comics that the Franco dictatorship in Spain used as propaganda still had any influence today (his answer was no).
  • Being like, maybe one of two people to cheer for Tribe Cool Crew at the Sunrise Panel. I yelled so loudly one of the panelists immediately looked at me. Also, watch Tribe Cool Crew. My review of it is pending.
  • TURN A GUNDAM LICENSED (also First Gundam). I was actually repeating Turn A Gundam like it was a mantra, as if I were trying to cast a magic spell. I guess it worked?
  • Seeing all of the animators’ demo reels at the Kakehashi Project (The Bridge for Tomorrow) panel. A lot of the work reminded me of the more visceral art that often appeals to me yet is rarely found in anime. I especially liked the work of Shiroki Saori.
  • Watching the US premiere of the Kill la Kill Episode 25 OVA. It was a great revisit of the series, and in one brief moment during one of Mako’s speeches I swear she transforms into Baron Ashura from Mazinger Z.
  • Playing all that Super Smash Bros. for Nintendo 3DS with people.

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Superhero revivals are a dime a dozen, but few are like The Shadow Hero by writer Gene Luen Yang and artist Sonny Liew. The basic idea behind the comic is that it provides an origin story to a hero who never had one, the golden age character known as the Green Turtle, but Yang and Liew take it further by essentially “reclaiming” the character for Asian-Americans.

Originally created by a man named Chu F. Hing, the publisher for The Green Turtle had tried to make its titular hero white. Hing, it is argued by Yang and Liew, appears to have defied this order by never showing the Green Turtle’s face, either having him face away from the reader or having his features obscured by a cape or something else. Yang and Liew take this further by actually making the Green Turtle undoubtedly Chinese-American, but what’s really remarkable about this series is that it manages to ground this character in both Chinese culture and that early 20th century United States in which they live so well that it actually made me realize I’ve been missing out on an important component of superhero comics all along.

While superheroes have been created since the beginning by people of practically every ethnicity (the most famous example being Superman’s Jewish creators), they have traditionally exuded predominantly a sense of whiteness. This does not make them bad stories or bad superheroes. Nor does it make them unrelatable. I don’t need to have my uncle shot and killed to understand why Peter Parker takes Uncle Ben’s famous great power, great responsibility line to heart. After all, I’m mostly a manga reader and I do not connect all that directly to Japanese culture, either. However, what’s amazing about The Shadow Hero is that, as an Asian-American, the relationship the protagonist Hank Chu has with his family hits so close to home that it makes me feel as if my own culture, that hybrid of my parents’ values and the values of the country I was born and raised in, is being expressed right there on the page.

The best example I can think of comes fairly early in the story, when Hank’s mom is rescued by a Superman-like hero and becomes enamored with the idea of superheroes in general. Wanting the best for her son, she decides Hank should be a superhero too, and goes above and beyond to try to make it happen. Whether it’s dragging him close to chemical spills or getting him to train in martial arts, the mother has her mind set on the idea that the best future for Hank is for him to don a cape and tights and fight crime.

When I replaced the word “superhero” with doctor, lawyer, engineer, pharmacist, or whatever is the most current profession that my parents and older relatives and their friends mention as being the most reliable path to success and prosperity, it all just clicked in my head. Here in The Shadow Hero was something my siblings and I, as well as many of the kids we knew growing up, would encounter on a regular basis. We knew their eagerness over this one thing could be a bit much, but we knew they meant well.

Other signs of Chinese culture can be found throughout. The main villain’s daughters are named after mahjong titles. When Hank first becomes a superhero, his mother makes him an outfit with the Chinese character for gold/money on it, because in Chinese culture it’s common to wish people well by saying that they’ll makes lots of money. This sounds like something you’d do to mock DC superhero Booster Gold, but here you can sense the mother’s earnestness, as well as Hank’s own conflicted feelings towards her.

For the longest time, I’ve felt that I do not look enough at comics that represent Asian American culture. Over the years, seeing David Brothers consistently question the marginalization of black characters in superhero comics and how this is reflective of the historic injustices done to the black community in the United States has made me aware of how little I look at my own culture in the mediums that I love. The Shadow Hero, and that sense of inherent cultural understanding I experienced, made me even more keenly aware that there is so much more I can do.

Tomorrow is the start of New York Comic Con 2014, and I for one am pretty excited. Though I’ve attended NYCC in the past, it’s actually been five years since I was last able to attend, and I’ve heard from people that it’s changed a lot. Heck, people over the past couple of years have been talking about how it rivals San Diego Comic Con now, and that is certainly not the convention I left back in 2009.

I know that at a con this big I won’t be able to do everything I want, but here’s some stuff I’m considering.

Thursday

Walt Disney Studios Tomorrowland and Walt Disney Animation Studios Big Hero 6. 1-2:30pm, Main Stage 1-D

Comics – What We’ve Lost, What’s Ahead. 2:15-3pm, 1A01

Nickelodeon’s Legend of Korra: Book 4. 5:15-6:15pm, Empire Stage 1-E

 

Friday

“Marry, Do or Kill?” What Will it Take to Shatter Female Stereotypes in Comics? 11:15am-12pm, 1A05

Voltron: A 30th Anniversary Celebration Presented by Perfect Square. 2-2:45pm, 1A21

Weekly Shonen Jump Presents: Takeshi Obata. 5-5:45pm, 1A10

CBLDF: The Battle of New York – Creativity, Censorship & the Comics Code. 6-6:45pm, 1A18

 

Saturday

Sunrise Official Panel. 1-1:45pm, 1A21

The Mary Sue Presents – Strong Female Characters: The Women Shining in Geek Media. 1:15-2pm, 1A01 (Conflicts with above)

Vertical Manga 2014. 5:15pm-6pm, 1A14

Kill la Kill Episode 25. 8:15-10pm, 1A06

 

Sunday

Image Comics: I is for Inventive. 12-12:45pm, 1A10

Kakehashi Project – New Japanese Animation Talent. 1-1:45pm, 1A21

Kodansha Comics. 2-2:45pm, 1A18

The Mary Sue Presents – All on the Table. 3-3:45pm, 1A21

Stardust-6

I had an epiphany recently: Stardust the Super Wizard is the American superhero comics equivalent of the anime Chargeman Ken!

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Even if you’ve never heard of either title there’s nothing to worry about, as their first point of similarity is that they’re both obscure titles which have garnered fanbases specifically due to their lack of quality. Their second point of similarity is that little effort is made to expand on the characters themselves, as both Ken and Stardust can be defined as 1) heroes 2) who kill villains and 3) that’s it.

The third point of similarity is what allows them to be spoken of in the same breath (not that I think people have), which is that both titles are utterly irresponsible when it comes to the stories they present. I don’t mean that they glorify violence or that they don’t send the proper moral messages or that they’re limited by the cultures in which they were created. The reason why I use the word “irresponsible” is that both Chargeman Ken! and Stardust the Super Wizard consist of adventures where, if one were to stop and think about what goes on in them, they break down into a kind of pure spectacle that isn’t so much morbid or horrific as it is just somewhat…thoughtless.

Chargeman Ken‘s most infamous episode is titled “Dynamite in the Brain.” I’d recommend you watch the video above first (it’s only 5 minutes long) to get the full impact, but to summarize: the episode is about an innocent scientist with a bomb implanted in his head, but rather than trying to figure out a way to remove the bomb, Ken decides to just unceremoniously dump the scientist out of his personal jet. As Ken activates the trap door underneath the scientists, he quickly says, “Professor Volga, please forgive me!” as Volga lands on an enemy aircraft and explodes. The thing that really drives home the sense of thoughtlessness though is the fact that at the end of the episode the characters are talking about how Volga, the man Ken literally ejected out of his ship and watched as he exploded in mid-air, is looking down from the skies above. It’s like giving a eulogy for someone you shot to death five minutes ago and expecting people to take you seriously.

Stardust the Super Wizard, unlike Ken, has a seemingly infinite array of superpowers which have little rhyme or reason, but similar to Ken his application of them shows little in the way of foresight by the character or the creator. Just look at the punishment he dishes out to the villains of his story, where the issue isn’t that his solutions are strangely grotesque but that they almost exist in another dimension of thought.

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stardust8

Both Chargeman Ken and Stardust the Super Wizard operate on a level beyond even GI Joe‘s image of sanitary militarism or the violent works of Nagai Go. And this is why they’d be the best crossover ever.

I was unable to go to AnimeNEXT this year, but thanks to the Reverse Thieves and their con report, I’ve learned that the Studio Trigger panels were fantastic and I’m totally jealous of them for being there. Obviously I can’t write about the experience, but there are two points in their post on Trigger that I find interesting to look further into.

The first aspect I want to talk about is in regards to them having an initial version of Kill la Kill with five episodes already planned out in full, but decided to scrap it and start over again with something they felt was stronger. Back when I wrote my review of Kill la Kill I got some comments from a particular poster that criticized Kill la Kill‘s writer for making numerous revisions to the script, as if it had hacked together haphazardly, but with this clarification it’s now obvious that the drastic changes came from the planning stage and were less about cobbling together a frankenstory and more about trying to find the right direction no matter what.

The second little factoid that caught my attention is the fact that the staff at Studio Trigger is really into American superhero comics, which is sort of obvious if you’ve watched all of Inferno Cop. What I find funny about this is the fact that for American comics, superheroes are increasingly seen as this bland, boring, mainstream yet niche thing that we need to move past, while Studio Trigger has this reputation for being a new and cutting-edge anime studio, and they take inspiration from superhero comics.

fcbdnl2013-allcomics

May 4, 2013 marked the second anniverary of Free Comic Book Day in the Netherlands. An American institution which I’ve participated in for over a decade now, I was amazed last year to see it brought over to other countries as well.

This year the full selection of free comics was raised from 7 to 10, far less variety than what was offered in the US, but at the same time had many of the charms and stylistic tendencies associated with European comics (even if they may not have been made in Europe!). The comic book store owners I did talk to all seemed to make it a point to tell me that they lose money participating in Free Comic Book Day, and urged me to buy something alongside. In my opinion, this kind of goes against the spirit of Free Comic Book Day in the sense that it isn’t supposed to be a guilt trip, but it might just be a difference in population/costs/other factors which make it not as sustainable as the American FCBD.

Sadly I am mostly illiterate in Dutch so I can’t really talk about the quality of narrative, but I can at least talk about some of the comics which caught my eye, or which most likely would catch yours.

fcbdnl2013-gameofthrones

Probably of greatest interest to people would be the Game of Thrones comic, adapted by Tommy Patterson, and actually available in English. I have not read A Song of Ice and Fire, nor have I seen the HBO Game of Thrones, so in terms of accuracy or spirit I can’t really say anything. At the very least the art is vibrant, and I like it way more than Patterson’s previous work on series like Grimm’s Fairy Tales.

Next is Sienna, by Desberg, Filmore, and Chetville, about a female government agent. “Sexy women of action” as far as I’ve seen is quite a popular genre here, at least in terms of comics made, and this one takes a more mature and dramatic angle. The art is quite nice, and there’s plenty of violence and (I assume) conspiracy. You can see a small preview here.

De Verborgen Geschiedenis (“The Hidden History”) by Pécau, Kordey, and Chuckry stands out immediately just because of the camel on the cover. As far as I can tell (and please correct me if I’m wrong), the comic appears to mainly be about what its title implies: some mix of conspiracy and secrecy spanning decades. Like both Sienna and even Game of Thrones, it goes for a more serious art style. There’s also a prominent English (?) female military officer in this issue whose name I can’t find. With a prominent scar on her face, she  toes the line between sexy and legitimately frightening (more the latter), as her expressions go from cold to menacing throughout the comic. Overall, she comes across as like a female Golgo 13, especially because one scene has her casually waking up surrounded by a pile of naked bodies both male and female.

fcbdnl2013-delegendariers

The last one I want to point is De Legendariërs by Patrick Sobral, due to its overt stylistic influence from anime and manga. Unlike the other three, this one has much more light-hearted feel. Its super-deformed characters and fantasy setting give me the impression of a pre-Playstation Japanese RPG. In fact, the characters look more like a late-80s/90s anime characters instead of current ones anyway, which really harkens back to that era. Anyway, the villain is named “Darkhell.”

So that’s a (very) cursory view of Free Comic Book Day 2013 in the Netherlands. Take my opinions with a grain of salt here, as I can’t give you a true impression of any of them.

And I must ask, for those of you who can read French or Dutch and picked some of these up, which ones impressed you the most?

In the past I’ve written in an attempt to pinpoint what I find so troubling about some portrayals of “strong” female characters, especially in American superhero and fantasy comics, but despite having expressed various reasons for these impressions as such I still have never felt that the answers I’ve given were entirely adequate. It’s been an on-going process of self-questioning and observation, and the reason I’m making this post is that I’ve come to realize another issue when it comes to the representation of female strength.

It came to me while I was reading the comic Flipside, which features as its main character a sexy and strong female jester named Maytag. Throughout the first volume, Maytag is repeatedly  confronted with a similar sequence of events. Some bad men confront her, threaten her with rape or call her a bitch, and then Maytag turns their expectations upside down and defeats them (for the most part), while still emphasizing her sexuality or making some sexual innuendos.

Keep in mind that Flipside isn’t a particularly egregious example, as it suffers more (at least early on, I haven’t read further) from a lack of experience and characters overly designed as wish fulfillment, nor are anime and manga completely innocent of this. Also, the act of knocking out your would-be rapists can be empowering imagery. Instead, what I realized by seeing this two-step process over and over in such a short span of pages is that the the seeming need for sexual threats to happen in order to establish a female character as strong diminishes a story because strength winds up being defined as the ability to not get sexually assaulted. In these scenarios, the girl can’t be strong in a world which accepts the possibility of strength in a woman as a believable occurrence, only in a world which has to constantly remind her what a girl she is and how as a girl she’s liable to be attacked.

Another problem is what I would label the “straw misogynist,” or characters who are purposely set up to be extremely sexist so that they can be put in their place when the girl fights back. The way straw misogynists are used in situations like the ones I’ve been describing is that by threatening rape or sexual abuse they immediately bring attention to the sexuality of the girl target, creating this mixed message where the thrill is both in that danger but also in the sexual way the girl fights back. As a result, it ends up conveying something along the lines of, “You might not be able to overpower me sexually, but if you could oh boy would you be having fun!” And even a sexual fantasy such as that is not a problem because it’s just fantasy, but if it’s being touted as an example of how female characters can be strong, then there should be no surprise if some readers reject that notion.

This is not to deny the use of dangerous situations for women in stories, nor do I think that stories need to “ignore” gender. Instead, what I want to emphasize is how showing someone is strong is a different experience from showing someone is strong with constant and persistent caveats to that notion.

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Last year I wrote a post titled “Explaining Decompression in Comics” in response to what I felt to be persistent misconceptions concerning decompression in comics storytelling. “Decompression” is characterized in these instances as using multiple panels to do what can be done in just one panel, and the gist of my argument was that decompression is less about total page count or delaying the rate at which a story is told and more about how information unfolds. It was quite a popular post, and it seems to have helped people get a better understanding of some of the particulars of decompression, especially in terms of manga paneling. However, even before I wrote that post, I was well aware that the opposite problem exists, where some readers of comics, particularly manga readers, can have trouble with the way “compression” works, especially in superhero comics of the Jack Kirby tradition. That is why I am writing this followup, to point out different ways as to how content can be conveyed.

Before I begin, I want to make something of a correction to my previous post that also applies to this one. In using titles like “Explaining Decompression” and “Explaining Compression,” I may give the impression that decompression and compression are simply things which comics “do.” This is not exactly true. Rather, decompression and compression are best thought of as descriptions of a variety of elements and how they interact within a comic, words which help to summarize an overall effect achieved by the relationships of many constituent parts such as panel layout, density of information, and the arrangement of elements within a panel. Also, I’m associating “decompression” with manga and “compression” with American comics due to their respective histories, but I’m well aware that the line has never been rigidly defined.


Suppli

In a recent article comparing the manga Suppli and 2011’s Batman #7, Forrest Helvie criticized Suppli for being overly compressed while praising  Batman for avoiding this problem, an odd opinion given manga’s notoriousness for being “too decompressed.” While this usage is somewhat erroneous, the nature of that mistake brings up some important points about the meaning of “compression.” Essentially, he associates visual conciseness with decompression and visual complexity with compression, when such distinctions are non-existent. A comic can be concise and compressed, just as one can be elaborate and decompressed, and in fact those two ideas better summarize the visuals of Batman #7 and Suppli respectively.

Even the seemingly easy-to-understand compression turns out to not be so simple, so it should come as no surprise that American comics and their tradition of compression can be a tough read for those unfamiliar with it, notably readers of manga. While the stereotype is that manga fans’ dissatisfaction has to do with the content itself, characterized by caped musclemen and good vs. evil dichotomies, I would say that it also has a lot to do with how those comics work visually.  More specifically, the problem is that a highly compressed comic can make a reader more accustomed to the decompressed nature of manga feel as if the story is dragging along, creating a sense of impatience.

This can seem rather peculiar, given that decompression is stereotyped as taking forever to get to anything significant, but the word impatience takes on a different meaning depending on whether we’re talking about decompression or compression. For decompression, a sense of impatience has to do with the feeling that a comic is taking forever to get to where it needs to be. Impatience towards compression, on the other hand, derives from a sense that the story being told is not moving as quickly as your eyes want to, and this can be a significant hurdle which the inexperienced must overcome if they are to derive greater enjoyment from such comics.

The above page, taken from a scene in Crisis on Infinite Earths, DC Comics’ first mega-crossover, called the “Battle Around the World,” is a classic example of complex compression, a big fight scene with simply a lot of figures acting and participating, with the text boxes very thoroughly explaining the context in which the battle is occurring. Though there is a cohesiveness to the page as a whole, this comic places incredible importance on each individual panel, where even the smaller elements within each panel encapsulate some distinct meaning. Each panel tells its own dense, rich story, a glimpse at events in every corner of the planet, and each character is posed to show them performing an action which defines their character to some degree. In the first panel for instance, the Green Arrow shoots from his bow and Starman is firing a blast from his signature weapon, the Star Rod. The image composition of each individual panel is vivid, each of them related to each other through similarities in both form and content.

For someone more used to manga, the way in which this information is organized together can be overwhelming. Whereas a character may be placed and posed to influence the reading direction of the page in manga, here the characters and panels are more self-contained. As a result, the manga reader may start to feel as if the story comes in fits and starts, almost as if someone were slamming the breaks every time there was something interesting to see. Manga and other comics which are more decompressed present panels as fragments of a whole, but here, panels are whole ideas unto themselves.


Batman #7

If we look at Batman #7, we can see that the word bubbles are fairly precise. There is no deluge of visual information requiring the reader’s attention. However, each panel is still being presented as a whole nugget of information, communicating a clear and specific point in every instance. That is not to deny the overall relationship the panels have with each other or the page on which they sit, but if you then look at Suppli, while it has some panels which present information as dense exposition, each panel (as well as each visual element within the panel), appears to cascade into the next, with the reader collecting bits of information along the way. Keep in mind, however, that compression and decompression, though essentially operating on opposite philosophies, can co-exist in a story, and the dividing line between them is not absolute, though one is often more present than the other.

Decompression is increasingly a part of American comics, but the long-standing history of compression in American comics can be seen even in the ways a lot of more current comics have incorporated decompression. Marvel writer Brian Michael Bendis, for instance, is known for his snappy, natural-sounding dialogues which occur over multiple panels and pages, and which lend his comics a sense of decompression, but different artists have use different ways to portray those extended conversations, some of which are more compressed than others. Similarly, Chris Ware’s work (something decidedly non-superhero) can be both sparse and minimalist or extremely detailed and elaborate, but the paneling used in his comics also shows signs of an American comics tradition, albeit transformed heavily. The panels are somewhere between existing for complete information while also trying to hold back and let themselves strongly present their relationships to the panels around them.

So in the end, what can be done to help the reader for whom compression is a problem? In my opinion, the key is mainly awareness of how the panels operate. If you find yourself being weighed down by the comic, then just try to approach it one panel at a time. Think of the panel in a compressed comic as a lake or a pond. You dive in to examine its breadth and explore its depths, and then surface before moving on to the next one. Over time, your experiences will accumulate, but it’s important to let them build up.

Introduction

When it comes to the controversial approach to sexuality in superhero comics, probably nothing is more exemplary than the oft-seen exaggerated pose where a female character twists her torso such that both her butt and her breasts are facing at the reader directly. Known as the “brokeback,” the pose is frequently the target of criticism as an example of sexualization gone wrong. Generally, the criticisms concern the fact that, as action-based stories, the pose is a completely impossible and extremely impractical thing to do in fighting. The idea is that, by showing them as such, comics communicate the idea that when it comes to female characters the T&A is more important than their identities as heroes or characters in general.

The point at which I might diverge from other opinions is that I believe strongly in freedom of artistic expression and think that such works have a right to be drawn and a right to be enjoyed by readers on a sexual level. While I think that the disparity in idealization between genders can definitely be too much, something has to be said for the fact that the visual arts in general can make the impossible happen in the first place. If people are literally physically incapable of contorting themselves into the “brokeback” pose, then mediums such as comics are the only places where it is possible at all.

I also think people have the right to admire a character while simultaneously desiring her or the pose that she’s taking. Again, the fact that forms of fiction such as comics make it more than possible for the portrayal of a female character to be an effective fighter while doing the least physically sensible thing possible is not an inherent negative, as long as we’re being honest about the fact that it is indeed done for sex appeal. No matter how much we’re able to point out that those contorted positions would shatter someone’s spine, or that other poses come straight out of pornography, they successfully generate sexual attraction. Individual tastes may vary, but they’re also called “porn poses” because they work, and at the end of the day pornography drawn or otherwise does not automatically turn people into misogynists.

But while the act of making or consuming such products causes no harm in and of itself, when the brokeback pose becomes the default method for portraying sexual attractiveness, it creates two major problems in particular. First, while anyone has the right to enjoy any type and degree of sexualization, if the goal is to try and attract a larger female readership, then no one should be surprised when such portrayals lessen their desire to pick up superhero comics. Second, and what will be the primary concern in this article, is that by having that style of sexualization be so ubiquitous, it creates a singular image of how a female (character) is supposed to look when they’re being “sexy.”

Sex as Character

Over the month of February, comics news and editorial site Comics Alliance published a series of articles on sex in comics. One of the articles discussed Adam Warren’s Empowered, where writer David Brothers argues that, even though Empowered is more sexually explicit and has more overt fanservice than regular superhero comics, it still approaches the topic of sex in a much healthier and more mature fashion.

Although a majority of commenters have voiced their understanding of David’s points and explanations, there are a few dissenting responses which I found interesting for what they imply. The recurring criticism, which not only appears in David’s article on Empowered but also many of the other posts, basically calls out the writers for having a double standard, praising the portrayal of sex in indie comics, while lambasting the presence of sexuality in superhero comics, in something of a high art, ivory tower, porn vs. erotica-type argument. Another criticism leveled at Empowered in particular, is that its crass displays of actual sexual content and juvenile-sounding dialogue make it worse than the other superhero comics to which David compares it.

I think David actually addresses this well in the article itself when he describes the primarily sexual relationship in Empowered, that of the main heroine, Emp, and her ex-henchman boyfriend, Thugboy:

Empowered‘s eponymous heroine is a superhero with issues. Her costume is too skintight and ineffectually fragile, and neither her teammates nor her nemeses respect her. She gets tied up way too often for her liking.

They both get different things out of the relationship, aside from just sex. Thugboy clearly loves Emp, and expresses that in a way that’s both a little paternal and a lot touching. He gets her issues with her body and career, and when she doubts herself, he’s there to point out how wonderful she is. He supports her, and the reverse is true, too.

More important than that, though, is the fact that she’s comfortable expressing her insecurities to him.

The thing to take away from their relationship is that when Emp has sex, it’s not simply a display of sex but rather shows the specific scenario of “sex with Emp.” It takes all of the various bits and pieces of her characterization and doesn’t forget them even during moments of titillation. The trouble with how sexuality is frequently visualized in superhero comics then, assuming the goal is to show female characters in a sexual manner in the first place, is that this level of specificity doesn’t exist in most portrayals. Rather than a female character making a sexy pose, it becomes a female character conforming to a sexy pose template, no matter her personality, history, or quirks. When combined with the way that superhero comics can grow and reinforce bad ideas, we end up in the current situation where this approach to sexuality generates an entrenched position that causes people to staunchly defend it as if it is simply the way that comics communicate “sexy,” as if there is little alternative.

The issue of posing isn’t confined to just “bad” artists, as the above example from Jim Lee demonstrates. Taken from his famed X-Men run in the 90s, the image is well-drawn and the women are idealized without necessarily going off the deep end, but aside from Jubilee (front) all of them are taking the same sexy stance. Psylocke (left), Rogue (center), and Dazzler (right) all have very different backgrounds and personalities, so it seems strange that they would all be in the same pose. This goes double when you compare them with all of the male characters, each of whom showcase their individuality in the way they’re standing or sitting, or Jubilee once more, whose “attitude” comes across in her slouched position.

Again, there’s nothing wrong with showing attractive girls in exaggeratedly attractive poses in and of itself, nor is there any fault in enjoying them, but superhero comics are in the business of creating unique, iconic characters. This is why they have different origin stories, different costumes, and different powers. The goal is to be able to see how a particular character stands out from the rest, and if sexuality is involved, then comics can benefit from making sure that the erotic is also made to fit the characters.

Alternatives from Anime and Manga

I’m going to steer away from superhero comics and take a look at anime and manga, a territory I’m much more familiar with, and one which I find provides some strong examples of works where the sexuality of their characters is both emphasized and individualized. This is not to say that anime and manga are devoid of sexism, or that any of the examples shown below are perfect in their portrayal of women. Instead, I want to show how these works go out of their way to portray their characters’ sexuality in ways which also reflects their unique characteristics, and to point out how the issue with pushing just one type of sexuality can be an issue even when the goal is to portray characters in a sexual fashion.


Senjougahara Hitagi (above) and Kanbaru Suruga (below) from Studio SHAFT’s Bakemonogatari/Nisemonogatari

The first title is Bakemonogatari (and its sequel Nisemonogatari), which features a number of attractive and highly-sexualized female characters. The characters depicted above are both the same age and both attracted to the main character. However, Senjougahara’s seductive body language is fed by her sardonic personality, whereas the athletic Kanbaru, a self-admitted pervert and an exhibitionist, shows a more forward and aggressive approach. What isn’t as clear from these screenshots is that the show banks on their sex appeal being highly individualized down to the very way that conversations happen.

Left to right: Ran, Madoka, and Muginami, from Rinne no Lagrange by Studio XEBEC/Production IG

Next is the recent Rinne no Lagrange. The three main characters depicted above are all clearly meant to be attractive, but in addition to having varying styles of dress which set them apart at the same time that they emphasize their figures, the three girls also literally sit differently. Just having them relaxing on chairs in unique manners suggests the differences (as well as differences in physical appeal) between them, and I might even go so far as to say that a person could get a rough idea of their personalities based on this image alone.

What of the brokeback itself, then? Is the pose forced to contain only one connotation, such that it cannot become a characterization factor? I believe the answer is that any way of posing a character, even the brokeback, does not automatically void its own potential to be a factor in showing a character and their particulars. The easy answer here is that if some seductress character wanted to stand that way to entice men sexually (and I’m assuming heterosexuality here mainly because that is the site of this debate), then it would make sense, but it doesn’t require that the character herself to be hypersexual, provided that it does not take over her overall portrayal or the view of sexuality in the comic itself.

Akashi Kaoru (right), heroine of Zettai Karen Children by Shiina Takashi

In these pages from Zettai Karen Children, we have its main heroine Akashi Kaoru standing in a way that emphasizes both her chest and her rear. It’s in the context of “stretching for a run,” which lends some practicality to it, but as I said in the introduction, I find arguing from a point of realism as if to say that once you undermine the physics of the pose, you break its spell to be a flawed one, somewhat like arguing that Superman shouldn’t fly with one arm out because that would just create unnecessary wind resistance. Instead, the reasons I see Kaoru’s pose as being be different on some level compared to the typical broke back are that first, the twist of the torso isn’t quite as exaggerated, and second, it is shown to be just one pose among many within these two pages, let alone the rest of the book. Her stance is neither the primary display of athleticism nor the primary display of Kaoru herself, and on top of that she contrasts with the other girls shown.

To re-emphasize, my goal with these examples isn’t to assert some kind of general superiority of manga over American comics, but to say that the problem with having the brokeback and what it represents be the default for comics in general is problematic for more reasons than simply “sexism.” Comics and other media don’t necessarily have to go so far as to possess the highest quality of characterization, nor do they have to be the most tasteful or thought-out. Rather, if the goal is to create unique characters, then that uniqueness shouldn’t be subsumed by some generic template, sexual or otherwise.

Conclusion

The topic of poses and how they emphasize female sexuality in certain ways almost inevitably leads from the action of the body to the body itself. That is, the idea of “defaults” and “templates” can also encompass specific body types, and even a cursory glance at superhero comics shows that certain proportions on women are far more prominent than others. To address the issues of “body” and “body image” would make for an entire essay (or several) in and of itself, so I won’t touch on it except to acknowledge it, and to state that, like the brokeback for poses, the “big-breasted porn star” look isn’t inherently valueless, but it can be abused. Instead, the real problem lies not in the porn poses or the porn star bodies in and of themselves, but in their sheer ubiquity, as the singular image of sexuality that they create winds up narrowing the overall perception of beauty and idealization in comics. However, by broadening the approach to sexualization and showing that different forms of “erotic” exist, it is possible for even female characters with extremely similar bodies to show a greater degree of variety as characters, and can help to expand the number of ways a woman’s sexuality can be portrayed.

Official sources for Genshiken Second Season

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