Grotesque Anatomy
Sunday, November 23, 2003
  Topics That Will Not Die: #1 - Manga
Dave Intermittent continues to press his question about whether manga is handled with kid gloves because kids read it.  He adds an interesting element to the issue, pointing out that American comics were still the target for pointed criticism even back when they sold in much higher numbers and were read by children:
At one point, superhero books sold better than manga sells today; and during that time, their popularity did not insulate them from fairly pungent criticism. There were some people who argued that their popularity was in fact a disadvantage, since people would look past good books on the assumption that all comics were was four color beatdowns for kids. Too popular; go figure.
These remarks spurred a lot of thought on my part, so please bear with me if I begin to stray from Dave's original starting point.  (Or in other words:  WARNING - LONG-ASS RAMBLING ENTRY AHEAD.)

First, I think the type of argument Dave is referencing here is completely distinct from his earlier concern about bad manga being immune to criticism.  The argument that the popularity of superhero comics is bad for comics overall doesn't necessarily entail anything about the quality of specific superhero comics.  Each and every superhero comic book published could be an undisputed brilliant work of art and one could still argue that the stranglehold of one narrow type of comic on the medium is bad for the medium.  The argument that diversity of subject matter is important for comics is logically distinct from issues of individual comics' quality.  It's a macro-level "emergent" argument that relies on the overwhelming existence of one specific type of comic.  If one type of manga (say shoujo romance manga) comes to dominate comics in the future, a similar argument could then be made that the prevalence of that genre is bad for the respectability of comics.

It's difficult to say without knowing which particular arguments Dave has in mind, but perhaps some versions of the "stranglehold" argument supplemented that basic approach with the addition of Sturgeon's Law:  If all comics are superhero comics and 90% of anything is crap, people will be more likely to come across crappy superhero comics whenever someone tells them to try out comics.  Thus, people will come to associate comics with crappy superhero comics.  This strikes me as more of a psychological argument about how people form classifications of things.  It assumes that most people will fail to distinguish between the potential of an art form and the particular realizations of that art form.  Nevertheless, I think the remedy would be the same as for the above scenario:  Diversity.  A wider-ranging line of subject matters in sequential art might make it harder for people to lump all comics into one easily written-off group:  "Well, superhero comics still seem kind of lame to me, but there sure are a lot of good horror comics out there."

Speaking of stereotypes, it's interesting to consider the general conceptions that surround comics.  Are they still thought of as being kids' stuff?  I guess that assumption still seems to pervade most mainstream articles on comics (especially when they're trying to counter that notion and they self-defeatingly title the article with something like "Zap! Bam! Pow! Comics Not Just For Kids Anymore!")  This perception is generally attributed to the dominance of superheroes to the near exclusion of all else.  Conversely, it seems to be part of the general understanding of manga that it's not just for kids, at least not in its homeland of Japan, where adults read manga unabashedly.  (I'd also add that my personal perception of European comics is that they're targeted at all age groups.  In fact, walking into most comic stores or bookstore graphic novel sections in France, my impression was that comics are primarily geared toward adults.)  Unfortunately, the stereotype of American superhero comics being for children doesn't even carry the comfort of kids actually consuming such comics:  Most pundits agree that whoever is buying superhero comics these days, it ain't kids for the most part.

So perhaps the excitement over manga's growing popularity does color some commentators' critical faculties when it comes to manga:  After worrying so long about the declining sales of comic books (both in general and specifically with respect to younger audiences), seeing increasing sales, largely to children, may be causing some critics to turn a blind eye to any shortcomings specific manga may have.  On the one hand, I can see why certain members of the comic community would give more weight to sales than quality:  Retailers and publishers have reason, especially in such a soft economy, to be concerned primarily with sales.  (This isn't to say that sales is their exclusive concern:  Publishers and retailers may both have motivations for promoting quality work, but I think the nature of each business demands that they give greatest weight to economic considerations.)  On the other hand, sales can't excuse everything:  Just because something is popular (with any audience segment) doesn't necessarily mean it's good.  (Popularity doesn't necessarily entail poor quality, either, a fallacy that seems more pronounced with cynical/cranky critics.)

The question of whether the fact that kids read something changes the standards of evaluation is an interesting one.  I touched on this briefly in my response to Dave's original entry, but now I realize there's much more to say about this topic.  If something is targeted for kids, shouldn't we judge it according to that aim?  After all, it's generally accepted that one standard of fair criticism is to consider the goal of a work when evaluating it.  Taken literally, this principle has always bothered me:  How can I know what the artist's intent was in crafting his work?  How do I know what audience a work was really aimed at?  With Shonen Jump we might point to the fact that the magazine identifies its intended demographic in its very title.  For other, less precisely named works, one might attempt to address such issues by focusing on their "effects":  If a work elicits a certain response or attracts a certain audience, then we can assume that those were the intended effects.  The problem with such an approach is that it ignores the possibility of unintended consequences.  Was the original Star Wars movie really intended as a work of myth, or did Lucas simply graft that language on after critics such as Joseph Campell started analyzing the movie in those terms?

My own way of resolving this tension has been to approach reviews from a "charitable interpretation" standard:  I may not have access to an author's intent, but I certainly have access to my own imagination, so I can attempt to construct scenarios under which a work "works."  Of course, this approach sounds great in theory, but it runs into its own problems in practice, namely the limits of my charity and interpretive abilities.  My dislike of something may be so strong that I may ignore charity in order to go on the attack more fully and freely.  In such cases, others may rightfully call me on my abusive lack of impartiality.  Or there may be an interpretation under which something "works" but I may fail to consider it.  In this case, others may rightly charge that I've missed the point of the work.  There's also the practical difficulty of knowing how many possible interpretations one must run through in order to be reasonably charitable.  Even if I could generate endless interpretations for a work, do I really want to?  How would I ever satisfactorily review even a single work in such detail?  Finally, there's the worry that one can be too charitable.  A review probably isn't going to be of much use if it only offers advice to the effect of "Some people may find this comic entertaining to one degree or another, but other may not."

So how do I resolve all these tensions in my own reviewing?  I don't know if I ever do, at least not fully.  I try to be aware of such concerns, but mainly at the level of doing a "sanity check" on a review after I've written it.  Is it excessively uncharitable or unfair?  Is it too bland or boring?  And to be completely honest, not all reviews will be written with the same goal in mind.  On occasion I may be one of the first to review something, so I have to do a little more work outlining what the comic is about.  And if I like the book, a degree of evangelism may enter the recommendation.  Kind of like ADD or Shawn Hoke and their reviews of Palomar.  Conversely, if I think something is receiving undue praise, I may write a review slanted more towards exposing the deficiencies of said work.  I still try to keep the reviews "honest"--I never want to boost or bash something that I couldn't back up with genuine opinions I actually hold.  But I'll admit that my reviews can often be written in reaction to factors other than just The Work Itself.  Some might find this distasteful, believing that criticism should be as entirely objective.  But I don't see how criticism can ever occur in a vacuum.  We all have beliefs and biases that impact our opinions.  I think the key thing, as Dave suggests, is to be as upfront as possible about the factors influencing one's opinion.

Which leads quite naturally to wondering:  OK, John, what factors are influencing your opinions on manga?

One thing might be that, whereas Dave feels as though manga is getting a free pass, I actually feel the opposite way.  Reading many message boards, it seems as though most comic fans already dismiss all manga as crap.  I'm sure everyone's seen the threads where fanboys gripe that all manga contains the same "big head, big hair, big eye" art.  Over on his blog, Dave Lartigue offers a similar complaint, writing that "many many manga that are brought to America fall easily into three categories: books about schoolgirls and their panties, books about giant robots, and books about schoolgirls who pilot giant robots in their panties."  He acknowledges that this doesn't describe all manga, but he feels that the good stuff is getting lost in the sheer amount of crap being brought over from Japan:
I realize there are many manga titles that aren't schoolgirls and robots and wacky Japanese "humor". My point is, you have to really search to find them. Book and comic stores are simply unloading manga on the public by the shovelful, and nobody I know has the time or desire to sift through the crap and find the quality stuff. Until the manga aficionados are willing to admit that there are good comics and bad comics, and some are Japanese and some are American, their arguments are going to be drowned out by the sound of a million otaku happily kissing the ass of anything Japanese.
So maybe we already are at a point where manga is suffering from a generalized "guilt by association":  Because most of the manga the casual observer sees seems to be crap, it's assumed that all manga is crap.

To a certain extent, then, my own musings on manga may be seen as a reaction to such animosity.  But I still think my arguments have a specific grounding beyond a desire to offer a contrarian position.  My own belief that manga isn't (necessarily) crap was formed in much the same way as my belief that comics aren't (necessarily) crap:  It's much too sweeping of a statement.  I'm sure there are bad manga comics out there, just as I'm sure there are bad superhero comics, bad autobiographical comics, bad "art" comics, and all kinds of other bad comics out there.  How can I be so sure?  Well, I've read bad comics in all those categories.  But I've also read good comics in all those categories, too.  I'm not sure how I'd break down the division of Bad/Good, but 90/10 seems rather high (and simplistic) to me.  I'd rather focus on specific cases, and even then it can be hard to make a blanket "good/bad" judgment.  Most individual works have elements of good and bad in them.  I'm most interested in critics who can address both aspects and everything in between.  I've tried to do that in my own reviews, whether I'm reviewing manga or American comics.  My review of Gyo #1, for example, was fairly critical even though I consider myself a fan of Junji Ito's earlier horror manga.  And if I ever get around to writing reviews for Berserk and later volumes of Sanctuary you'll get to see more of me being "negative" toward manga.  It's just that my negativity will be directed at specific manga, not manga in general.
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