A Problem is an Opportunity
Over the past couple of years, as I have begun to pursue my academic career, at conferences and what not I have regularly encountered what might be called a problem but is more likely an opportunity. I remember one conference in particular where, after I had presented, in hindsight, a rather dry paper on the relationship between manga historiography and Japanese racial/cultural theoretical writing (i.e. nihonjinron), I was mobbed by several people who regularly teach comics studies classes at their respective institutions who, despite clear student interest, felt themselves completely unqualified or at least apprehensive about teaching something that their students clearly knew much more about than they.
To the uninitiated, manga can often feel like a swirling abyss–so many titles, so many genres, so many demographic distinctions, so… MUCH that one who does not tread carefully runs the risk of being regularly embarrassed by the very people one proposes to teach. For those who do not shy away from teaching or writing about any of the multitudinous concerns that orbit the Japanese comic industry, there is a tendency to stay safe: teach Tezuka or a gekiga/avant-garde artist who has recently come to prominence. Those with a more thorough knowledge of the Japanese language and Japanese popular media tend to have a more narrow focus in their published work, leaving the general introductory work and even more specialized work of historiography to, well, anyone. The result is that we have something like Schodt’s Manga! Manga!, which is at best a mixed bag, alongside Paul Gravett’s Manga: 60 Years of Japanese Comics, whose very title proclaims its gross oversight and which often gets mired in complete stereotypes that have the added benefit of being factually wrong.
If this problem of decent work and crap sitting side by side without critical distinction were limited to “introductory” texts, I wouldn’t pay it much mind, but I have seen even reputable journals of comics studies contain one article on a manga subject with a detailed analysis of the work of a particular artist immediately following a work of total speculation based on biased and limited critical resources by someone who has no command of the Japanese language. Now, I would never insist on enforcing a list of intellectual criteria that must be met before performing any kind of manga scholarship, but a real lack of a good correcting influence has left manga studies in English especially a vast field of sameness, where downright fallacious assertions are taken equally with well-informed work. One does not need to be a scholar of Japanese, but we should expect scholars and lay writers to be more honest about their limitations and the claims they might reasonably make.
My intent, though, is not to call people out. Even if occasionally someone should come under particular scrutiny, in this space I will endeavor to perform the kind of introductory work that a comics scholar with no particular training or experience writing about or teaching manga might desire. For the most part, I will try to present a variety of critical controversies in manga studies both as they are understood by others and how I see them, so that, little by little, we can accumulate a body of discourse that our students might use to parlay their obvious passion for manga into a serious study thereof.
Who am I? The simple answer is Ba Zi or Nicholas Theisen or nobody, formerly an assistant professor Japanese literature and now a stay-at-home parasite with a critical ax to grind. My own research focuses on the period in manga running from roughly the end of the 19th century to the beginning of the second world war (what in Japanese is referred to as the kindai period) as well as more general issues surrounding comics formalism. In this space, though, I will try to be more broad-ranging, though my topic for Monday will be something near and dear to me, the relationship between manga studies and Japanese racial theory mentioned above.
I have quite a few topics already planned out, but I would love for others to suggest areas of interest. Also, if you’d like to contribute, so that my own, not terribly orthodox perspective isn’t the only one represented, write to me at firstname.lastname@example.org or leave a message in the comments.
contact me: email@example.com