As I noted last week, I spent several days in Portland surrounding the 2013 International Comic Arts Forum (ICAF), where I discovered two important things: the city’s official tourist maps border on useless and the actual city of Portland is not, much to my chagrin, to be identified with the Portlandia of comic imagination. Nevertheless, while there I thought many thoughts, some deep, some wide, many neither deep nor wide, and was both emboldened and disheartened by the increasing academic institutionalization of comic studies and manga’s occasional presence within it. What follows may at times come off as too negative, but I did get very likely and merely likely placement for two of my articles, so it can’t all have been bad.
“FFS, You have no idea what you’re talking about…”
I’ll begin with the bad, or, at least, the emotionally and intellectually trying. As over the past year I have come to realize what it means to no longer be an academic (in the strict sense) and to occupy a position somewhat parasitic upon yet sequestered from the day-to-day of academic institutions, I have also become increasingly intolerant of the assumptions and supposed “necessities” that those who bank their continued scholarly existence upon the perpetuity of colleges and universities so often bring to the table. The ICAF organizers, though, are to be lauded for at least making the place of comic studies in the academy an issue to discuss, even if I think that discussion takes far too much for granted.
Though I heard one paper specifically arguing for the installment of comic studies as a discipline (more than likely within English departments), I would rather focus on a roundtable organized to discussion the place of teaching comics within academic curricula. There was much not to praise here: the lack of any real discussion between the participants (due mostly to their introductions being WAY too long), the lack of a satisfactory Q&A (since, after all, most of those in the room had taught comics in one capacity or another), and an overall disconnect between what those on the panel presented. The two presentations having anything to do with manga overall made me seethe, but no more or less than the critical assumptions of academics within and without Japan make me want to pull my hair out at times. I discussed my concerns with both of them afterwards, and they were receptive, so I don’t want to make it seem as if they were unenlightened trogs, though I will say that the comment “recently manga has become political” elicited a far too audible gafaw from my general direction.
What bothered me most with this panel, however, was the use of a wide range of terms and designations for comics (especially the much-loathed-by-me “graphic novel”) with little in the way of where these terms come from historically and how, for most of them, they were meant to position “graphic narratives” in a very specific way with regard to other media and the broader culture. So, I asked a rather simple question (to my mind at least) about the politics of defining comics and how that might relate to our own practices as teachers/scholars, since we, one presumes, are more heavily invested in this critical apparatus than others might be. Unfortunately, my question didn’t really get answered, because, well, by the time the Q&A came around, there wasn’t really any time remaining to, you know, actually ask questions. Nevertheless, the near complete discontinuity between these introductions bordering on complete talks reveals one of the glaring problems with the institutionalization of comic/s studies as an academic discipline: there isn’t much consensus about what a comic even is much less what the standards should be for teaching one. Should comics scholars have a basic knowledge of illustration techniques, 2D design, media studies, the economics of media markets, literary analysis, philosophy of form, genre studies, comparative literature, information science, etc.? This is still an open question that I feel needs to be addressed at far greater length, if the project of fashioning a real budget-bearing, graduate student-training, peer-reviewing discipline out of the hodge-podge that is comics studies is ever to be achieved.
I do have some hope, though. In one-to-one conversations with Ben Saunders, the current director of the University of Oregon’s recent implemented minor in comics studies, I got the sense that there are at least some people who understand how difficult this is going to be and that the stakeholders encompass a far greater range than just self-identified comics scholars. One thing that comics studies could do right (and that, I hasten to note, humanities disciplines have all but given up on) is involve fan communities, conventioneers, publishers, and so forth in a far more meaningful way right from the get-go. Each one of those groups, and many more, would benefit greatly from the ongoing task of getting comics taken seriously (though, I must add, I’m not entirely sympathetic with the whole “comics as academic discipline” project). Involving outside stakeholders would also, as Ben clearly understands (better than most), do much to overcome the near complete unwillingness any post-secondary institution has these days to establishing new academic programs, because money.
Even if Comics Win, Manga Might Still Lose
There is a very real problem with trying to make manga a central part of comics studies in the Anglo-American academy. In Japan, this is a non-issue, for, with the establishment of a variety of manga training schools and programs throughout Japan, mangagaku was an easy addition to pre-existing programs. The structure of American universities in particular does not lend itself well to manga studies and, in many ways, openly antagonizes it. It’s no coincidence, then, that the primary locus for anime/manga studies in the US was not a generic public or private collegiate institution, but an art and design school, MCAD in Minneapolis. As a result, the U of Minnesota press has been the primary outlet for publications on Japanese popular media. You might wonder, then, why none of the long established Japanese studies programs in the US ever bothered to take up the manga/anime banner. Well, simply put, Japan and Asian Studies in the US largely look down upon or only occasionally condescend to let anime/manga studies happen at all. While History, Literature, Film, and Sociology/Anthropolgy are all taken very seriously, the likelihood you’ll see a manga presentation, much less an entire panel, at the Association for Asian Studies annual meetings is exceedingly low. I remember attending one year and seeing only a single paper having anything to do with manga, and then it was less about Japanese comics (either in terms of the industry or as textual objects) than growing up in Korea amid a wide array of Japanese pop culture commodities.
If you’d like further proof of the difficulties manga faces, I refer you to Andria Cheng’s earlier writeup of her experiences as a manga translator trying to get a master’s degree in translation. I would also note that the same person who didn’t feel Andria’s work was “serious enough” was also the chair of the search committee that didn’t hire me for the tenure-track version of the teaching job I was already doing.
Even if this weren’t the case, even if the “old bald heads” suddenly saw the error of their ways and started hiring Japan studies types on mass to teach anime or manga or Japanese pop culture (rather than Japanese literature scholars who are occasionally forced by popular demand into this role), there would still be the problem that in a broad, comparative comics studies discipline, there would be far too many odd presumptions about what manga is and is not floating around. Part of this is due to the fact that many who profess to do manga studies lack very basic language skills, i.e. can’t even read the comic texts in the original language much less the critical output of the, as noted above, established discipline of comic studies in Japan. This, then, leads to broad pronouncements about “manga style” and other such drivel that, when interrogated, turn out to be based in highly idiosyncratic takes on the still all-too-narrow range of manga that have been translated into English. As a result, I hear all the time about “Tezuka this” and “Tezuka that” and yet never a peep about Ishinomori Shōtarō or Mizuno Hideko, despite the fact the former practically invented sentai manga and the latter is one of the most influential shōjo artists to have ever lived.
All hope is not lost, I suppose, if comics studies going forward actively involves fans and readers generally in the process of developing the discipline, even if one such as yours truly considers such a project ill-advised. If this doesn’t happen, then it may become necessary for those communities to be as noisy as possible, if only so that they/we aren’t left behind in the process.
Next week: hopefully, if my books arrive, the first in a 3 or 4 part series on Kitazawa Rakuten, his disciples, and kindai manga generally; should my stuff fail to arrive, I’ll tackle the use of foreign settings and the exoticizing of non-Japanese cultures in shōjo manga.
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