19c. The “Cultural Specificity” of Manga and Bande Dessinée

vanyda-the-building-oppositeSo, I had initially intended to write about Vanyda’s The Buidling Opposite (L’Immeuble d’en face), originally published as a series of short comics, then later in three volumes, or albums, as is common with Franco-Belgian comics.  It had come to my attention as a result of Kai-Ming Cha’s choosing it as the best manga of 2006 for Publisher’s Weekly.  Of course, I didn’t know about this in 2006 (since I don’t particularly care what PW thinks is or is not good manga reading) and only learned about it well after the fact as I was doing research on la nouvelle manga.  Then, in Sylvain Rheault’s recent article in the International Journal of Comic Art, there is the claim that Vanyda’s work is “obviously manga-inspired.”  Frankly, from what I’ve seen of her work, I don’t get what’s so obvious about this observation, but never one to simply dismiss a claim, I ordered the book a bajillion years ago thinking it would have arrived well in time for today’s post.  This was not to be.

Still, even without the intended object of analysis, I have a larger point to make, which has more to do with the eerie parallels between manga and BD (bande dessinée) criticism and how some try to argue for a (not terribly well thought) cultural specificity for each.  I’ve written at greater length in the past about the rather problematic connections between theories of manga and theories of Japanese identity, but I’ll sum things up here, at least what’s relevant to the current discussion.  1) Theories of manga as something distinctly and often transhistorically Japanese are based more in a desire to circumvent the very real threat of censorship than in a truly meaningful unique Japaneseness.  2) It’s difficult even to speak of manga as something specifically created in Japanese, given the prevalence of so-called OEL (Original English Language) manga.  3) Non-Japanese manga is an important facet of a community and encounter with comics that has little to do with Anglo-American comics fandom and very much to do with a fan subculture that emerged most forcefully in the 1990s.  This shifty-eyed gentleman (i.e. yours truly) wants to talk your head off about it.

The past few weeks I’ve been dancing around the question of what exactly BD is, in part not to betray my own ignorance (doh!), so I’ll proffer a definition.  This one happens to be Laurence Grove’s from Comics in French: The European Bande Dessinée in Context: “a French-language mixture of images and written text that together form a narrative.” (16)  So, comics in French, then?  Like the title of his book?  Au contraire, mes amis!

“‘French language’ is a defining element of the bande dessinée not on account of the specifics of its grammatical structures or vocabulary, but as a container for the cultural system it carries [?].  The importance of an image-based culture in France’s history, from the presence of Leonardo in the French court to the spread of surrealism, forms the backcloth to the continuation of such a tradition through the Ninth Art [by which title BD are sometimes referred].  ‘French language’ operates as an equivalent of ‘francophone,’ a reminder that Belgian, Swiss or Québecois strands of the culture are also to be found, even if there is no unifying geographic term such as ‘North American’ or ‘British’.  It is the mentality behind the language [!] that matters, not the language itself…” (19)

La not-so-nouvelle manga

La not-so-nouvelle manga

I don’t mean necessarily to impugn Grove’s intentions, but it’s hard to know where to begin with these claims.  It smacks of a rather unthinking French cultural imperialism.  Belgians, for instance, are not super fond of the fact that French critics regularly claim Hergé (the creator of Tintin) as their own while down playing the important role of Belgian artists in the history of French language comics.  Moreover, Marjane Satrapi‘s Persepolis is a BD (it’s in French; was originally published in France), yet given how that text is in part an autobiographical history of modern Iran and how Satrapi’s feelings of being an outsider in Europe make up a large part of the story, it strikes me as odd to say that it embodies the mentality underlying the French language.  The same could be said of artists from any Francophone former colony: Haiti, Algeria, Madagascar, etc.  This isn’t exactly a novel claim; Frantz Fanon‘s Black Skin, White Masks has long been a seminal work in post-colonial studies.  What more, while I don’t think Miyazaki is saying quite the same thing, I can’t help but think of his notion that Japanese brains are somehow predisposed to appreciate line art.  Grove’s claim may be cultural rather than physiological, but it is no less fraught.

Even if none of this were the case, I would still strongly disagree with Grove’s “French language” claim, and the situation of OEL manga within Anglo-American fandom is rather instructive.  Of course this is currently not the case, but what if among American college students there were a sudden vogue for bootleg tapes of poorly subtitled French cartoons.  Suppose this vogue led to the establishment of animation (pronounced with an atrocious approximation of a Parisian accent) clubs on college campuses and high schools that over time began to include BD and French pop music as objects of their fanaticism.  Suppose these clubs held annual conventions where one could buy overpriced knock-offs of French movie posters and translated BD albums, where attendees dress up as Obelix or Professor Calculus, where someone might suddenly start humming the opening lines of “Moi Lolita” and within a minute the entire hall is shouting it at the top of their lungs–where some twit has to ruin everyone’s fun with an uninvited discourse on why Yelle (NSFW, if your boss happens to speak French) is so much better than Alizee, who is then condescended to by some old fart who can’t believe he’s never heard of Serge Gainsbourg.

It’s not at all hard to imagine that in the midst of this, certain self-styled fanatiques start creating comics, at first largely in imitation of Moebius’ SF and Giraud’s Western classics–same person, in case you don’t get the joke–and which they, almost inevitably, refer to, not as comics, but as BD.  To reinforce this BD-ness, they might casually sprinkle their [English] dialogue with French phrases or wax elegiac on the linge claire.  Some smarmy dipshit might then come along to explain how comics and English language BD represent two experiences or communities of reading comics that have very little historical overlap.  He may even become so absorbed in his own delusions of genius that he starts a blog titled What is BD? so as to belabor the masses with his pet theories.

If you recognize something of the history of anime/manga fandom in the above, give yourself a well-deserved pat on the back.  Suffice it to say that French-the-language as a determining factor for BD doesn’t really carry much weight.  Moreover, this whole argument seems to be a creature of non-French language criticism.  As with manga in Japanese, bande dessinée in French might simply mean comics in general.  This is clearly how Thierry Groensteen means it in his Système de la bande dessinée (System of Comics), which draws examples from a wide variety of comics traditions.  But, to be fair to Grove, perhaps this complex subcultural outgrowth is encapsulated in what he means by “mentality.”  That begs the question, then: is there such a thing as a Japanese mentality to which non-Japanese manga fans unconsciously subscribe?  As a speaker of Japanese, I likely fall into the category that nihonjinron purists characterize as understanding the language but not the kokoro that underlies it.  My judgment, then, is perhaps not to be trusted.

The BD that Boilet sets up as the great enemy in his la nouvelle manga manifesto is very much a caricature, for all [great] revolutions demand a top-hatted and monocled cartoon foe, even if the plutocrats nowadays have traded in their gilded walking sticks for jewel-encrusted iPhones.  As a result, to my suspect judgment, la nouvelle manga itself comes off a bit as a cartoon hero.  Unlike non-Japanese manga, which clearly comes out of a more or less organic fan culture and community, la nouvelle manga seems to be an almost purely nominal status, meaning it’s manga simply by virtue of saying it is.  What, then, is the significance of claiming nouvelle manga status for Japanese artists as well?  Is it more meaningful to describe Anno Moyoko as simply a mangaka or is there something in her work truly nouveau that cannot be captured by the Japanese comics tradition?  I honestly don’t know, and what I’ve come across so far has not done much to enlighten me.

Next week: Je ne sais pas!

Stay Tuned!

Ba Zi

contact me: uahsenaa@gmail.com

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