[Comics] as Reading – Chapter 2 – [Manga] pt. 4

PREVIOUS: [Manga] pt. 3

[Comics] and commerce, of course, have a long and tangled history, from the use of Outcault’s Buster Brown character as an advertising mascot for the Brown Shoe Company to the still current[1] use of Schulz’s Peanuts characters in ads for the insurance company MetLife. However, long before Buster, advertisements in print periodicals (pl.), even in “serious” newspapers like the Illustrated London News, made use of a number of what are now recognized as comic tropes (e.g. funny animals, distorted physical features typically associated with caricature, speech balloons, etc.) and were thus rendered amenable both to the appropriation of [comic] characters and likewise to being appropriated by [comics]. For instance, a full page ad for Brooke’s Soap, Monkey Brand, from the January 12, 1901 issue of the Illustrated London News makes use of at least two of these tropes.

Monkey Brand Soap advertisement from the Illustrated London News January 12, 1901

Monkey Brand Soap advertisement from the Illustrated London News January 12, 1901

The monkey in a tuxedo recalls the anthropomorphized animals so commonly seen in the funny pages, and his dialogue is depicted in a speech bubble. What’s more, his plea to the waiting officer to “[c]lean up that place, my lord!” works as a form of mild (pun intended) form of political commentary on official corruption. It is also, of course, an advertisement, which, one presumes, the Lever Brothers hope will induce you to buy their washing powder, but that fact alone does not detract from how it might be read as [comic], despite the Illustrated London News not being as terribly well known as a humor periodical as [The Japan] Punch or [Tokyo] Puck. The ad, in a sense, reads graphic objects from seemingly far afield and repurposes them in a textual framework, a print periodical (sing.), always already amenable to embedding (seemingly) novel forms within it.

Craven Pipe Tobacco advertisement from the ILN January 21, 1905

Craven Pipe Tobacco advertisement from the ILN January 21, 1905

Sunlight Soap advertisement from the ILN March 18, 1905

Sunlight Soap advertisement from the ILN March 18, 1905

Nor is the Monkey Brand soap ad a curious idiosyncrasy, for we see stereotypically [comic] elements in a number of other advertisements, not all, of course, but a sufficient number that it cannot be a mere coincidence. Both a Craven pipe tobacco ad from January 21, 1905 and a Sunlight Soap ad from March 18 of the same year use characters with distorted physical characteristics, and a Cadbury’s Cocoa ad from January 7 depicts a series of images about a ship’s wheel clearly intended to be read as a generic “life’s story” if not a particular narrative: “[a]t every stage of life from Infancy to Old Age in all spheres, CADBURY’S Cocoa is the beverage that fits the occasion.”

Cadbury Cocoa advertisement from the ILN January 7, 1905

Cadbury Cocoa advertisement from the ILN January 7, 1905

It should be no surprise, then, to encounter such an overlap between [manga] and advertising illustration in a periodical like Tokyo Puck. In fact, it is an open question whether “overlap” is even an appropriate term, for in the particular case of this humor periodical, the artists who illustrated the magazine’s entertainment content were the very same as drew the advertisements.

Ebisu/Asahi Beer advertisement from Tokyo Puck vol. 4 no. 5 (1908)

Ebisu/Asahi Beer advertisement from Tokyo Puck vol. 4 no. 5 (1908)

An Asahi/Ebisu Beer ad from 1908 (vol. 4 no. 5) shows a man holding a cartoonishly large gun with a beer bottle for the chamber and barrel, which, if it weren’t for the text Asahi biiru Ebisu biiru, would not otherwise be out of place as an “ordinary” [manga] illustration in Rakuten’s magazine.

Pearl Cream advertisement from Tokyo Puck vol. 5 no. 1 (1909)

Pearl Cream advertisement from Tokyo Puck vol. 5 no. 1 (1909)

Moreover, when I first happened upon the Pearl Cream ad from 1909 (vol. 5 no. 1), I did not even see it as distinct from the other [manga] in that issue. It makes use of panels and represents its characters in the very same kinds of domestic scenes one finds in Tokyo Puck’s [manga]. Even more so than the Monkey Brand advertisement in the Illustrated London News, this Pearl Cream ad makes clear the slippage—rather, the amenability of [comic] to ad, and that is but one potential axis of mutual poaching between graphic objects embedded in a textual framework, a print periodical (sing.), which contains many such objects of varying types.

[Comics] read (i.e. interpret and repurpose) the stereotyped elements of other graphic objects in print periodicals and likewise are read and repurposed by them. I repeat myself, because it would easy to take Ippei’s notion of [manga] observing and depicting the world in a relatively facile way, wherein [manga] retain a representational character in which media stand aloof from that world and do not themselves function as a potential object of observation within it. The distinction between media as mere representation and a world, an “environment” in which we as isolatable and unitary organisms (what philosophers might call “subjects”) are simply placed like notes on a cork board, is an unnecessarily deceptive one, for what the [comics] in Tokyo Puck and the advertisements in the Illustrated London News and elsewhere make quite clear is that the product of the very observation and depiction Ippei identifies as core to [manga] can themselves become subject to observing and depicting.

3. Playing Games

The recourse so far to the analogous readings identifiable in [comics] and print advertisements is not meant to privilege that relationship between graphic objects over others but has simply been a mode of convenience, to use an example where the relative attitudes of seemingly disparate media toward each other (and how they poach) are readily apparent. I wish to close out this chapter by examining one more of these relationships, between [manga] and sugoroku/board games, in order to show, now that the fact of graphic elements in print media poaching on one another has been established, something less obvious, how particular modes of reading (of, say, a game board) become invisibilized in [comic] form and how [manga] can be used to draw attention to aspects of a particular medium that are not readily apparent in the most typical experiences of them, i.e. gameplay.

Sugoroku (literally, “pair of six,” meaning “dice,” a board game which uses dice) are an especially apt medium for my purposes here, because by Rakuten’s time they are already irrevocably mixed in nature. Though the Japanese word itself alludes to the use of dice, it refers to a rather limited set of all board and dice based games, which blends both Eastern and Western gaming lineages. In the 19th and 20th centuries, sugoroku were most often printed, unlike board games, on paper rather than cardstock, which meant that, while many were sold as standalone items, they were commonly included as inserts with newspapers and magazines, often at New Year’s. Like the [comic] insert, sugoroku were both part of print periodicals but also, in a sense, separate from them. For when I use the word sugoroku here, I mean predominantly e-sugoroku, i.e. illustrated gameboards, in one of the more common ways in which this word is used in modern Japanese, rather than in its broader, more technical sense of any of a number of games involving a board and dice, which, for example, in Masukawa Kōichi’s two volume Sugoroku includes such games as the numerous historical variants of backgammon as well as the ancient Egyptian game of sekhmet. Yet, for our purposes here, with respect both to late 19th/early 20th century print culture and Rakuten’s [manga] oeuvre, I would like to focus on two forms in particular, the Indian game of snakes and ladders (as well as its descendant variants) and the game of the goose, whose visual forms and modes of reading/play are especially telling of how they were deployed as modes of “observation and depiction” within the print cultures of Japan and the West.

The Agreeable Game of the Goose (Il Piacevole Gioco dell’Oca) from the British Museum, image courtesy of Giochi dell’Oca

Both snakes and ladders and the game of the goose are considered race games, because victory is measured by whoever reaches the final game space first, and both games spread well beyond their initial historical and national context. The game of the goose or gioco dell’ oca is generally thought to have originated with a disc game Francesco dei Medici gave as a present to King Phillip II of Spain but quickly spread throughout Europe in the 16th century. Though a number of variants now exist, the basic form is that of a path of 63 spaces laid out in a spiral moving from an outer corner into the center. The game is named for the goose that appears on a number of spaces (nos. 5, 9, 14, 18, 23, 27, 32, 36, 41, 45, 50, 54, 59, and 63) and which functions in the game rules as a sort of “roll again:” any roll of the dice that would cause one to land on a goose space must be re-rolled until one lands on a non-goose space. The only exception to this rule is the 63rd and final space, where one must roll exactly the right number to move there or else move back the remainder from what one should have rolled (e.g. if one were on space no. 59 and rolled a seven, she would have to move back three spaces from the end, i.e. no. 60). Other spaces have special effects indicated by the symbol depicted there: no. 6, a bridge, advances the player to space no. 12, while no. 58, a skull or skeleton, forces the player to go back to the beginning. The allegory of these symbols should be rather clear, for the bridge carries one over to somewhere further ahead, while the skull/skeleton, a symbol of death, causes one to “die” and be, in a sense, reincarnated at the beginning.


Jeu de L’Affaire Dreyfus et de la Vérité

This basic sense in the game of absolute impediments (the geese) as well as special circumstances (the bridge and skull as sudden advancement and sudden death) are applied to satirical effect in a 1898 variant depicting the series of events in the Dreyfus affair, which rocked French politics from 1894, when Dreyfus was convicted of espionage, to 1906 when he was exonerated. The press played a key role, Emile Zola’s open letter J’accuse in particular,[2] in galvanizing a republican movement behind the cause of Dreyfus’s false conviction and imprisonment, the so-called Dreyfusards, who became a major opposition force in fin-de-siecle French politics. In the midst of this turmoil we find the aforementioned game, the Jeu de L’Affaire Dreyfus et de la Veríté, the “Game of the Dreyfus Affair and of Truth.” In it we see the same spiral pattern and 63 spaces typical of games of the goose, each of which, with important exceptions, depicts the various events that led up to Dreyfus’s imprisonment and resulted in public backlash against it. The “important exceptions” are the goose spaces, whose expected waterfowl have been replaced with a nude woman, a representation of la Veríté, the Truth. At first glance, we could claim this as yet another example of print matter poaching on a popular, extant graphic form and repurposing it within the multimodal framework of 19th century print culture I pointed to earlier with regard to print periodicals. However, in using this particular form the “Game of the Dreyfus Affair and of Truth” also anticipates a particular kind of reading, for the game can be as easily played as read. In fact, in this particular case, it is rather difficult to distinguish reading from playing a game.

By replacing the goose with the symbolic embodiment of Truth (and thus, one assumes, the truth of the Dreyfus Affair itself), the game invites a certain understanding how the politics of Dreyfus’s trial obscured the truth of what he had (not) done, for his conviction was not only dependent upon false evidence and a military cover-up but also upon the widespread anti-semitism that would cast Dreyfus, a Jew, in the worst light before even a single piece of evidence had been presented. On the game board, the truth is, in a sense, always there, again and again, but the rules of the game prevent one from ever properly landing on it, just as the way in which Dreyfus’s trial had been rigged against him rendered guilt more or less a foregone conclusion. Only at the very end of the whole affair, through all the twists and turns, the very events depicted on the board, can one finally arrive at the Truth. If a reader/player were to behave in a conventional manner, reading/playing the game according to traditional rules, she would arrive at an impasse, where “the way things have always been” (i.e. rampant anti-semitism) gets firmly in the way of one’s ever admitting to or arriving at the truth. This impasse presents a more transgressive reader/player with an alternative interpretive possibility, should her desire to arrive at the truth of the “Game of the Dreyfus Affair” overwhelm her desire to behave according to the rules, that is to disregard the rules and play the game as she sees it. Whether the game invites this reading is an open question, of course, one I cannot satisfactorily answer here, but it nevertheless remains amenable to a reading that openly flaunts the rules and points to an alternative understanding of the social conditions it depicts.

NEXT: [Manga] pt. 5

[1] I say “from,” as if it were a completed historical fact, but the Brown Shoe Co. still uses Buster’s image.

[2] The newspaper in which the Dreyfus Affair game was included as an insert, L’Aurore, was the very same paper that published Zola’s article-as-letter to the French president. Though the focus here is on the way in which the game board might be read with and against conventional rules for a game of its type, it is also worth bearing in mind that both Zola’s letter and the game board could also be understood as graphic objects in the same print periodical, analogous to my treatment of [comics] and print advertisements above.


  1. […] (to the left) hearkening back to the [comic] form of ads appearing in the Illustrated London News (considered at length in chapter 2), Doc stands atop a bag of cash with a megaphone asking in his characteristic idiolect whether […]

  2. […] Reading, Ron’s criticism not only made clear to me how I ought to frame my argument but also what sorts of things I needed to show and explicate, so as to drive the point home rather than make weakly backed claims.  One approach to criticism […]

  3. […] to do so.  The reading of content requires little explanation, I hope, but as can be seen in Rakuten’s appropriation of the sugoroku game board in his [manga], this reading leads not only to a novel way of seeing that form but also, through the appropriation […]

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