[Comics] as Reading – Chapter 5 – Introduction, or [Comics] as Guide to Textual Subjectivity pt. 2

PREVIOUS: Ch. 5 pt. 1

2. Photographic Hermeneutics

In the epigraph to this chapter, the oft-cited W.J.T. Mitchell dismisses the notion that the, by modern standards, fanciful tales of verse romances or morality plays would have any “reality” for a medieval reader and presumes his own reader to follow him in seeing how obviously absurd such a notion might be. Yet, one of the most famous examples of “someone reading” in all the literatures of the European Middle Ages, Paolo and Francesca in canto 5 of Dante’s Inferno, is predicated on precisely the notion that reality of one’s reading maps onto one’s life.

Francesca tells the pilgrim how she and Paolo, her husband’s brother, spent one afternoon lounging side by side and reading a romance of Lancelot and Guenevere and how the book they read served as a go-between or Galeotto (literally, “Galahad”) in their infidelity, just as Galahad acted as a go-between for the queen and her knight. The moral there, according to one reading of the episode, lies in their failure to read the significance of the tale for their own lives, and their suffering stems from their own dismissal of how it might map onto their present circumstances. Nor are Paolo and Francesca an isolated case in Western fiction. The entirety of Cervantes’ Don Quixote is based in a crazy old man’s attempt to impose a reality derived from his voracious consumption of tales of chivalry onto his otherwise mundane existence. Even more recently, in Austen’s Northanger Abbey, Catherine Morland reads the details of her favored Gothic fiction into the events of her stay at the titular estate, a clear reflection of the moral panics that quite often arose over women’s reading habits in England. What Mitchell dismisses as ridiculous, i.e. rendering the fantastic familiar and thereby “real,” is, in fact, a common motif in Western literary fiction.

One of the centerpieces of Plato’s Republic, the nature of the education of the guardians of the ideal state, assumes that fiction—in that case stories concerning the gods—has a fundamental moral function, that stories are as diagrammatic as they are entertaining. This current runs throughout the intellectual history of the West, manifesting most recently in hand-wringing over the content of violent video games and in the history of [comics] with regard to the establishment of the Comics Code Authority. Reality and fiction, or more specifically, for my purposes, reality and the presumed fiction of images have never been all that far apart, due in no small part to how we have a tendency to regard them as similarly possessed of a certain obviousness—representative if not not always a strict representation. For some, this is a rather uneasy state of affairs, and society must be engineered or re-ordered in such a way as to short-circuit all those means by which life might seek to imitate art. For others, say, the purveyors of so-called autofiction, fictive narrative is a far better means to arrive at the truths of lived experience, because, according to this logic, the ends of memoir are not merely to dictate what happened according to some presumed objectivity but also what it means for those who live their lives. This is the classic double bind of Zen: we are both subjects and objects of lived experience. The power of fiction as a way into understanding reality lies in its capacity to articulate selves as both center and periphery of narrative.

Even though neither Bechdel nor Mizuki’s autobiographical works, though, could be described as autofiction in the sense noted above, nevertheless each [comic] artist approaches this problem of self as center and periphery in his/her own way. Moreover, in each case, both centers and peripheries are plural. In Bechdel’s work we see many Alisons at many ages, often the same historical event in Alison’s life from perspectives both contemporaneous to the event and contemporaneous to the writing of the [comic]. There is the periphery of the family in which these Alisons are constellated as well as the periphery of the book objects themselves and, as I discuss below, their paratextual material. The pluralities have their own plural overlaps, articulations between centers, between peripheries, between centers and peripheries—so many that the nature[s] of those articulations are worthy of closer observation. For, as Gadamer has it at the close of Truth and Method, being is proper neither to the subjective self nor the objective other but rather to the territory circumscribed by the overlap of their purviews, in which one’s self not only might become other, i.e. the object of others’ experience, but also in which through this experience others come into their own as selves. To return to the question of textual subjectivity, then, texts are objects of our reading and understanding as well as, perhaps paradoxically, subjects reading our selves.

So I propose to wind up, if not arrive at two autobiographical works not because life writing is such a hot topic these days, but because in Mizuki’s and Bechdel’s writing of their own selves into objects of our readerly engagement we can, quite literally, see these linkages of centers—perhaps centerings?—and peripheries play out. Moreover, in both Komikku Shōwa-shi and Are You My Mother? (AYMM), photographic—or rather the photomechanical reproduction of drawn selves and others is what destablilizes even as it affirms representation/hyōgen.

One of the most curious paratextual features of Bechdel’s Fun Home (FH) and AYMM is their endpapers, unfortunately never reproduced in the paperback volumes typically foisted upon unsuspecting undergraduates in freshman composition courses. In FH, they take the form of a hand drawn reproduction (mechanically reproduced for the book itself) of the wallpaper from Bechdel’s childhood residence. The effect, as Chute claims in Graphic Women (179), is to render the book object itself a home, the fun[eral] home of the title, or at least akin to one, insofar as any mass-produced hardcover book could be considered homey. In AYMM, they take the form of two, presumably, watercolor portraits (again, mechanically reproduced) of two girls, similar in age, though, as we discover, of different generations. The “watercolor” portraits seem to reproduce the photographs being taken in the images inscribed onto the book’s front and back covers, where, in the one, a middle-aged woman is depicted photographing a young girl, while in the other, a much older woman photographs a girl of similar age.


Alison Bechdel, Are You My Mother?, front cover


ibid., back cover

From the narrative context, one might presume the middle-aged and older woman both to be Bechdel’s maternal grandmother photographing her mother and herself respectively. Proximity would support the reading that the first endpaper portrait corresponds to the front cover—the product of the scene depicted—and the second to the scene on the back.


ibid., front endpaper


ibid., back endpaper

Except, there are two reason to doubt this reading, even as I have just affirmed it. First and most obviously, the portraits do not look like photographs. They do not even resemble Bechdel’s hand-drawn reproductions of photographs (mechanically re-reproduced). The portrait quite clearly seems to appropriate watercolor—may have even been a watercolor painting/drawing at some point!—and, as far as I know, there is no photomechanical or photochemical process available to the consumer, then or now, that results in a watercolor or watercolor-like print. Some human (or digital) hand would have to intervene after the fact to render it so. On the material level, a transformation has occurred, even before the subsequent transformations demanded by the process of modern book production. In strict material terms, the linkage between scene and serial product of what is therein depicted is undermined by more generalized knowledge that in reality such an articulation simply cannot be, yet in the reality of the [comic], there it is, plain as day. You can hold it in your hand.

Second, and less obviously, if you closely examine what each portrait depicts, you might notice that the outfits of each “watercolor” girl do not correspond to those of the two girls in the most proximal cover scene. This is not to say that the portraits/cover images themselves are “off,” rather that the outfit of the girl depicted on the endpapers of the inside front cover corresponds to the scene depicted on the back, and likewise the rear inside endpaper to the front cover.

In this play upon scene and sequence, upon the linkage between action and consequence, between proximity and distance, we might read a fundamental ambivalence in Bechdel’s AYMM, between Alison’s demonstrated contemporary affinity for her mother and her historical emotional distance from her. It posits the fundamental similarities between mother and daughter, how easily they might exchange subject positions, even as it holds them as far apart from one another as the implied chronology of a book object can—and similarly aloof from the conditions that produced (and mechanically reproduced) them as similar subjects. The implied follow-up question to are you my mother? and the one that in many ways haunts all child/parent relationships is are you me? The narrative that presumably embodies this question is, again in material terms, enveloped in images whose linkages seem to answer back, “yes and no.”

This ambivalent play upon identity and difference seems to give the lie—or the half-lie—to Chute’s claims, seemingly endorsed by Bechdel herself as a function of their close, personal relationship, that Bechdel’s work constitutes an embodied archive in which her meticulous, hand-drawn reproductions of family photographs (mechanically reproduced!) re-presents them for our perusal.

Fun Home registers its concern with the nature of representing truth in its unusual attention to the archive; it is physically, materially saturated in the sensuality of the archive, as well as structurally constituted by archival research, and we recognize its archival drive in both the child protagonist character and the adult author. (Eventually, at the very end of the book, the two merge.) The first sentence, indeed, of Fun Home’s author biography identifies Alison Bechdel as “a careful archivist of her own life” who “began keeping a journal when she was ten.” Alison’s child and adolescent diaries are key to Fun Home materially and conceptually. The book tracks the shifting shape of the protagonist Alison’s diaries over several chapters. The movement, eventually, seamlessly folds itself into the form of the book we are reading, as the form of comics itself comes to absorb the epistemological quandaries that Alison mulls over in various modes of diary keeping in her youth. (188)

I have so far emphasized the readily knowable facts of mass-marketed books and mechanical reproduction, almost to the point of annoyance, because readings like Chute’s so actively conceal this larger structure or textual unconscious by trying to make what you see before you or hold in your hands almost purely a function of personal craft and production.

The pathos that itself underwrites the project of painstakingly learning to copy a dead father’s handwriting is striking, as is her effort to pin it down correctly and reproduce it visually in her narrative. This embodiment also lets the reader recognize how the archival is by definition in Fun Home refracted through Bechdel’s experience and her body. While Julia Watson argues that Fun Home asks us “to weigh the authority of archival evidence against the erotic truth of a repertoire of experiences,” [(Autobiographic Disclosures and Genealogies of Desire in Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home,” 53)] in my reading the text does not even propose this dichotomy to undermine it: by redrawing the archive, Bechdel circumvents this opposition entirely. (186)

Chute’s valorization of this circumvention is quite seductive, for it animates a curatorial impulse that quite often attends to one’s own scholarly experience of archival materials. I understand this all too well. You happen upon something in a collection that fires your critical imagination, because it speaks to contemporary concerns or undermines conventional thinking, and suddenly you are possessed of an intense desire to bring it to light, to enlighten others with your discovery, and, perhaps, speaking more cynically, to use archival happenstance to enhance your professional standing. I cannot honestly say I consider any of this especially untoward, but it is not, according to a dichotomy Chute seeks to paper over, archival.

So that my own politics and critical ethic are laid bare, rather than remaining latent in my analysis, let me be clear: when you acquire or happen upon the artifacts of other people’s imaginations and lived experiences, especially when such an acquisition is, presumably, on behalf of others, of a greater public, it is wildly inappropriate to behave, be it institutionally or personally, as if they belong to you, as if together they constitute a fiefdom of which you are free to dispose as you will. If anything, you take on a responsibility to manage competing claims on those artifacts, in the name of preservation, all the while making certain such management never overwhelms access to them. I am speaking of an ideal, of course, for I am all too aware of my living in a world where ownership tends to win out over open access, where rules an elitist ethos that deems certain persons worthy of handling that which has been meticulously cared for. To reduce archival practice to personal curatorial ambition, be it the critic’s or the artist’s or anyone else’s, is wrong not merely in light of the history of archival institutions and their established practices but also in ethical terms as well.

For, just as, over time, the drive to valorize one’s own particular curatorial enterprise becomes ever increasingly dominant, so too do one’s own affective reactions and correspondences begin to crowd out the potential affects and affections of others. One can see this, coincidentally, on the order of Bechdel’s texts themselves, where, as Alison (the character) becomes increasing obsessed with psychoanalysis in AYMM—to an overt degree that in FH may only be covert—and with an excavation of her own mind, memories, and child/parent relationships, her sibling[s] all but disappear. Where in FH Alison’s brother was a palpable subject—a periodic foil for Alison herself as well as the displaced object of her father’s violent ire—he is a notable absence from the “mother book” that corresponds to Bechdel’s earlier “father book.” As Alison in AYMM becomes the gravitational center of all relationships, textual (e.g. to Winnicott or Winnie the Pooh) and personal, her ethic, her habit of personal transcription, born from a selfish archival logic, develops into a more selfish ethics—not unethical, per se, but certainly centered on the self, dare I say, self-centered.

So too, then, with Chute, the author of the archival hypothesis of Bechdel’s work: the close relationship between artist and critic—not just in Chute’s interviews of Bechdel but also in the course they taught together at the University of Chicago—might easily lead one to assume that Chute’s understanding of Bechdel’s texts is similarly close and therefore apt. However, there is cause to be at least somewhat suspicious of Chute’s claims, for closeness does not absolutely equate with correspondence, as Bechdel’s own paratextual material in AYMM show, and therefore not with comprehension, either as “understanding” or “completeness.”  Texts always reveal far more of themselves in readers and readings (plural) than intentions could ever propose. This is the fundamental assumption underlying any interrogation of “unconscious,” be it psychological or textual.

This is not to say that Chute’s characterization of FH (and by awkward extension AYMM) as embodied re-presentation is neither appropriate nor useful, far from it, but rather this characterization is not only incomplete but imperfect in such a way as to obscure or at least point away from other ethics of reading, as habits, among which we might construe “archival preservation” in an entirely different sense, one in which a calculated disinterest and willful lack of intervention preserve those articulations between textual artifacts in which a particular, personal curation has little if any interest.

Archivists have become accustomed to the adoption of “archives” by information technologists as well as the general public to refer to things which we archivists would not call archives. So it is not the adoption of the term by digital humanists that is noteworthy, but that its meaning in certain contexts has been altered by scholars, many of whom have experience working with archives as traditionally defined. And yet it is these scholars who have chosen to describe the collections they have created as archives, seemingly in all sincerity that their usage is appropriate and not in contradiction to the practice of archivists. What could account for this disconnect? (Theimer, “Archives in Context and as Context”)

In her discussion of archival provenance, Theimer provides a particularly salient answer to the question of this discursive disconnect, namely that archival practice seeks, at least ideally, to maintain items as they were received, so that both the contexts in which they emerge and the contexts that they are will not be unduly concealed by the institutional processes that seek to maintain them.

With works of art, provenance is usually used to better understand or authenticate an object. While those uses also apply in the archival world, provenance is also the basis for the “principle of provenance,” also known by its French designation respect des fonds. This principle dictates that “records of different origins (provenance) be kept separate to preserve their context.” In other words, records originating from different sources are never to be intermingled or combined. It is important to note in this regard that the “source” of a record is not necessarily the same as its author.

This distinction about the “source” of a record is related to the second key archival principle, that of collective control. Archival materials are generally managed as aggregates, not as collections of individual items… [t]o return to the primary definition of archives, the aggregate will be defined by who created it (“a person, family, or organization, public or private”) and why it was created (“in the conduct of their affairs”). The aggregate of records created by a person, family, or organization may contain records with many different authors. For example, the records of a publishing house may contain correspondence with many individual authors. Once transferred to an archival repository, those records will be maintained as a distinct aggregate (say, the “Records of Smith Publishers”) and the contents will not be removed and added to other aggregates based on the individual authorship or topic. (ibid.)

Centering archival practice on a particular individual, and in this case a particular author, does not merely run against professional standards, a concern which is, I believe, insufficient for critiquing Chute’s claim of archive-ness for Bechdel’s work, for if archives are, as Theimer asserts, a collective enterprise, then archivists cannot own the idea of “archive” anymore than some other professional class. Rather, it is what those standards point to that is most relevant, a way of managing the tensions between individual and aggregate origination, between self as authority and as manifestation of something larger than oneself, between the manifest particular and the latent diffusion of ideas and ideologies we palpably feel to be present but find inordinately difficult to pinpoint.

This tension or ambivalence is clearly present in AYMM, which is why I have chosen to focus on it rather than FH. On the one hand, it would seem to justify Chute’s archival reading, even in light of Theimer’s more practically focused understanding, because it presents an aggregate of originators: Alison; her mother, whose conversations she transcribes; the British psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott; A.A. Milne; Dr. Seuss; Sigmund Freud; even her own grandmother as a fellow producer of images in the paired scenes on the front and back covers of the hardcover volume. But this aggregate is Bechdel’s own careful staging, and what speaks against her “archival animation” is the readily observable fact that archives organized according to professional conventions are rarely tidy, hardly ever explain themselves, and assiduously avoid the kind of thematic interweaving for which Bechdel is so often praised. Both FH and AYMM desperately seek a kind of resolution that the very archives at which any scholar might do research never should.

Archives are, to make use of a cliché, open to interpretation (and re-interpretation) in ways that AYMM surprisingly tries to close off. In a moment of interpretive backlash, Bechdel’s text provides a perfectly sound, theoretical justification for backing off and allowing the [comic] to “speak for itself.” In a passage she reproduces in her characteristically hand drawn representation (mechanically reproduced) of secondary texts, she highlights, both visually and conceptually, a quote from Winnicott that seems to justify Alison’s rhetorical evasions in therapy.


[I]n a certain classification category” is, notably, unhighlighted, which is to say obscured by the blanket of red that covers those words on the page to which our attention is not meant to be drawn. The uncolored band, then, draws out what becomes the story both as it relates to the conversation between Alison and Jocelyn but also as it is quite literally inscribed onto the page. What in Winnicott—or, more precisely, Bechdel’s depiction of Winnicott’s text (mechanically… oh, you get the point…)—is presented as a limited case, relevant to those patients in a certain classification category, is restructured pictorially if not verbally—the words are still there, after all—as a general condition, so that it might better link up with the particular themes emerging within Alison’s experience of psychotherapy.

This pictive as rhetorical evasion appears in the context of an analytical session, one in which a difficult subject is broached and painstakingly maneuvered away from by means of a theoretical invocation. Jocelyn suggests, “[y]ou must be angry at your mother. / I think that’s what your anxiety is about,” to which Alison’s “uhhh…” seems insufficient, so the metadiegetic narration intervenes to note that “Jocelyn’s interpretation sounded likely enough, but I didn’t feel anger. I felt completely blank.” This conceptual blankness provides the occasion for the Winnicott quote, which then proceeds to a biographical note about his failing health after giving the paper in which the quote appears. The syllogistic deviation on 261 is quite deft: a painful subject is broached, the analysand demurs, the narration depletes the emotional force of the subject, it supplies a convenient theoretical claim and then a trivial fact concerning the theoretician in question, and we arrive in the final panel on the page nowhere near where we began in the first. Bechdel has plotted the movement of psychic displacement in conceptual terms onto the articulations a conventional reading would presume exist between panels, thereby reifying the movement as “natural,” even though under close inspection it is revealed to be a creature of rhetorical manipulation.

It may just be a coincidence, but this movement from one immanent connection to another so as to produce an overall series where the first and final terms hardly resemble each other is precisely the inverse of the interpretive schema Freud develops for moving from manifest dream content to latent dream thoughts in The Interpretation of Dreams.

[D]reams come about which might appear perfectly logical and rational; they start out from a plausible situation, continue it through changes free of contradictions, and bring it… to an unsurprising conclusion. These dreams have gone through a very deep and thorough working over from this function of the psyche which resembles waking thought; they seem to make sense, but this sense is also furthest from the real meaning of the dream. (320, trans. Joyce Crick)

The process Freud develops here is called secondary revision, and the work of analysis is to get from the reasonable and apparent to that which may not be apparent at all but, nevertheless, motivates the dream. In Bechdel’s text, we see the reverse, a movement from what might potentially motivate the scene, anxiety as a result of anger directed toward Alison’s mother, to Jocelyn’s therapeutic suggestion which draws the book toward its satisfactory and altogether unsurprising resolution between Alison and her mother. This the text must do, it seems, because at such a late stage in the narrative, page 261 of 289, an interrogation of the potential causes and ramifications of Alison’s anger might throw everything out of whack. Pictive-as-rhetorical displacement does here precisely what Freud claims for psychic displacement in the dream: it depletes the latent thought of its affective charge so that Alison and the narrative can cope and move forward into a happy, if facile, resolution with her mother.

Archives require no such resolution, messy or otherwise. They are open, generally five days a week, to any number of thematic reconstructions, none of which ever amount to what the archive is. This is not to say that no interpretation is involved in the constitution of archives but that the ethos motivating it is very different. The scholarly impulse is to collate and juxtapose, to bring together materials from a variety of sources so as to buttress a particular argument. The archival ethos, while quite often directed explicitly toward the scholarly one, is entirely distinct. It seeks, again ideally, not to collate, to intervene as little as possible, even though in practice minimal intervention is not always feasible.

That said, thematic collation is not necessarily endemic to autobiographical texts, even if, in practice, the writing of a life seems to demand narrative cohesion within it. Yet, by embracing an expressive, if not archival, openness, a [comic]—or any—text is not doomed to such matters of thematic cohesion. In Mizuki Shigeru’s autobiographical texts, even those such as Komikku Shōwa-shi ([Comic] History of the Shōwa Era, hereafter KS) where life writing is not the focus, he draws attention to those expressive divergences, sometimes explicitly, by mentioning fellow artists or works upon which he has depended, sometimes more subtly by integrating their own illustrative style into his own.

His history of the Shōwa period is “comic” in a number of interrelated by divergent senses. It is [comic] because, in the most obvious sense, it is what most would describe as a [comic] or [manga], if we must. But Mizuki does not use manga in his title the way any number of [manga] histories of Japan have over the years. He uses the transliterated komikku, for it is also [comic] in its use of humor, its appropriation of various visual and narrative styles, and, to buttress my own argument in the present work, its constant reference to the media in which [comics] so regularly appeared, namely print periodicals. It is a [comic] history, then, both because of its form and style but also because it functions as an occasional history of [comics] in Japan, due in no small part to Mizuki’s prominent role within that history. In fact, the one is not easily separable from the other.

In an earlier consideration of Mizuki’s work, I implied but never quite claimed this nondistinction to be Mizuki’s constitution of a manga ikaimanga, I hope for obvious reasons, but also ikai for the way the reality Mizuki depicts in his work, i.e. the reality of his [comics], is remarkably analogous to the otherworld of yōkai, those supernatural creatures who so often appear in Mizuki’s works and are a thematic subject of them.

It’s not really a stretch to say that Mizuki’s life has been one very much of and in manga [sic], and so I can’t help but see Shige’s [(Mizuki’s childhood avatar in Nonnonbaa)] merging of the supernatural ikai with that of his own mundane existence as idiomatic [sic] of a potentially useful nondistinction between the reality of our own lives and the surreality of the things we read. (Theisen, “8b. Mizuki Shigeru’s [Manga] Surreality”)

This “merging” is not just the slippage between “real” and “marginal” worlds in Mizuki’s narrative—of which Kitarō is arguably most emblematic—but how Shige’s/Mizuki’s own illustrated texts figure in that elision.


Mizuki Shigeru, Nonnonbā, p. 9 (trans. Jocelyne Allen)

All of this, though, remains at the level of the obvious and apparent, when my concern here is what [comic] texts express despite or, perhaps, in addition to mere apparitions. One of the most commented upon characteristics of Mizuki’s visual style is his use of cartoonish or less detailed figures set against highly detailed and thus more “realistic” backdrops. The juxtaposition of the two draws attention to the constructedness of each, that the figure of Shige is no more or less real/surreal than the landscapes of Sakaiminato and later Tokyo in which he is embedded. Moreover, the cartoonish figures are more closely similar in stylistic terms to the yōkai than to the “world” that creatures both natural and supernatural inhabit.

However, this juxtaposition of a presumed real and surreal is not, in Mizuki’s work, a strict dialectic, for there are other “reals” and “surreals” which do not fit tidily into the schema of cartoonish fore- and photorealistic back-ground. For example, in the first volume of KS, the historical narrative progresses from event to event quite seamlessly by way of a metadiegetic narration that lends a degree of veracity characteristic of history writing and documentary film. Except, when the narrator is revealed more than eighty pages later, without fanfare or explanation, to be one of Mizuki’s most famous characters, the yōkai Nezumi-otoko (Rat Man) from Kitarō, that presumption of veracity or verisimilitude is turned on its head. Yet, in using Nezumi-otoko to perpetrate this “gag,” Mizuki has chosen an especially apt narrator, both from the perspective of his own narrative/pictive style but also from the perspective of creating a [comic] history in the (at least) doubled sense noted above. For Nezumi-otoko is a hybrid, born somewhere between the human world and the ikai, and so half human and half yōkai. His hybridity reflects the manifest hybridity of a [comic] history, of the seemingly arbitrary appearance of Mizuki’s yōkai characters within that history, and of the integration of other visual modes, historically localized, within his own.

This last “of” is why the omission of an aside in the second volume of KS from Zack Davisson’s 2013 translation for Drawn & Quarterly is a particularly egregious one, no matter what the justification for it may be (paranoid concern over copyright?).


Showa 1926-1939: A History of Japan, p. 277 (trans. Zack Davisson)

As you can see, the only translated text appears in the upper right hand corner of the page, but in the Japanese, there are two more bits.


Komikku Shōwa-shi, p. 21

The statement in the upper left, “it is referred to as the Japan-Korea Annexation” (iwayuru nikkan heigō), is arguably redundant, so its loss from the text is of no great concern beyond comprehensiveness, but the parenthetical statement at the bottom of the page, “figure from a contemporary Kitazawa Rakuten [comic]” (zu wa tōji no Kitazawa Rakuten no manga), is key to understanding a number of visual statements in the second volume that would otherwise require an extremely knowledgeable reader of the history of [manga] to uncover. First, this transposition of Rakuten’s turtle image is not entirely his, for the head has been redrawn by Mizuki, who has added a schoolboy reading a book while seated against the turtle’s foreleg as well as five figures dressed in stereotypical Korean garb. The episode depicted on the page, the so-called annexation of Korea in 1910, is a hybrid of Rakuten’s contemporary illustration of the event and Mizuki’s retrospective reproduction of it. To anyone familiar with Rakuten’s work, the graphic allusion would be obvious, yet the fact that Mizuki felt the need to note this allusion points to the possibility that any given reader would be unlikely to recognize it.

Moreover, the choice to render Mizuki’s kindaika no tame ni as “to catch up to Western Powers” is… peculiar at best. At its most literal and least enlightening, the phrase could be rendered as “in order to modernize,” but that would miss the temporal implications of using kindai instead of, say, gendai to say “modern,” for kindai is also the catchall term for the first period of Japanese modernity from the Meiji Restoration in 1868 to the beginning of Japan’s involvement in the “Great Pacific War,” i.e. World War II. Likewise, kindai manga is a conceptual category in its own right, quite often held at critical arms length from Japanese [comics’] historical manifestation during the Occupation and thereafter, and of which Rakuten, for better and worse, is a recognized paragon. This single page, as a representation of a single event in the history of Japan, also expresses a number of visual phenomena that provide a cue for understanding how the second volume of KS is constructed. First is Rakuten, whose visual style Mizuki will ape later in the volume in his full panel portraits of various key historical figures. Second is the invocation of kindai modernity with its financial and political turmoil as well as the styles of contemporaneous illustrations. Third, as already noted, is the fundamental hybridity of the text itself, with its use of hand drawn depictions, of reproductions of contemporary newspaper images, as well as Mizuki’s mixed media of drawing in and onto those reproductions, seen clearly here.

The historical unconscious, then, of his text, though artfully staged, is laid bare in such a way that its many potential divergences are signaled rather than repressed. As a result, little Shige, as a “self” within the narrative, is quite often sidelined and his experiences rendered as just another object of interest within the stream of the historical narrative being depicted. He occupies a space between historiography and memoir, just as Nezumi-otoko was born between the human and other-world. No—that is not quite right. Shige serves as one vector of elision between historiography and memoir.


ibid., p. 115 [371]

When Ōkawa Shūmei first appears on page 115 (English vol. 1 p. 371), he is illustrated in a manner not fundamentally different from the narrator, Nezumi-otoko, in whose speech bubble he appears. But two pages later something subtle has changed.


ibid., p. 117 [373]

The figure is larger, yes, and his eyes appear behind the lens of his glasses, but what is notable here is how, where the portrait on 115 has been drawn with a pen, the one on 117 has been drawn with a brush. Where the lines on 115 are mostly even and unbroken, many of those on 117 display the breaking and feathering that typically results from the uneven pressure and occasional gentle lifting of the brush, perhaps most evident in the line delimiting the outside of Ōkawa’s left arm (on the right in the image). This might strike a casual reader as a trivial fact, but it is important for at least two reasons. First, many early [manga] artists, Rakuten included, drew their comics with a brush, whereas from the postwar on, pen line art was far more common. Second, and related, the distinction between pen and brush drawn [manga] is one of the primary criteria Tezuka used, in an interview with Ishiko Jun, to regard Rakuten and Okamoto Ippei as “not 100% [manga] artists,” despite their prominence within the history of Japanese [comics]. This seeming triviality lies at the very heart of how kindai manga is kept at a remove from [manga] conventionally understood in the here and now, so the fact that Mizuki has inscribed that very distinction into his own historiographic work serves to deny that remove its legitimacy. Moreover, by denying that remove, Mizuki also buttresses his own choice of historiographic endeavor, to chronicle the Shōwa period, because it also elides the distinction consistently made between pre- and post-war Japanese history.  For the reign of the Shōwa emperor, Hirohito, for whom the era is named, covers both. Mizuki’s text seeks, then, to preserve continuities between prewar, wartime, and postwar that a persistent, though not absolute, historical consensus regularly ignores.

Even though KS, according to the definition of archives invoked here, like Bechdel’s Fun Home and Are You My Mother?, is not strictly speaking archival, it does express a very different ethos with regard to the chronicling of pasts both personal and communal. In this ethos, writing as drawing as memory neither centers on a self, i.e. constellates around a particular subject, nor is it self-centered, in accordance with the muted sense of that word above. With Bechdel, the mechanics of representation remain in play, regardless of whether you insert a hyphen. In fact, Chute seems to basically concede this point for all the artists considered in Graphic Women.

Unsettling fixed subjectivity, these texts present life narratives with doubled narration that visually and verbally represents the self, often in conflicting registers and different temporalities… [t]hey use the inbuilt duality of the form—its word and image cross-discursivity—to stage dialogues among versions of self, underscoring the importance of an ongoing, unclosed project of self-representation and self-narration. (5)

To be sure, the referent has shifted from an empirical reality to a multi-faceted self, but the game of reference is still in play, what with its suspicion of appearances and its insistence upon the excavation and interrogation of deeper truths. By the standard of psychological depth, Mizuki’s text is remarkably shallow. Its events are recounted rather matter-of-factly, and its peculiarities lie right at the surface waiting to be recognized by an attendant reading. Though KS, like FH and AYMM, draws together a number of disparate things, the underlying ethos is to expose rather than collate, to expose the many possible vectors of comprehension to which the text and the history it re-produces [sic] are susceptible rather than repress or focus them onto a particular moral, theme, or self.

This exposure works at the material level of the text as a printed object and a reflection of other printed media. Where Bechdel goes to great lengths to meticulously reproduce photographs in her own hand, photographs in Mizuki’s text are mechanically reproduced in the very same way they would have been in the media in which they originally appeared. In fact, rather than go back and reproduce photographs according to the clearer, more detailed printing methods of the 1990s when KS was produced, they are often reproduced as they appeared in print periodicals contemporaneous to the events depicted. In other words, the material of the text gathers and collects images just as young Shige is shown collecting newspaper headlines within the KS narrative. That said, Mizuki does clearly re-inscribe contemporary photographs by redrawing them in a manner analogous to Bechdel’s, though he does not represent them as photographs, meaning, he does not frame them as such, as in this image of the last Chinese Emperor Pu Yi and Kawashima Yoshiko escaping from Tianjin in 1931.


ibid., p. 63

However, this is not the only means of photographic redeployment that Mizuki makes use of, so when a similar though this time semitone mechanical reproduction of a photograph of Pu Yi and Kawashima appears later in the text, it becomes clear that these photographic images are proper both to the reality of the [comic] and its own system of reference as well as to some other one.  Disbelief does not have to be suspended so as to regard Mizuki’s more photorealistic images as necessarily more photographic.


ibid., p. 102

This movement among many different modes of graphic [re]inscription in which no one is privileged as more real than another also highlights how, while KS may not preserve the provenance of its collection of images and imagery to the extent that a professional archivist would prefer, it also does not seem to obscure or repress those connections by which such a provenance might be established. Because Mizuki’s underlying ethos is to make apparent rather than thematize, the rootedness of his text in other historical media, while not always entirely clear, is still there at both the more conceptual level of the historiographic narrative as well as the materiality of the text itself. It contains [manga] history in much the same way Allan Say’s Drawing From Memory does, by etching its many facets, if not its factual details, into the text you have before you. Unlike DFM, though, which focuses its [manga] history through Noro Shinpei and his working group of assistants, KS’s [manga] infusions-as-exposures are themselves divergent. To be sure, Rakuten is the most palpable presence in the second volume, but there are others.


Showa, p. 390

On the one hand, this illustration of a real-life example of an all too common theme in Japanese literature, the double love suicide, looks like it could appear on any number of Japanese movie posters from the early 1930s, yet, I suspect, there is a more precise locus for this imagery, the popular illustrations of Nakahara Jun’ichi, whose debut was in the March 1932 issue of Shōjo no tomo (Girl’s Friend), which happens to coincide rather too tidily with the period under consideration in Mizuki’s historiographic narrative.


Nakahara Jun’ichi, “Gitā hiku” (“Playing Guitar”) – promotional postcard from 1935

I have to admit that Nakahara’s example here, from a 1935 promotional card, and Mizuki’s above do not match as perfectly as I would like, but neither is Mizuki-doing-Rakuten a perfect match either. After all, in both cases, we see examples of Mizuki reproducing another artist’s style in his own hand, meaning, first, it may not end up an identical copy of some existing image, and, second, like the actual reinscribed Rakuten [comic] from page 21, the infusion elides Mizuki’s own style with some other’s, drawing upon it in a doubled sense. Even if Mizuki did not have Nakahara in mind, even if the comparison is a figment of my imagination, the very fact that I can (possibly?) get away with such an error in judgment shows that KS remains open to such a reading. And for the purposes of “containing [manga] history,” Nakahara, while not a [comic] artist himself, is a necessary go to, for his illustrative style and typical subjects were profoundly influential for the development of shōjo manga from that point on. As Mizuki Takahashi has noted in her “Opening the Closed World of Shojo Manga,” Nakahara’s work is key to understanding the visual iconography so commonly deployed in shōjo [comics].

In my defense, the correspondences are too good, too palpably enticing to be a mere happenstance. Not only do the dates of Nakahara’s debut and the phenomena being brought to light in KS match, but the subject Mizuki uses this style to illustrate, the double suicide, could itself appear quite easily in the context of the romance fiction so commonly to be found in shōjo manga. If intended, it would be a masterstroke. At no point in the second volume of KS is shōjo manga even mentioned, yet Mizuki provides an important visual clue and thereby leaves open another historical vector to be explored, one that just so happens to reify the implicit claim regarding the interconnectedness of the various historiographic registers with which he lards his text.

The question of textual subjectivity, then, is not distinct from questions of reality or, if we must, ontology. The contradiction of being subject of one’s own experiences while being also the object of others’, of understanding how texts are both embedded in an array of media while also manifesting that array in part, finds a satisfying if still imperfect resolution in this reading of Mizuki’s-after-Bechdel’s text, in a mutual reality. This reality in which [comic] and human subjects might co-exist is neither strictly empirical—though it can be observed—as with something purely objective, nor strictly subjective, in that it is solely a conceptual construct superimposed upon the material encountered in the world. It is mutual, because it is shared and therefore depends upon our invigorating it and investing it both with that which we are and that which we presume others to be. It is not dependent upon us, though, or a particular subset of us, since it has the potential to live and breathe anywhere it might forge or be used to forge interconnections among us. Bechdel’s work strives to be deeply personal, not mutual, which is why it was subject to critique above, but that fact does not make it any less valuable. The reference to Mizuki’s work here is meant to show both the tension between objective (representation) and subjective (hyōgen/expression) textual constructs—a tension readily observable in Bechdel’s work too—as well as the means to elide them, by allowing for a range of divergent interpretive acts through which we might conceive a number of vectors of understanding.

NEXT: the big FIN


  1. […] What’s more, the harm inherent in the limitations imposed upon manga translation, be they clearly litigated or merely pre-supposed by the publisher, can be seen on a practical as well as a theoretical level.  I feel like I have to apologize to Zack Davisson in advance for the example I am about to use.  As I say above, this is not to throw his work in a negative light but rather happens to be the example I can explain the best.  It comes from Drawn & Quarterly’s 2013 translation of Mizuki Shigeru’s Komikku Shōwa-shi (Comic History of the Showa Era or Showa 1926-1939: A History of Japan, according to the official translation).  The page I focus on in the final chapter of my book project, […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: