[Comics] as Reading – Chapter 5 – Introduction, or [Comics] as Guide to Textual Subjectivity pt. 3

PREVIOUS: Chapter 5 pt. 2

3. Specular Fables


Mayan figure reading a book labeled “manga” from the cover of the Rakuten zenshū

It almost has the character of a fable, one most academic humanists, I imagine, might tell their grandchildren some day. It all begins with a baby boy, who, alone at last, sees himself reflected back in a mirror. In this mirror he sees his own body as distinct from himself, he sees this body as some other’s, sees it in the world, a world separate from the one that is himself. He loves this other boy he is, is fascinated with its contours and contortions, with the expressions of his face, with that other world it moves in. Staring at this other boy stimulates a novel sensation, that he might not reside entirely in his own mind, that this other boy is what he is to his mother and father and brothers and sisters—if he has any sense of what those relations even are—that he is an I, and I am not them, I am not this world in which this boy and they are. The mirror is not magic so much as it effects a nigh magical change in the baby boy, transforms him into an I, and gazing upon that other boy I am in the mirror, he sees that I am good.

He is not yet old enough to recognize, according to another version of the fable, how the mirror itself is in that world, that world here and that world there, that it is not just a threshold between self and the plenitude of not selves, but an object itself, a thing to be admired and adored and abhorred just as he contemplated his own body-as-another with transfixed mind and eye. It too can be seen in a mirror, and just as it is mirrored there so too simultaneously it mirrors back. This mirroring of mirrors creates a sudden infinity of reflections in which any object that stands between them becomes at once its own infinitude of images. It is an optical illusion, to be sure, but like all the illusions we cling to it reflects what we long to believe about ourselves, and therein lies the truth of an illusion, regardless of its lack of any genuine empirical correspondence.

Lacan’s fable has the virtue of pointing to a little history of awakening to hermeneutic consciousness, one where what is has become a function, at least in part, of how we regard it, both in the sense of how we cogitate it and how we long for it to be. For Lacan, desire is wedded to knowledge, knowledge both as understanding and as suspicion, for desire not only motivates the will to know (per Freud) but transforms cognizance into something which distinguishes self from world and begins to filter both self and world through that transformed purview. What Lacan’s fable lacks is the Deleuzian amendment, alluded to above, which recalls how modes of re-presentation can themselves be observed, how they are present in the world. The mode is only regarded as not there: unthought in being unseen as well as in no way being desired to be manifest. Representations quite easily get caught up in a mise en abyme from which only interpretation—that most basic form of interpretation which regards things as anything at all—can extract them. Whether the mode of understanding is itself ever comprehended relies heavily upon how you read what represents.

I apologize for the florid indirections. I do not mean to render the matter any more obscure than it already is. Clearly, I need to show my work.

In volume 3 of the Rakuten zenshū (116), there are a pair of “two panel” Rakuten [comics] framed as compact mirrors—there are even more of these mirror [comics], but my preference here will be for a more thorough rather than a more comprehensive reading of this particular formal experiment. All those years ago, I pretended my daughter’s reading of a purple compact mirror lying on the floor of our living room had something to say about the relationship between form and interpretation, even though all the while I was thinking in the back of my mind strictly in terms of idiom: you look at a mirror, you do not read it. As it turns out, several years later, it appears she had seen something I clearly could only condescend to, something that had already been seen long before either of us were ever born and which lay in wait for my intellectual curiosity to “discover.” Let’s be clear, though: it was always already there.

Rakuten calls these [manga] gendai hango kagami: gendai, because they are modern (perhaps we might say “contemporary”); hango, because they are “antitheses” (meaning they make use both of antithetical linguistic constructs as well as antithetical images of society); and kagami, because, well, they are framed as mirrors. Most obviously, the two halves mirror each other, a fact reinforced by the wordplay in each caption where the language of one mirrors the language of the other. Less obviously, though, the two compacts on the page also reflect each other, both in linguistic terms as well as imagery—rather, the mirroring of the language points to a possible mirroring of the imagery and therefore to a potential alternative reading of what these images are meant to “say.” This crossing of the conceptual boundary between what otherwise might be regarded as discrete [comics] on the page has the added potential effect of pointing to how these mirror [manga] reflect a world beyond what you see before you, that they reflect without as well as within.

In the compact on the right, arranged vertically, the “panel” at the top of the page shows a young woman in full kimono, holding an umbrella against her shoulder with one hand and a lit paper lantern with the other. She is set against a dark background with the light of the lantern punctuating the fore.  The caption reads, “no matter how gloomy it might appear to be, a lantern glows bright on a rainy night” (kurai yō de mo akarui amayo no chōchin). Below her, in the other “panel,” a young man in a dark suit sits at a desk doing calculations on an abacus. His caption reads, “no matter how bright it might appear to be, gloom settles over a clerk fresh out of school” (akarui yō de mo kurai gakkō de no ten’in). The linguistic hango/antithesis is quite clear in the inversion of light/bright (akarui) and dark/gloomy (kurai), one which clearly reflects the antithesis of the two images as well: the bright lantern set against the dark/gloomy landscape and the dark figure of the young clerk set against the brightly lit room. Moreover, the antithesis works within the images as well with regard to the sharp chiaroscuro they depict in their fore- and back-grounds. The framing of the two images, the hinged compact mirror open for our perusal, in no way contradicts this reading but rather seems wholly to invite it. In this, the [comics] would amount to little more than a clever gimmick, an amusement seemingly tailor made for those obsessed with indiscretions of form.

The compact to the left of the gloomy man and bright woman, presented vertically as well, shows at the top a fashionably dressed young man tossing coins out onto the pavement with a wooden ladle, just as shopkeepers would have tossed warm water about to clean the area around their storefronts. The caption reads, “the dandy wastes money as if it were wash water” (kingin o yumizu no gotoku ni tsuiyasu yūtōji). Below him, a sailor is above deck carrying a vessel of what appears to be dishwater seemingly with great care and attention. His caption reads, “the sailor worships wash water as if it were gold” (yumizu o kingin no gotoku ni tōtobu sen’in). Here, while the verbal hango/antithesis hinges on the transposition of yumizu (“wash water”) and kingin (“money” but literally “gold-silver”), the visual antithesis is less a matter of mood or composition as the nature of the gestures depicted. The dandy’s arms flail wildly about as coins fly from the ladle, while the sailor stands straight and sleek, his arms close together beneath the basin he carries in a pose almost of prayer.

The internal moral of each compact—for we never left the realm of fables—seems simple enough. What generally appears to be the case (e.g. dark night, bright room, worthless dishwater, etc.) is punctuated by something peculiar revealed within it, be it a bright lantern or the value of fresh water at sea. We are presumed to delight at the young woman saved from the darkness all about her, to feel sad for the young man whose youthful exuberance is now behind him, to scold the dandy for wasting money, and to praise the sailor for making much of the little he has. These are all typical, normative readings reinforced by the antitheses Rakuten inscribes upon his paired images. However, those linguistic antitheses also point to parallels that the visual framing of the compact mirrors does not. For instance, there is the parallel between the ten’in (“clerk”) in the bottom frame of the right compact, whose designation appears at the very end of the caption just as the sen’in (“sailor”) appears at the end of the caption in the frame on the bottom left. They too might be read as an antithetical pair: anxious versus quiet resignation to the trivialities involved in doing one’s duty. Yet, I would assert, given their analogous position on the page, the bottom in each case, they might also be read as analogous in sense.

How would that work? If they are antithetical, would it not be a complete contradiction to read them as additionally analogous? Yes and no, for the analogous reading is simply a means toward recognizing the polysemy of images which the framing seems otherwise to encourage us to read as stereotyped. Moreover, the analogy, the parallel, is bidirectional. There are at least two vectors of understanding how the sailor might identify with the clerk. Beginning from the sailor and his reverence for the small things we take for granted, we might recognize in the young clerk a certain ambivalence, that, while he may be gloomy over his mundane working life, he also did not end up like the dandy throwing his money about without a care in the world. Likewise, beginning from the clerk, we might recognize how the sailor’s satisfaction and reverence of trivial things attains due in no small part to the harsh conditions he must endure every day. Both the clerk and the sailor have been plunged into circumstances which make both of their lives miserable. Likewise, the spendthrift dandy might show how foolish and futile it is to keep a paper lantern lit in the rain, regardless of how much one might desire the light, and the young woman’s doomed illumination might remind us, alongside Edna St. Vincent Millay, how the dandy’s candle may not last the night, but, ah, my foes, and oh, my friends, it gives a lovely light!

This ambivalent as multivalent reading, in which tensions are held rather than resolved, is more in keeping with Rakuten’s other work. In fact, we have already seen something quite similar in the “diptych” of the modern and traditional woman considered in chapter 2, in which each type is depicted both in earnest (the large portraits) as well as farce (the [comic] strips surrounding them). In fact, looking back, it is hard not to see the antithetical-but-also-analogous compact there as well, even if the two page spread is not obviously framed as such in the way those noted above are. There is precedent for this, though. The “Vagaries of Fate” [comic] also discussed in chapter 2 reflected reading patterns clearly derived from illustrated game boards (sugoroku), even though it was not depicted as a game board. So too with the modern/traditional diptych. The mode of reading it seems to anticipate is akin to the one I identify here in Rakuten’s mirror [manga]. Would it not be appropriate, then, to read the framing of the compact mirror onto the material base of the [comic]? Onto the fold of the periodical itself at the center of the two page spread, whose hinging would then become the hinging of the two portraits with the spine as the axis of rotation? That is actually a question, dear reader—a leading one, to be sure, but a question nonetheless.

It is a question incumbent upon you—not some hypothetical “you” but rather you reading this statement at this moment—to answer, even if only imperfectly and provisionally, and that answer may very well guide you toward vectors of understanding I have yet to see or may never see. For Rakuten’s [comics] mirror within, with many facets, as well as without, to a larger world as well as to yourself as reader, because the many potential readings his [comics]—really all [comics] and therefore all texts—seem to anticipate are only there insofar as you are primed and willing to see them. This was also the case with Klee’s Zwei Männer above, where a plentitude of ways of understanding his two nude figures might help one see a plentitude of reflections the print potentially expresses: of gesticulation, of two historical personages, and of a wider world whose social mores those two particular figures perform. Lacan’s baby boy, whose hermeneutic desires are easily satisfied with his own narcissistic view of the world, is not a fate to which we are all doomed, even if we pass through it at one point or another, even if we linger there overly long. All you have to do is see the mirror and how it causes you—or rather how it seduces you into seeing the world. From there you might begin, in a more limited but still grand manner, to ponder how interpretation sustains texts rather than settles them. Or maybe not.


  1. i am biased towards mirror fables, so this one warmed my heart. “Florid indirections”? You went mythic there and a good narrative spell is a delight to behold. Thank You for the treat and congratulations!

  2. […] Hold ‘de presses! Nicholas Theisen’s [COMICS] AS READING, published as an ongoing work on his blog WHAT IS MANGA? is wending towards the finale. The latest chapter, CHAPTER 5 – INTRODUCTION, OR [COMICS] AS GUIDE TO TEXTUAL SUBJECTIVITY PT. 3, is a wonderful bit of mythic narrative on a subject dear to my heart, and this blog’s “masthead”. You go read it right now! (please… ) https://whatismanga.wordpress.com/2015/12/24/comics-as-reading-chapter-5-introduction-or-comics-as-gu… […]

  3. […] The very first [comics] appearing here were referred to in the final installment of [Comics] as Reading though not included there for visual reference.  I present them now as a means to bridge the old and new projects, and if you would like to read more about these “mirror” [comics], an extensive discussion appears there. […]

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