Random Musings: Five Years of Experiments in Manga

As of today, Experiments in Manga is now five years old! In some ways it feels like I’ve been writing here forever, and in other ways it seems like I’ve just started. When I first began Experiments in Manga, I had no idea how long it was going to last (honestly, I still don’t know), but I am rather pleased that I’ve been able to keep it going for so many years. And I find it especially impressive when I stop to consider all of the other things going on in my life right now.

What are some of those other things, exactly? Well, I and my partners all managed to survive our first year of parenthood, for one. (As did the little one, whose first birthday was last week.) That has certainly been a huge change in my life. I’m incredibly busy at work of late, too, since my supervisor retired in December and I’m still filling in for that position on top of my regular one. Another significant development is that I am now part of the leadership team for a new taiko performance group and I’ve more or less become an alternate for another semi-pro ensemble. I’ve actually been doing some teaching and composing for taiko, too. It’s all been rather exciting. And extremely challenging. And a bit exhausting.

There really doesn’t seem to be such a thing as “free time” anymore for me, and since Experiments in Manga is something that I do in my free time… Well, this past year is the first year that I’ve posted fewer things than I did in the year immediately preceding. Although I have been able to maintain a regular schedule, overall I’m reading less, and I’m writing less, too. I miss both things terribly (the reading especially), but I might have to cut back even more in the coming year depending on how things continue to progress and for the sake of my own sanity.

For example, I’ve decided to quietly retire the Discovering Manga and Finding Manga features. I enjoyed writing them, but I’m just not posting them frequently or regularly enough. (Which I then end up feeling guilty about.) But although I may be saying goodbye to those particular features, last year I actually introduced a new one that seems to be rather popular: Adaptation Adventures. I’ve only posted two so far—Udon Entertainment’s Manga Classics (which incidentally was one of my top posts from the last year) and The Twelve Kingdoms—but I’m hoping and looking forward to writing more.

Speaking of top posts, my Spotlight on Masaichi Mukaide was very well received. In fact, it wasn’t just one of the top posts from last year, it’s one of Experiments in Manga’s most frequently visited pages ever. It probably helped that the spotlight made the rounds on general comics sites in addition to catching the attention of manga enthusiasts. That single post may very well be the most noteworthy thing that I’ve ever written. Likely, I’ll never be able to top it. I’dbe lying if I tried to say that I wasn’t at least a little proud of it.

The most popular (or at least most frequently viewed) manga reviews at Experiments in Manga from the last year included the anthology Massive: Gay Erotic Manga and the Men Who Make It, Aki’s The Angel of Elhamburg, Mentaiko Itto’s Priapus, Aya Kanno’s Requiem of the Rose King, Volume 1, and Yaya Sakuragi’s Hide and Seek, Volume 1. (On a personal note, I am rather pleased that all five of those manga to one degree or another have a queer bent to them.)

As for my top non-manga reviews from the past year there was The World of the Shining Prince: Court Life in Ancient Japan by Ivan Morris, Haikasoru’s anthology Phantasm Japan: Fantasies Light and Dark from and about Japan, Frederik L. Schodt’s Manga! Manga!: The World of Japanese Comics, Seven Seas’ edition of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass by Lewis Carroll with illustrations by Kriss Sison, and Yu Godai’s Quantum Devil Saga: Avatar Tuner, Volume 1.

I’m actually pretty happy to see Avatar Tuner on that list; the novel was one of the books published in 2014 that left the greatest impression on me. As was Massive, for that matter. Last year was actually only the second time that I compiled a list of notable manga, comics, and prose, but I’ll likely compile another one for 2015 since I had so much fun putting together the first two. Plus, other people seem to enjoy them. That goes for my TCAF posts, too, which remain popular. As long as I attend TCAF, and as long as I’m still writing at Experiments in Manga, I plan on rounding up my experiences at the festival.

Another feature of sorts that I’ve continued to work on is my monthly manga review project—a recurring set of reviews that focuses on a specific series or genre. In November, I wrapped up my second project, “Year of Yuri”, a series of reviews featuring manga and comics with lesbian themes. For the following review project, I was feeling in the mood for some horror manga. But while I picked the genre, I let readers of Experiments in manga pick the series. It ended up being a tie between Setona Mizushiro’s After School Nightmare and Yuki Urushibara’s Mushishi, so I decided to review both series, alternating between them each month. At the moment, I’m about halfway through the project.

I still maintain that I write Experiments in Manga for myself, but it does give me great satisfaction and joy to know that other people read and appreciate it as well. Over the last year several readers have let me know that they’ve given a particular manga, comic, or novel a try simply because I wrote about it. I and Experiments in Manga have started to be referenced and cited in Wikipedia as well as other places online as well, including an Italian comics website. (Admittedly, while very cool, I also find this kind of terrifying.) As always, I would like to thank everyone out there who reads and supports my efforts here at Experiments in Manga. It’s truly appreciated. I hope that I can continue to improve and continue to provide content that is useful or at least occasionally interesting. Here’s to another year!

Random Musings: Manga Tag

Earlier this month, Megan of The Manga Test Drive (which is one of my favorite manga review blogs and worth checking out if you haven’t already) gave a tour of her manga shelves and answered some questions about her collection as part of a game of manga tag. And wouldn’t you know it, I was tagged at the end! I thought it would be fun to participate, and it gives me a chance to talk a bit about my own manga collection, so here goes!

Adolf, Volume 1: A Tale of the Twentieth Century1. What was your first manga?
The first manga that I ever read was Osamu Tezuka’s Adolf as published by Viz way back in the day. I came across it while helping a friend locate materials for his thesis about the Jewish population in Japan during World War II. I’m fairly certain that the first manga I purchased for myself was Blade of the Immortal by Hiroaki Samura at the recommendation of my fantastic local comic book shop.

Basara, Volume 12. What is your most expensive manga?
Considering the amount of manga that I accumulate, I try very hard to keep my habit as inexpensive as possible. But sometimes it just can’t be helped and exceptions must be made. I discovered and fell in love with Basara after most of the series went out of print and ended up spending more than I really wanted to find a complete set. But I did get a couple of Basara artbooks out of the deal, too, which was cool.

Gunslinger Girl, Omnibus 13. What was your least expensive manga?
Relatively recently, my good friend Traci (who did a guest video review for me a couple of years ago) gifted me with her collection of Yu Aida’s Gunslinger Girl. She was moving out of the state and had to be very selective with the books she could take with her. As a result, I inherited a bunch of comics, most of which I still need to actually read. (I dread my next move; my collection is huge.)

Project X: Cup Noodle4. What is the most boring manga you own?
This was probably the question that I found the most difficult to answer. I’m going to guess that Project X: Cup Noodle by Tadashi Katoh might be the most boring manga that I own, but it doesn’t seem entirely fair to say that since I haven’t actually read it yet. However, I don’t expect that the manga will be terribly exciting, even though it may be interesting and at the very least educational. I could be wrong, though!

Wandering Son, Volume 15. What is your favorite manga series?
I have way too many favorites to narrow it down to one, so instead I’ll just highlight the series that has been the most personally meaningful—Takako Shimura’s Wandering Son. As someone who is all sorts of queer, the manga’s earnest and sensitive exploration of personal identity, including gender identity, made a huge impact on me; it’s not an exaggeration when I call Wandering Son life-changing.

Real, Volume 16. What is the most relatable manga series you own?
This took some thought, but in the end I’m going to go with Takehiko Inoue’s Real. It might seem like an odd choice for me seeing as I’m not really a basketball enthusiast and am currently fortunate enough not to need a wheelchair, but Inoue’s characterization in Real is phenomenal. He has created incredibly complex individuals with whom I can strongly identify with even though they’re unlike me in many ways.

Samurai Champloo: The Complete Series7. What is one manga you own that is based off an anime?
It’s certainly not always the case, but many manga based on anime often leave something to be desired. I’ve still collected a few, though. Samurai Champloo was one of the first anime series I ever watched and it remains a favorite. Sadly, the Samurai Champloo manga by Masaru Gotsubo didn’t overly impress me. But, it has its moments, and I’m enough of a completist that I’ve held onto it.

Fist of the North Star: Master Edition, Volume 18. What is your rarest manga?
I’m not certain it’s necessarily the rarest manga that I own, but let’s just say I hope I never need to purchase the colorized master edition of Buronson and Tetsuo Hara’s Fist of the North Star ever again. The sixth volume alone, even used, would cost several hundred dollars to replace. But I’ve actually got all sorts of interesting, uncommon, and unusual things kicking around.

Parasyte, Volume 19. What is the most reprinted manga you own?
Well, assuming we’re talking about the different releases of a manga rather than the number of printings, that would be Hitoshi Iwaaki’s Parasyte. In English, the manga started out in Tokyopop’s MixxZine before being collected as individual volumes. Tokyopop eventually lost the license and Del Rey Manga picked it up. Kodansha Comics rescued the series after that. (I have the Del Rey version, though.)

Attack on Titan, Volume 110. What is the most popular manga you own?
At the moment, that would probably be Hajime Isayama’s Attack on Titan along with its numerous spinoffs. The immense popularity of Attack on Titan fascinates me, so I like to keep up with the series. (In some ways, I’m almost more interested in the fandom than I am in the franchise itself.) Even though I do find parts of the manga to be extremely frustrating, other parts can be very engaging.

Berserk, Volume 111. What is the most damaged manga you own?
I try to take very good care of my collection and am largely successful, but thanks to my cat Lysander (affectionately and sometimes not-so-affectionately known as Stupid), I have a few volumes of Kentaro Miura’s Berserk that I need to get around to replacing. Lysander used a box of full of manga as a scratching post, so some of them look like they were mauled by a tiger. I’ve still not forgiven him for that.

A Bride's Story, Volume 112. Which manga has the most amazing art?
I’m with Megan on this one. Kaoru Mori’s work in A Bride’s Story is absolutely stunning. It’s incredibly detailed, beautifully drawn, and thoroughly researched. There are a lot of mangaka whose artwork that I love and appreciate, but the illustrations in A Bride’s Story really do amaze me. In addition to the frequently breathtaking artwork, I also enjoy the series’ story, characters, and setting immensely.

The Four Immigrants Manga13. What is the oldest published manga that you own?
I’m pretty sure the oldest manga that I have in translation is The Four Immigrants Manga by Henry (Yoshitaka) Kiyama. The Japanese compilation was published in 1931. I’ve also collected the work by Masaichi Mukaide released in North America the 1970s, some of the earliest manga to be published in English. Granted, depending on the definition of “manga” being used, those may or may not count.

Prison School, Omnibus 114. What is the newest published manga you own?
Let’s see… what came out this week? I actually picked up the first omnibus of Akira Hiramoto’s Prison School. I’m intensely curious about this manga since it’s such an extreme shift in tone from Hiramoto’s earlier series, Me and the Devil Blues. I have a feeling Prison School will be a very divisive series. If for no other reason, it’s something that I want to read myself in order to have an informed opinion.

Cross Game, Omnibus 115. What are some of the most recent manga you have purchased?
Not counting all of the preorders that I’ve recently placed (and there have been many) the most recent manga that I purchased was a complete set of Cross Game by Mitsuru Adachi. I’ve actually been meaning to do this for a while now. (Sorry, Viz, for taking so long!) And as for my most recent out-of-print find, I was very happy to finally get my hands on Akimi Yoshida’s Banana Fish!

So there you have it! A very brief look at a very small selection of my manga collection. (Where is all the shoujo and josei?! The alt manga?! And everything else!?) Like Megan, I’m next going declare a free-for-all. If you’d like to answer some manga tag questions about your collection, either in the comments below or elsewhere, go for it! I’d love to keep talking about manga with you all. I’m also specifically going to tag my fellow bloggers manjiorin at Manga Connection and Lori Henderson at Manga Xanadu in case they’d like to participate, too. It’s been fun; hopefully you’ve found this diversion interesting!

Random Musings: Toronto Comic Arts Festival 2015

TCAF 2015 Poster


2015 marks the third time that I’ve been able to attend the Toronto Comic Arts Festival (TCAF). I generally don’t go to very many conferences, festivals, or conventions unless it’s for work, but I had such a phenomenal experience at TCAF 2013 that it’s become an annual event for me. TCAF is totally worth me pushing through all of my social anxieties and general awkwardness. This year was great, too, and for the most part I handled it pretty well. I don’t know if it’s just that I’m getting used to the trip and generally know what to expect from the event or what, but TCAF’s expansion into more areas of the Toronto Reference Library made the crowds feel less, well, crowded which probably also helped.

I’ve actually been trying to make TCAF a family trip since 2013 and this year it finally happened. Everyone, including the nine-month old, was able to make it to Toronto. We set out from Michigan on Friday and arrived in Toronto in time for me to go to Sparkler Monthly‘s Manga Mixer. I went last year, too, and enjoyed myself, so I was looking forward to it even though I’m not much of a party person. I enjoyed the mixer this year as well and had the opportunity to talk about manga, comics, and all sorts of things with all sorts of people. I was particularly happy to chat with Lissa Pattillo and the rest of the folk at Chromatic Press again. And I met several of my fellow manga and comics enthusiasts in person for the first time, like Linda/animemiz, Ysabet MacFarlane, and Alex Hoffman, which was great. Later on in the evening Jason Thompson showed up and we talked for a bit, which was pretty exciting for me since he played a large role in introducing me to manga. He seemed to know who I was, too, even though we’d never met before.

Actually, people recognizing me or Experiments in Manga after I introduced myself was something that happened several times over the course of TCAF, which was an odd but kind of thrilling experience. (I guess “Ash Brown” is a name that tends to stick with people?) Another odd thing to happen was that a lot of people assumed I was one of the exhibitors or an artist myself. Granted, considering how many creators visit TCAF as exhibitors or attendees, it’s a pretty safe guess for someone to make and still end up being correct much of the time. Anyway. Some of my personal social highlights over the course of TCAF in addition the Manga Mixer: I had a nice conversation with Ryan Sands, said hello to the MASSIVE crew, ran into fellow Manga Bookshelf blogger Sean Gaffney, had the chance to meet Amanda Cosmos, briefly chatted with Jocelyne Allen, and talked with Ken Niimura and Aya Kanno at their respective signings. And there were plenty of other smaller interactions throughout the festival, too.

Manga Mixer presented by Sparkler

TCAF 2015 Manga Mixer presented by
Sparkler Monthly

I like to start off TCAF proper bright and early on Saturday morning by visiting the exhibitor areas. This has a few advantages: the crowds are relatively small and manageable, exhibitors haven’t sold out of anything yet (although, not everything is available for sale right away), and most of the festival programming for the day hasn’t started. I generally have a few tables that I know I want to stop by and a few things that I know I want to check out, but I also wander around to see everything that’s there. For me, part of TCAF is learning about and discovering new things; I always make a point to come home with some comics and artwork by artists whose work I’m completely unfamiliar with. If I could I’d bring home everything that caught my interest. I have to give myself a strict budget for TCAF to keep things from getting out of hand. I focus my purchases on independent creators and small publishers while at TCAF, but I also end up making a very lengthy list of comics and other books to obtain at a later date. Even after it’s over, TCAF continues to influence what I buy. This year I got my hands on almost everything that I really wanted, but there were a few things I’m still kicking myself for missing out on, like Gengoroh Tagame’s new artbook. Hopefully I’ll have the chance to pick some of those things up in the near future, though.

On Saturday, I attended a total of six (six!) panels. I basically found a seat in the Marriott’s High Park Ballroom and didn’t move for the rest of the day. (Should you ever attempt this yourself, I highly recommend bringing your own water and snacks with you.) One of the most challenging parts of TCAF is deciding which programs to go to because it is literally impossible to do everything. There are so many fantastic panels and creators that there are always going to be conflicts. But, rest assured, whatever you choose, it will be great. I have yet to leave a TCAF event disappointed or dissatisfied.

My first panel of the day was “Subscription Comics.” Moderated by Brigid Alverson, the discussion featured Box Brown of Retrofit Comics, Ryan Sands of Youth in Decline, Jordan Shiveley of Uncivilized Books, and Lianne Sentar of Chromatic Press. Although the models are different from one publisher to another, each of them features a subscription service of some sort. (I’m currently a Chromatic Press and Youth in Decline subscriber; next year I’ll probably be a Retrofit subscriber, too, considering the number of comics I buy from the publisher anyway.) The panel’s conversation focused on the benefits provided and challenges presented by subscriptions not just for publishers, but for creators and readers as well. Subscriptions get money to the publisher quickly and can help pay for upfront costs. It can be incredibly useful for publishers to know that there will be definite revenue when planning the year’s finances, too. For creators, publishers’ subscriptions can provide an appealing outlet for experimentation, a way to do something for fun on the side, and not have to worry about marketing and other aspects of promotion. The panelists tended to agree that an ideal subscription service would feature both big and small names. The more well-known artists provide the initial draw for readers and help support the publication of the rest of the comics. Subscriptions can provide the curatorial guidance needed in the astoundingly large world of comics which can frequently be overwhelming, especially for newer readers.

TCAF 2015 Poster - Pascal Blanchet

©Pascal Blanchet

Brigid Alverson was also involved with the next event, serving as the interviewer for Aya Kanno’s Spotlight with Jocelyne Allen interpreting. The discussion largely focused on Kanno’s two most recent series to have been released in English, Otomen and Requiem of the Rose King. She got the idea for Otomen when she realized that a lot of the men around her were otomen, but that in Japan a boy liking girlish things is still looked down upon, more so than a girl liking boyish things. Her editor at the time was a little uneasy about the series because Kanno had never done a comedy manga before; it took about a year to convince him. Being true to oneself is a theme that is particularly important in Otomen, and one that deeply resonates with Kanno. As for Requiem of the Rose King, there is an exaggerated element in Shakespeare’s plays that she doesn’t often see in modern works that she finds very appealing. Kanno described her version of Richard as a mix of all of the good parts of Shakespeare’s Richard, characteristics of the historical Richard III, and some of her own fantasy. Kanno did read a fair number of history books when conducting research for the series, but not much on the time period is available in Japanese, so the visuals of the manga tend to be heavily influenced by Shakespearian stage productions and much of the story comes from within Kanno herself as she creates her own personal interpretations of history. Kanno has always been interested in sex, gender, and sexuality, so it isn’t too surprising that those subjects play an important role in her work; both Otomen and Requiem of the Rose King deal with those subjects in different ways.

Next up was “Gay Comics Art Japan with Gengoroh Tagame,” featuring Gengoroh Tagame, the first commercially successful creator of gay manga, Anne Ishii and Graham Kolbeins of MASSIVE, and Leyla Aker, one of the editors at Viz Media and SuBLime Manga. Tagame was one of the featured guests at TCAF in 2013 and he is an extremely knowledgeable and charming individual, so I was very happy to see him return again this year. The panelists discussed queer comics, gay manga, and BL, the fluidity of the boundaries between the genres, and the usefulness and limitations of labels. It’s becoming more and more difficult to definitively draw a line between gay manga and BL. Many complicated factors influence how a person approaches a particular work: the style of the art, the gender and sexuality of the creator (which in and of itself is very complicated), the emphasis placed on romance or sex, and the intended audience, among many other things. Generally, fifteen to twenty percent of SuBLime’s readership, and up to fifty percent for some titles (usually the romance-oriented manga), are men and Tagame has a large number of fans who are women, so even the boundaries between expected audiences are blurring. Complicating matters even further is the fact that the different categories and genres applied to manga in Japan do not necessarily have exact equivalents to those used in other countries and vice versa. Categorization can be useful for marketing purposes, publishers, and readers, but it can also create situations in which the content or creators are being marginalized or pigeonholed simply because of the label that is being used. Aker mentioned that there were two major BL mangaka whose work is often requested by fans who ultimately did not want to be published by SuBLime specifically for those reasons.

Ken Niimura Sketch

Ken Niimura likes cats

Despite being a huge fan of Avatar: The Last Airbender, I’ve never actually read any of the comics. And so before attending Gurihiru’s Spotlight, I wasn’t particularly familiar with the work of the two Japanese artists who make up the illustration team: Chifuyu Sasaki, who focuses on design, pencils, and inks, and Naoko Kawano, who focuses on design and colors. Along with their agent Akihide Yanagi, who helped to interpret, the two women were interviewed by Deb Aoki. Sasaki and Kawano became friends in college and soon after began collaborating on artwork together. Although they each have their specialty, their creative process has always been a team effort. Previously, they both worked as office ladies and did some local illustration work on the side; it wasn’t until they responded to Marvel’s search for Japanese creators that their career as artists really took off. They still haven’t been published much in Japan—their style is considered “too Western” by some—however, they have found success in other parts of the world. One of the reasons they submitted their work to Marvel was to try to reach an audience that would better appreciate their style. Marvel has never asked them to change how they draw and they have been given a lot of freedom with the series that they have been involved with. In addition to Marvel and Dark Horse Comics, Gurihiru has also worked with Scholastic and Pearson Education as illustrators and colorists. Their two biggest influences when it comes to how they approach their art? Disney animation and Todd McFarlane’s Spawn. One day Gurihiru would like to try creating their own stories, but in the meantime they’re so busy as artists that they haven’t had a good opportunity to develop those skills.

Noelle Stevenson’s Spotlight conflicted with Ed Luce’s Spotlight, which I was also very interested in. But, because Gurihiru’s session went over its time, I was already in the room, and I wanted to be there for the next panel as well, I decided to continue my siege of the High Park Ballroom. Stevenson was on a panel that I attended last year at TCAF and I was looking forward to reading her debut graphic novel Nimona which debuted at TCAF this year, so I was glad to have the chance to hear her interviewed by Robin Brenner (another manga-savvy librarian that I look up to a great deal). Stevenson is an engaging, intelligent, and well-spoken young creator. Topics of the casual conversation included Nimona, working as part of a team as a writer for Lumberjanes, and the importance of diversity in comics. Before being picked up by HarperCollins, Nimona started as a webcomic that was a part of Stevenson’s senior thesis. The first thing she knew about the story was its ending, but she actually began posting the comic online before the script had been finalized. As a result, the comic changed some as it progressed, and additional revisions needed to be made for the print edition. Stevenson first became widely known for her fanart, which is how her agent, who approached her directly, discovered her. Her work on Nimona and as a writer for Lumbarjanes has allowed her to create something of her own which subsequently led to other projects. As Stevenson describes it, “the writing was an accident,” but she is now being hired for her own unique voice rather than as someone to mimic an existing tone or story. She finds it very satisfying to be in the position to create something that isn’t just more of the same, feeling that diversity in comics makes for better stories in addition to challenging readers to expand both their worldviews and their capacities for empathy.

Aya Kanno Chibis

Chibi Richard and Asuka by Aya Kanno

One of the most popular events at TCAF in 2014 was “What Do Women Want? Writing Comics For A Female Audience” and so this year Lianne Sentar facilitated a reprise of the panel. Joining her this time around was Sam Maggs, Sandra Bell-Lundy, Brenden Fletcher, Svetlana Chmakova, and Sydney Padua. The group provided a nice range of perspectives on the subject as the panelists are all involved in different parts of the comics industry: publishing, journalism, syndicated comics, mainstream comics, manga-influenced comics, and webcomics. The panelists argue, and I agree with them, that by expanding the range of stories being told about and for women in addition to increasing the diversity of their representation in comics, men’s stories and representation are inherently expanded and increased as well. Stories aimed at straight, white men are often the default in mainstream media, but if allowed, women-oriented stories can be just as universal. Last year the panel included a lot of angry ranting, but this year tended to be much more positive in tone, a good indication that the state of the comics industry is already beginning to change for the better. The group hypothesized that the Internet has a played a critical role in allowing this to happen. Social media and webcomics in particular have provided platforms for creators to freely express themselves, reach a widespread audience, and form communities and support networks even when working on a comic that is especially niche. The big publishers are paying attention to these developments and taking note of what readers want, but the inertia of a well-entrenched industry used to telling a particular kind of story can be difficult to overcome and there will continue to be missteps. The road may be bumpy, but it is improving, and there are now other viable options for creators and readers outside of mainstream publication, as well.

I thought about going to the Queer Mixer again this year but ultimately ended up hanging out in the city with the family, finding plenty of good food to eat and beer to drink, enjoying the pleasant weather outside, and visiting Toronto’s public parks. Because TCAF starts a couple of hours later on Sunday than it does on Saturday, we were able to sleep in a bit on Sunday morning before heading out for brunch. Afterwards I made my way back to the Marriott and the Reference Library while the rest of the family explored the Royal Ontario Museum. Compared to Saturday, at first it seems like I hardly did anything at all on Sunday since I only attended three panels. But, I also made it to Ken Niimura and Aya Kanno’s signings, and spent some more time in the exhibitor areas talking to and collecting signatures from some of the other creators. The other three-fourths of family wandered around the library for a bit as well, tracking down some of their favorite artists and adding to the pile of comics that were coming back to the United States with us.

My first panel of the day was “Get Published In Japan!,” moderated by Deb Aoki and featuring Yuri Yamamoto (an editor at Akita Shoten for Princess magazine who is working with Aya Kanno on Requiem of the Rose King among other series), Ken Niimura, Abby Denson and independent manga artist Yuuko Koyama (who self-published some work together in Japan), and Gurihiru’s agent Akihide Yanagi. While the panel addressed some of the more technical issues and challenges that confront non-Japanese creators when trying to break into the manga industry in Japan—such as language barriers and the lack of support for submitting materials digitally—much of the discussion actually focused on the importance of the relationship between an editor and creator. In Japan, editors tend to play a much more prominent role in the creation of comics than they do in most other countries; editors are often considered a part of the creative team, and some even act as the writers for the artists they work with. It’s a relationship dynamic which may take some foreign creators, many of whom are used to working more independently, time to adjust to. As Niimura puts it, “Finding the right editor is like finding the right girlfriend or boyfriend,” a good match is required to really make the relationship work. The panelists agreed that one of the most important traits for creators to have is the ability to positively take critique and criticism in stride, always working to improve based on those comments with the knowledge that even if they are severe they are intended to help them better themselves and their work. Of course, the advice that creators receive, even for the same comic, will differ depending on the editor they are working with. Some editor’s in Japan intentionally seek out foreign talent, while others still show some discrimination towards non-Japanese creators. But, as long as a submission to a manga magazine is in Japanese, it will always be reviewed for consideration.

TCAF 2015 Haul

Most, but not quite all, of my TCAF haul

It was then back to the Reference Library for the “Manga Translation” panel facilitated by Robin Brenner and featuring translators Kumar Sivasubramanian (who has done manga translation for Dark Horse and Vertical) and Jocelyne Allen (who has worked with Drawn & Quarterly, Digital Manga, Viz Media, and others) as well as Deb Aoki (who has served as one of the judges for the Manga Translation Battle sponsored by Japan’s Agency for Cultural Affairs). Over the course of the discussion, the panelists identified some of the things that make manga translation particularly challenging, such as sound effects, the size and shape of word balloons and the limited space for text, choosing appropriate gendered pronouns, puns and wordplay, culturally specific concepts and jokes, and so on. Both accuracy and readability are important for any translation; the audience must always be kept in mind since translation choices and tone will change depending on what the publishers and readers want or need. Some series, like Blade of the Immortal, demand a “rawer” translation with much of the Japanese terminology left intact because that is what the audience has come to expect. Different publishers have different policies and requirements for their translations, too. For example, some allow translation notes while others do not. Many manga fans may not realize that the translators ultimately aren’t the only ones responsible for a manga’s translation—adapters and editors, as well as the original publishers and creators, are also involved in the decisions that are made. More than one translator may work on the same series, too, so additional effort is needed in order to maintain a consistent translation over multiple volumes. It’s also worth noting that it’s very rare that a translator has the opportunity to work directly with creators or to ask them questions about their manga. Generally translators don’t know anything more than any other reader and they can be taken by surprise by the manga’s developments, which can present problems for translation.

Although the Comics vs Games showcase has been a part of TCAF for four years now, 2015 was the first time that I had the chance to attend any of its programming, largely because much of it was actually located in the Reference Library this year. At one point in time, my love of games rivaled my love of comics, so I was particularly looking forward to it. “Comics vs Games: Microtalks!” featured eleven speakers: David Calvo, Alfe Clemencio, Amanda Cosmos, David Hellman, Andrew Hlynka, Kim Hoang, Rachel Kahn, Xin Ran Liu, Matthew Ritter, Jason Shiga, and Miguel Sternber. The group included game developers, artists, and aficionados, as well as comics creators, each of whom gave a very short presentation discussing various aspects of comics and games, generally touching upon the similarities and differences between the mediums and what creators working in one could learn from the other. Both comics and games can be a form of storytelling that requires a reader or player to actively engage in the creation of a narrative from disparate images and moments. Of the two, generally games are considered to be more interactive, which greatly impacts the experience of the story, even if it’s a linear one. But the incredibly innovative work being done by Jason Shiga proves that comics can be interactive as well. Art obviously serves a function in comics where it is a critical part of the narrative, but it’s also important in games where the artwork is responsible for creating and establishing a setting and environment. Traditional illustration techniques can be used to inform game art and design, and even three-dimensional games can successfully incorporate two-dimensional artwork and animation.

Believe it or not, the above is just a small fraction of what I could have written about TCAF. Each of the individual panels and spotlights could have easily had an entire essay devoted solely to them; I merely expressed some of my own thoughts and experiences, and touched upon a few and not by any means all of the major themes and topics addressed at the various programs at the festival. TCAF is an absolutely fantastic comics event. If you ever have the opportunity to attend, I highly recommend it. I know that I certainly plan on returning every year that I possibly can.

Random Musings: Kôsen’s Lêttera at Sparkler Monthly

Lêttera, Volume 1Studio Kôsen, also known simply as Kôsen, is a creative team made up of two Spanish artists: Aurora García Tejado and Diana Fernández Dévora. In Spain, they have been working together creating comics and drawing illustrations since 1998. Beginning in 2004, they started releasing translations of their work in English in the United States, but their comics have been released in other countries as well, including Germany, Poland, Italy, and Argentina.

I was first introduced to Kôsen through their comic Saihôshi: The Guardian, the English-translation of which was initially released by Yaoi Press in 2006. An amusing fantasy with magic and exciting sword fights to go along with its dramatic romance, Saihôshi is representative of what I’ve come to expect from and love most about Kôsen’s work: beautifully drawn, highly entertaining, sexy tales of adventure with a strong sense of humor.

One of Kôsen’s most recent efforts is the ongoing, original English-language comic Windrose, currently being serialized in the online multi-media magazine Sparkler Monthly. It’s a delightful series about a young Spanish lady named Danielle in the 17th century who, when her father goes missing, sets out to find him. In the process she becomes involved with a pair of travelers, Angeline and Leon, who have their own reasons for wanting to help Danielle.

Lêttera, Volume 1, page 26And now there will be even more of Kôsen’s work at Sparkler Monthly! I am pleased to have the privilege to announce that the site will also be hosting Kôsen’s Lêttera, the comic that the duo was working on immediately before Windrose. The three-volume series was released in Spain between 2010 and 2014, but this will be the first time that Lêttera will be made available in its entirety in English.

Garnet Rune is a young, impetuous sorcerer whose tendency to abuse her magic for her own amusement and gain has gotten her into a bit of trouble—she’s been cursed so that every time she casts a spell, a poisoned mark appears on her body, slowly killing her. This forces Garnet to become more mindful of her actions, but it hasn’t really improved her attitude much. Though things don’t always go according to plan, she’s determined to lift the curse by any means necessary.

Lêttera debuts on Sparkler Monthly today with the release of the complete first chapter. The comic will continue to update on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays—six pages a week—until the entire series has been released. Lêttera will be free to read online, but in the near future the ebook edition will be available for purchase. And, if we’re lucky, there may one day be a print edition of Lêttera in English as well.

Personally, I’m very excited to see more of Kôsen’s work translated, and I’m very happy to see Sparkler Monthly involved in making that happen. I was already a huge fan of Sparkler Monthly, but I’m thrilled with the magazine’s recent expansions to include even more comics. With magic, adventure, and a healthy dose of comedy, Lêttera should be a tremendous amount  of fun and a great addition to the Sparkler Monthly lineup.

Random Musings: Spotlight on Mitsukazu Mihara

For the last two weeks of January 2015, the Female Goth Mangaka Carnival is focusing on the works of Kaoru Fujiwara, Maki Kusumoto, Mitsukazu Mihara, Junko Mizuno, Asumiko Nakamura. While I’ve read and enjoyed manga created by almost all of those women, Mihara is the mangaka that I’ve read the most of and am most familiar with out of the group. (Granted, that may in part be due to the fact that of the five she has had the most manga licensed and released in English.)

The Creator

Mitsukazu MiharaSadly, there doesn’t actually seem to be very much information available in English about Mitsukazu Mihara beyond a few well-established facts. She was born in Hiroshima, Japan on October 17, 1970 and for a long time was based in Osaka. (I believe she may now be working out of Tokyo.) She made her manga debut in 1994 and has been writing and illustrating ever since. Mihara is often credited as being particularly influential in refining the Gothic Lolita sensibility and she frequently served as a featured illustrator for the Gothic & Lolita Bible magazine.

Between 2004 and 2007, Tokyopop released many of Mihara’s works in English, beginning with her series Doll. Mihara is particularly known for her short manga with twists—even her long-form works tend to be fairly episodic—and she frequently employs darker themes and includes heavy psychological elements in her stories. Her manga is influenced and inspired by the problems and issues that she sees in society as well as by her own personal traumas. As she states in an interview from 2008 in the debut issue of the North American edition of Gothic & Lolita Bible, “Often, my greatest work is born during the bad times.”

The Manga

IC in a SunflowerAlthough IC in a Sunflower (1997) contains some of Mitsukazu Mihara’s earliest work, the volume was actually the last of her manga to be licensed in English. A collection of seven unrelated short manga, the volume includes her award-winning debut “Keep Those Condoms Away from Our Kids.” Another of the collected stories, “The Sunflower Quality of an Integrated Circuit,” would later be tied into her series Doll.

R.I.P.: Requiem in Phonybrian While there is some absurdity and black humor in R.I.P.: Requiem in Phonybrian (2000), the volume’s darker elements take precedent. The manga follows the angel Transylvanian Rose who has rescued the soul of a suicide, but he isn’t particularly happy about this turn of events, nor is he particularly interested in his new responsibilities of cleansing other souls. The manga starts out fairly episodic but quickly coalesces.

Beautiful PeopleBeautiful People (2001) is another collection of Mihara’s short manga and includes six unrelated stories. The volume features a range of genres and sub-genres including science fiction, fantasy, magical realism, post-apocalyptic fiction, contemporary drama, and suspense. In general, like much of Mihara’s work, the manga included in the volume tend to be darker in tone, but there are moments of brightness as well.

Doll, Volume 1The manga that Mihara is probably most well-known for, at least in English, is her six-volume Doll (2000-2002). The manga is a series of loosely interconnected stories of androids and angst that are tied together by the end of the final volume. Although the Dolls are an important part of the series, the focus of the manga is much more on the humans and their relationships to the Dolls and to each other.

Haunted HouseBecause it’s primarily a comedy, Haunted House (2002) stands out from the rest of Mihara’s manga available in English. Granted, it still has elements of horror in an Addams Family sort of way. Sabato Obiga is a teenager who desperately wants two things in his life: a girlfriend and a normal family. Unfortunately, the eccentricities and occult interests of his “death flavored” relatives would seem to make both an impossibility.

The Embalmer, Volume 1My introduction to Mihara’s work was through her series The Embalmer (2003-2013) and it remains my personal favorite of her manga. Sadly, only four of the series’ seven volumes were released in English. I’ve actually written a little about the series before, specifically in regards to the main character and the role of embalming in the story. Less fantastic than many of Mihara’s other manga, the series has a strong grounding in reality.

The Themes

Princess White SnowThere are many themes and variations upon them that appear and reappear throughout Mitsukazu Mihara’s work. One of the most prominent elements in Mihara’s manga is the inclusion of families. Even Haunted House, which is so unlike many of her other works, has a family at its core. The families in Mihara’s manga are often broken and in need of healing, but underlying all that turmoil and trauma is an understanding of the immense importance of family and the profound influence, both positive and negative, that a family has on its individual members.

Similarly, there is an intense longing for love and connection that pervades Mihara’s work. Her characters are searching for someone they can be close to, someone they can trust, someone they can reach out to. Sometimes this is found within their families, and sometimes they are forced to look outside of them to satisfy those needs. Love takes on many different forms in Mihara’s stories, and its potential to end in tragedy is just as real as its potential to end in redemption.

Maturer themes dealing with sex and sexuality have been present in Mihara’s work since the very beginning. Her debut manga “Keep Those Condoms Away from Our Kids” (collected in IC in a Sunflower Circuit) tells the story of a near-future Japan in which the birthrate has plummeted because younger generations have completely lost interest in sex. In the post-apocalyptic vision of “World’s End” (collected in Beautiful People), a peculiar twist of fate means that a lesbian and a gay man may be the only survivors. Perversion, fetishism, bondage, and sadomasochism can be seen in much of Mihara’s work as well, but perhaps most obviously in Doll.

Although frequently viewed through the lens of speculative fiction, Mihara isn’t afraid to look at the harsher realities of life and the darker sides of human nature. Abuse, obsession, sexual violence, and other harmful deviant behaviors can all readily be found within her work. Many of Mihara’s characters are suffering, whether from the actions of others or from their own personal demons and psychological disturbances. There is tragedy, sadness, and pain in both their lives and their relationships. Life isn’t always pretty, and Mihara doesn’t shy away from that fact in her manga.

People can be cruel and are capable of terrible things. As is seen again and again in Mihara’s work, it takes a human to be inhumane. The monsters in her stories are often the ones showing the most empathy and caring for others. Sometimes those monsters are literal—like the vampire in “Blue Sky” (collected in Beautiful People). Sometimes they are beings of human design—like the clones in “Alive” (collected in IC in a Sunflower) or the Dolls. And sometimes they are other people who are for one reason or another shunned, abandoned, or reviled by the rest of society. But there is some hope in humanity that remains—people are changed, often for the better, by their interactions with those “monsters.”

The EmbalmerDeath and dying are themes that frequently make an appearance in Mihara’s work, but at the same time an immense respect and reverence for life can always be seen. Matters of life and death are most realistically examined by Mihara in The Embalmer, the series focusing on those left behind to grieve the deaths of their loved ones. The characters must respond to that loss of life in a very personal way and their relationship with death is constantly changing as a result. Requiem in Phonybrian and many of Mihara’s short manga take a more fantastic approach to death and the afterlife, but emotionally it is all still very real.

Mihara’s manga deal extensively with dualities. This is visually epitomized in the Gothic Lolita aesthetic which Mihara frequently incorporates into her work, but it is also present in the narrative themes that she explores. Light and darkness. Beauty and ugliness. Innocence and perversion. Love and hate. Purity and corruption. Human and inhuman. Hope and despair. Life and death. They are pairs of concepts that are so closely intertwined that it is simply impossible for them to be separated from each other.

They are all also qualities that exist simultaneously within a single person or a single story. Although often viewed as positive or negative characteristics, Mihara’s work shows that they aren’t necessarily inherently good or bad. Rather, it’s a fixation on a particular ideal or other imbalance in those qualities that truly causes harm. Mihara’s stories, just like individuals, contain many complexities, contradictions, and layers. They can be shocking and surprising and may often have more depth to them than might first appear.