Random Musings: Six Years of Experiments in Manga

I did it! Experiments in Manga is officially six years old! While a respectable achievement in its own right, this anniversary is even more meaningful to me because I honestly wasn’t sure I was going to make it through the year. As many regular readers of Experiments in Manga know, I have needed to significantly cut back on how much I’m writing. I explained a bit about the change in posting schedule and what to expect couple of months ago, but basically my already limited amount of free time has been dramatically reduced. The causes, while time-consuming, haven’t all been bad, though. I’ve bought a house and my family has moved, which will be fantastic in the long run even if it was initially extremely stressful. After passing an audition in February, I’m now playing taiko semi-professionally. (Being an established, performing musician means a tremendous amount to me personally since for many years I had given up on that even being a possibility; I would love to make my living through music one day.) I’m also still trying to adjust to this whole parenthood thing, too.

But even with all that and more going on in my life, I have managed to find a way to keep Experiments in Manga going in some small capacity, so I’m going to celebrate that fact. At Experiments in Manga’s peak I was posting on average four features each week; now I’m doing my best to post two. It hurts to have cut back so much and I’d love to write more but, because writing is so difficult for me to begin with and because I’m so incredibly busy, that’s not a sustainable option for me at the moment. By necessity, at least for the foreseeable future, most in-depth features will rely on me being truly inspired to write. This might not actually be a bad thing; what I’m lacking in quantity I do hope that I can at least make up for in quality. (Though to be completely honest, I’m not at all confident about my ability to do so!)

Anyway, enough of all of that! I have been reading and writing about manga, Japanese literature, and other tangentially related items for six years! Six years! That’s pretty impressive, especially when considering the circumstances. Even though I’m writing less, looking back over the past year I am still happy with much of what I’ve been able to do. The manga and comic reviews that seemed to be particularly popular (or at least most frequently read/visited) from the last year included Hiroaki Samura’s Die Wergelder, Omnibus 1, Inio Asano’s A Girl on the Shore, Rokudenashiko’s What Is Obscenity?, Studio Kôsen’s Windrose, Volume 1, and Yui Sakuma’s Complex Age, Volume 1. I was also able to successfully wrap up my horror manga review project which featured Setona Mizushiro’s After School Nightmare and Yuki Urushibara’s Mushishi.

As for the non-manga reviews from the last year that people seemed to be particularly interested in there was Project Itoh’s Genocidal Organ, Yukito Ayatsuji’s The Decagon House Murders, the tenth volume of Mechademia, Soji Shimada’s The Tokyo Zodiac Murders, and Ryu Murakami’s short story collection Tokyo Decadence. (I’ve apparently been reading a fair amount of Japanese mystery and crime fiction of late, which is reflected in that list.) Although I’ve written mostly reviews at Experiments in Manga, the features that I often end up enjoying working on the most tend to be the non-reviews like my write-up of TCAF 2016 or my overview of Mushishi adaptations. The post from the last year that was probably my personal favorite was A Moment of Respite in Kohske’s Gangsta, some random musings sparked by a single scene in the manga. Generally, these types of features require significantly more inspiration than standard reviews, but I suspect that they may become slightly more common going forward as I shift my approach to writing at Experiments in Manga.

One last thing: I’d like to thank all of my readers, past and present, old and new. When I started Experiments in Manga it was in part to connect more with other readers and fans of manga and I think that it helped me to do that. I primarily write for myself, but it makes me tremendously happy to know that at least on occasion other people actually do find the site useful or interesting. I love hearing from people who have given something a try or have learned about something new because of what I’ve written here. I hope that in the coming year Experiments in Manga can continue to inspire people even if I’m not able to write as much as I once was. Thank you to everyone for your kindness and support over the last year and for sticking with me! It’s time to get started on year seven.

Random Musings: Wrapping Up the Horror Manga Monthly Review Project

MushishiLiveActionOver the last few years one of the features at Experiments in Manga has been a monthly manga review project. What makes these reviews any different from the rest found on the site? Not much, really, except that the readers of Experiments in Manga actually helped to choose the manga that would be featured. The subject of my third monthly manga review project was put up for a vote about a year and a half ago. I narrowed down the genre to horror–using a very broad definition of horror–and selected five options from which readers could pick: After School Nightmare by Setona Mizushiro, Dorohedoro by Q Hayashida, Mushishi by Yuki Urushibara, Nightmare Inspector by Shin Mashiba, and Tokyo Babylon/X by CLAMP.

Much to my surprise, there ended up being a tie between After School Nightmare and Mushishi. So, instead of trying to come up with some arbitrary way to choose one series over the other, I decided that I would simply review both of them. Between December 2014 and July 2016 I alternated between the two series until I had reviewed every volume of the manga. I also wrote a bonus Adaptation Adventures feature for Mushishi which provided a brief overview comparing and contrasting some of the series’ adaptations. One thing that I personally found interesting about this particular review project was that while I already knew that I loved Mushishi (I simply hadn’t previously written much about it at Experiments in Manga), After School Nightmare was a manga that I had started but never finished and so didn’t know what my overall impression of the series would be.

As was the case with my past two review projects (namely Blade of the Immortal and the Year of Yuri), I greatly enjoyed delving into After School Nightmare and Mushishi as part of the horror manga review project. Though both series share some similarities, such as strong psychological elements, a unsettling atmospheres, and an ominous sense of foreboding, they are still very different from each other. One particularly notable difference between the two is how each manga approaches and treats themes of life and death. Life in Mushishi is something that is held as sacred in which one person is part of a much greater whole; in After School Nightmare, life consists of trials and tribulations that must be personally overcome and is something that must be actively claimed as one’s own.

Found below are the links to the individual in-depth reviews and features associated with the horror manga monthly review project. Though not specific to the review project itself, tags for both After School Nightmare and Mushishi are also available for browsing.

After School Nightmare
After School Nightmare, Volume 1
After School Nightmare, Volume 2
After School Nightmare, Volume 3
After School Nightmare, Volume 4
After School Nightmare, Volume 5
After School Nightmare, Volume 6
After School Nightmare, Volume 7
After School Nightmare, Volume 8
After School Nightmare, Volume 9
After School Nightmare, Volume 10

Adaptation Adventures: Mushishi
Mushishi, Volume 1
Mushishi, Volume 2
Mushishi, Volume 3
Mushishi, Volume 4
Mushishi, Volume 5
Mushishi, Volume 6
Mushishi, Volume 7
Mushishi, Volumes 8, 9, and 10

Random Musings: Toronto Comic Arts Festival 2016

TCAF 2016 Poster - Kazu Kibuishi

©Kazu Kibuishi

As of 2016, I have now attended the Toronto Comic Arts Festival (TCAF) for four years running. TCAF is still the only large comics event that I make a point to attended, although I guess technically I went to an anime/manga/cosplay convention earlier this year since I and the rest of the taiko group I’m a part of were featured guest performers. Anyway, I digress. TCAF is an amazing event and I’m able to enjoy a fair amount of it even though my anxiety (social and otherwise) sometimes prevents me from doing everything that I’d really like to. Each year I attend seems to be a little easier for me, though it’s still certainly not easy. But, I do think TCAF is totally worth trying to push through my issues when I can, which probably says a fair amount about the event itself.

Like last year, TCAF 2016 turned into a family trip, which made me happy. The four of us arrived in Toronto late Thursday afternoon, settled into where we were staying, stretched our legs in a nearby park (which was much needed after spending hours cooped up in the car), and eventually found something to eat for dinner before turning in for the night. Originally, I was hoping and planning to go to the opening of Shintaro Kago’s solo exhibition at Narwhal, but for a variety of reasons I ended up deciding to chill with the family all night instead. Which was also good, since for all intents and purposes TCAF ends up being a vacation of sorts for us all.

Friday, too, was more of a family day, although I did meet up with Jocelyne Allen (who translates Japanese novels and manga, and who is one of the interpreters for TCAF) for coffee in the morning. We chatted about taiko, translation, TCAF, Toronto, Tokyo and all sorts of other things, which was highly enjoyable. It was nice being able to find some time to talk with her in person since we primarily only know each other online and she’s understandably very busy during TCAF. Most of the rest of the day was spent exploring Toronto with the family, including the Royal Ontario Museum which had a really interesting exhibitA Third Gender: Beautiful Youths in Japanese Printsabout gender and sexuality in Edo-era Japan. Finally, that evening I made my way to the tail end of Sparkler Monthly‘s annual TCAF mixer. It was a fairly small group when I got there, but a good time was had by all, myself included.

Saturday marks the beginning of TCAF proper, although there are plenty of related events that occur both before and after TCAF weekend. As was the case for the previous couple of years, I started off the 2016 festival in the in the exhibitors’ area before most of the main programming began. I ended up spending my entire comics budget for the weekend before the first day was over, but I was pretty happy with my haul which included some pre-orders, a couple of Kickstarter pickups, a few things I knew beforehand that I wanted to buy, as well as several unplanned, spur-of-the-moment purchases.

TCAF 2016 Poster - Kate Beaton

©Kate Beaton

This year I actually spent even more time on the exhibit floors buying comics, collecting sketches and signatures, and talking to creators than I have in the past. (A few highlights: I was particularly excited to meet Saicoink, whose comic Open Spaces and Closed Places I love, made a point to tell Kori Michele Handwerker how much Portals meant to me, and discovered some wonderful new-to-me creator’s like GQutie‘s Ronnie Ritchie.) That, combined with prioritizing the family more and considering the need for flexible schedules when dealing with a not-quite-two-year old, meant that I didn’t make it to as many panels this year. In some ways, TCAF 2016 for me felt more like TCAF-lite, but I still greatly enjoyed the festival and was thoroughly satisfied by all of the events, panels, and interviews that I was able to attend.

On Saturday, I ended up making it to four panels. The first was the Spotlight on Shintaro Kago, one of TCAF’s featured guests for 2016, who was interviewed by Youth in Decline’s Ryan Sands. Kago is particularly well-known for his horrific, erotic, and grotesque manga and illustrations. Many of Kago’s works are released ero-manga magazines. As he pointed out, his manga isn’t the type of work that would be published in Jump; there is a limited number of magazines (generally erotic or alternative) that would even consider releasing his work. But by submitting to ero-magazines, Kago is allowed a tremendous amount of editorial freedom. As long as the minimum erotic requirements are met, he is able to do almost anything that he wants to with his manga, including highly experimental techniques. An example of this is a work known in English as “Abstraction” which gained a fair amount of international attention when it was translated by a fan and posted online. When asked about his feelings regarding fan translations, Kago responded that in his case he was satisfied with his work becoming more readily available to a worldwide audience since the benefits he received from the original release (page rates, etc.) didn’t amount to much anyway. Another of Kago’s short manga, “Punctures,” was officially translated in English in the anthology Secret Comics Japan. Anecdotally, it was one of the few works by Kago that the editors felt would be safe enough to include and sell. At the beginning of his creative career, Kago actually wanted to be involved in making films. However, he realized that movies are very difficult to make alone, and since he didn’t have any friends to make movies with, he turned to manga as a way to express himself so that he wouldn’t need to rely on others.

After spending a bit more time wandering the exhibitor areas, I then made my way to the panel “Depictions of Sex in Comics” which was moderated by Rebecca Sullivan, a scholar specializing in sex and media as well as gender and cultural studies. The panel featured a variety of comics publishers and creators: Zan Christensen, Chip Zdarsky, Erika Moen, Cory Silverberg, C. Spike Trotman, and Shintaro Kago. Each of the panelists has their own approach to sex in regards to how it is related to and portrayed in their work, whether their focus is on sex education, erotica, some combination of the two, or something else entirely. One cultural difference that emerged during the conversation was that while erotic comics are currently seeing a resurgence in North America (Oni Press recently announced a new imprint devoted to sex positive comics, and there have been numerous, highly-successful crowd-funded projects for feminist and queer erotic comics in the last few years), the market for erotic manga in Japan has always been very strong. A very specific set of constraints exist in Japan in regards to the depiction of sex in media, what can and cannot be shown and so on, but the country probably has the most well-established and easily navigable erotic comics scene in the world. Many Japanese creators (including Kago himself) got their start working in erotic media before moving on to other and more mainstream projects. Interestingly, Kago also mentioned that BL isn’t necessarily always recognized as being “erotic” (possibly because its target demographic is women) and so in some ways the genre can actually get away with more than hentai aimed at heterosexual men which, in his experience, seems to come under public scrutiny and fire more quickly and more often.

Rokudenashiko's Manko-chan

Manko-chan… in 3D!

The third panel I attended on Saturday was Rokudenashiko’s Spotlight which was absolutely delightful. After a brief introduction by Rebecca Sullivan, Rokudenashiko began by telling her story of how she came to be a vagina artist and activist and how she was subsequently arrested multiple times. Accompanying Rokudenashiko’s talk was a slide show of some of her artwork, and she brought along some of her small sculptures to show as well, including a remote-controlled “Gundaman.” Much of what she talked about I was already familiar with having read her manga What Is Obscenity? (which I highly recommend), but it was wonderful to see and hear her in person. Just like her work, Rokudenashiko is incredibly charming, cheerful, and funny. The humor and cuteness that Rokudenashiko brings to her manga, illustrations, and sculptures is very deliberate on her part. She noted that many feminist creators dealing with similar subject matter frequently use their art to express their anger and sadness which makes for very heavy work. So instead, Rokudenashiko wanted to do something that was more lighthearted and amusing. It was only after she realized that some people couldn’t laugh and have fun with it that she became more aggressive in her activism efforts, but without ever losing her sense of humor and positivity in her artwork. However, some critics and academics don’t appreciate this, feeling that she’s making too light of a serious subject. Rokudenashiko was very pleased with her reception in North America, saying that the long lines of people waiting to meet her would never happen in Japan where most people are generally too embarrassed to engage so publicly even if they recognize her and are interested in and support what she is doing.

Last year at TCAF I attended a panel on manga translation which was fascinating, so when I saw the “Translation” panel listed as part of the programming for 2016 I was immediately interested. This year the panel was moderated by Deb Aoki and featured three panelists: Jocelyne Allen, who translates from Japanese to English, Samuel Leblanc, a Canadian creator primarily working in French whose debut comic Perfume of Lilacs was released in English, and the French creator Boulet who (after a disastrous attempt to work with fans) currently translates his own comics into English. Leblanc was able to work directly with his translator and was able to provide feedback on the translation being done whereas Allen very rarely had the opportunity to be in contact with the creators of the works that she was translating. Although each of the panelists brought their own perspective to the conversation, they all agreed that capturing the appropriate tone and style is one of the most difficult things about translation. That and the fact that it’s nearly impossible to make everyone happy with a translation since so many people are invested in it each for their own reasons, whether it be the original creators, the translators, the publishers, or the readers. Lately however, the trend in comics translation seems to err on the side of the artists’ original choices and intent rather than focusing on localization. There are also different types of translation work which require different sets of skills—translating comics isn’t the same as translating prose literature which isn’t the same as translating technical manuals and so on. One thing that can be particularly challenging for comics translation is that the amount of space allowed for text is often limited. The visual element of the comics can have a great impact on the interpretation of a scene and the resulting word choices as well.

TCAF 2016 Haul

It’s not everything, but it is most of this year’s TCAF haul

On Sunday I was only able to make it to two panels before heading back home. One of the reasons that I enjoy TCAF so much is that it is an incredibly queer-friendly and queer-positive event, both in the exhibitor areas and in its programming. I was especially looking forward to “Queer Science Fiction and Fantasy,” a panel moderated by Melanie Gillman and featuring Megan Rose Gedris, Jeremy Sorese, Dylan Edwards, Andrew Wheeler, Taneka Stotts, and Gisele Jobateh, all of whom are queer creators of queer comics. Historically, queerness in speculative fiction has been relegated to subtext, but more and more that queerness is becoming increasingly obvious and in some cases is even the focus of a work. Speculative fiction allows for the creation and exploration of worlds that reflect upon current societal issues while showing what other possibilities could exist. Several of the panelists mentioned that when they were growing up speculative fiction provided some of the only representation of queerness that they saw in media, such as alternative relationship and social structures or a wider variety of genders and sexualities. Frequently, it was the non-human characters that they were most easily able to identify with and the inherent queerness of speculative fiction helped them to understand and discover their own identities. (All of this rings very true for me, too.) Webcomics and self-publishing efforts have been huge in changing the landscape of the comics market to the point where more mainstream publishers, which are slow to evolve and risk-averse, are now reaching a tipping point where queer content isn’t being automatically rejected. Deliberately, intentionally, and unquestionably queer speculative fiction is an evolving genre. Whether they mean to or not, independent creators are currently defining the expectations, tone, language, and tropes that are being set for queer representation in comics and what queer speculative fiction looks like.

The final panel I attended on Sunday was “Discussing Diversity (More or Less)” which was moderated by David Brothers. The panelists included Karla Pacheco, Cathy G. Johnson, Gene Luen Yang, Anne Ishii (one of the marvelous people behind Massive Goods), Ant Sang, and Bill Campbell. Diversity is a huge buzzword right now and not just in comics and other media. (Even my workplace is trying to focus on issues surrounding diversity, so it’s something I’m thinking about a lot these days.) In many of the conversations taking place in North America, diversity is often broadly defined as being non-straight/white/male which, in reality, is actually most of the world. The panel’s incredibly refreshing approach to discussing diversity was simply to talk about it as if was normal, because it is, rather than treating it as an exception or something unusual. As the panelists spoke about their own personal experiences and work, several common themes emerged, probably the most important being that there absolutely is a market, and a need, for diverse media. Though it can be a deliberate initiative, diversity in comics is a natural and often unintentional extension of creators’ own lives, interests, identities, and perspectives. There is also a distinct difference between providing more diverse representation in mainstream media and allowing a more diverse pool of creators to participate and express themselves within that context. While it might be a starting place, non-straight/white/male characters being written by straight/white/male creators sets an extremely low bar in terms of diversity. New voices and perspectives are just as critical if not more so in order to ensure that the comics market remains healthy as it continues to grow and evolve.

Sadly, because the kidling was getting cranky, I had to leave the festival before the food in comics panel which I was really hoping to attend. I was sad to miss most of the “What Women Want” panel’s third year, too. But I have come to realize that even if I wasn’t leaving “early,” it is impossible to see and experience everything that TCAF has to offer and choices must be made. Actually, this is something that I’ve known since the very beginning. There are always going to be panels I miss or that conflict with one another, and after the fact I’m always going to end up discovering comics that I would have been interested in and creators that I wish I had known about. But even so, that doesn’t detract from my overall enjoyment of the event and I am tremendously happy with what I was able to attend this year. TCAF is such a truly wonderful festival. As always, I’m already looking forward to and planning for my trip to Toronto for the event next year.

Random Musings: Notable in 2015

For the last couple of years, I have made a point to compile an end-of-year list of works that, for me, were particularly notable. In general I tend to like making lists, but I particularly enjoy working on this one because it specifically provides me the opportunity to reflect back on the year. The notable list isn’t exactly a “best of” list or even a list of favorites. To be included, a work must simply have been released in 2015, read in 2015, and stood out to me in one way or another. (That being said, I didn’t get to read as much this past year as I have in previous years. I’m sure that, had I had the chance to read them, there would be other works represented here, too.)

Blade of the Immortal, Volume 31: Final Curtain2015 was a year in which many series came to an end. Final Curtain, the last volume in the English-language edition of Hiroaki Samura’s Blade of the Immortal, was especially meaningful to me since the series was one of the first manga that I ever read and continues to be a personal favorite. Dark Horse began releasing the series in individual issues back in 1996; nearly two decades later it is now available in its entirety. All in all, it was a great ending to a great series.

The Summit of the Gods, Volume 5Another series that concluded in English in 2015 was The Summit of the Gods, written by Baku Yumemakura and illustrated by Jiro Taniguchi. Fanfare/Ponent Mon is one of the smaller, more niche manga and comics publishers and has infrequent releases. Multiple years passed between the publication of some of the volumes in the series, so I was honestly afraid I’d never have the opportunity to read the conclusion of such an impressively drawn and written manga.

Wandering Son, Volume 8 2015 also saw what may be the premature end to a few manga in English. Tragically, for a variety of reasons, Fantagraphic’s release of Takako Shimura’s Wandering Son hasn’t been doing well and the publisher might have to cancel the series if sales don’t improve. Only a single volume, with one heck of a cliffhanger, was able to be released in 2015. The series is incredibly important to me on a very personal level—it was literally life-changing—so I’ll heartbroken if this is truly the end.

Vinland Saga, Omnibus 6Makoto Yukimura’s Vinland Saga is another series that might come to a close before its time in English. After a temporary hiatus, the sixth and seventh omnibuses, the last that are guaranteed to be published, were released in 2015. Even if the rest of the series isn’t translated (and I hope that it is), the first two major story arcs are complete and the manga is well-worth seeking out. The character development in the series is fantastic, the artwork is excellent, and the story is marvelous.

A Silent Voice, Volume 1One of the manga to debut in 2015 that stood out to me the most was A Silent Voice by Yoshitoki Oima. A realistic portrayal of bullying and the consequences of such cruelty, the series can be a difficult but ultimately worthwhile read. The subject matter is heartwrenching but handled extremely well, skillfully showing the nuanced complexity of human nature and relationships while exploring themes of forgiveness, empathy, and redemption.

Requiem of the Rose King, Volume 1Aya Kanno’s Requiem of the Rose King was one of my most anticipated manga series to be released in 2015. A combination of historical fact and historical fantasy inspired by the plays of William Shakespeare, Kanno’s research into the Wars of the Roses, and her own imagination, the manga hasn’t yet disappointed me and gets better with each volume. The storytelling can be somewhat cryptic and chaotic at times, but its dark, dreamlike nature can also be wonderfully effective.

HenshinKen Niimura is an award-winning Spanish comics creator of Japanese heritage who has worked in the European, North American, and Asian markets. Henshin is a delightfully quirky collection of thirteen short manga originally released online by Ikki, making it Niimura’s first major Japanese publication. While the stories range from semi-autobiographical to the absolute fantastic, they all tend to have surprising twists to them with great emotional impact.

The Ancient Magus' Bride, Volume 1Seven Seas has recently shown a remarkable increase in the number and variety of titles it has licensed. Kore Yamazaki’s The Ancient Magus’ Bride is perhaps one of Seven Sea’s more atypical series, but it seems to be doing well for itself. I’m glad, because I enjoy the manga and its strangeness immensely. A peculiar romance incorporating horror and fantasy, magic and science, the series is heavily influenced by European legends, fairy tales, and folklore.

Junji Ito's Cat Diary: Yon & MuJunji Ito had a pretty good showing in English in 2015 with several new releases and re-releases. Of those, it was Junji Ito’s Cat Diary: Yon & Mu that made the strongest impression on me. (I admittedly find it difficult to resist cat comics.) The manga is drawn in Ito’s signature style but is undoubtedly a comedy, granted one about the horrors and anxieties of pet ownership. The disconnect between the artwork and the story makes it even funnier.

JoJo's Bizarre Adventure, Part 1: Phantom Blood, Volume 1I never expected to see the beginning of Hirohiko Araki’s exceptionally weird yet iconic manga series JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure released in English. The third story arc was published years ago but only garnered a relatively small following. Thankfully, the manga’s recent anime adaptation revitalized interest in the series, leading Viz Media to release the first two arcs of the epic—Phantom Blood and Battle Tendency—and in a beautiful hardcover edition no less.

Prison School, Omnibus 1Probably one of the most divisive debuts of 2015 was Prison School by Akira Hiramoto, but Yen Press had the guts to license it. With its highly sexualized content, over-the-top fanservice verging on the grotesque, and preponderance despicable characters, it’s definitely not a series for everyone. The manga revels in its salaciousness to the point of parody, making it a strangely engrossing and humorous work for readers who aren’t immediately offended by it.

NimonaNimona had its beginnings as an award-winning webcomic, ultimately becoming Noelle Stevenson’s debut graphic novel; the print edition also includes additional material not found online. I absolutely loved this comic. It starts out rather lighthearted, but as the graphic novel progresses it becomes more serious. However, it never loses its sense of humor. Stevenson combines colorful characters, settings, and artwork to create a comic that is both entertaining and meaningful.

Fantasy Sports, Volume 1Sometimes all I want from a comic is something fun, and Fantasy Sports by Sam Bosma is certainly that and then some. The comic started as a short, self-published, black-and-white work but it has been expanded into an ongoing, full-color series being released by Nobrow Press. The marvelous first volume, featuring a life-and-death game of basketball between an ancient mummy and a young magic user interning at the United Order of Mages, is filled with silliness and adventure.

TowerkindAlso originally self-published, Towerkind by Kat Verhoeven was a comic that I came across by chance more than anything else; I picked up the book on an impulse after seeing it at the Toronto Comic Arts Festival and finding myself oddly drawn towards it. The comic is surreal, about a group of children with supernatural abilities who may or may not be facing the end of the world. It’s both a strangely compelling and darkly ominous work.

Red Girls: The Legend of the AkakuchibasOut of all of the novels released in 2015 that I read, Red Girls: The Legend of the Akakuchibas by Kazuki Sakuraba was perhaps the most curious, peculiar, and enthralling. A multi-generational family epic, the story follows the lives and legends of three women, each powerful in their own way. (One of them even becomes a successful mangaka after retiring from being the leader of a girl gang.) Part history, part mystery, and part fantasy, I enjoyed the novel a great deal.

The Grace of KingsKen Liu is probably best known for his short fiction, but in 2015 he made his debut as a novelist with The Grace of Kings, the first book in The Dandelion Dynasty which is a sort of retelling or reimagining of China’s historical legends and mythologies. The novel is a massive and expansive work with incredible worldbuilding. Though contemporary fantasy fiction, stylistically Liu also pays tribute to the narrative structure of the Chinese classics and not just their stories.

Random Musings: A Moment of Respite in Kohske’s Gangsta

Gangsta is an ongoing manga series created by Kohske that began serialization in Japan in 2011. The collected volumes of the manga are being published in English by Viz Media under its Signature imprint. So far, I have been loving the series.

Although the manga features a large and diverse cast of characters, the story primarily revolves around the Handymen: Alex Benedetto, a former prostitute recovering from involuntary drug use; Nicolas Brown, a deaf Twilight mercenary with incredible physical abilities; and Worick Arcangelo, a gigolo with an exceptionally accurate and vivid memory. Living in the city of Ergastulum, which was created to quarantine and control the superhuman Twilights, the three leads carry out all sorts of odd jobs for the police, the mafia and gangs, and individual citizens, everything from repairing buildings to finding lost cats to assassination hits.

I have been thoroughly enjoying Gangsta ever since it first began being published in English. I like its dark, gritty atmosphere, intense action sequences, and engaging characters with complicated relationships and pasts. However, I only recently caught up with the sixth and most recent volume, released back in May. While reading the volume, I was particularly struck by a short sequence of panels which was part of a larger four-page scene:

Gangsta, Volume 6, page 51

At first glance, Nic could be standing next to anything—a door, a wall, a pillar, or what have you. I was initially so caught up in the subtle changes in his expression from one panel to the next that it actually took me a moment to realize that Nic was in fact leaning up against part of the sound system at Bastard (a club/brothel run by one of the mafia families that the Handymen are on good terms with). Nic may be deaf, but for an all too brief moment he’s enjoying Ally’s performance as she sings. He’s also literally feeling the music.

A bit of a personal side story: Back in my undergraduate days, the symphonic band that I was a part of would go on tour over spring break. There is one performance from my junior year that particularly stands out to me for two reasons. The first being that our lead trumpet player (who was also my roommate for the tour) was hit in the head by a tuba during intermission, didn’t let anyone know there was a problem, proceeded to play through the rest of the concert with a concussion, and ended up in the hospital that night as a result. The second reason (and the reason that I’m even bringing this all up) is that several members of that evening’s audience happened to be deaf. They sat together as a group with a clear view of the stage so that they could see the performance and they held balloons between their hands so that they could more easily feel the different vibrations created by the woodwinds, brass, and percussion.

Likewise, Nic standing near and actually leaning against one of the sound system’s speakers allows him to more fully experience the music of Ally’s performance. When I recognized this was what was happening, I immediately thought back to that concert in my junior year. I love Kohske’s attention to these sorts of details. They can be found throughout the series and bring an added level of realism and nuance to the manga’s characters and story. I also appreciate that Nic’s deafness isn’t used as a gimmick; it is an integral part of who he is as a person and how he experiences and interacts with his environment and the people around him.

This scene takes place during Ally’s second public performance as a singer at Bastard. The first was an effectively heartbreaking rendition of Ben E. King’s “Stand by Me,” her voice superimposed over the mayhem and death occurring in the streets just outside while Worick, Nic, and others risked their lives to trying save those of the Twilight refugees seeking shelter within the club. Tragically, the violence could not be withheld and ultimately spilled into the club itself. This makes Ally’s later performance even more significant, powerful, and emotionally resonant. Her singing this time is a celebration—it can be seen in the joy and happiness in her face and in the faces of those who are listening—providing healing for the survivors and a moment of peace between the tragedies of the past and the tragedies that will inevitably come.

The entire sequence, and specifically these three panels, capture that feeling and atmosphere astonishingly well. Kohske is remarkably skilled when it comes to pacing in Gangsta. Chaos and violence is balanced by quieter moments, pain and tragedy (of which there are plenty) is alleviated by humor and compassion. Gangsta has a narrative rhythm to it that continues to build tension without becoming unrelentingly bleak. Kohske knows when to push the action and when to hold back to allow the characters and the readers to recover, breathe, and process the ramifications of everything that has taken place.

What is also striking about this four-page scene is that there isn’t a single word of spoken dialogue or narration. Even what it is that Ally is singing is unknown. The scene is an entirely visual experience, relying exclusively on the strength of Kohske’s artwork to convey the emotions and narrative of the manga. It serves to emphasize what is happening in these particular three panels as well, accentuating Nic’s perspective as someone who can see but not hear the world around him. And then he closes his eyes, distancing himself even further from that world and from the people he cares about and who care about him.

In the very next instant, Nic is suddenly gone, off on a mission of his own devising that may very well get him killed. And he hasn’t told Ally or Worick or anyone else who truly matters about his plan. But this moment before he disappears is tremendously important—Nic is fully present as he absorbs with all of his senses Ally’s performance and the jubilation permeating the club, something that he will carry within himself when he leaves. Even while Nic is closing himself off, he still maintains and strengthens his connection to others. The space that he previously occupied is left disconcertingly empty; though initially unnoticed, his absence will be felt.

Nic knows what he’s going to do and what’s coming next even if nobody else does. Elation, sadness, energy, calm, regret, contentment, and a myriad of other things can all be found within this one scene. And the wider implications of it are surprisingly complex considering its simplicity. On the surface, Ally sings while others listen, but underneath it all is a turmoil of emotions and a tangle of intentions. In general I have found Kohske’s Gangsta to be an incredibly engaging manga, but this scene in particular has left a huge impression on me from both a visual and narrative standpoint.

Gangsta, Volume 6, page 51