News about the premier academic journal devoted to all aspects of cartooning and comics -- the International Journal of Comic Art (ISSN 1531-6793) published and edited by John Lent.

Tuesday, March 26, 2024

Book Review: Black Panther: A Cultural Exploration by Ytasha L. Womack


reviewed by Charles W. Henebry, Boston University

Black Panther: A Cultural Exploration by Ytasha L. Womack. New York: Epic Ink, 2023. 176pp.

Judging by its cover, lavish illustrations, and meager page count, you wouldn’t think Black Panther: A Cultural Exploration lived up to the scholarly ambitions of its title. Yet Womack manages to pack a surprising wealth of cultural references and oral history into this slender volume. Having myself analyzed the Panther by reference to the aims of his creators, I was fascinated by Womack’s reader-centered approach to the character. Prior scholarship has problematized the Panther’s status as the “World’s First Black Superhero,” given Marvel’s all-white creative staff back in the sixties. Womack implicitly responds to this criticism with a moving account of the lived experience of the superhero’s African-American fans who, in that same era, encountered the new character at the newsstand and argued with their friends about how he was connected to the Black Panther Party. And she ties this oral history to developments in contemporary history and culture, from Kwame Nkrumah, the first Prime Minister of Ghana, to the cosmic jazz of Sun-Ra. In so doing, she encourages us to think of the Black Panther not as corporate IP, but as one of the shared myths of our culture: “I’d reason that the Black Panther myth is bigger than its creators, an idea held by fans, writers, pencilers, and the awed alike—a myth that channels love and liberation.” Having previously published a book on Afrofuturism, Womack is well situated to deliver in this effort to claim the Black Panther as a genuine expression of the African-American experience.

While the first chapter contextualizes the creation of the Black Panther in the ferment of the late 1960s, the book is organized not by timeline but by topic: “The Panther Mystique,” “The Wakandan Protopia,” “The Modern Goddess and Futuristic Warrior Queens,” etc. Throughout, Womack works suggestively rather than analytically: in the chapter on political power, for instance, she juxtaposes the Panther with real-world political figures ranging from MLK to Mandela, but does not explicitly argue any particular parallel or connection. Some may see this as a virtue, in that it invites the reader to take an active role in making sense of the Panther’s cultural resonance. But I would have liked a more detailed account, especially in regard to lesser-known figures like Kwame Nkrumah. Without such detail, the reader is hardly in a position to weigh the real significance of Womack’s musings.

The book’s greatest strength is its oral history of fans. Besides childhood memories, the interviews offer up a variety of insights as to the Panther’s political and cultural significance. A few of those interviewed are famous; many others are identified by Womack as authors or artists. In a few cases, we are provided with no more than a name, which left me wondering what principle Womack used in choosing whom to interview.

Another strength is the book’s format: lavish full-color images predominate throughout, ranging from comics panels to news photographs. Comics are a visual medium, and it’s wonderful to see scholarship illustrated in this way. Too often, due to the cost of permissions, comics scholars see their work go to print with no illustrations whatsoever. In Black Panther as well as in an earlier book on Spider-Man, Epic Ink neatly solved the permissions problem by partnering with Marvel Comics.

But I can’t help but worry that this cure is worse than the disease. Rights holders like Marvel are unlikely to partner with scholars who train a critical eye on their history, so in the marketplace of ideas, such scholarship will be text-only and hence at a disadvantage relative to visually attractive puff-pieces. Womack’s wholeheartedly celebratory account—which interrogates neither the politics of the characters early decades nor the politics of Marvels creative team—does little to allay such concerns. Interested readers will have to seek out that richly problematic history elsewhere.

Monday, March 11, 2024

Manga in Angouleme and Paris

So Angouleme Comics Festival / France / possibly most of Europe continues to focus on manga. It did not happen overnight and there was backlash. The same backlash happened in the Philippines in the 1990s but over time, manga style was accepted in most countries like in the case of Malaysia. 

I wrote about the Philippines' response to manga here.

And how Malaysian comic artists have also embraced manga style back in the 2000s. 

And of course, genres like BL / yaoi led the manga wave in Asia.

These days, Thai BL tv series are very popular in Southeast Asia. And at one time, China BL tv series too. (until they were 'banned')

Here's an interview with Bounthavy Suvilay who has insightful things to say about manga style.

But back to Angouleme Comics Festival 2024. There was this huge Moto Hagio retrospective of original art (you know the Japanese do not lend out their original art easily) which really helps one to reevaluate the importance of Moto Hagio in comics history. Reading her shojo manga now might be a bit underwhelming. But that's because so many of her innovations in manga have become common vocabulary in the medium. But looking at her original pages, you are reminded she is the pioneer in portraying what we take for granted now - how the inner worlds of characters are visualized on the manga page. She invented the language. That is the power of a good comic art exhibition. They make you think and reexamine your assumptions. 

I have written about Shin-ichi Sakamoto in a previous post. But I want to talk about Hiroaki Samura's Blade of the Immortal exhibition. Which is excellent, of course. That's not surprising. But what is shocking is that some of my friends from Japan (manga profs) are not familiar with Blade of the Immortal. To them, Hiroaki Samura is not a well known mangaka in Japan. This blew my mind as I thought Blade of the Immortal was a popular manga series in Japan. So I am dispelled of this belief. That led me to think that back in the 1990s, the kind of manga that gets translated and published in the West really depends on agents and the kind of rights that get bought and sold in the trade market. Blade of the Immortal is popular in America and France. It was well reviewed in The Comics Journal in the 1990s when manga reviews were not so common. But according to my friends, it is almost unknown in Japan. Today, the world is flat, to borrow a phrase. What is popular in Japan (One Piece, Naruto, Demons Slayer, etc) is also popular in the rest of the comics worlds. This is food for thought as this means the manga translated into English and published for the American comic book market in the 1980s and 1990s was something else altogether. I think it is a good thing to have such anomalies in history. It makes things more interesting.

Which reminds me I should be getting round to review The Early Reception of Manga in the West by Martin de la Iglesia soon. But do I have time to read the extant literature? Casey Brienza wrote an excellent book about Manga in America: Transnational Book Publishing and the Domestication of Japanese Comics (Bloomsbury 2016). She was also the editor of Global Manga: "Japanese" Comics without Japan? (Routledge 2015). I have gone through these books before a few years back but I doubt I have the time or energy to read them again. Maybe the easier way is to read back issues of Bubbles zine as they are also into 1980s and 1990s translated manga in America. 

I hope Iglesia's book will explain why Blade of the Immortal was picked up for translation and publication in America in the 1990s and what led to its success and popularity in the West. 

Talking about manga at Angouleme, my friends from Japan (Kazumi, Jessica and Fusami) had a panel about women manga in conjunction with the Moto Haigo exhibition, I think. 

Here's a photo of them. (i was appointed by Fusami to be the 'official' photographer)

(L-R: Kazumi Nagaike, Jessica Bauwens, Matthew Loux, Denson Abby, Fusami Ogi, moderator Xavier Guilbert)

I also had the chance to catch up with the ever popular Peach Momoko and her business partner Yo Mutsu in Manga City. The queues for her signing were less hectic than the Singapore Comic Con last December. So we had a nice chat. 

But it was a different story when she had an event at Pulp's Comics in Paris a few days later. You can see the long queue here. It went all the way till the end of the block. 

It was her first time at the Angouleme Comics Festival and in Paris and they were surprised by the warm welcome she received. I asked Yo Mutsu why was manga so popular in France and his reply was: "We don't know. Manga has just been the norm for us, so we don't know what sparked the popularity." 

Just goes to show how manga is ubiquitous in France / Europe now. 

Ok, I think that's all the Angouleme / Paris reports I have.

Oh yeah, Akira Toriyama passed away at the age of 68 a few days ago. Someone should translate and publish Bounthany Suvilay's book on Dragon Ball. 

(all photos by CT)

CT Lim

Saturday, March 9, 2024

Comics Happenings in Paris (post Angouleme)

Before Angouleme, fellow IJOCA exhibit reviewer Nick Nguyen and I saw the Dan Clowes show at Galerie Martel. Excellent show, even more excellent prices which we can't afford. Just look and weep. 

Here are some pics.

Post Angouleme, I spent a few days in Paris and like my buddy Dean said in his own report, there are so. many. comics exhibitions in Paris.

I only saw a fraction of the events but what I saw (or failed to see) has a common thread - social satire in our times. If Dan Clowes is the contemporary social satirist of the 1990s and 2000s, then Gilbert Shelton is the satirist of the counterculture 1960s (together with Crumb and others in the underground comix crew). I met Lora Fountain at Angouleme and told her I will visit Gilbert's show (I last saw him in 2014 in London), but it was closed on the afternoon I visited. They were supposed to be opened.. 

Undeterred, I hit the underground again to Maison de Balzac to see the small but delightful / insightful Balzac, Daumier and the Parisians show. Honoré Daumier was of course the prominent social satirist of the 19th Century. Pairing him with Balzac makes sense. 

I'll let the collaterals do the explanation here:

Although Balzac and Daumier may not have known each other well, they did cross paths in newspaper rooms and publishing houses. Their connection lies mainly in their keen outlook on their contemporaries. As a writer, Balzac painted a broad overview of society, analysing the customs of both the provinces and Paris. Meanwhile, Daumier used drawing mainly as a way of studying the little people of Paris.

This similarity has often been pointed out, particularly by Charles Baudelaire, to the point of suggesting that the two men shared a kindred spirit. Concierges, errand boys, shopgirls, cooks, labourers and merchants all feature prominently in The Human Comedy and in Daumier’s engravings. In both instances, their observations reveal society’s peculiarities, small-mindedness and ridicule, with little room for benevolence but great attention to humanity. The exhibition will highlight both men’s interest in social classification and the accuracy of their analyses of the qualities and shortcomings of Parisians, which still hold true to this day. The exhibition ends with a small selection of “in the manner of” pieces by contemporary caricaturists, which show that while Parisians have indeed changed, Daumier and Balzac’s perspectives are still lenses through which one can observe and understand society.

Not many cartoon fans were aware of this show or visited it. When I was there, it was mainly old folks visiting the house and exhibition. 

Next, thanks to the recommendation of Harri Rompotti, I walked very fast to the Musée d’Art Moderne de Paris before closing time to catch the Dana Schutz: The Visible World show. It is the first time that her work has been shown in France on this scale. While not a comic artist, I could clearly see the comics elements or influences in her paintings and sculptures. Her social commentary and satire of contemporary American life, society and politics reminded me of S Clay Wilson. 

To quote part of the collaterals:

Dana Schutz is a storyteller. Her work builds a world of unruly characters, human folly, deadpan predicaments and physical calamity. She often paints a dystopic portrait of today’s world, untethered to traditional notions of beauty... Recently her paintings have become more volumetric and allegorical, increasingly populated with clusters of colourful characters who may be floating through the night, perched upon an island of jawbones, or fighting to stand on top of a mountain. These visions of a post-apocalyptic world are influenced by her take on art history, from Bruegel to Alice Neel. They evoke the obsolescence of an ailing world, the vanity of contemporary mythologies and the breakdown of communication. 

I'll just let the photos do their job.

Finally, another nudge from Harri and I was at Halle Saint Pierre, just below Sacré-Cœur. It is the home of art brut, art outsider and naive art in Paris. The current exhibition HEY! CERAMIQUE.S was very good, showing 34 artists from 13 countries and for some, this was their first presentation in Europe. 250 works were on display with one third of them produced for the show. A fascinating display of the fantastic and the grotesque, these works would not be out of place in underground comix pages and transgressive comic works. 

Another exhibition on the ground floor, At the Frontiers of Art Brut, was mind boggling as well. According to the website, this exhibition “Aux Frontières de l’art brut” (the title of the show in French) presents 15 artists, unclassifiable according to the criteria of art brut or traditional naive art. Most of them did not receive any artistic training but they presented dangerous visions. Roger Lorance is outstanding. Somehow he reminded me of the anarchic spirit of Fletcher Hanks. In fact, for both shows at Halle Saint Pierre, I was pairing the pieces with outsider art I know in Asia. It would make a fun comparative exhibition. 

Roger Lorance

Okay there were way too many other events to talk about. Posy Simmonds at the Pompidou was good. She remains the predominant critic of our social mores, keeping us grounded. 

The major Joann Sfar show at the Musée d'art et d'histoire du Judaïsme was very, very impressive. 

And then there were the signings at the comic shops. Wu Shih Hung was one of the breakout Taiwanese artists at this  year's Angouleme (together with Evergreen Yeh) and I managed to drop by his signing in Paris to give some support. 

To read about Wu:

All in all, I spent more days in Paris than I had expected, even giving up a side trip to Brussels for a NATO HQ tour. Thanks for the offer, Nick. Next time!

(all photos by CT)

CT Lim