Where all the women are strong…

Yesterday brought a mini-wave of mainstream media paying attention to comics thanks to DC trying to reach beyond its core audience. That’s always interesting, but, for me, yesterday’s clear “comics in unexpected places” came from noted American humorist Garrison Keillor.

In addition to his well-known radio variety show, Keillor also produces a short weekday feature for National Public Radio, The Writer’s Almanac. It provides an interesting litany of cultural milestones, biographical sketches of authors and other creative types, and poetry. I generally kind of half-listen, since it airs when I’m driving home for lunch. Yesterday’s show offered the startling aural spectacle of Lake Wobegon’s official historian using the words “shôjo manga.”

One of yesterday’s notable birthdays belonged to Yumiko Ôshima, who Keillor described thusly:

She is a member of the Year 24 Flower Group, one of two Year 24 groups of women who are considered to have revolutionized shojo manga — comics for girls — and introduced many elements of the coming of age story in their work. Oshima and the other women of her group have brought to their art issues of philosophy, and sexuality and gender, and marked the first major entry of women artists into manga.

Now, it should never come as any surprise that nerds lurk in every corner, at every outlet of National Public Radio, but this was extra cool. Ôshima doesn’t seem to be as well known as some of her Year 24 peers – your Moto Hagio, your Keiko Takemiya, your Riyoko Ikeda – so the spotlight was especially nice.

So, if you need a break from hearing familiar media figures discuss the Justice League, go give the piece a listen and read the expanded text.

As for the Justice League, I managed to resist, because if there are two members of that team that do not merit any more of my attention, those members are Batman and Green Lantern.

Two super-heroes walk into a bar…

… and The New York Times takes pictures of them making out. I have to say that I find this story awesome, mostly because I’m kind of mean-spirited and am imagining the resulting nerd panic in some quarters. But it’s also a nice fusion of different cultural elements of the sometimes fraught intersection of gay fandom and the Marvel/DC output. George Gene Gustines covers a lot of familiar territory, but he also gathers some great quotes:

“Growing up in the ’80s, I guess I didn’t even think gay super-heroes or supporting characters were a possibility,” Dan Avery, 37, an editor of Next, a guide to gay night life in New York City, wrote in an e-mail message. “I do remember feeling like I had two secrets I had to keep: being gay and being a comic-book fan. I’m not sure which I was more afraid of people discovering.” These days, Mr. Avery is a member of a group of gay men who meet regularly to discuss the latest comics.

And it’s probably the only current piece of mainstream media coverage of super-heroes that doesn’t quote Mark Millar, so that should be reason enough for you to click through.

Adapt this now

Over at the BBC News web site, Stuart Nicolson looks at a totally fascinating bit of history that involves… well… see for yourself:

“Hundreds of children aged from four to 14, some of them armed with knives and sharpened sticks, were patrolling inside the historic graveyard.”

Adding to the fascination is the fact that the incident was used to clamp down on 1950s horror comics.

Someone needs to turn this story into a graphic novel at his or her earliest convenience. My initial recommendations would go to Rick Geary if we’re talking about a straight-up historical retelling or Ted Naifeh if you wanted to fold in some actual supernatural elements.

Update: Tom Spurgeon points to this piece at The Horrors of It All that offers evidence that the urban legend about the iron-toothed vampire may well have had its origins in comics after all.

The reporter's notebook

So your editor has given you an assignment to write about manga and/or anime, but you don’t really know very much about either. It’s never fun to be told to sound informed about something that may be completely new to you, but you decided to be a journalist at some point, and that’s pretty much going to be your job until you inevitably slide into public relations after all of the newspapers close. (They should have mentioned that in your orientation class or during one of your advising sessions, but you can probably understand why they didn’t. Sorry!)

There are lots of ways this assignment can go wrong, but there’s one that can really make you look dumb for a number of reasons. In your desire to inform people, it may occur to you to point people towards examples of manga and anime. That’s a good impulse, and it demonstrates a willingness to embrace the hyperlink as an informative tool, and all journalists will need to figure that out sooner or later after all of the newspapers and magazines become web-based instead of printed. (I bet your college offered a new media course, and I bet you took it, because you could surf the web for credit instead of just texting quietly under your desk in the lecture hall. Learning is great!)

But here’s a tip: don’t rely on the top search results for a title you’re writing about, because they’ll almost always point you to pirated versions of the property in question. I’ve seen this happen a few times in the last month via links that showed up in news alerts based on common search terms, and it’s been evident in those cases that the writer in question had no idea that there was a distinction between a pirated comic online and a licensed, published work. And in fairness, none of those sites are going to rush to tell the casual visitor that the site has no right to publish and/or broadcast the manga and/or anime, because then they’d be admitting they were stealing stuff. Now, you may not immediately see a problem with this, but I’m sure someone in your organization (possibly the publisher or, if it’s large enough, the general counsel) can probably tell you all about the ethical conundrum of driving traffic to an enterprise predicated on the violation of copyright and the theft of intellectual property. (Isn’t it great that the senior media ethics seminar is just an elective now? I heard those classes are hard! Daniella [All About Comics] Orihuela-Gruber assures me that all of her college journalism courses included a significant ethics component. Snark withdrawn.)

I’ll do a quick test by typing in the name of a very popular manga series into a search engine to see what comes up. The top link is Wikipedia, and your superiors probably don’t like it when you use that as a source. (I’m a blogger, so I can link to whatever I like!) The second link is a for-profit piracy site. It’s not until the third link that you get to someone who actually has a right to publish the comic, which you can tell from the fact that the first word in the link description is “Official,” which admittedly doesn’t immediately promise hours of fun, but it has that comforting sheen of legality. The next link is for an informational site, and the one after that is for a pirated version of the anime. Then there are two more links for pirated versions of the manga. It’s a mine field, isn’t it?

So what’s the quickest way to make sure that you’re writing about the versions that actually allow the creators to receive a portion of the profits? My advice would be to skip the search engines or at least to hold off on them until after you’ve done a search at a legitimate online retailer like Amazon, Barnes & Noble, or Right Stuf. All of these vendors list a publisher for every product, and then you can search for that publisher and link to the property description on their site. Some publishers share previews of many of their titles, though possibly not the specific title that you’re writing about. Some publishers even share big chunks of series online either for free or for small fees per chapter. There are also some legitimate online anime distributors that make a lot of preview content available for free.

Here’s the thing: if you can’t tell the difference between a legal version of a product and a pirated version, your editors certainly can’t. Your webmasters might be able to, but they’re overworked and cynical and people treat them badly. (Your editor is just cynical.) So it’s ultimately up to you to try and find out if you’re driving traffic to a web site that’s stealing stuff. Your best bet is to see who’s legitimately distributing the product you’re writing about and to pick your links accordingly. It isn’t as hard as it sounds, and you won’t look dumb.

And just as a quick addendum, if the online platform for your writing offers visitors the opportunity to comment on your articles, you should check those comments regularly. Sometimes people show up and mention that you’re driving traffic to a piracy site, and when you neglect to reply or modify your article, you look even dumber or indifferent to legitimate concerns about the outcome of your article.

Gift 'til it hurts

I’m glad The New York Times is devoting more coverage to comics and graphic novels, I really am. It doesn’t seem like it was that long ago that their reportage consisted of recycled, rah-rah press releases from Marvel and DC. Now we get a weekly graphic book best seller list (which, say what you will, is no more opaque or arcane in its methodology than most of the other ones) and a fair number of meaty pieces from George Gene Gustines.

What we don’t get, at least not yet, is much qualitative discussion of comics from Japan. When you walk into the average bookstore and see at least half of the graphic-novel shelf space devoted to these comics, I don’t think it’s unreasonable to expect at least some coverage of the category beyond sales figures supplemented by sometimes carelessly written plot summaries (which are better than no content descriptions at all, obviously, but only just). At the same time, I don’t really want to force anyone to write about something that doesn’t interest them, because the outcome from that sort of thing never serves anyone very well.

But I must admit to a certain degree of irritation when I saw this Gift Guide of 2009 Graphic Novels and didn’t see a single comic from Japan. After venting on Twitter, Erica Friedman (@Yuricon) sagely suggested that manga bloggers just do it themselves. I’ll be posting mine on Thanksgiving Day (just in time for Black Friday), and I would be happy to link to anyone else’s suggestions or host yours if you don’t have a blog of your own. Just drop me a line at davidpwelsh at yahoo dot com if you’d like to throw out some recommended manga for the nerds (or non-nerds) in all of our lives.

Bizarro world

Today’s object lesson on the perils of single-source journalism comes from the The York Post. Richard Wilner interviews Wizard’s Gareb Shamus.

Spoiler warning

Should the courtesy of spoiler warnings apply to works of non-fiction? After reading a Publishers Weekly Comics Week interview with David Small about his upcoming graphic memoir, Stitches, from W.W. Norton, I suspect they should.

stitchesIn the introductory paragraphs to the interview, Sasha Watson rather baldly summarizes some of the key events of Small’s early life that are portrayed in the book. I think that this is an unfortunate choice, as the power of the book lies in watching these events unfold in the way that Small has chosen to reveal them. For an autobiography, the structure and pacing of events is astonishing, as is the elliptical way Small contextualizes those events – the facts of them coupled with the truth of them, which are very different things.

Any creator of fiction would be envious of the way the story reveals itself, I would think. That this much craftsmanship and rigor has been applied to an autobiography, and that Small has been able to be so deft in crafting the mechanics of a narrative without sacrificing emotional impact is almost miraculous. But first seeing those events and the secrets behind them formatted as a sort of laundry list would, I think, undermine some of the impact of Small’s achievement.

I can certainly understand the desire, even the necessity, of interviewing so talented a creator prior to the publication of his debut graphic novel. But wow, I’d be careful in revealing any events that are portrayed in the book, as it’s a breathtaking reading experience with little or no prior knowledge. I’m not sure how much of that thrill would survive if a reader had a checklist of key moments and revelations prior to simply experiencing them according to Small’s design.

They stab at thee

This is what I get for dawdling in checking my Google news feeds. Big news from UPI, but what exactly does it mean?

“Shogakukan Inc. said by offering an authorized version of the Japanese language comics online, it hopes to limit the spread of illegal copies of its comic books in Europe and the United States, Japan Today said Sunday.”

Is Rin-Ne just the beginning?

Other takes:

  • Japan Today
  • The Japan Times
  • Big reader

    Writing for The New York Times, publishing beat reporter Motoko Rich mixes things up by reporting some good news for a change. According to a survey conducted by the National Endowment for the Arts, adults are reading more books just for the pleasure of it:

    “‘There has been a measurable cultural change in society’s commitment to literary reading,’ said Dana Gioia, chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts. ‘In a cultural moment when we are hearing nothing but bad news, we have reassuring evidence that the dumbing down of our culture is not inevitable.'”

    The NEA initiative is called The Big Read, and it has its own blog. Here’s the link to the survey, though it doesn’t seem to be loading for me at the moment.

    I haven’t had enough coffee yet to figure out how they might do this, but it would be neat if comics publishers participated in some way. The Times article doesn’t specifically mention graphic fiction, but I don’t get the impression that it’s excluded. I’d like to see the NEA ask if the increase in reading for pleasure (or just what portion of reading for pleasure) is contributed by comics.

    On a similar note…

    Writing for The Christian Science Monitor, Amelia Newcomb looks at the growing influence of Japan’s pop-culture exports:

    “In France last year, for example, 1,787 foreign comic books were translated – 64 percent of them Japanese. In the US, total manga sales in 2007 rose about 5 percent, to more than $210 million, according to ICV2.com, a trade website. Otakon, a convention devoted to Japanese pop culture in Baltimore, saw a record-breaking 26,000-plus attendees this past summer.”