Trading Outpost: Genre/Gender/Generic
Hello! And welcome back to another of The Trades, the world’s only comic podcast by people who don’t know anything about pen nibs. This month, we swear off literacy in order to better live out deconstructionism. Also, Aaron reads award nominated comics, while Webtoons is taking over my life, and I don’t know how to cope. And directly contrary to my stated interests in analysis beyond narrative, I summarize several comics at length. Listen here!
Aaron’s been reading Kamisama No Iutoori,1 which is a tournament manga where a bunch of teens fight to become god. FST stood in the library and read nearly an entire volume of Kamisama Kiss,2 wherein a long suffering but good-hearted girl becomes a god in training after an extremely handsome god kisses her. Gendered distinctions in media are fascinating and market segmentation produces some neat variations on similar themes. In Kamisama No Iutoori, you can explode to death by losing at Old Maid! In Kamisama Kiss, there is literally no risk of the main character becoming an old maid.
In an unprecedented behind the scenes look at the The Trades process, I admit, I edit podcasts while reading generic high school romance manga and cut whatever parts of the podcast are so boring that I start paying real attention to the manga. This is, as you can imagine, not the best workflow setup I have ever attempted. The real problem is that, after a while, I become deeply, excessively, embarrassingly invested in the extremely generic romance comics and read like fifty chapters over the course of a day and a half and don’t edit my podcasts in a timely fashion. Recently, I’ve replaced Shojou Beat published collections from the library with comics hosted on Webtoons.com, which fill that same desire to read the same story a hundred times. They remind me a little of scanlation sites, but with the warm feeling of not actually doing a crime.3 4
I first became aware of Line Webtoons, which is a webcomic aggregation/hosting site, when Aaron introduced me to Cho Seok’s The Sound of Your Heart.5 Aaron’s comic finding powers are far, far greater than mine, especially for online content, so how (even why) he discovered this is beyond me. It didn’t occur to me to ask, because I am a deeply inefficient cohost. We use “webtoons” to refer to the Line Webtoon website specifically throughout the podcast, so don’t get confused by our laxness. Webtoons are a thing, and Line Webtoons, at webtoons.com, is also a thing.
Okay, great, that’s cleared up. Anyway, I’m reading a bunch of nonsense on that site, including a comic about a werewolf who isn’t interested in dating his childhood friend (except he so totally is, but she’s dating another werewolfier werewolf), so he dates her best friend. And also he gets stuck as a werewolf, because the werewolfier werewolf is messing with the next-door werewolf’s werewolfing, as well as his love life. I am a human disaster, and I cannot stop reading this werewolf-next-door romcom.7 There are also other, more complicated and interesting, comics on this site, but I am like a moth to flame, and the flame is bad romance comics.
LINE Webtoons is overall a real smorgasbord of the good, the bad, and the extremely, extremely amateur, in a way that reminds me a little of old Keenspace, the host of what must have been at least five hundred comics about talking game consoles, circa 2006. I guess new Keenspace is Comic Genesis, Keenspot is still Keenspot, and, to your faithful correspondent’s amazement, there are still comics on Keenspot that still update. I assume this is a case of coincidental development to serve a similar niche, given that LINE Webtoons seems to be an offshoot of Korean manhwa reading and hosting sites for which webtoons is a generic name. Still, the move towards aggregators, like LINE Webtoons and Taptastic, and also by-application hosting like Hiveworks is interesting when you think about how sites can try to combat the appeal of art theft on sites like reddit, imgur, and the scanlation websites I have not actually admitted to visiting.
In order to fight against art theft on aggregator sites, it’s probably important to figure out why they remain popular despite people knowing that artworks, often comics, are reposted there without permission. I think, over and above the fact that it’s extremely free and people are lazy and unethical, that it’s probably the convenience of an enormous amount of content gathered together and the subsequent promise of guaranteed enjoyment of certain genre tastes better satisfied by scanlation sites than more legitimate enterprises. If, for instance, your horrible no good friend FST wants to read five hundred billion comics about childhood friends who argue all the time growing up and realizing they’re extremely in love, I can do that. I can do that until my eyes dry up and tumbleweed out of my face. Nobody on this earth can stop me.
During the podcast, I speculate about the motivations or kinds of enjoyment readers of repetitive genres, like high school romance manga, get out of reading the same comic over and over. Maybe it’s something about the fine differences which prevent the satisfaction readers get from the repetition of enjoyable elements from becoming completely stale. I’ve been sort of chasing my own tail on this one after reading Henry Jenkins on reading within fandom and fans valuing and reading for “emotional realism,” which he correctly ascribes to reading practices more than texts themselves.8 This seems to be to be another way of describing an expectation of catharsis–or at least the reader’s expectations that people in stories will behave with the kind of heightened emotionalism with reference to psychological naturalism which creates tragic and comic drama.
In other words, that creator and reader are both operating under certain, sometimes conflicting, expectations about character behaviors according to what kind of text it is, but that generally they agree that characters behave “in character” and with reference to psychological realism. Fans are, as dedicated and intelligent readers, aware of the patterns of things they enjoy,9 but also expect this kind of cathartic emotional “payoff” as one of the main pleasures of the text and are (possibly, certainly by some interpretations) justified in claiming to be better sources of knowledge about characters and plot outcomes in this framework than authors are.
Still, one has precedent for wondering what kinds of realism are useful, what kinds of realism are palliative, what kinds of things called realism are harmful, especially if inaccurately described as such.10 Basically, just because characters act with psychologically justified or slightly plausible motivations within their ridiculous situations doesn’t mean it’s anything more than enjoyable cathartic nonsense, which is where the claims about fans and “emotional realism” in Jenkins seemed to offer an opportunity to do more work on what, exactly, fan reading is good for, aside from the customization of capitalist cultural properties. What kinds of criticism of fan readings and fan values are possible or useful? Whatever! I love reading these nonsense romance comics, and I will keep reading them until they dig me a shallow grave and trick me into it with the new volume of Skip Beat.11
The upshot is, certain genre tastes are still better catered to by scanlations than by less dodgy organizations. So, optimistically, LINE Webtoons and similar aggregation sites aggressively licensing certain kinds of stories for English release could be effective at reducing the demand for scanlation sites. Although, who knows. Mostly, I need for someone to spoil the end of Princess Jellyfish12 for me so I don’t have keep reading through the thrilling saga of why they can’t afford to make dresses under certain manufacturing conditions. Free me. If you have any mercy at all, free me.
In better news, Aaron’s reading Sam Bosma’s Fantasy Sports,13 which combines the fun and beauty of contemporary all ages cartoons with the expansive world building and some of the familiar genre features of dungeon crawl adventures. The takeaway lesson is: Sports are hard. He’s also reading Tomboy, by which I thought he meant Liz Prince’s memoir, but in fact he meant a horror comic about how this kid’s boyfriend dies, so her grandfather helps her murder the entire mafia.14 Tomboy has an appealing magical realism, Aaron says, insofar as people are talking to ghosts, and the art is good. He also has Adrien Tomine’s Killing and Dying, but sometimes, “I just want to see a slug kiss a duck … I don’t always need emotional context.” I assume no slugs kiss ducks in either Tomboy, but you’ll have to read to find out for yourselves.
(1) Translates as As the Gods Will, Muneyuki Kaneshiro and Akeji Fujimura, published by Kodansha.
(2) Originally Kamisama Hajimemashita, Julietta Suzuki, published in English by Viz Media.
(3) Don’t talk about crimes on the internet, kids. Do as I say, not as I do. Although, I guess utterances are acts, so do as I do in saying to do and not as I say I’m doing.
(4) Arguments around the ethical standing of scanlation are significant, even among people who scanlate comics. Arguments for scanlation focus around the value of making texts available to readers who could not otherwise read them. The idea seems to be it’s fair if there’s no English language license and, therefore, no legitimate English language version for which the scanlation is competition.
(5) We don’t talk about it at all on the podcast this time, so I have to limit my remarks, but I think I’ve finally figured out what I love about The Sound Of Your Heart, which is that it’s like a bodily Rube Goldberg machine every single time. The Sound of Your Hard is an absurd chronicle of the exaggerated antics of a cartoonist, Cho Seok, Ae-Bong, his fiancée and later wife, and the rest of his family. Aaron says he loves it because of it’s grotesqueness, which is understandable. People make gross faces and bodily functions happen to excess, social norms are transgressed, and the sight of exposed genitals is narrowly, narrowly avoided. Things are taken to extremes, chaos mounts upon chaos, public humiliation is certain. What I couldn’t shake whenever I came back to it, though, was a feeling that it was somehow deadpan. This is partly because “shellshocked thousand yard stare” is a common, delightful, reaction of victim/participants. Partly, also, the drawing style is functionally crude(6), with selective omission of shading or perspective that often gives a feeling of “flatness.” Mostly, I feel strongly about the slapstick of the comic as a kind of Chekovian logic whereby the universe delivers escalating harm in response to the petty schemes avarice of man (and Ae-Bong) like a natural law. If we make Newtonian laws of slapstick, the first observation would be not “apples fall down,” but “if an apple is falling, someone’s head has to be underneath.”
(6) I have complicated feelings about describing any art style as crude or simple, except where and insofar as it deliberately invokes those concepts, either in service of a minimalism, à la King Cat and Peanuts, childish or unskilled art, as with Lynda Barry (sometimes, and her style serves other purposes), certain of Austin English’s works, and various strands of primitivism in fine art, including the Expressionists and Tachisme, the latter of which offers excellent examples of another application of “crude” styles, which is to say styles which want to create a reaction of disgust, not necessarily through what the pictures are of but through some pictorial or plastic aspect of the work. For The Sound of Your Heart, I think mostly the apparent aspect is that the work needs to look like it wasn’t labored over, because that makes the reactions, and much of the comic is reactions, making it seem that much more forceful and natural.
(7) It’s Super Secret by eon, and, look, by all means, join me in this pit. But know what you’re getting into.
(8) Textual Poachers, Henry Jenkins, page 107 and 155-16 for “emotional realism,” a term he attributes to Ien Ang’s work on the soap opera Dallas.
(9) This is I think self explanatory, but I like Reading the Romance, Janice Radway, on readers of romance novels as selective.
(10) Really, I’m just talking about everything I’ve read in the last year in this one post I guess. Here I’m thinking about Aesthetics and Politics, collecting Adorno, et al, from Verso Books.
(11) Skip Beat is by Yoshiki Nakamura, published by Hakusensha.
(12) Princess Jellyfish is by Akiko Higashimura, published by Kodansha. Please, no joke, spoil the ending for me in a lot of detail; I cannot go on reading this comic, but also I need to know who gets married to whom at the end.
(13) Published by Nobrow, this is too many unnecessary footnotes, why didn’t I do these as in-text citations, what’s wrong with me.
(14) Tomboy: A Graphic Memoir, Liz Prince, published by Zest Books. Tomboy, by M. Goodman, is published by Action Lab.