On May 31st, Drawn and Quarterly announced they would be publishing Argentinian cartoonist Berliac’s Sadboi, a graphic novel following the exploits of an immigrant to Norway stigmatized and denied the opportunity to integrate into Norwegian society. Within 48 hours, the publisher withdrew plans to publish Sadboi and issued an apology for not doing their due diligence in researching his background and views, specifically his characterization of the “Gaijin Gekiga” style that he draws in.
As noted in a Norwegian review of Sadboi, Berliac radically altered his style of illustration between 2013 and 2014 to emulate the Gekiga school of manga, a shift that has led to accusations of cultural appropriation. Gekiga, in a sense, was the Japanese equivalent of the American underground comics scene that spawned the likes of R. Crumb, both scenes flourishing in the 1960s and 70s. While the mainstream manga industry based in Tokyo flourished making comics aimed primarily at children, much like CCA-era American comics did, the lending libraries in Osaka became the primary breeding ground for more serious, adult, and experimental work until Gekiga was fully subsumed into the mainstream as what we now call Seinen manga.
The motivations of Yoshihiro Tatsumi, who coined the term, was originally to build on the work of mainstream successes like Osamu Tezuka by pursuing darker, more adult material inspired by what he was reading in the news. The description of Tatsumi’s protagonists as “wide-eyed anti-heroes who silently endure grave indignity until one day they explode into acts of extreme violence” has very clear and distinct parallels with Berliac’s approach on Sadboi. His ongoing contributions to Vice, however, skew more towards the transgressive and shock-oriented side of classic Gekiga that shared more in common with the American underground scene than Tatsumi or Kazuo Koike’s Lone Wolf and Cub‘s.
Taken on its own, Berliac’s pursuit of an anachronistic style rooted in 60s and 70s manga presents a unique but not exceptional example of the fraught discourse around cultural exchange in a fully globalized comic book industry. Manga is a multi-billion dollar global juggernaut whose influence is felt globally and inspires millions of young artists to ape their heroes as slavishly as Berliac does. To his most ardent supporters, the answer to the ethical and moral questions about “Gaijin Gekiga” are no more complicated than ridiculing the idea that a South American migrant in Europe could wield the hegemonic power and privilege necessary to be guilty of misappropriation.
It’s a simplistic argument that — among other things — purposefully eludes a deeper examination of how Berliac employs the Gekiga influence in his work and how he describes it in his own words. The controversy that led to Sadboi being dropped wasn’t rooted in him being a non-Japanese artist drawing in a specifically Japanese style, it came from a short personal essay titled “Gay-jin: Manga is not a Genre, it’s a Gender.”
In it, Berliac compares his decision to fully emulate the Gekiga style to the transgender experience while also suggesting that it constitutes a transition into becoming Japanese himself:
“I call myself a mangaka like a male-born transsexual calls herself ‘she.’ Screentone, japanese writing, speedlines, are the wigs and lipstick I steal from my envied sister. […] Any trace of non-manga/non-Japanese feature of my body and my language will be like nothing more than a scar left where a penis once was.”
Joking, as he claims, or not, Berliac was and still is playing with dangerous conflations of race and gender that further marginalize trans women and give cover to bigots actively usurping the lives and experiences of people of color. It’s the dynamic that creator and critic Sarah Horrocks disentangled in a 2015 critique of “Gay-jin” that seemingly informed D&Q’s decision to drop Sadboi:
“Cultural appropriation occurs when the dominant culture adopts aspect of an oppressed culture while maintaining their own form and identity–and eventually they try to adopt those practices as aspects as their own and as a by-product erase the oppressed culture’s identity. It is a parasitic relationship. There is no transformation that takes place in cultural appropriation. Only conquest. The white man in a headdress is never attempting to take the place of the Native American he’s appropriated the fashion from. He is attempting to amplify his own culture and erase that of the other.
In the case of transsexuals(of which you only notably deal with transwomen), this metaphor doesn’t work because a transsexual doesn’t adopt the culture of women in order to appropriate them and make them a part of masculinity–and a larger attempt to erase women. Rather, the transition refers to an attempt to bring in line one’s gender representation with their core gender identity. Which doesn’t map onto the dynamics of race power dynamics at all.”
To Berliac, this was, and apparently still is, a trifling distraction rather than a serious issue, but conflations of race and gender similar to his clumsy rhetoric continue to do real damage far outside of the hermetically sealed alt comics scene. It’s the same fundamental argument that people like Rachel Dolezal, the white woman who successfully passed herself off as black for a decade, employ to justify her actions. The reverse, framing trans identity as an appropriation of womanhood, is just as damaging and used by transmisogynist bigots to exclude trans women from a wide range of aspects of public life, from women’s shelters to public washrooms.
Berliac projects a kind of enlightenment on gender in “Gay-jin,” allowing that gender is not determined by the sexual organs we’re born with, but it isn’t in service to anything but self justification. He concludes by saying that the transformation he’s undergoing is a moral inversion “from cartoonist to mangaka, from caucasian to yellow, from the ‘masculine west’ to the ‘feminized east,’ in short, from ruler to oppressed.” What Berliac reveals in that passage is the fundamental truth that Dolezal will seemingly never own up to.
What unites Berliac and Dolezal is that they’re animated by a need to make their marginalization and disenfranchisement, such as it is, both bigger than anyone else’s and the central narrative of their lives. It’s a vision of Dolezal that Ijeoma Oluo pieced together in interview for The Stranger, beginning with the disconnect Dolezal felt between her poverty stricken, rural upbringing in Montana and the privileged “silver spoon” construction of whiteness she resented.
“[…] it is white supremacy that told an unhappy and outcast white woman that black identity was hers for the taking. It is white supremacy that told her that any black people who questioned her were obviously uneducated and unmotivated to rise to her level of wokeness. It is white supremacy that then elevated this display of privilege into the dominating conversation on black female identity in America.”
It’s a penetrating insight into the phenomenon of Dolezal that finds warm comparisons in Norman Mailler’s 1957 essay The White Negro, positing that the “hipsters” of the time appropriated black fashion, language, and music as a means of adapting to the existential angst of the cold war and the fears of nuclear annihilation it brought with it, describing them as “urban adventurers who drifted out at night looking for action with a black man’s code to fit their facts. The hipster had absorbed the existentialist synapses of the Negro, and for practical purposes could be considered a white Negro.”
The phenomenon described by Mailler is nearly identical to how Berliac describes his transformation as an abdication of privilege. It’s entirely possible that Berliac’s hard shift into Genkiga aesthetics and his “Gay-jin” manifesto were animated by a need to express the disenfranchisement of being a migrant in Europe that dominate Sadboi, but it’s by no means exculpatory.
Berliac plays frivolously with race and ethnicity throughout his work, using the new posture he’s adopted to nihilistically lash out in all directions. To him, it appears that the recognition that race and gender are social constructs has lead to the conclusion that they’re plasticine. As Olu says of Dolezal’s interpretation of race as social construct: “ A lot of things in our society are social constructs—money, for example—but the impact they have on our lives, and the rules by which they operate, are very real. I cannot undo the evils of capitalism simply by pretending to be a millionaire.”
Whatever reverence Berliac may have for the school of manga he’s co-opted, it cannot hide the reality that he traffics in crude racial caricatures that project no empathy for the marginalized people he’s depicting. His current serial for Vice, Asian Store Junkies, is the clearest example of how his body of work has failed to move an inch past the basest of R. Crumb’s racially charged cartooning.
The strip features as its central villain a pig nosed, slanty-eyed convenience store owner with the appearance of Kim Jong Un, but Berliac isn’t content to stop there. One recent strip called out a literal parade of bad caricatures to surround the shopkeeper with from an Italian waiter drawn to look like Super Mario and a Mexican in a giant sombrero and ammunition belts. The sequence hit its crescendo with one of the characters, whose face inexplicably began resembling Donald Trump, briefly donning a war bonnet just to throw it to the curb. It reads as little more than pointless button pushing.
Asian Store Junkies isn’t what D&Q intended to publish, and there is likely a great deal of redeeming value in Sadboi, but the entire episode and the vociferous defense mounted on Berliac’s behalf is one more in a seemingly endless parade of examples of predominantly white male alt comics creators being allowed to play with race and gender in cruel ways while shouting down any critique.
Whether it’s the racial fetishism of Benjamin Marra, Jason Karns’ vicious Islamophobia, or Jacques Boyreau’s cissexism, there’s a seemingly neverending reservoir of work clinging to anachronistic, clearly bigoted depictions of marginalized groups in venues with dismal records of publishing and promoting LBGTQIA, female, and POC creators. Whether it’s a product of marginalized creators feeling too alienated by episodes like these to enter the alt comics scene or their work being overlooked by publishers in favor of the usual suspects, there exists a very serious disparity in who gets to tackle these themes within the scene. It’s a charge that applies to the Canadian government subsidized Drawn & Quarterly as much as it does to its American cousin Fantagraphics.
While D&Q is happy to revel in media coverage as lofty as an NYT piece titled 25 Years of Drawn and Quartery, Champion of Female Cartoonists, their actual numbers tell a different story. Investigating the claim in that article that D&Q’s list “tends to be 50-50, male-female” in that piece, Kim O’Connor found the actual ratio to be roughly 75/25 in favor of men, with the year to year publication rate equally dubious relative to the claim of parity:
“If you look at the breakdown by year, D&Q has achieved gender parity just three times in its 25-year history: at the beginning in 1991 (50 percent), and at the end in 2013 (47 percent) and 2014 (53 percent). There were three additional years when they achieved 30 percent or higher—1992 (30 percent), 1993 (38 percent) and 2012 (37 percent).
Otherwise, the numbers are pretty abysmal. As recently as 2011, D&Q’s list was just 7 percent women—two of the 27 titles they published that year. For an 11-year stretch from 1996 to 2006, they published no more than four women per year. For five of those years (2000-2004), they published just one woman. In 2005, they published zero.”
While in this case, the initial decision to publish Berliac is being treated as a lack of due diligence, there’s nothing exceptional whatsoever about a creator with a history and body of work like his being considered for publication in the alt comics scene. Everything up to the reversal of that decision was business as usual for an end of the industry that revels in cluelessly demeaning work and drives iconic female creators like Julie Doucet to leave the field they themselves pioneered.