On manga styles or, yes, actually that’s a racialized stigma

A while ago artist @skimlines retweeted a thread from another Asian-American artist. In that thread, the artist described that when they were growing up, they gravitated toward a manga style. Their art teacher (quite abusively, I think) told them to quit that style; it’s part of a larger stigmatizing of a Japanese medium. We all know the stereotype of course, and we make fun of weeaboos (a term that originally meant over-enthusiastic, ridiculous white anime fans but which has gained broader definition: over-enthusiastic anime fans of any color), especially the ones who want to go to Japan and become a manga artist. But when applied to an artist of color, especially an Asian one, there’s a racist overtone: Rian Singh was made to feel ashamed and turned to looking for French and British cartoonists to emulate, because this–according to the art teacher–was legitimate; Japanese styles are not.

The implication doesn’t need belaboring.

There’s the obvious. Dismissing an entire medium that’s culturally tied to an Asian country (however, relatively speaking, powerful a country) while elevating all (usually white) European and American styles as automatically legitimate is nasty. Manga is not a pan-Asian cultural artifact, but as an industry anime and manga has commanded a cultural penetration in much of Asia that superhero comics from the west still do not match today, despite the regrettable saturation of superhero cinema. I don’t think it is of any surprise that Asian-American artists, even those without ties to Japan, are drawn to it. (Manga does not center the white gaze, as a rule, and that helps.)

But when I read that thread I was also surprised–not really surprised, because the teacher’s xenophobia and racism are predictable, but surprised on an aesthetic level. As someone who grew up on Japanese media, when I first came across American comics (Vertigo titles of old, mostly) my immediate and visceral reaction was that they were absolutely, disturbingly ugly.

So let’s hear me out and really think about why that art teacher so badly wanted to stunt an Asian-American artist’s development.


Some panels from the original Sandman comics. One of the tendencies I noticed right away was that the text was very dense, with the script frequently written like narration in a novel. So much text that then had to be squeezed into a lot of text boxes.

Something newer, from a very different imprint and genre, and it suffers from the same issue. Speech bubbles are absolutely everywhere, absolutely littering the panels; what passes for sophistication in American comics seems to be ‘stuffing 500 words in per speech bubble’. What’s odd is the bolded words for emphasis: this is a visual medium. We can tell if someone’s angry or emphatic, on account of being able to see their expressions and body language. It reminds me of a different comic where, essentially, the text box takes pain to describe the sky as blue in a panel where we can clearly see the sky (it is clearly blue). Very little is left to the imagination or the implication, and it almost feels like comic writers don’t trust the visual part of the comic to do the telling (or showing, as it were).

Let’s look at some manga.

Textless. The linework is crisp and clean. This is a page from Fate/Strange fakepretty text-heavy for a manga, but the text never overwhelms the art. There aren’t a hundred text boxes per page, fifty speech bubbles per panel.

How about this iconic page from Otoyomegatari? It’s beautiful, the detail is tremendous–the patterns and jewelry on Amir’s clothes are incredible. But! None of this becomes visual clutter. It’s precise and elegant.


Backtracking to superhero comics.

What’s going on here? I have no idea. Superhero comics are as subtle as their cinematic counterpart, which is to say it mostly involves a hundred (superheroic) people screaming in unison. Lots of sound, lots of fury, and somehow people are holding full conversations while smashing cars or what have you. It’s absolutely busy. A hundred characters are crammed into every page, and all of them can’t shut up for a minute (nearly every single one endowed with fantastical amounts of latex muscles). There is no space for breathing room, communication through things implied and unsaid, there’s only room for a very American love for sound, fury, all-caps SCREAMING, HULK SMASH.


Here’s Claymore, a fighty, gory manga where people get dismembered at considerable frequency and body horror is just another Wednesday for Claire and friends. But even in speed line-heavy, blitzy panels everything is delineated clearly, you can tell characters apart (and usually there aren’t a hundred of them on the page at once), and more importantly you can easily tell–at a glance–what is going on.

Then there’s all the negative space. Negative space is a wonderful tool, and good manga makes use of it. It can go a long way to emphasize a moment, enhance emotional flashbacks with heft.

And then there’s… those. Some of it is meant to be emotive, I think. Possibly. Look, the expressions are hilarious. Why is Superman grabbing his own face like… uh, whatever he’s doing. Even setting that aside (but what a big aside) there is no sense of emotional relevance, for lack of better words, no sense of pause. It’s a lot of talking and for all I know they could’ve been discussing stock options. While Superman makes incomprehensible faces in the background. There is, again, the sheer amount of speech bubbles, all of them filled with superfluous, inefficient script. It’s bad art accommodating even worse writing. But these are the conventions of American comics: lots of text, lots of bizarre contorted expressions, lots of muscles and an endless amount of noise.

Is manga perfect? It’s a medium, and like any medium it’s diverse (yes, in style too; if you can’t distinguish Cesare from Vinland Saga then nobody can help you. Yes, ‘all of it looks the same’ absolutely stems from the same branch of racism that goes ‘all Asians look the same’–a dismissal of Asian creativity as inherently nonexistent, conformist, robotic) and it has its flaws. But the immediate tarring that the style receives is inevitably racialized due to who does it the most, and who it is done to.

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Maybe I’m reviewing a book, maybe not

I’m reading a book that doesn’t have much to recommend it. But what I’ve been unable to get over really is the setting and the effort at diversity. The setting is semi-realist in that it’s not a secondary world, though it might well be, and revolves around a very specific American subculture, a set of very white American religious beliefs. It’s economically, sociologically nonsensical and makes me think of when I did a twitter thread on how the white American writer can afford to be lazy, as they can rely on  cultural saturation–and cultural imperialism–for their references, cultural milieus, even religions to be easily and universally understood. These training wheels never come off; they remove the drive to excel, the need to think.

The result (here as elsewhere) is a product of an atrophied imagination. There’s some speculative world-building going on but, as said, none of it makes any kind of sense and again rests on particular unexamined assumptions. Because it’s written by a white American progressive, there’s some cultural ‘diversity’ thrown in that reminds me of the Ryders of Mass Effect: Andromeda. (It also turns out I’m not alone in feeling this disconnect.) Here’s another piece that goes into this surface ‘diversity’:

Bendis writes Miles being unaware of what it means to be the “Black Spider-Man” when people of color in public spheres talk constantly about how they strive to provide representation to children like them who grew up without seeing themselves in movies or shows.

In his books Miles is adrift, removed from Blackness and his Puerto-Rican-ness due to being orphaned [1] and leaving his universe. He doesn’t interact with or exhibit Blackness in any meaningful way besides being dark skinned. Miles exists in whiteness that’s nearly unbroken except for his friendship with Ganke and occasional hangouts with Nick Fury.

Remember what I linked to about “digital brown paper dolls” in the Dragon Age fandom?

The faces of color in this book, much like the faces of color in ME:A and so many other works of fiction by ‘well-meaning’ white people, inhabit a cultural vacuum. They’re disconnected entirely from their cultures and abide absolutely and only by white mores, white society, white friendships. It’s easy to see where this came from: white people are frequently advised to ‘just write people!’ with the result that they write white people and then paint on a bit of brown or yellow (and referring to pale Asians as ‘yellow’ is, incidentally, of necessity white-centric terminology). This is not diversity: it’s assimilation into whiteness touted as the ultimate good. (ScarJo and Yellowface in the Shell (2017), anyone?)

There’s a book by a white American writer whose faux-Chinese characters somehow count gargoyles among their (otherwise stereotypically East Asian) supernatural creatures: the white author doesn’t seem to get that gargoyles don’t exist in China. They are not Chinese characters. They’re white figments done in yellowface, born of a mind that doesn’t have to try and so happily wallows in its own mediocrity.

(The book’s characters also talk and behave like Yellow Peril cartoons. They speak some phonetic gibberish that has no meaning to anyone except, perhaps, equally racist white readers. The author doesn’t speak a single word of Chinese, any kind of Chinese; I would be surprised if the author speaks any language other than English.)

As far as white authors understand, race is skin-deep and literally cosmetic. Terrible writing forums and ‘mentors’ tell them that people aren’t defined by race and ‘you might offend them if you write stereotypes’ (failing to distinguish between cultural connection and white perspective of what constitutes culture), insisting that dry ‘research’ (or knowing people of color, however distantly) doubles as intimate expertise. Whiteness itself doubles as supreme expertise, sort of like a universal PhD: if you’re white then you’re a doctor of anthropology, biology, sociology, political science, and whatever else. You watched Mulan, now you’re an expert on all things China. You watched anime, now you’re an expert on all things Japan. You loved Avatar: The Last Airbender (a show created by a couple white men), now you’re an expert on all things pan-Asia.

Applaud yourself by screaming something about melting pots and how much you love taco trucks.

Unlimited Gacha Works or, Help, I Fell Down the Fate/Grand Order Rabbit Hole And I Can’t Get Out

I’ve got a love-hate relationship with gacha games, the genre of Japanese mobile games that want you to spend a lot of money on their virtual slot machines, which yield units. You assemble them into teams and put them to work in a sort of RPG-esque combat. The more you spend, the higher your chance of getting ‘super-rare’, powerful units; free units are handed out but, inevitably, they’re all garbage and you come up against a paywall–past a certain point, the game becomes unplayable without more powerful, premium units.

I pick these games up and uninstall them around the point where I hit the paywall. It helps that most gacha games look and feel like shit. The performance is awful, the art assets and visuals look like dogshit, the female units are scantily clad and endowed with improbable boobs. I tried Fire Emblem Heroes which suffers less than most from the improbable boobs syndrome, but my god it’s a shoddily made, cheap-looking piece of trash and I have no prior attachment to the FE franchise, so all I see is the dullest gameplay this side of Final Fantasy, boring and indistinguishable units, visuals that look fucking terrible even taking into account that it’s supposed to look retro, and some of the worst writing I’ve ever seen even for a gacha. (Why did they bother putting in any dialogue?)

Like all Nintendo-licensed mobile games, FEH is a travesty and a lazy cash-in. The same can be said, really, of most anime- or game-based mobage. So what could be a better use of my time than trying out another mobile game that’s probably just a lazy cash-in to Fate/stay night?

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Regarding the Roundtable on Intersectionality

(I’ve already said something about this on twitter, but I wanted to put this here in a more permanent form.)

So! I did a roundtable, it was titled (unhelpfully) ‘Intersectional SFF Roundtable’. It’s pretty nonspecific and, frankly, a shit title. Concerns were raised and I’d like to address them.

First I want to thank writers L. D. Lewis (@ElleLewis6) and Justina Ireland for raising the very just point: that the roundtable failed to include black contributors–even though the concept and term of intersectionality was coined by Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw, a black woman and civil rights activist. This is a huge failure on my part. Some terminology was also used imprecisely within the roundtable itself. The right term should probably have been ‘from the global south’ (and that would have also been a more exact, more specific title). Much of our vocabulary for discussing race, reparative justice and post-colonialism originated from black activists, and it’s injurious to appropriate them without including black voices in the discussion.

It’s especially wrong to center the discussion on how marginalized readers and writers might feel they aren’t being represented by the dominant discourse while excluding a demographic that’s lived with untold generations of erasure. This implies that I think the dominant discourse doesn’t sideline and ignore black people (it does). In doing this I’ve committed an act of double erasure. I recognize that this is not simply ‘just using the word intersectionality’: it is more and deeper than that.

I own the mistake, make no excuses, and apologize. This is all on me.

(Anti-blackness, needless to say, is a global phenomenon and not exclusive to white-majority countries. Black people are treated terribly in Asia, and there’s a specific exclusion of black Asians, so much so that they are often not viewed as being Asian. I credit, particularly, following Riley H. at @dtwps who speaks up about this aspect of anti-blackness often, and from whom I’ve learned a great deal.)

I’d also like to thank L. D. Lewis and Troy L. Wiggins (@TroyLWiggins) for being very patient. I was hesitant to reach out not because I didn’t want to be held accountable, but because I didn’t want to ask them to perform emotional labor they were hardly obliged to. They treated me with more charity than I deserve. (I’m also individually apologetic to them for taking up as much of their time and energy as I have; I hope I’ll be able to repay them in some form.)

Troy brought up the very good point that I may not have been the right roundtable host, and I could have recommended someone else for the job that would be able to tackle the topic with more finesse and consideration. If something like this comes up again, that’s definitely what I would do, especially for an opportunity with monetary compensation (this one was not; it was done to help promote an anthology).

Beyond that, I promise to watch myself better. Anti-blackness is a real blind spot for me and I’m often too complacent about the fact. I’ll continue to signal-boost and support (financially or otherwise) black voices in all respects, as that seems to be the most useful thing I can do. Some starting points:

Fiyah Magazine’s Shop

L. D. Lewis’ PayPal 

Riley H.’s PayPal

(I have named L. D. Lewis and Justina Ireland as the black writers who raised these concerns initially, because they are the ones I am aware of; if I missed any other, do let me know!)

‘The Universe as Vast as Our Longings’ in The Jewish Mexican Literary Review

When I was asked for a story for the insurrection-themed issue of The Jewish Mexican Literary Review, I knew I wouldn’t be pulling punches. ‘The Universe as Vast as Our Longings’ is my first story for 2017.

Here’s Americanah again, which I’ve lately been in conversation with:

“I have a Nigerian friend who is a writer. Do you know Kelechi Garuba?”
“I’ve read his work.”
“We talked about your blog the other day and he said he was sure the Non-American Black was a Caribbean because Africans don’t care about race. He’ll be shocked when he meets you!” Shan paused to exchange the leg on the table, leaning in to grasp her foot.
“He’s always fretting about how his books don’t do well. I’ve told him he needs to write terrible things about his own people if he wants to do well. He needs to say Africans alone are to blame for African problems, and Europeans have helped Africa more than they’ve hurt Africa, and he’ll be famous and people will say he’s so honest!”
Ifemelu laughed.

In ‘Universe’ the narrator is a war orphan, adopted into the country that burned hers, raised to believe that it was the right thing: ‘That is a specific act of conquest, to make future generations glad for the scorching of our country, to make us believe that it is a boon to be uplifted from our own histories. Before long, we aspire to emulate those who turned our families into a casualty statistic. We become not people at all, but fogged mirrors.’

It’s a story about being queer in a society that hates you, a story about being owned by the people that destroyed yours, and it’s a story about life as resistance to your written destiny. It’s a little about subversive art, a bit about interracial adoption, a bit about how respectability politics will get you precisely this far: several notches below and several steps behind where you were hoping it’d get you. It’s a pretty angry story, and this isn’t something that I feel requires apologizing for. (Even then it is a story that is, perhaps, more optimistic than reality is given.)

It’s also a story where queer tragedy looms closer, more inevitable, than in any other of mine. But I prefer not to be a lazy writer.

I’m pleased that it’s part of an issue that is particularly about radical literature, with writers from such backgrounds that go beyond the accepted hegemony of American- or Britishness. Do give the entire issue a read.

Yuki Yuna is a Hero (Yuuki Yuuna wa Yuusha de Aru)

Content warning: ableism, potentially unfortunate depictions of physical disability and wheelchair usage.

If you think this is yet another third-rate rider of the Puella Magi coattails, well… yes, that’s what it is. Again. Unlike Magical Girl Raising Project though, there’s a bit more thought put into it, the other-world landscape is pretty, the monsters are imaginative and everything just looks that much more… expensive. Oh and there’s no random murdering and brutalizing of queer girls, so that’s a plus. There is tasteless fanservice. Remember when this stuff was aimed at girls, not at creepy otaku men? Those were the days.

(Those were the days when magical girl shows were aggressively heteronormative, sort of sexist, formulaic, and sort of boring; Yuki Yuna puts lesbians front and center, it’s sort of sexist, it’s sort of perfunctory and… okay, to be fair.)

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A Review of the Year 2016

(Not really.)

Consumed

One of the highlights of this category, for me, was the indie game Masquerada, a cross between Transistor and perhaps The Banner Saga. It’s one part visual novel, one part squad-based RPG, presented with fine visual style and fabulous music, and easily the best writing—and among the best voice acting—I’ve ever seen in any game. I very much hope to see more like it, and more from Witching Hours (whether a sequel or otherwise), who IMO could easily stand poised as the next Supergiant.

XCOM 2 was really good, wasn’t it? I’ll probably replay it at some point (if I can just make myself reinstall the billion or so mods to make the game a bit more… more), and hopefully by now most of the performance issues have been patched out. You don’t play this stuff for the story or the writing, but what’s there served it fine. Playing for the first time always has the thrill of discovery you just can’t replicate on the second go; facing new aliens was genuinely exciting and often dangerous.

In terms of books, this was the year I started getting into Chimamanda Adichie in a big way. Americanah, obviously, and currently (and slowly, to savor) reading Half of a Yellow Sun. She’s a bloody tremendous writer. Obviously, neither of those books was published in 2016, but better late than never.

Hammers on Bone by Cassandra Khaw was another highlight. It’s usually very hard to get me to read a book with a male protagonist (well, not necessarily is Persons male, as such). But this is an interesting, unique noir; what I like best is that Cassandra’s style is never static and it’s been evolving constantly since I first read her short fiction. She does something new every time, and I have the pleasure of seeing a little bit of what she’s got forthcoming next, which will be different yet again.

I binged on a bunch of magical girl anime in search of something that’d be interesting the way Puella Magi was. The result was exceedingly poor. I’ll give Flip Flappers another try, though. Not magical girl: Psycho-Pass was fucking amazing. Looks like the next year I mostly just have second seasons or remakes to look forward to. Oh well.

My livetweets of MCU films: X-Men: Apocalypse, Captain America: Civil War, Captain America Whatever It Was, and the Thorses. They were all predictably completely terrible.

I recommend Kiva Bay’s essays. This one’s very good. (Her art is also not to be missed.)

There’s a line in Terry Pratchett’s wonderful book Going Postal right at the start where Moist is asked if he has any last words before he is hanged and he says, “I wasn’t actually expecting to die.” That’s how I felt on election night. As polls came in showing me that I had been betrayed by my fellow white women, that they were the ones with the knife all along, I felt sick and sad and broken.

Nora Reed is one of my favorite people this year, and in general really. Their writing here, and their bots, the most famous of which is probably Thinkpiece Bot.

I was introduced to J. Moufawad-Paul’s philosophy writing, which is actually really, really accessible without sacrificing incisiveness; Continuity and Rupture is available now, but I’m also looking forward to his Austerity Apparatus forthcoming next year.

Created

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So I had a lot (to me) of stories out in 2016, but of them all I was especially proud of ‘The Prince Who Gave Up Her Empire’, an epic desert fantasy of deconstructing gendered language, playing with myth and prophecy and predestination. People found it sexy. I’m satisfied.

Capping off 2016 is ‘We Are All Wasteland On the Inside’ (illustration above by Eric Asaris, which I really like), one of my rare forays into dark fantasy. I described it on twitter as ‘Lesbian noir meet tragic Spirited Away, in a decaying magic realist world’, more specifically the world is Bangkok and the magic is from Himmapan Forest (do look it up; don’t appropriate it). It’s one of those stories that I write with an intent of cathartic bleakness, which I should think aloud on at some point.

What I’m looking forward to in 2017 the most is, of course, my epic fantasy WinterglassIt’s loosely a lesbian retelling of ‘The Snow Queen’, very loosely. Mostly I’m especially looking forward to writing the acknowledgments, there being a lot of people to whom I owe thanks.