There has been a recent discussion of the nature of manga criticism and where it can be found (and if it can be found).  I have maintained that, yes, it does exist and can be found, whereas others have other views.  As part of that discussion, I want to explain part of the issues as I see them, in finding the criticism and where it happens and how, and decided that instead of cramming it into a comment (not doable), I would take the time and do as full an explanation as I can.

I’d like to put on my scholar’s hat instead of my ‘wow look at the funny drawing of pants’ hat for a moment and discuss the whys and wherefores of the manga comic criticism cycle as I know it.  Some readers will be familiar with parts of this, from various angles, but I hope everyone will bear with me through the boring bits.

First, there is a phenomenon known as the Research Cycle.  This is what librarians call it; I’m sure it has other names.  We’re going to start there.

1.  An event happens.  Typically, a big event, like a city burning down, or a big tragedy.

2.  People who took part in the event or witnessed it directly make a note of it in some form.  In the past, you might see this as Pepys Diary.  In the present, you could see Twitters, blog posts, emails, phone calls, cell phone pictures.  The scholarly experience level of this kind of witness is assumed to be none (ie., these are random people, not experts on the political ramifications of the great fire of London).

3.  People who did not take place in the event or witness the event themselves make a record of it and disseminate it.  These people may have some knowledge of the general workings of this kind of event; they are usually not scholars, but journalists.  So, you get a war correspondent’s newspaper story of a battle.  Or, you might have a London reporter who talks about the great fire.  This is typically 24 hours after the event, although technology means it happens faster now.  Media includes print newspaper, radio, and TV.

4.  As time passes and experts find out about the event, you can get secondary and more in depth analysis of these events, usually unedited, and informal at this point.  The political analyst from RAND blogs about it or discusses it with his buddies.  This takes place in terms of weeks or months.  You might get unpublished manuscripts, conference talks, position papers, blogs, letters, or emails.

5.  Formal scholarly writing begins.  A political scientist, expert in the economic impact of fires on London, writes a paper for the Journal of London Fire Review.  She sends it to the journal, it gets passed around to two other scholars who are also experts, and is eventually published (with revisions) in the peer reviewed journal.  Other papers are also published during this time, and arguments break out, which continue the discussion via papers.  You might also get conference proceedings and/or roundtables and/or more private scholarly correspondence.

6.  Formal scholarly writing continues, but the discussion has reached a point where the events have passed enough (and there has been enough arguing…) to get a book written.  This book is written by a scholar in the field, who is an expert, and is edited other scholars, and then published.  This usually takes several years from the time of the event.

7.  Once the book has entered the published sphere, you get reactions to the book, often directly, in terms of comments or reviews in the journal, and this generally sparks more argument and refinement.

8.  Textbooks happen and regurgitated pablum, I mean, uh, the party line, or perhaps, a very simplified account is written up and dessiminated, often by non-experts in the field, and included in a more general work (the history of London, or the history of the whole British empire).

9.  More shit happens and the cycle begins again.

What the fuck does this have to do with manga criticism you ask, bewildered.  There are no great fires of London happening in the pages of Shonen Jump!

Because, as any good scholarly librarian will tell you, where you are in any research cycle dictates where you must look in order to find the research you seek.  If the great fire of London happened two weeks ago, you will never find a book about it in the library catalog.  This seems simple enough when it comes to history (although many freshmen would disagree…) but it becomes deuced complicated when it comes to living art criticism.

I believe our publisher is the one who maintains that comics criticism is in its infancy, and in this respect, the cycle of formal criticism, he is correct.  There are very few books being written on this topic, because you need a certain amount of expert scholars arguing in order to reach critical mass and push arguments to book length publication, not to mention peer review.
I am not all that concerned about modern American comics criticism, so I’m not as up on those issues.  Besides, that’s not the point of this essay.  What I want to talk about is the nature of manga criticism as I see it and experience it, because unless one is aware of how it works, it’s going to be very hard to find the criticism one seeks.

OK, the biggest thing to know about manga criticism is that we are almost always in a constant state of number 1, because the canon is alive and very long.  The modern American-focused comics criticism that I’ve seen has tended to focus on works which are short and completed at the time of their writing; sometimes this is expressed as a specific volume or story, like Clowes or Ariel Shrag, sometimes it is a particular run of a longer running comic (the Peter/Marston Wonder Woman story).  You can’t exactly do that when volume sixteen of what may be a twenty-five volume series has just been released.

The manga critics that I know (and I know quite a few, although they may not call themselves that) tend to be interested in what I call fruitful lines of shared scholarly inquiry.

I spent a lot of time on that phrase and I want to break it down, because the mores of manga criticism as I experience it are completely different from what I see in the more art comix sphere.

As a critic, I want the criticism that I read or experience to improve or enhance the pleasure I take in the canon.  This is my idea of a good time.  I also want to be able to talk about these thoughts with other people who are able to make good, interesting arguments about said canon.  That is not nearly as simple as it might seem.

Here at HU, when we run a roundtable, as we do frequently, someone will suggest a single or two volume work and then everyone will go out and get it and read it, and we’ll all be on the same page (more or less).  That is laughably impossible with most manga.  It just does not work that way.
I’m going to give you an example of how this plays out in practice, as it is easier than using a lot of heavily qualified generalities.  Six years ago, I fell in love with the manga Saiyuki.

In 2005, at the time that I was beginning my Saiyuki adventure, I did not begin with the manga.  That’s right.  I did not begin my manga adventure with manga.  I began with the anime, in English, and not just the anime, but the first run of the anime (which is fairly close to the manga).

All the librarians reading this are probably familiar with the complicated concept of work versus expression, manifestion and item, since FRBR has just been implemented.  Anyone who isn’t familiar with these ideas should dash over here (http://www.oclc.org/research/activities/past/orprojects/frbr/default.htm).  What happened was that I experienced the work (Saiyuki) in the adaptation of anime.  Saiyuki itself is a re-imagining of the classic work Journey to the West, by the way.  (A lot of manga is very meta.)
When we reviewed Ariel Shrag’s works, we all had a single expression, the exact same three books in front of us.

When I read reviews and criticism of Saiyuki, the available canon(s) looked like this:

  1. Saiyuki anime (close, but slightly different, adaptation of the primary work, which was the first several volumes (perhaps five) of a then approximately fifteen volume work) in Japanese.
  2. Saiyuki anime (close, but slightly different, adaptation of the primary work, which was the first several volumes (perhaps five) of a then approximately fifteen volume work) in English dub and in English subtitle.
  3. Saiyuki and Saiyuki Reload manga, written in Japanese and read in Japanese, by some of the critics.  In 2005, when we’re talking about, the first part of this series was complete (Saiyuki, or Gensomaden Saiyuki) and we’d moved on to Saiyuki Reload (sometimes just called Reload).
  4. Also available in scanlation (previous to the official liscensing of titles, it is generally considered socially acceptable to read via scanlation) and read thus. [An expression]
  5. Also available in liscensed form in English, which is how I read the series up to the point it had been released (middle of Reload, I think, or about ten volumes of what had to be something like thirteen available in Japanese at the time). [Another expression]
  6. Also available in translated, but not scanlated form.  This is how I read Saiyuki Gaiden, which is a prequel (not yet complete in 2005).  You bought the Japanese manga (collected in a tankoubon) and found a translation  and read them together. [Yet another expression, along with a related work and its expression.]
  7. Also available in magazine form in chapters, which are scanned and translated but not scanlated.  Someone buys the magazine in Japan, scans the appropriate new chapter, someone else translates the words for those of who do not read Japanese, and puts them up together.  At the time I was reading them, it was considered socially acceptable to do this if you only kept the scans up for a short period of time, on the assumption that as soon as the work was purchasable by the reader, it would be.  Some people felt it was fine to keep the translations up, because that is a different animal, and besides, then fans would buy the collected work in Japanese (always released much sooner than in English) and read it as they did Gaiden. [Expression number who knows what the hell a lot.]

I have looked at the clock and the current already monstrous length of this explanation and decided, on the whole, to skim over the other adaptations. To wit:

  1. OVAs, or original voice adaptations, which are like radio programs.  These may include new canon material written by the artist, or be something different.  (Saiyuki has several, I believe.)
  2. Further anime runs, in this case Reload Gunlock, Burial, and two movies.
  3. Video games.
  4. Live action plays.
  5. Prequels (Gaiden, now complete, and another one, whose name I forget, currently running).
  6. Wild Adapter, a b-l manga that is frequently considered by some critics to be a related incarnation of the same characters.  (Which is also available in a dizzying array of media, OK?  Just–go with it.)
  7. Bus Gamer, which, like Wild Adapater, may or may not be another incarnation of the Saiyuki boys, and which is incarnated as manga and anime.
  8. Official editions in Chinese (or other languages), read by critics in that language.

(Have you thrown up your hands by now, dear reader?  Do not be faint of heart!)

Right!  So.  What does this have to do with manga criticism again?

Remember the phrase “fruitful lines of shared scholarly inquiry”?

That’s important, because it’s very boring to write up a five page dissection of canon expressions of a character’s sexuality as it relates to Buddhism if no one else is going to talk to you about it because they don’t have the canon in front of them.  Or they have a different canon.

This is complicated by the legality and morality factor.  Legality and morality have a huge effect on who reads what when in manga and where they are willing to talk about it and how and why.

In order to have a worthwhile discussion (rather than a boring paper written for oneself alone) it’s necessary to have a shared level of canon to talk about.

In my current poking around in modern American comics critism, getting ahold of canon largely requires me to choose between buying new or buying used.  A legal copy of the latest canon has always been available for my easy purchase, so I don’t ever to have to concern myself with delicate questions of screwing over a creator I admire.  I might have to choose between flippy, soft copy individual issues and a nice trade paperback, but I am not forced by circumstance to choose between what many might consider dubious piracy and not reading it.  I can also assume, when I’m writing for a HU roundtable, that everyone else is in the same boat.  They can read the canon that I’ve just discussed if they want to and my talking about the newest chapter does not have any ethical implications beyond ‘get thee to a comic shop instead of a Borders’.

Manga criticism does not work this way.  At all.

Skipping back to the Saiyuki example, it was 2005 and I had just finished watching the first anime adaptation (in English) and read the first seven volumes of the manga in official release in English.  At the time, a fresh officially liscensed volume of Saiyuki was being released every couple months.  As I went looking for criticism, I discovered that a lot of the people I was reading had read (either via scanlation, scan plus translation, in Japanese, or in official Chinese or other language release) up to the currently available chapters as they were being published in Japan at that very moment.

Now, in the art comix circles, I’ve noticed that what tends to happen is this: book is released, everybody talks about it for a couple months, in a sort of burst, and then goes on to talk about something else, returning to that comic if/when other related works are released and/or as people slowly create longer arguments.  This broadly matches the cycle as listed above, if you don’t expect a whole lot of books (although clearly there are some).  That cycle is predicated on a broadly shared experience of number one.

What happens in the manga circles, though, is that there is such a huge mix of different critical experiences of the number one that the cycle gets….a bit twisted.

Expectations of ethical reading behaviors is a very touchy topic in manga circles right now.  (Note: I am not writing about how things should be, but how I have experienced them.  Please don’t flame me plskthnxbye.)

In an ideal world, all of the people who are interested in a shared scholarly enquiry into a work would be able to experience the work at similar times and in similar ways, without tricksy questions of legality.  That world does not exist.

So, one thing that happened, as I experienced it, was that (in 2005) there was a bunch of older criticism that had already taken place (in say 03, 04) based on unofficial versions (and therefore of not assuredly exactly legal and or ethical, by some standards) which took into account a longer scope of the work than I had experienced up until that point.  In other words, when I started writing Saiyuki criticism myself, part of what happened was that I would say, oh, write about what appeared to be the origins of the relationship of two main characters, Cho Hakkai and Sha Gojyo, which is covered in the manga I had read.

However, what happened was that I was discussing this topic with people who informed me that my thesis was wrong and that my surmises had been Jossed.  (Jossed/Jossing: when the canon goes in a direction that is different than a fan writer or critic has expected, thereby rendering the fan work incompatible with canon.)

This left me with several choices: A. I could continue to read canon as released into the English world, which is the grade A legal approach.  B. I could dip into probably-legal approaches, such as legally importing a copy of the original Japanese manga and finding an unofficial translation, which would support the author, and which would bring me up to the official Japanese tankoubon releases (but not the absolute latest most recent, and therefore most interesting, chapters in magazine form).  C. I could find quasi-legal temporarily posted scans of magazine chapters with equally temporary translations, so that I could discuss things with other fans/critics as these came out. D.  I could find definitely illegal scanlations of such chapters and know my soul was probably doomed but could maybe be redeemed if I made sure to buy the official English release.

Which one of those choices I made would determine not one, but two things: what canon I was able to read, and what pool of readers/audience I had for any criticism I might write.

Many critics are just as spoiler-averse as the average fanpoodle, as they prefer to thoroughly experience the primary source before dipping into secondary sources, lest their interpretation be unduly clouded by the secondary source’s critical angle.  Which means that if I wanted to talk about the latest releases, I’d be talking with the other group of those who are ethically comfortable with such endeavors.  That also means that such conversations, being of not-necessarily sunny legality, almost always take place in locked communities or journals.

So why not stick strictly to the official English releases?  Well, because on the other hand, it can be frustrating to read the work of someone who doesn’t have all the canon facts that you’ve got, you know?  I mean, there are certain aspects of the story that make a completely different kind of sense when you find out later details.  The example I mentioned, Cho Hakkai and Sha Gojyo’s early relationship, which is of great interest in this community, is covered in detail in certain volumes of Saiyuki Reload (usually what is called the Burial Arc) and there was no real point talking to someone who hadn’t read the Burial Arc, if I had, and vice versa.

Having read the Burial Arc, I wanted to talk to other people who had also just read the Burial Arc.

What you get, therefore, is this kind of strange caterpillar shape:

  1. Japanese release of Burial arc: everyone who reads that talks about it (possibly in Japanese).
  2. English unofficial release of Burial arc: everyone who reads that talks about it (in locked communities).
  3. English official release (manga form): everyone who reads that talks about it (may or may not be locked communities, may or may not contain spoilers for future story arcs).
  4. And then there’s the anime release (often anime has more followers than manga, as in TV vs. comics.)  Again, official versus unofficial apply, and not all anime fans will have read the manga and not all manga fans will have watched the anime.  Do I need to get into OVAs?  I feel certain I do not.

OK, having said all that, what I am getting then is this.  If you are looking for good manga criticism, you need four things:

  1. The current state of the manga you are looking for criticism about.
  2. Who is reading it.
  3. The legal/ethical argy bargy levels of the critics you wish to read.
  4. Where you need to look.
  5. (or 4a.) Access, if the places you wish to look are locked.

Let’s say you want to find criticism about the Burial Arc in Saiyuki.  The Burial Arc criticism comes in two main time frames–those who discussed it in manga and those who discussed it in anime.  Let’s pick manga only.  Then you subdivide it into those who read it shortly after it came out in Japan via, er, unofficial channels and those who waited for it to come out via official Tokyopop release.  For complex reasons which I will not get into (just trust me, OK?), a lot of the people who discuss Saiyuki are doing it all under lock these days. A lot but not everyone.

Because of the nature of unofficial releases, one can look to the unofficial release communities themselves for such critical discussions (if one is so comfortable and not everyone is).  Many (but again, not all) of the most ardent fans and experts of any given manga are going to be the ones who are passionate enough to hunt down the unofficial chanels.  These communities are not meta-tagged, because, well, they’re not.  But you need to know the time of the release and the type of release in order to find this.

There are also more broad communities focused around a work (or manga artist, or character pairing, or aspect, or whateverthehell you can think of) which probably include such criticism or links to it, most likely during the peak times of those caterpillar ridges above.  These communities may or may not have meta-tags and searchable areas.  Remember, since a series may go on for literally years and years, a lot of people will follow it that way, and build up distinct communities around it, unlike a fandom around a specific, one-shot comic book, whose canon has ended as soon as it was published.

Right.  Then there are favorite critics, which you have to kind of just know by hanging out in these smaller work or artist circles, as they may or may not be otherwise Big Name Fans in broad comics circles.

One of my favorite pieces of Saiyuki criticism (about a character’s sexuality as expressed in the text and imagery) was written as part of a pan-fandom kink bingo.  I suspect a bunch of the regular HU comics readers just read that sentence and went a pan-what?  This is a game whereby you get a bingo card with certain prompts on it (kinky prompts, naturally!) and you have to write something for each prompt to make bingo.  Quite a bit of meta is written outside of the cycle mentioned above, as part of charity auctions, gift exchanges, or other fannish pursuits, and so, unless you’re following, say, the fandom charity auction for Haiti, you might not know about the long, complicated critical article.

Finally, manga discussion groups use different words to describe their activities.  Unlike comics review sites, most of the discussions I’m familiar with do not use the word criticism, but prefer the term meta.  ‘Saiyuki meta’ is going to get you better results than ‘Saiyuki criticism’.

At this point, I have now written nearly four thousand words on the current practices of manga criticism as I have experienced it, and I need to add some cautions.  A whole bunch of this has changed recently and is now in flux, for two reasons.  One, a whole bunch of the manga criticism blogosphere has started to discuss things via other media: twitter, podcasts, or other social media.  Two, the manga liscensing issue has exploded into a thousand fiery wanky discussions, site shutdowns, and community closings.  Some of the criticism that used to exist is now effectively gone, either because folks have changed their mind about their ethical stance or because of cease and desist orders or whatever.

Again, I want to emphasize that my experiences are unique and may not reflect the critical practices of other manga critics, especially of other manga genres (I know nothing about josei, for instance, or Bleach).

I hope this essay has been helpful in describing some of the places one can find manga criticism.  I would like to encourage others who play in the fields of manga criticism to discuss their experiences here and to outline how it works in their personal circle (be it based on  their genre, their favorite types of stories, their favorite authors, various other media type discussions (like twitter or Goodreads), etc).

And very last note: I was going to discuss some of what I consider to be the more shared-scholarship approach rather than single-critic-voiced approach, but this sucker is already four thousand freaking words long, so uh, another time, maybe.  (Do let me know if that topic is of interest.)

VM go lie down nao.

Tags: ,