A Food Analogy to Explain the Resistance Against Diversity in Comics (and Why Diversity is a Good Thing)

Marvel placing blame for its declining sales on its push for characters outside of the white, male archeype has provided the latest arena for critics and fans to come out for and against diversity in entertainment. Looking at the online discourse, however, I find that there are many championing diversity who have difficulty seeing why anyone would resist. A major part of the problem, I believe, is that there’s a failure to understand that the two sides are coming from unique points of view built on very different foundations.

The Story of Trans Fats

Here’s a food analogy (because I love food analogies).

For years in restaurants across the US, frying oil was reused over and over by default. Then it was discovered that this process produced what came to be called trans fats, and that these fats were more harmful to health than just frying in general. Because of this, every place began changing their practices and eliminating or minimizing the presence of trans fats.

In addition to the added expense of having to rethink how food is prepared, this transition came at arguably another cost: flavor. Fried food just tastes different when old oil isn’t being reused. If the reason for eating at, say, your favorite fried chicken joint was because of what that reused oil imparts to the meat and skin, it could have felt like an unnecessary sacrifice for “health.” Even though having food be healthier is unarguably a good thing (if people could eat versions of the food they do now that tasted the same but was better for the body, they would), health benefits are not necessarily what any given person will prioritize.

The Establishment of Critical Values Among Fans

This is where I think some of the contention over diversity in comics and media lies. While the notion of “I don’t mind diversity in my entertainment, I just won’t want it to turn into some SJW hugfest,” is an argument borne out of certain biases and blindness towards privilege, it’s also on some level based in the standards established in a given circle of media consumers. In this environment, there are criteria by which a comic or television show is judged as “good” or “bad,” e.g. narrative consistency. To a different audience, narrative consistency could be important too yet still take a backseat to something accepted as a “higher priority,” such as a visceral feel to romantic interactions. Personally speaking, different groups of fans I’ve interacted with can have wildly different elements they value, to the point that it can seem as if two groups are watching completely different things despite it being actually the same product.

In other words, the push-back against diversity isn’t only about right and wrong, but about what people are accustomed to—what they’ve accepted as truisms of the medium. When a given community is built and reinforced over time, certain values become stronger in turn. If the specific reason you ate fried foods was for the savoriness that trans fats provide, then no amount of “it can increase the risk of heart attack!” will placate you.

Old vs. New Criticism

To move this away from deep frying and towards actual examples from comics and entertainment, I present two examples. The first is the changing reception over British comics writers such as Alan Moore and Grant Morrison. The second is the increasing prominence of character-over-story manga series from around the early to mid 2000s.

In years past, Alan Moore and Grant Morrison were praised by comics fans as writing incredibly intelligent and mature comics. Works such as Watchmen (Moore) and Seven Soldiers (Morrison) are genre-defying/defining creations that present complex and cerebral arguments that challenge comics readers. However, a lot of their works involve anywhere from minor to heavy doses of misogyny, so if your priority is the positive portrayal of women above all else, then it might not matter how “smart” Moore and Morrison’s comics are. On the other side, if you’re from a community space that believes the intellectual elements of their comics are what define good comics, then misogyny might be viewed as a lesser complaint or a non-issue.

Somewhat similarly, manga scholar Ito Go has written that manga criticism was historically biased against manga that emphasize character over story. When manga began coming out in the late 90s/early 2000s that focused on the stylization of its characters above all else, these were considered “bad manga” by established critics. Ito, on the other hand, argues that this because of the values that have been built and reinforced around the cult of Tezuka Osamu (the most celebrated manga artist ever), and that the visual “realness” of characters (kyara, as Ito calls it) has been just as much a part of manga all along. Essentially, the idea is that the only reason why kyara-heavy manga is considered inferior is because of the ossification of the criteria for “good” manga. Yet, for those who still want strong story above all else, Ito’s point of view holds little weight.

Whether the contention is based specifically in diversity or not, the general tendency for a group of like-minded individuals is to assume certain truths and then build around them. Disagreement can happen within these parameters, and sometimes those boundaries can even be stretched or broken, but in time certain truisms develop. Attacking that structure or praxis from the outside can appear to an insider as if you’re saying “1 + 1 = 3,” even if what you’re expressing merits consideration.

Noticing the Problem

On a certain level, I believe that the resistance against diversity in comics and other forms of entertainment is because we’re in the middle of a paradigm shift. Where once comics fandom and criticism was built on a long established marketing focus on white, male, and straight readers, other groups are making their voices heard in ways that the entrenched fanbase can’t help but take notice. The reason that they didn’t notice in the past is because they were unaffected by it, plain and simple. Many likely didn’t even know there was a problem, and this is because the values emphasized and prioritized in that community left little room for diversity to be brought up except in very broad strokes. The sand is shifting underneath them, and it’s not surprising that some would double down on what they’ve learned to be true.

Advertisements

Are Comics Companies Really Learning the Importance of Diversity?

ms-marvel-9-coverIn recent years, diversity in representation of peoples has become a frequent topic of debate among fans of animation and comics. Whether it’s the rise of Steven Universe and its positive portrayals of strong female characters, or the increase in panels on women in comics, minorities in comics, and more at New York Comic Con, there has been a strong move both from fans and creators to make sure that tokenism is never a thing, and that the Rule of Three (see the video below) doesn’t stop any group from finding themselves in cartoons.

In 2014, at a Women in Comics panel at NYCC, one of the panelists mentioned the importance of learning how to communicate with the old, white men who run these companies if people want to make a difference up top. The following year at NYCC, a Diversity in Comics panel had multiple industry members talk about how management across multiple companies are realizing that other groups besides the white, male demographic are customers and are worth appealing to. Ultimately, people are communicating in the language that executives understand most of all: money.

However, while the net result seems to be in favor of a strengthening of cultural diversity, there’s a question that nags at the back of my mind as I see the talk of a changing tide. Are those executives, those old, white men, actually learning why cultural diversity in comics is important, or are they simply seeing it in terms of potential sales? Part of the reason why comics appealed to that white, male demographic for so long, aside from latent racism, was that it was seen as a reliable market, but catering too much to that aging audience has stymied its growth among the population at large. This means more attention is paid to women, LGBT, racial minorities, and more, but does it just all come down to the bottom line?

My fear is that, if diversity is simply seen as the latest ticket to profit, that if comics and animation start to be less successful, will the companies and their heads be just as quick to jettison the desire to bring different groups of people to comics? Are we ultimately beholden to entertainment media as a product of popular culture in a capitalist society?

If you liked this post, consider becoming a sponsor of Ogiue Maniax through Patreon. You can get rewards for higher pledges, including a chance to request topics for the blog.

Hey Dandy: Genshiken II, Chapter 117

As Hato becomes aware of Yajima’s feelings for him, a heartfelt discussion between the two ensues, where they share their doubts and beliefs about what it means to live with oneself. Though ostensibly a prelude to the last “date” of their trip to Nikkou, the moment between Hato and Yajima might well end up being one of the highlights of Genshiken Nidaime.

Over and over, I think one of the questions asked of Nidaime has been, why a harem arc? Why go for the most stereotypical anime trope that potentially damages Genshiken as this realistic depiction of otaku and fujoshi? Given how Genshiken has turned out in its exploration of Madarame’s awkward love life, one answer has been that it’s commenting on the disconnect between the fantasy of the anime harem and the reality of interpersonal relationships. This has been supported by the characters themselves sometimes even saying as such. However, there’s a second possible answer that’s arguably much simpler, and perhaps even extends out from the original series, which is a desire to portray greater diversity in the otaku population, and that includes a greater number of girls and women.

While I cannot attribute any proof of intent to creator Kio Shimoku’s goals with the second Genshiken manga, there are a few factors that have me considering this. First, there’s the higher female to male ratio. Second, there’s Hato himself, who is, suffice it to say, rather complex when it comes to ideas of gender, sex, and sexuality. Third, there is the greater emphasis on the idea of body image in Nidaime. I think this is perhaps where the “harem,” one of the most upfront formulas for having a heavy amount of female characters in a series, becomes integrated into this idea of diverse representation.

In this chapter, the discussion between Hato and Yajima essentially falls on what it means to “look” or “behave” like a woman. Yajima tells Hato that his crossdressing affects her deeply because it reminds her that she is not beautiful, that she’s overweight and lacking in anything that would attract men. Hato responds that he’s jealous of Yajima because he has to constantly put on this ideal act of being a woman in order to keep from getting found out, whereas Yajima naturally exudes femininity even when she does not fit societal standards.

Moreover, Hato remarks that he totally believes a relationship between him and Yajima would be possible, and fondly imagines the idea of being able to share a love of BL with a fujoshi girlfriend, while also specifically mentioning that not just any fujoshi would do (Yoshitake’s personality he considers possibly incompatible). The very things that make Yajima hate the way she looks, the tension of being a woman but not “acting the part,” are what Hato finds appealing about Yajima. And yet, Hato resists starting a relationship because he came to Genshiken to make friends, fujoshi friends, and doesn’t want to taint that desire and pervert it into a pursuit of a relationship.

There’s a lot to unpack there! We have a clear indication that Hato is bisexual, or somewhere deep in that middle area of the Kinsey scale. We have Yajima, who’s not even part of the Madarame harem, sharing these everyday questions that can haunt the mind and subtly cripple one’s self esteem. Basically, there are these two embodiments of so much inner and outer pressure, and they are opening up to each other in a way that, while it technically fails the Bechdel Test in multiple ways (one of them is sexually a man after all, let alone Madarame being a major topic of conversation), it speaks to something deeper about how people view themselves relative to societal standards. For example, why is there sometimes the assumption that an attractive woman can fall in love with an unattractive man for his inner qualities, but that an unattractive woman has no chance with a beautiful man?

On top of all of this, Yajima shows something that I think is truly impressive: she isn’t fully comfortable with homosexuality still, despite being a fujoshi. At one point, Yajima thinks to herself that she should tell Hato, who has said that a relationship with Yajima isn’t out of the question, that he should make the “right” choice and go with a girl. In her mind, she sees that as the proper way things should go. However, and this is key, she holds back because she realizes how much Hato has gone through when it comes to his relationship with Madarame and the soul searching that he’s had to do. Here is a character who is in her own way affected by the standards society puts on women, yet is vulnerable to assumptions of what is normal and what is not as seen in how she opposes Hato’s crossdressing for so long, and over time is learning and changing her mind at a pace that is her own. In the end, Yajima encourages Hato to try his best in his pursuit of Madarame, and it means so much given what Yajima is thinking and what kind of person she is. It’s a real struggle that is rarely talked about.

Diversity and representation are two of the biggest topics when it comes to current American comics and cartoons. Japan’s history in this regard is different, with things such as shoujo, BL, yuri interacting with a traditional and contemporary sexist society. In Genshiken Nidaime there’s something powerful, almost as if there isn’t an overtly political motivation to improve representation of other sexes, genders, and sexualities, but a simpler desire to show more of the world in all of its complexities using the tools of manga. I’ve had a feeling along these lines the entire time I’ve been reading Nidaime, but this is perhaps the chapter where it stands out more than any other up to this point.

(Obligatory Ogiue sighting)

If you liked this post, consider becoming a sponsor of Ogiue Maniax through Patreon. You can get rewards for higher pledges, including a chance to request topics for the blog.

A Mission for Myself: New York Comic Con

General Thoughts

As New York Comic Con has come to rival San Diego Comic Con and become its east coast counterpart, the scope and demand of NYCC are constant points of consideration for any potential attendee. While the convention pretty much improves every year and little can be faulted for how it’s run, the guests they bring, and just the amount of stuff there is to do (aside from perhaps the inevitable over-emphasis on professional and industry panels), I find that there’s a certain evaluative process I notice my friends and me going through every year, which all boils down to the simple question: should I attend next year?

First and foremost, as an anime and manga fan I have to say that NYCC delivered, and in ways I hadn’t expected to affect me so deeply. This year, they most notably brought Naruto creator Kishimoto Masashi and Uzumaki Naruto voice actress Takeuchi Junko and premiered Boruto: Naruto the Movie for the first time outside of Japan (see my review here). Aside from some hiccups in terms of the Hammerstein Ballroom venue—the overly strict no food policy went so far as to ban bottled water, and the concert-oriented seating obscured the screen for significant portions of the viewers—it was the most memorable part of the convention for me, and it brought me back to 13 years ago when I was at the height of my own Naruto fandom.

On top of that, the announcement of a Tiger & Bunny film helmed by Ron Howard was the biggest surprise by far of NYCC, and the opportunity to get a personal drawing from Attack on Titan animator Asano Kyouji was a rare treat. While I was unable to get Asano to draw Holon from Real Drive like I hoped (to be fair that show is 10 years old), this image of Sasha from Attack on Titan is the coolest thing I brought home from New York Comic Con:

However, my experience with NYCC made me realize just how disconnected I am from a lot of current fandoms. This isn’t to say that I disliked New York Comic Con, or what it does. I’ve always enjoyed the mix that New York Comic Con brought, between the opportunity to meet professional artists, the focus on entertainment media that has extended out from the superhero movie boom, and just the general celebration of nerd culture. However, partly because I was out of the country for four years, and partly because of my own general taste for things, I haven’t been as deep into certain popular works in recent years as I might have been in the past.

What really brought this point home to me was how much I enjoyed the Justice League Reunion panel. Seeing Carl Lumbly talk about bringing his cultural heritage to the role of the Martian Manhunter as an immigrant with a traumatic past, finding out that Justice League Unlimited was a clever and creative compromise with a soulless marketing engine that wished to use the cartoon purely as an action figure commercial, and hearing Kevin Conroy sing “Am I Blue?” flooded me with so many fond memories of what made that series great. It made me recall the character of A.M.A.Z.O. and how incredibly deep and interesting his story was, and the “Ask the Justice League” portion was downright hilarious, especially Martian Manhunter’s greatest enemy being “a villain made of flaming Oreos.” It made me want to find this feeling again within more non-Japanese works.

This is certainly not a criticism of the current state of animation; many fantastic works have been and are still being created. Rather, it has made me aware of just how much a connection to the “nerd mainstream,” as it were, fuels New York Comic Con. NYCC is a for-profit convention backed by the entertainment industry, and it will aim for the works that hit the widest audience, or at least the widest audience within a niche. This is what fuels the decision for a Firefly panel, or indeed inviting a manga megastar like Kishimoto. Rather it fuels my desire to expand my interests further than where they are currently, to get a better sense of the zeitgeist of current American (and non-American!) fandoms.

Exhibitor Hall, Artist Alley, and Panels

Again, when it comes to the actual con, there was much to enjoy. In the Exhibitor Hall, I got the chance
to try Street Fighter V, say, “Domo” to Ninja Slayer, and get that cool Sasha drawing from Asano.

The Artist Alley, as always, was a great place to meet artists, find out about new works, and see the trends that fuel the creators. Superheroes are a no-brainer, anime is less prominent but if it is it’ll be something that captured the imaginations of American fans, such as Dragon Ball Z or Sailor Moon. Stylistically, I made just one purchase at Artist Alley this year, issue 1 of a comic called Henchgirl by Kristen Gudsnuk, the premise of which is exactly what it sounds like. The Artist Alley filled with everything from amateurs to industry veterans, with talent abound. However, I tasked myself with a challenge, which was to find something that spoke to me, that didn’t rely on name recognition, and that wasn’t too tempered by my own preferences for specific types of characters or heroes. Gudsnuk’s drawings resonated with me the most because of the humor and soft, cartoony style. If you’re curious, you can read the comic online for free.

The other highlight of the Artist Alley might have been seeing a small kid, probably no older than 6 or 7, hand a copy of Days of Future Past to Chris Claremont.

As for panels, it’s no secret that a for-profit con like NYCC will have a different flavor from a fan-oriented endeavor such as Otakon. I generally enjoy the latter kind more when it comes to programming, but NYCC has a pretty consistent track record of quality, possibly because it’s such a big deal now and encourages industry hosts to bring their A-Game, as seen with the Justice League Reunion.

The Kishimoto panel was a rare opportunity to get into the mind of one of manga’s most successful creators. While the questions were curated, the host did a great job of opening up Kishimoto, and I’m sure that him no longer having to keep deadlines or worry about how his answers might influence sales of Naruto allowed him to give responses that were a bit more candid than what is usually seen from Japanese guests. Probably the best thing I found out from the panel was the friendly rivalry shared by him and One Piece‘s Oda as Shounen Jump‘s two frontrunners, as well as the titles that influenced him most. That said, I hope the audience that was mostly silent after hearing Kishimoto mention Tezuka Osamu’s Phoenix get the chance to find out more.

“Push Boundaries Forward: Gender, Diversity and Representation in Comic Books,” featuring Marjorie Liu, Darryl Ayo, David Brothers, Amber Garza, Jeremy Whitley, Joey Stern, and Shannon Waters was one of many panels over the weekend that focused on addressing the changing dynamics of comics creators and readers. Both the audience questions and panelist answers showed a strong desire to move forward, to learn, and to understand that greater diversity in comics is a multifaceted challenge that never ends, and is ultimately beneficial to comics as a whole.

The Felicia Day panel was pure Q&A, and that’s exactly what the audience wanted out of it. Incredibly charismatic in that awkward way that appeals to geeks most, Felicia Day genuinely engaged her audience with an attitude that was both deeply caring and kind of flippant, bringing a realness to her answers. The best moment was when she complained that you couldn’t have sex with her character in Dragon Age 2, which her manager had ordered the studio against.

The Sunrise panel showed once again that they’re one of the direct-from-Japan studios to really get what it means to throw a panel. In addition to the surprising news about Tiger & Bunny, their announcements were varied and spoke to different portions of their audience. By the way, if you heard a couple of loud guys cheering for Giant Gorg, that was me and Patz from the Space Opera Satellite Podcast. We were serious, too. Giant Gorg is a rare series directed by the character designer of the original Gundam, and had been in licensing hell for years.

GORG!!!

Yo-kai Watch is also a thing.

Finally, I decided to attend a screening of a Love Live! concert, partly to satisfy my curiosity about this particular aspect of Love Live!‘s media mix, and to see the fan reaction. What I got out of it is exactly something I mentioned in my review of The School Idol Movie: the series is extremely malleable by fans, going from a warm, inspiring story full of interesting characters to a mountain of instant memes at the drop of a hat. As people shouted at the character Ayase Eli, “DON’T LET YOUR DREAMS BE DREAMS,” I wondered if that could somehow be parlayed into the slogan of Love Live!: “Make our dreams alive!”

Cosplay

As with most con reports at Ogiue Maniax, I’d like to leave off with some cosplay. Truth be told, I wasn’t digging a lot what I saw, but Sunday really turned it around.

Everyone Digs Robots: Big Hero 6

When Disney announced that they had purchased Marvel, they opened themselves up to three things: jokes, cross-promotional opportunities, and new material from which to create new stories. The first two have been well in supply, while the third has just made its debut in the form of Big Hero 6, a 3DCG film loosely adapted from a Marvel comic series of the same name. The result is a movie that wears its lineage as the offspring of Disney and Marvel upfront, and which for the most part benefits from combining the raw, simple excitement of superheroes with the old Disney desire of creating family-friendly and uplifting animated films.

Story-wise, Big Hero 6 is an overall strong affair. The film centers around a 13-year-old boy named Hiro Hamada, a young robotics prodigy from the awkward portmanteau of “San Fransokyo” who mostly squanders his talents. Due to the influence of his older brother Tadashi, as well as Tadashi’s own creation in the form of a gentle healthcare robot named Beymax, Hiro is set on a path that leads him to not only pursue his ambitions but become a full-fledged superhero in the process. Big Hero 6 balances humor with action and a bit of tragedy, and it’s amazing how much can be done with a simple fistbump joke. On top of that, though, there are two qualities in the film, or I should say the protagonist, that stand out to me.

First, Hiro is an Asian protagonist in a field that is classically connected to the image of white heroes. At first, this might not seem that important because both Disney and Marvel have histories with Asian characters. Disney has Mulan and American Dragon Jake Long, and if we’re counting the Middle East as part of Asia as well, then there’s also Aladdin. Marvel has numerous superheroes that are ethnically Asian, such as Sunfire and Jubilee. However, I what’s special about Hiro is being able to see an Asian hero at the center of a big, important Disney + Marvel movie as someone whose abilities are not derived from his “Asian-ness,” especially because of how both companies have historically projected an image of “whiteness,” intentional or otherwise. Both companies have most recently shown a greater concern for diversity in characters (see Princess and the Frog and the new Ms. Marvel for a few examples), and while Big Hero 6 may not be the first, it is a clear and concerted effort to further show heroes of all kinds. To have powers derived from some mystical East Asian aspect is not inherently a bad thing, but it is quite overdone. While there is the risk of the association of Japan with technology and thus a kind of Techno-Orientalism, it never comes across that way even as San Fransokyo greatly resembles a Disney-fied Blade Runner Los Angeles.

The second important aspect of hero, which I’ve already mentioned, is that he’s a nerd. At this point nerd chic is old hat, and we’re at a point where so many people play video games that there’s little of the stigma that used to be there, but I think this is still important because of the portrayal of nerds in media, especially in Disney and Marvel properties. Again, both companies are not inherently against hyper-intelligent characters; Phineas and Ferb, a comedy about two genius kids, is one of Disney’s most successful properties in recent memory, while Marvel has characters like Professor X leading the X-Men. However, in both cases the go-to formula for hero vs. villain primary conflict has been some form of brawn vs. brains, where intelligent characters are scheming connivers: Scar to Mufasa, Jafar to Aladdin (who granted is more clever than anything else, but it’s a different type of smarts), Captain America vs. the Red Skull, Hulk vs. Leader. Big Hero 6 doesn’t just flip this into a good brains vs. evil brawn scenario, but actually makes it brains vs. brains. At the climax it’s a matter of pitting intellects against each other (albeit intellects redirected to look a whole lot like brawn) which are doing battle.

Of course, the brainy Asian who’s good at math is still a prominent stereotype, but this is mitigated by the fact that many different characters, Asian and non-Asian, are shown to be intelligent and into robotics. The rest of the core cast, which is mostly comprised of Tadashi’s college friends, are Asian, Black, White, etc., who are all so enthusiastic about developing technology that they went to college to accomplish that. Additionally, these characters have not just ethnic diversity but also a kind of physical diversity as well. While it doesn’t go as far as to include, say, handicapped or transgendered characters (which is still probably a risky step for a company like Disney and so unlikely to happen), the characters have a wide range of body shapes and sizes. Compare for example the difference between the tall and thin Honey Lemon and the shorter and rounder Gogo, both of whom are portrayed as beautiful in their own ways without their beauty being their most defining features or their primary functions in the narrative.

Speaking of diversity, the character Wasabi, who in the context of the film is the nickname for a black character, was originally a source of some controversy because his name was “Wasabi-no-Ginger” for an Asian character. I can see why this got a bad reaction, but I do wonder if it was supposed to be a reference to how manga characters are sometimes named. Most famously, Toriyama Akira, creator of Dragonball Z, names most of his characters after food (Vegeta), food-related products (Freeza), or underwear (Trunks). Here, the choice to change a Japanese character with a potentially offensive name into a black character might in a vacuum be considered on the same level as turning a non-white character into a Caucasian, but I think the contexts are different. My opinion on this is still undecided, but I think it’s the result of both an increasing awareness of cultural sensitivity and how important that can be, along with Disney responding to a market that increasingly cares about this issue.

This being primarily an anime and manga blog, I also want to mention all of the references and similarities to anime and manga that litter the film. From Hiro’s not-Mazinger Z wall clock to the fact that his superhero outfit looks awfully similar to Priss Asagiri’s hardsuit in Bubblegum Crisis, there’s much love paid to mecha in a way similar to Pacific Rim and even anime like Robotics;Notes which are also love letters to robot shows. Having seen it only once in theaters I couldn’t go over it with a fine-toothed comb, but attention is paid to Japan and its own history of animation. Given Frozen and its enormous success in Japan, I wonder if Big Hero 6 with its Japanese protagonist can perform similarly

Overall, Big Hero 6 is a strong first step in a lot of different areas. It’s good as the true debut of the Disney-Marvel alliance, and even better as a product of both companies’ increasing efforts to represent and inspire a multicultural environment. There’s clear intent at franchising this film, so I’ll be curious as to where it all goes.