August Favorites

I can tell that the summer is coming to a close because all I want to do is drink buckets of tea. I always love tea, but I slow my consumption down in the sweltering summer months. As soon as it dips below 75, however, my body decides that it is now autumn. Needless to say, I’m excited for more clement weather and my favorite holiday right around the corner. (Not that anyone is going to be trick-or-treating this year, but I’m determined to stay positive about Halloween anyway.)
My working life looks a bit different these days. I’m taking on less so that I can take care of my daughter during the day, but my focus is also shifting to things that I really want to be doing. I’ve been having a lot of fun with podcasting lately; it’s something I obviously have enjoyed ever since I became a permanent host of Manga Machinations, but now it serves as a tie to my pre-mom identity. And it’s a great bit of social time I’m able to look forward to every week. We wrapped up our Kasane retrospective this month, and phew! What a series! I enjoyed it way more than I anticipated, and I really loved talking about it with the guys.
Generally, with these monthly favorites, I choose to profile series that I haven’t talked about before. So if I’m continuing to read a series, I don’t always bring that up, even if I really love it. I just wanted to take a moment to acknowledge that I’m still enjoying BEASTARS. I’m a couple volumes ahead of release because I get review copies, so I just gotta say…if you’re keeping up with it so far, or if you’re on the fence as to whether or not to continue…it remains really solidly written, beautifully illustrated, and completely wild. Going forward, I’m going to try to mention series I’ve continued to read, since that usually means I’m really into it. (I have a tendency to forget about series if I’m only lukewarm on them, even if they had a strong start.)
I had a chance to read a few manga this month that I had been eagerly anticipating, so I’m excited to finally be able to share those with y’all!
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Venus in the Blind Spot — by Junji Ito, published by VIZ Media
It’s always a good month when there’s a new Junji Ito book on the horizon. I usually try not to read review copies of his stuff, because I want the experience of buying and reading the book. But this time, I just felt really compelled to write a review for Comics Beat. I really loved it; I think it might be the strongest of his anthology collections available in English so far. I was especially excited to see his adaptation of Edogawa Rampo’s creepy short story, “The Human Chair.” Ito did not disappoint — I had the same visceral reaction to this manga version as I did the original prose. My favorite offering in this collection has got to be “Master Umezz and Me,” an autobiographical piece where Ito talks about his relationship with Kazuo Umezz’s work. I have this (perhaps futile) hope that this story will inspire English-language readers to become more interested in Umezz’s work so that we can have a reprint of Cat-Eyed Boy….
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Slaughterhouse-Five, or the Children’s Crusade — written by Kurt Vonnegut, adapted by Ryan North, illustrated by Albert Monteys; published by Archaia, available September 15, 2020
I was in an airport on my way to Japan when I learned about Kurt Vonnegut’s death. It was a huge blow to me, though I had only read a couple of his books at that point. Vonnegut was a huge influence on me as a teenager, and many of his ideas remain an integral part of my personal philosophy. I was thrilled when I found out Ryan North, the writer behind Dinosaur Comics and The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl, was responsible for writing an adaptation of Slaughterhouse-Five. While I think that this comic is best appreciated if you’re already familiar with the original novel, I thought it was incredibly well done. I especially appreciate the in-story acknowledgement that it is an adaptation, talking about Vonnegut in the third person and pointing him out in crowd scenes to give the reader added perspective on his role during World War II. I’m not worried that Vonnegut will ever become an unknown name, but I like to think that this graphic novel version of one of his most beloved novels will help keep his legacy current.
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I Don’t Know How to Give Birth — by Ayami Kazama, published by Yen Press
I have been waiting for this manga forever. It was originally intended for release around my own due date, but delayed twice over. Needless to say, I was thrilled when I finally got my hands on it. I’ve mentioned before that I intend on writing a full reflection on pregnancy through comics, and the real reason I haven’t already is because I was waiting to read this, the only manga translated into English that deals directly with pregnancy. In it, Ayami Kazama talks at length about her struggles with infertility, the excitement of finally becoming pregnant, the struggle to find maternity underwear, and the uncertainty of becoming a parent. Though her experience was very different from my own, I always appreciate hearing other moms talk about pregnancy and birth. It really reinforces for me that there’s no single correct way to have a baby or to be a mom, and I find that really reassuring as a new parent, myself. Kazama’s husband, Azure Konno (also a mangaka), has little pages at the end of each chapter where he mentions his own experiences of his wife’s pregnancy. I thought this was a really nice touch, since it takes (at least) two people to make a baby! I Don’t Know How to Give Birth also reminded me a lot of chii’s The Bride Was A Boy, in that it was an autobiographical manga that used factual information to gently educate its readership on the topic at hand. I think this is a great read for anyone, but it will be of special interest to new parents, or those planning on having children.
A pretty solid lineup for August, if I do say so myself! September is gearing up to be busy (and I always get busier in the fall, but let’s see what happens since COVID prevents me from going anywhere). Hopefully I’ll have a nice little roundup for you next month, as well. Until then, stay well!

Black Creator Spotlight: Ronald Wimberly

We all have those artists whose work we keep intending to read, but somehow they keep getting put off for one reason or another. For me, that was Ronald Wimberly, specifically his book Prince of Cats. I knew that I had to fill that gap in my comics reading, and so this second Black Creator Spotlight centers on Wimberly.
Ronald Wimberly is an award-winning comics artist whose work includes the aforementioned Prince of CatsBlack History In Its Own Words, and the ongoing LAAB project. LAAB is, in the words of its most recent Kickstarter campaign: “An annual broadsheet magazine full of art, comics, criticism, interviews.” When I was working at Comicopia, we got a stack of the first issue, and I was very impressed with the cohesiveness, clarity, and design sense of the magazine. Wimberly brings together many voices to talk on issues that are important to him, including Black identity. I had never seen anything like it in comics, and haven’t seen anyone doing something similar, either.
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I had read Wimberly’s Black History In Its Own Words a while ago, and I knew that I loved his artwork. I’ve since reread it for this post, and I have a more informed perspective on it in the face of current events and conversations around anti-racism. In short, the book is a compilation of portraits of influential Black people, accompanied by quotes that Wimberly found meaningful. Initially begun as a project for The Nib for Black History Month, Wimberly spun it out into a whole book to be published by Image Comics — drawings spanning three years of work. I especially appreciate that not all of the figures profiled are names well-known to the average white reader; Wimberly purposefully includes rappers, artists, and radical feminists in the mix of voices. I remember being surprised to learn that George Herriman, the creator of Krazy Kat, was a Black man; as in so many aspects of my life, I assumed a white default. When I first read this book, I think I considered it a cute quote book with exceptional artwork; now I realize that Wimberly was collecting a medley of Black voices for Black empowerment and reflection on Blackness. For me as a white woman, the book is an important reminder that even though it is not “for me,” there is plenty for me to learn from it, and from the wealth of influential Black figures both past and present.
Prince of Cats made me glad that I was forced to read Romeo & Juliet multiple times — a feat which middle and high school English classes could never achieve. Wimberly recasts the play with all Black characters, sets it in 1980s New York City, and centers his narrative on Tybalt. He mixes Shakespeare’s lofty prose with street talk in a melodious marriage that reinforces the Bard’s own sense of humor at times. (“Redeem thy kicks for thy skin.”) I found myself thinking of the 1996 movie adaptation of the play starring Leonardo DiCaprio a lot during this reading; Wimberly sets a stage that is more easily recognizable to a modern audience, and changes perspective to highlight the destruction of seemingly arbitrary demarcations of difference. The gang violence portrayed seemed much more real and pressing to me than the fruitless feud of the Montagues and Capulets in Shakespeare’s original play.
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And of course, Prince of Cats is visually incredible. Because of time constraints, I borrowed a digital copy of the comic from my library, even though it is not my preferred method of reading comics. The digital version has a unique feature that forced me to read most of the comic panel by panel, instead of page by page. Generally I take issue with this, because I know that artists put as much effort into page and panel layout as the illustrations themselves, and I know from LAAB that Wimberly has a strong sense of graphic design; however, this allowed me to get a much closer look at the little details he puts in every drawing. I love his use of thick black lines, his sense of movement. I was especially excited by the visual references to Japanese culture, including a few specifically to AkiraPrince of Cats is a celebration of Shakespeare, but also of hip-hop, samurai films, animation, and Blackness. It’s not a straight adaptation, but rather a work that breathes new life and meaning into what can feel like a stale play to many readers. (But maybe I’m biased; I prefer Hamlet.)
Wimberly recently had a comic of his pulled from the New York Times for its “controversial” image of a burning cop car. This page was the end of a series of diary comics, and it is disappointing (to say the least) that the Times decided that Wimberly’s very real, raw emotions about police brutality were deemed inappropriate. For those who want to experience more of Wimberly’s personal comics, and his ongoing work through LAAB, you can subscribe to his Patreon (where membership levels are “Alibi,” Co-defendant,” and “Co-conspirator”), follow him on Instagram, and/or follow him on Twitter.
[Note: Wimberly does not have direct links to purchase Black History In Its Own Words or Prince of Cats through his own website or social media profiles. Instead of linking to their Image Comics pages, I encourage interested readers to get in touch with Amalgam Comics & Coffeehouse, a Black woman owned comic shop out of Philadelphia, PA. Their website says that Prince of Cats is currently out of stock, but many shops are willing to place special orders for customers. And regardless, they’re a good shop to support!]
 

The Revolution Will Be Japanified: Pure Invention and the Multifaceted Influence of Japanese Pop Culture

My daughter has a plush octopus named Veronica. Veronica, a Squishmallow brand toy, came with her name, as well as a stated interest in pretzels, reading, and having adventures. She also has two perfectly round black eyes and a teeny tiny smile all set close together, a face that I would easily describe as “kawaii.” When I was a child, the general public would not have understood this descriptor. Now, however, it is easy to take for granted how much this Japanese ideal of cuteness has taken over the marketing of toys — among other things.
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Matt Alt’s new book, Pure Invention: How Japan’s Pop Culture Conquered the World details how we came to this point, beginning with the history of US-occupied Japan’s rise from the humiliation and devastation of World War II as the country who would take over the toy business. From the creation of a simple tin-scrap jeep in the 50s, to the invention and improvement of karaoke, arcade games, video game consoles, and the eventual export of anime and manga, Japan has wiggled its way into the Western consciousness even in spite of especially American fears and prejudices concerning a Japanese takeover. As Alt states, the science fiction of the 80s was littered with the idea of Japanese power dominating white Western culture (see: Blade Runner). Though we are not all speaking Japanese and committing our allegiance to the Emperor, these visions of Japanese aesthetic co-opting our everyday lives was remarkably prescient.
Not every aspect of this globalization of Japanese tastes has been as innocuous as toy design, however; Alt spends a great deal of time tracing the alt-right’s rise on 4chan, a forum inspired by the Japanese 2channel. 4chan originated as an anonymous forum for exchanging anime screenshots and the creation of memes, but in time anonymity provided a mask for disenfranchised white men and boys behind which they could say whatever they liked to whomever they wished. Despite anime and manga’s Japanese origins of affiliation with leftist radicals, Western Twitter is rife with belligerent users referred to as “anime avatars,” who seem to enjoy reiterating far-right talking points and harassing those whose views do not align with their own.
It is fascinating to see the trajectory of Japanese influence on the West, complete with both the ways in which it has fostered incredible progress and in which it has reinforced white supremacist ideals. The world we know today was not created in a vacuum, and Alt has given the historical context for a host of surprising facets of our modern lives. But he has also written a fascinating history of Japan itself, as both influenced by Western culture and drawing upon its own traditions and expertise. Take, for instance, the creation of Hello Kitty, that well-known ambassador of kawaii. Sanrio founder Shintaro Tsuji’s childhood exposure to the American “birthday party” inspired him to make cute necessities, something special for children from a man whose own childhood was fraught with war and poverty. The story of Sanrio’s growth, hiring women designers at a time when women were rarely in positions of power (and even here, would have to fight for top positions) and connecting with the children of a booming economy, is a testament to the way in which Japanese companies court the tastes of girls.
An entire chapter of Pure Invention is dedicated to the economic powerhouse that is female consumerism. Teenage girls have always been at the forefront of what is trendy, and no more so than in the popularization of pagers, cell phones, and fashion on Tokyo’s bustling streets. I remember when “Harajuku style” was all the rage to Japanophile teens here in the US (because I was one of those teens), and I still swoon whenever I see a photo of delinquent girls from the 90s in their over-long sailor skirts. They’re cool. They’re aspirational. And they helped drive sales for decades, even when the Japanese economic bubble burst, tossing Japan into a depression, the perfect example of the fallout of late-stage capitalism.
I am a great lover of history, and obviously a lover of Japanese pop culture, so perhaps I was predestined to enjoy this book. But beyond the subject matter, it is an exhaustively researched, eloquently written text which had me reflecting on my own experiences with the likes of Sailor Moon, Power Rangers, and my best friend’s Nintendo 64 in the 90s and early aughts. Looking back through my personal past, I can track the steady increase of Japanese and Japanese-adjacent sway on my media and consumer diet, a microcosm of what was happening to youth culture on the whole at the time. I look around my home and, though I am perhaps a special case as a manga collector and critic, see hundreds of examples of Japanese influence in my life. I recall having a lactation consultant, of all things, comment on the pile of manga I had sitting on my coffee table when she came to work with me, because her son reads manga — not a conversation I was expecting to have while preparing to learn about latching and milk supply! But so omnipresent is the saturation of Japanese goods that I did have that conversation, and have had many like it in equally surprising circumstances.
Manga has its own special place in Pure Invention, alongside anime and discussion of the student riots of the 60s and 70s. Osamu Tezuka is rightfully profiled, Alt even mentioning the God of Manga’s place in his own life. But the important takeaway is the rise of manga and gekiga as a catalyst for leftist movements, the heroes of these comics serving as inspiration for a group of young people who sought change and justice as they struggled to find work and purpose in their lives. It is the opposite of the American alt-right co-opting anime today, spouting ideas about how Japan is a country untouched by “political correctness” — an interpretation that shows just how little these individuals understand about Japan, and which implies that they are perhaps the ones who most need to read this book.
I am hesitant to say that Pure Invention is nostalgic, exactly, because Alt is far too aware of the drawbacks of Japanese globalization as well as the benefits. But he is open about his own youth being touched by the various new innovations in tech and media through the 80s and 90s. He never takes over the narrative with his own story, but rather provides context for growing up as a young American giving in to the onslaught of imagery and ideas from the East. That touch of intimacy helps the reader feel invested, as well, and like they can trust Alt — someone who, probably much like them, cares deeply about Japan. Matt Alt has been writing about Japan for many years, though this is the first of his books that I have had the pleasure to read. I intend on finding more of his work soon, as I was thoroughly impressed and engaged with this book.
You can learn more about Alt, his books, and his localization company at his website.