I just finished up a hellish week where I took a day trip to D.C. for a meeting (and essentially sat on the train the whole day, got up to take my lunch break in a D.C. law office conference room, then re-boarded the train to sit some more), gave a talk with Ali Kokmen to a handful of SVA students about manga, and finally, had the opportunity to chat about manga and biography with Emotional Content founder and Biographic Novel publisher Eiji Han Shimizu in an auditorium full of academics at CUNY Grad Center’s Leon Levy Center for Biography.
It’s been busy and now that it’s over, I’m alternately exhausted and famished. It feels as though there is not time enough for all the sleep I want, nor food enough to satiate the tapeworm in my tummy.
Interestingly, too, this is the first time I’ve spoken about comics, about manga, and felt like I was speaking into this void, into this black hole. I have to first thank my friend and old college roommate Imani Wilson, who is director of the Leon Levy Center for Biography, for inviting me to participate. The funny thing is that she had warned me thoroughly and repeatedly, about the mindset at the Center – and this is not to say that the attendees and biographers in the audience were close-minded, although many of them were, I only mean to relate a general feeling of….”comics are stupid” that seemed to prevail.
I’m being too judgemental.
Really the feeling was more “comics don’t matter” or “why do comics matter” (notice there is no question mark to close this question because the assumption is that comics don’t matter).
I am so lucky to have shared the stage with Shimizu-san, who opened the talk with a sampling of the types of manga that he publishes – the first, a manga biography of the 14th Dalai Lama, the second a manga biography of Mother Theresa, and third, a manga biography of Che Guevara. The first thing that Shimizu-san told this audience of purists and academics is that whether they like it or not, today’s reader has a short attention span and demands instant gratification.
Oh yes, we were very popular.
At the end of our discussion, one historian/academic/biographer asked if manga really was a viable form for biography since it is reductive. I had no idea what she was talking about. Or I do, but I don’t buy it. What was so funny about the question, is that Eiji-san had presented four examples of biographic material – historical footage of a scene, an exerpt from a history book, a scene from a movie based on the history, and then a scene from the forthcoming manga (about Ghandi). Out of all of the examples, the exerpt from the book was shortest – a paragraph long. I’m sure this is taken from an entire book or something like it, but I thought the question, about manga being reductive, was hilarious.
When I think about the number of history books, of biography, that flatten and reduce events and lives into a timeline or dead words on a page, all I can think of is the potential of manga to enliven biography. One thing that I mentioned in the beginning of our discussion is that manga opens the reader to a sensual world, one that is visual, tactile, emotional – and alive. As corny as all that sounds, I genuinely believe it. Reading Eiji’s books only made me more interested in the subject matter.
After it was all over, this one biographer/historian spent a solid 10 minutes trying to convince me that Eiji-san’s books were fictional biography, not biography, since they include dialogue. And while that may be true, all I could think about is how it was a weak argument if the overall story of this person’s life and accomplishment’s and their place in history, was being conveyed.
Well, I say let the experts debate. While they’re yammering, Eiji-san and his studio will be methodically churning out these books, putting out these manga histories that anyone can read, that anyone can find interesting and educational. Just another way to skin that cat and keep people interested in reading/learning.
Anyhow, this is my favorite shot of our talk:
Here, I’m doing my damndest to speak articulately and comprehensively about manga to the Ivory Tower, and all the while, I’m sitting in a way that allows everyone to see up my skirt.
It was a good day.