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What Was Alternative Manga? What Was Alternative Manga?

The Aomushi Showa Manga Library

When it comes to kashihon, you can get a pretty solid sense via the Naiki Library of the larger A5 format that became standard after 1956. But in terms of the rarer and earlier B6 books, popular between 1954 and 1959, Aomushi has no equal.

Tatsumi Yoshihiro, Teacher of the Wooden Practice Sword (Osaka: Hinomaru bunko, 1955).

For example, I had searched long and hard for a year to read the early B6 books from Osaka’s Hinomaru Bunko by Tatsumi Yoshihiro, Sakurai Shōichi, Yamamori Susumu, and Satō Masaaki of the Gekiga Studio. The Naiki Library has a few by Saitō Takao, but is thin on the others. Since I couldn’t afford to buy the books myself (which is very expensive when even possible), I thought I would have to begin knocking on collectors’ doors (a touchy situation). But there in a case at Aomushi was a stash of a couple dozen Hinomaru books, including some of the key pre- and proto-gekiga works by Tatsumi.

I had already known through Matsumoto Masahiko’s work that judo and chanbara (sword-fighting) manga had served as an important medium between Tezuka’s early magazine work and the cinematized language of suspense that is basic to gekiga. It was a real education to see how this played out in Tatsumi’s work from 1955, a year prior to Black Blizzard.

Tatsumi’s older brother Sakurai Shōichi was also a manga author. He is often credited for introducing Mickey Spillane into kashihon manga with his book The City of Masks (Hinomaru, 1955). This book I had essentially given up on ever finding – part of the reason this column has changed directions so often is that within kashihon manga I often cannot locate materials I need to finish an article respectfully – but there it too was at Aomushi.

It’s not what you would expect. Sakurai was certainly the least talented of the Gekiga Studio bunch. His work is often upheld as an example of just how bad the lively but generally formulaic and slapdash field of kashihon hardboiled manga could get. The City of Masks shows Sakurai trying to adapt the burgeoning language of gekiga suspense to the hardboiled genre. The result is a clunky series of gunfights and car chases, spearheaded by the more suave than gritty private detective “Maikurō Honma” (Mike Hammer). Later Sakurai works, also starring Honma, inch only a little closer to the degeneracy and violence of their original American inspiration.

Sakurai Shōichi, The City of Masks (Osaka: Hinomaru bunko, 1956).

Endless volumes of kashihon after 1960 carried the “hardboiled” tag on their covers. But the influence of the Nikkatsu Action films saw to it that playboy style and gangland violence took precedence over the liquor-stinking and broad-slapping types of their American pulp namesakes.

(cont’d)


18 Responses to The Aomushi Showa Manga Library

  1. Derik Badman says:

    “Let’s be honest, the experience of looking at things stuck on the wall or in a case is pretty boring.”

    You must be looking in the wrong place.

  2. ryanholmberg says:

    Where should I be looking? Specifically, where do static wall-hangings and case displays compete with the immersive experience of reading a book? And, to focus on comics, where do those traditional displays even compete with being able to handle and freely roam through pages at your own speed?

    I am speaking as someone who has spent much time in many museums and galleries. Of course I still find things I like there, but more rarely every year. All of the halting visual and cerebral experiences that one is supposed to have in such spaces, and which art criticism and art history makes so much about, are as far as I am concerned largely a myth. I suspect most of them are constructed after the fact at one’s desk, with pen in hand, or at the computer, or with a pencil or brush, when one is physically working over and embellishing those experiences with one’s own hands. The act of looking itself, at least for me, is a limited experience.

    Now I realize I should have put something like this in the article: I think a “comics museum” would truly work only if it doubles as a “comics library.” I realize some books are in no condition to be handled, but now we have digital to circumvent that problem in cases where copyright is not a hindrance. A good comics museum, in my opinion, should at the very least have a kiosk where, say, the contents of something like “The Digital Comic Museum” could be perused, while organized better for the layman. The original artwork for an illustration or a comics page certainly has archival value, but as something to be exhibited, I think it rarely offers more than its reproduction in print, sometimes even less given the white-out and pasting. So I think a comics museum works against itself by relying on display alone. The book is the medium’s strength, and that should be exploited if resources allow.

    That is also why I value a place like Aomushi. There the stacks are open (partial display) while they can also be read (library). It would probably not last long in a place with lots of visitors – objects missing and misplaced, books damaged – but I think there are things that other “comics museums” can learn from Aomushi.

  3. Derik Badman says:

    It’s a really reductive reading to say looking at paintings or other art is “boring” in contrast to the “immersive” reading of comics. One could easily make some statement about how “boring” so many of those comics are in comparison with the “immersive” experience of standing in front of a really amazing painting. But these kinds of generalizations are useful to no one and really only serve to further divide “comics” (or manga, if you will) from other forms of art.

    I’m perhaps extra-sensitive to these dichotomies since I’m currently rereading Bart Beaty’s Comics Versus Art book which is all about the comics world and the art world and how the two do or do not intersect/interact.

    “All of the halting visual and cerebral experiences that one is supposed to have in such spaces, and which art criticism and art history makes so much about, are as far as I am concerned largely a myth… ”

    I don’t even know what to say in response to something like this… You do a disservice to both artist and art critics/historians not to mention the art itself.

    I do agree with you on comics museums and other aspects of your comments, and I enjoyed reading about this particular museum.

  4. Ian Harker says:

    To be honest, I share some of Ryan’s suspicions about gallery spaces.

  5. Knut Robert Knutsen says:

    This part here:

    “I think it rarely offers more than its reproduction in print, sometimes even less given the white-out and pasting”

    Seriously? You think the evidence of an artist’s craft and work process on the original art means it offers LESS of an experience than the reproduction? I despair of some people, I really do.

    The experiences of reading a comic and admiring the original art are different, yes, but there is something sublime about great original art. Even great full size color reproductions, like the IDW Artist’s Editions or Marsu Productions’ “Version Originale” editions of Franquin’s most celebrated works manage to capture these qualities.

    The raw power of the penwork, the fastidious detail in white-on-black paint, the meticulous use of a razor blade to cut hair-thin strands of white in a black mass of hair, the evidence of every single tool, every misstep, of hesitation or conviction. The delicate power of dry brush on rough paper, or the use of technical pens to create wet, brush-like textures. The sudden intrusion of a brush line (for effect) in a page otherwise constructed solely with quills and dip pens.

    When you read a comic it’s for the story, when you look at original art it is to witness the passion and skill the artist puts into the effect that we experience. Any Museum painting can be viewed in books or online in photopgraphs and we can say “nice, but nothing special”. But the up-close experience of seeing the brush strokes, the subtle changes that the camera doesn’t catch, the scale etc. These are unique and meaningful experiences.

    If you love art, that is. If you don’t feel it, then that’s all you. Other people do feel it. Not with all art, certainly, but according to their tastes.

  6. BVS says:

    have you tried looking in Europe? you seem down for globe trotting. I have a hard time believing anyone can visit the Sistine chapel and find it so dull that they’d rather be reading Naruto. when I saw the Raft of the Medusa I had to sit down and just stare for a good 45 minutes. same thing happened when a traveling exhibit of Hiroshige prints came through the Minneapolis institute of art. but that’s the power of true masters. I agree that most work in the many museums I’ve visited have not produced such a response. Aomushi sounds like an amazing place. I think a focused & curated refrence library combined with an equally well curated gallery space would be a much better fit for comics art institutions. god knows I’ve spent countless weekends working behing the counter at big brain comics and met folks who come in from out of town when then spend 3+ hours just walking arorund the shop looking at all these comics we’ve got that they’ve never seen and only heard of. I bet employees of Lambiek & The Beguiling could tell you the same thing. theres no reason why you can’t make that experience part of an actual museum.

  7. Sean Michael Robinson says:

    I’ve had the type of experiences that seem to have eluded Ryan on his museum visits–mainly through long contemplation, just sitting in the space with a piece of work and trying to not really do anything other than take in the piece, emptying yourself and letting the experience of the object enter to fill the space. But I also sympathise with the sentiment here. After all, after several hours in a space where even being too close to a work can set off various silent alarms and send underpaid and over-armed museum guards rushing to your side, it would be a real relief to just touch the damned things. This particular museum looks like an incredible experience–it’s on my list for the next time I’m lucky enough to travel to Japan.

    There was a Darger exhibit at the Fry in Seattle a few years back, and getting to see his work up close is quite the different experience from any kind of reproduction that might be available. Ditto Shiele, ditto every Van Gogh I’ve been priveleged to see. (in his case the stunning amount of impasto just would never come across in a two-dimensional reproduction.)

  8. ryanholmberg says:

    Sistine Chapel is not a museum, in the way I was using the term. It is an environment in which the architecture and the spaciousness is as much part of the work as the frescoes. (The simple excitement of being in Rome probably adds a bit as well.) You could say in return that many museums — whether neo-classical or modernist in design — also contribute to the aesthetic experience. But aside from site-specific installations, the artwork is essentially designed for any wall or any floor of any empty architectural container. So I think the Sistine Chapel is really a different matter. I am talking about the experience of collected objects in a modern gallery or some other space re-purposed to that end.

    Besides, Michelangelo versus Naruto? That’s not fair. I could say in return Winsor McCay versus Thomas Kinkade: Who wouldn’t prefer to sit down and read comics?

    I am talking about a general experience, one that I have most of the time. Exceptions abound.

  9. ryanholmberg says:

    Painting I think is different, mainly because it is designed to be seen directly. So yes, for Van Gogh’s impasto or Darger, a book does not beat seeing the objects in the flesh. But traditional comics and illustration work is designed for reproduction, so as long as the reproduction is good, I think the printed form captures what is essential in the original and then adds another layer in the form of the experience of the book itself.

    So in response to Knut, I am not sure I have ever seen original comics artwork that has gripped me like some seem to have you. As you suggest, reproduction in books now is high quality enough (if the publisher pays for it) to capture a lot of the touch and detail of the original artwork. Even then though, I am kind of ho-hum. I prefer what the traditional book form adds to the experience of the artwork (which is both appreciation of the drawing as well as the story, as well as tactile pleasures) over what either facsimile reproduction or the thing in the raw brings.

    I like art. I just prefer this specific kind of art in print and assembled into a book.

  10. Kumi Kaoru says:

    Excellent essay! You enjoyed the trip with Natsume and his colleagues, didn’t you? http://blogs.itmedia.co.jp/natsume/2011/11/2011-295f.html I got pretty envious when I read his essay last year. Now I’m envious once more.

  11. ryanholmberg says:

    This was a second trip for me, this time alone. For focused research, it’s much better without company. Though with a group of researchers, each person working on a different topic, you certainly learn about a wider variety of things.

    Saw quite a few Pinocchio, Cinderella, and Snow White books from around 1950, in all sorts of formats. So I am sure a trip would be worth your time.

  12. Why original art can be construed as an aesthetic object in its own right (and why I, for one, find the experience of seeing it in person priceless): http://hoodedutilitarian.com/2010/10/permanent-ink-by-andrei-molotiu/

    As for your notions that:

    “Let’s be honest, the experience of looking at things stuck on the wall or in a case is pretty boring. Going to the museum, for me at least, is an activity of diminishing returns…. All of the halting visual and cerebral experiences that one is supposed to have in such spaces, and which art criticism and art history makes so much about, are as far as I am concerned largely a myth. I suspect most of them are constructed after the fact at one’s desk, with pen in hand, or at the computer, or with a pencil or brush, when one is physically working over and embellishing those experiences with one’s own hands. The act of looking itself, at least for me, is a limited experience.”

    –I’m speechless. It’s like someone without tastebuds claiming that gastronomy, as far as he’s concerned, is “largely a myth.” Why, from now on, should I give any more credence to your comics reviews than I would to an opera reviewer who claimed that “The act of listening itself, at least for me, is a limited experience”?

  13. ryanholmberg says:

    What I meant was, “The act of looking IN ITSELF . . .,” meaning divorced from talking about or writing about one sees. As you well know, in art history there is this high privileging of being physically present before the object itself as the moment when the artwork reveals itself in its fullest glory. I have not read your “Permanent Ink” essay super closely, but you also seem to share that opinion. For me, the most interesting experiences (visual, mental, or other) I have with an artwork typically occur not in the gallery, but when I am processing what I saw at my desk or in conversation. And in that sense I am saying that, for me (I regret using the royal “Let’s” in the original article), looking in itself provides only a limited portion (and not the lion’s share) of the overall experience of an artwork — EVEN in the case of artworks designed primarily for in-the-flesh viewing. Sensing the satisfaction you derive yourself from writing about art, I think you would have to admit that at least part of the pleasure you ostensibly derive from “looking at the original” actually comes from writing about that experience and processing it at a site remote from the object.

    I am not saying seeing something in the flesh is useless. If the work is good, it is a pleasure, and oftentimes it can be an education in the artist’s working practices. What I am saying is that, in the case of comics, the matrix of the printed page and the book provides me a more enriching and multi-faceted experience than seeing original artwork. The “redistribution of the visual” that you claim (in your essay) is enabled better by the framed original: I have no problem experiencing through the printed book. In your essay, you describe narrative as something “in the way.” I sensed a similar bias in the Abstract Comics intro. Again, for me, this it is not an obstacle. It only adds dimension.

    Sure, one notices different things when looking at the original artwork. And some details do not survive the translation from manuscript to printed page. But that goes for all re-mediations of the work, whether in print, in the flesh, as an image on my computer, or blown up giant-sized on a screen in the classroom. For me, the original artwork does not provide an experience that is superior to any of these.

    Judging from your essay, you think otherwise. “Visual degradation” is the term you use in speaking about in the translation from original to print. For me, the translation is not a lessening. Information might be lost, but it is also added. From the value judgments peppering your descriptions, I get the sense that for you the printed comic book is essentially a poorly reproduced version of the original artwork. And I think that is problematic, especially for someone who writes about comics.

    (Again, sorry if I am missing something in your essay. I gave it a quick read.)

    So ultimately, the tongue-less food critic or the deaf opera critic is beside the point. How about a music critic who writes about music on the basis of studio recordings? Or the comic critic who bases his or her opinions on the basis of printed comic books? Are their opinions bunk? Do they have to witness the moment of performance, or see the actual physical traces of the pen, to form valid opinions about the work?

  14. ryanholmberg says:

    You are right, at a general level it is reductive. I should have kept the comparison at the level of comic books versus original comics artwork. Perhaps museum anesthesia is only my own personal problem.

    The main reason I made the comparison was to argue for the cost of reading books at Aomushi – arguing that if you are willing to spend this much at an art museum, why not here? People are used to paying for seeing original artwork and artifacts, but they are not for using a library.

    As for “the myth,” see comments to Andrei below. What I mean is that “seeing the art itself” is not the totality of the experience, even if some art writing is structured to suggest that it is.

    From most comments here, I sense that people do think that a museum that facilitates focused experiences with original artwork is the only museum worth the name. Fine for an art museum, but for a “comics museum” I think that prejudice is self-defeating. I do think there is a place for exhibiting original art work in a comics museum, but there is also the option of exhibiting (no touch, behind glass) printed matter. For display (of either original artwork or printed matter), there is also the option of The Barnes Foundation and its crowded Salon-style hanging, where volume and dynamic wall layout makes up for the so-so quality of individual objects (a few blue-chip pieces excepted, so don’t wield your Van Goghs against me). If you are like me and don’t think individual original comics pages or illustration works provide a hearty experience, then perhaps that is a good alternative model.

  15. ryanholmberg says:

    By the way, I didn’t say “art” was boring and “comics” were interesting. I said looking at things on walls and vitrines was a wanting experience.

  16. Derik Badman says:

    “People are used to paying for seeing original artwork and artifacts, but they are not for using a library.”

    Well there aren’t exactly a lot of models for it, considering most people use free public libraries to get popular books. And in general, except for archives and rarities, most books are pretty easily accessible. Comics have a rather unique problem in this case, since so much of the history is disposable formats.

    “I sense that people do think that a museum that facilitates focused experiences with original artwork is the only museum worth the name.”

    I’m not sure where you get that from. I think people can handle different types of museums. Certainly a walk around the Mall in DC shows that.

    Your point now seems to be narrowing towards “comics museums” but the statements in your original post (and the explicit references to specific paintings) painted (sorry) a different picture. I do find the display of comics and books in cases a rather unsatisfying museum experience (like all those Garo issues I wanted to page through in the exhibit you curated).

    Personally, I am divided on the display of “original art” from comics. Sometimes it’s interesting, sometimes not so much, I’ve seen both. I hate the Barnes Foundation’s hanging (all the stuff I really wanted to see was hung really high so I couldn’t really look at it), but I could see a slightly more restrained version of that working for comics.

    It’s not explicitly comics, but a few years ago I saw Zak Smith’s “Pictures Showing What Happens on Each Page of Thomas Pynchon’s Novel Gravity’s Rainbow” at the Whitney Biennial and it was hung as a very crowded grid of images covering a whole wall. In that case the excess worked in its favor, and also, because it was the whole work, enabled a “reading” on the wall. Most comics exhibits don’t tend to work in that way (though there were some good examples in the Nadel curated Mazzuchelli show at MoCCA a few years back).

    “By the way, I didn’t say “art” was boring and “comics” were interesting. I said looking at things on walls and vitrines was a wanting experience.”

    Well the “boring” sentence came right after the references to Picasso and Seurat, so the implication of “painting” was there. Which is partially what I was reacting to.

  17. Ian Harker says:

    I think a good model for an Art Museum would be one that lets you take the painting home for two weeks and hang it in your house.

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