kuš! Aesthetics

sh-cover-25Since 2007, the Latvian publisher Kuš! has been releasing a steady stream of short form (and mini-sized) alternative works from all over the world. Basically the only comics publisher in a country without a comics tradition, they've worked from the outset as an aggregater of writing and drawing practices ranging all along the art comic spectrum. So it is perhaps a logical continuation that the latest issue of their š anthology explores the process of being influenced by and appropriating a foreign tradition, namely manga. Kuš!'s David Schilter, along with co-editor Berliac (who drew the issue's cover and is featured inside) talk about what it means to be a “Gaijin Mangaka”.

JOSSELIN MONEYRON: What gave you the idea for this issue's theme?

DAVID SCHILTER: I honestly can't remember. It seems like we were talking about it for quite a while. We enjoy doing things a bit different once in a while. Instead of asking artists to submit works on a certain theme, this time we invited people who are influenced by manga, and gave them free hand on what the stories can be about.

BERLIAC: Since it's manga, it's probable I brought up the idea. I liked the cohesiveness of "Female Secrets" and "Desassosego" (Portuguese) specials of Kuš! Would you say you also saw this "cohesiveness" among our chosen artists, before this issue? Or did it come as a surprise as we began making the selection?

David: I did see it among certain artists from previous issues, like Hetamoé, Mickey Zacchilli and Dilraj Mann. But it was a very exciting process to find more artists with similar influences. A lot of time spent on tumblr…

Art by Mickey Zacchilli
Art by Mickey Zacchilli

Josselin: How did Berliac end up co-editing?

David: As the idea was initiated by Berliac, it was clear from the beginning, he'd be part of it. Early on he suggested many names to include, and I often consulted him about my own proposals. At a certain point Berliac said he'll want to get some credit, and then I suggested he'll be the co-editor. From that on we worked closely on the whole issue.

Berliac: By credit I meant money, cash, dinero, but David completely misunderstood, or pretended to misunderstand. But anyways, I did remember David's confession, during my "artist" residency in Riga in 2014, that he didn't have much knowledge of manga beyond Tezuka and a few more. Therefore, he couldn't have done this alone. Or maybe I should say that since I came with the idea and I'm a control freak, I'd never allow him to publish just any cartoonist. As a matter of fact, we don't even like the same kind of comics, which was part of the challenging, fun part.

David: This is all true, though I honestly don’t think I knew any manga by Tezuka. Maybe the only mangakas I could name and have read were Yuichi Yokoyama and Kiriko Nananan. By now I tried to catch up a bit, particularly with publications by Breakdown Press and PictureBox.

Art by Andrés Magán
Art by Andrés Magán

Josselin: How were the authors selected? What were the aesthetic or narrative criteria that led to this line-up? A couple of stories seem very far from what we think of as "manga style", especially once you've added color. What links them to the others?

Berliac: Personally speaking, I don't believe there's such thing as a "manga style", therefore my criteria was actually to publish works which support my argument. Manga's vocabulary is extremely broad, and all artists breath in and employ different elements. Color is still one of them: far from conflicting, GG's use of red, for dramatic effect, is totally reminiscent of Seiichi Hayashi, and Andrés Magán's color palette is clearly trying to emulate the 4-color process in which early children's manga by Suiho Tagawa and Shigeru Sugiura were printed. Dilraj Mann, on his side, abandoned dynamic page layouts and angle variation commonly associated with modern manga, and instead went for an 1950's Gekiga grid, and for the content he draws directly from the Kaiju (giant monster) tradition, from Godzilla to Kengo Hanazawa's ongoing "I am a hero". So yeah, what links them to the rest is the common denominator: they're clearly influenced by manga.

Art by Dilraj Mann.
Art by Dilraj Mann.

David: I am not too interested in "classical" manga, I prefer those with a more experimental approach. I tried to select people who could also be included in a regular kuš! Issue. So, in a way, we got a broad range of very different styles, but still, each contribution has a clear manga influence and together they make a consistent book, I feel, that very much fits the kuš! aesthetics.

Josselin: The title "Gaijin Mangaka", which has a very vague literal meaning, makes clever use of how these Japanese words have acquired a more specific meaning once extracted from their original cultural setting. Is it a term sometimes used by some of these artists to try and define their sensibility?

David: It took us a while to come up with a summarizing title, and it was a challenge to not choose something plain silly. First we even thought, we could give the artists a theme, but then we just wanted to leave the contents completely to them. At one time I came up with the idea of "Foreign Manga". Google helped me to translate it to "Gaijin". Berliac uses "Gaijin Gekiga" as his header on his website, so with slight adjustments we got our title. Though Berliac said "Gaijin" is often used as derogative term, so we did have some slight reservations.

Berliac: My Japanese friends explained to me that the term Gaijin was "extracted from its original cultural setting", in which it had racist connotations, by foreigners living in Japan to refer to themselves. So, I don't know about the other artists, but when it comes to defining my own work, I don't have any reservations, quite the opposite, I gladly see myself as an outsider, and make it an identity factor in my own work. One of the nicest "fan mail" I've ever received was from Japan, from a man saying he could certainly trace Yoshiharu Tsuge's influence in my work, but at the same time he enjoyed learning about my own cultural background and experiences. Isn't this a bit like immigrating? I learn your visual grammar as fluently as possible, to tell you about myself, to connect, and I learn about your own culture in the process.

Art by GG.
Art by GG.

Josselin: Do some of these authors feel like they belong to a community of thought?

Berliac: Maybe, as long as you don't mean a clear, conscious, willful, long-term association. I've talked to some of them about this, and mostly they seemed quite disconnected from each other, beyond having seen each other's work online, and maybe traded publications once in a while. This is neither good, nor bad, and as a matter of fact, I don't think it's our duty, as authors, to consciously gather, or even to be clear about what is it that we share. That's the duty of, well, people like David, who work full time to provide spaces (publications, galleries, festivals, articles) which would evidence this partially-visible threads in a more intelligible way for the public.

David: In a way, kuš! provides a platform for artists to meet, so maybe this issue does lead to a connectedness of sorts for these artists in future.

Josselin: There's an almost ostentatious will not to feature purely mimetic artists, of the so-called otaku sort. Is it just because of your own taste, or was it thematically important to feature only artists whose interest in manga doesn't supersede their other sources of inspiration? (in other words: why did you feel it was more interesting to feature artists whose style is a hybrid?)

David: We didn’t think about artists which we did not want to include, but rather, whom we wanted to feature. I personally prefer works which have some sort of personality, an artist doing their "own thing". In the end it probably comes down to a matter of taste, I just can’t get excited about otaku manga - admittedly I had to look up this term first.

Berliac: That's right. Despite we were indeed concerned with attaining a certain balance (a balance which is present in all of Kuš! issues, for example when it comes to nationalities and gender), the end of the line was what we would like to see grouped between front and back cover, period. Also don't forget this is an anthology: you can't like it all. Man, I flip through my copies of Garo, and 60% of it looks pretty bad! Also, calling some of the artists in this issue "Hybrids" is, in my opinion, a bit euphemistic. To me they seem more like artistically torn, schizoid, "Co-Dependent Cunts", as Daylen Seu entitled her piece, two or more artistic personalities at war with each other. "I wanna do this, but without quitting this". And that's great, that's what makes their work so interesting and unique, in these particular cases. They make these stylistic struggles an artistic asset.

Art by Berliac.
Art by Berliac.

Josselin: Some of the artists are mostly interested in alternative manga, while others profess their love for widely successful works and authors. Do you feel these – sometimes conflicting – traditions share more than just a national origin?

David: For me it seems to be like that with comics in general. Speaking for myself, I am not really interested in mainstream comics. Reading Fantagraphics books is about as mainstream as it gets for me. I can enjoy most of their books, but usually I read works from smaller publishers. I hardly pick up mainstream comics. Sometimes I like them, sometimes not. But of course, it is the same with alternative comics, I don’t love all of them either. In the end, the crude labels "alternative" or "mainstream" don't say anything about quality.

Berliac: I don't think there's such division between those who like Alt-Manga and those who like more popular ones, among our contributors, to begin with. From their work it's clear they all like different kinds of stuff at once, that's part of their charm. Gloria Rivera shows in her piece the same love for Ebine Yamaji as for Rumiko Takahashi. Luis Yang is even more evident, his comic reads almost as a visual essay on this dilemma of influences: on the top half of each page he seems to pay tribute to the rough lines of Oji Suzuki and Shin'ichi Abe, and on the bottom he goes for a Moto Hagio-on-cough-syrup kind of aesthetic, with hyper-cliché dialogues straight out of disposable Shoujo magazine.

Art by Gloria Rivera
Art by Gloria Rivera

Josselin: Alt-manga's deliberate pacing and aimlessness are often cited by the artists in the line-up as an inspiration. But a big feature of (at least mainstream) manga is its long episodic narratives. Is this type of storytelling also an inspiration and how does one hint at this in a handful of pages?

Berliac: I think the artists themselves should be asked this question. As co-editor, though, I can say, that when making the selection, we also tried to balance the authors working in both narrative and anti-narrative ways.

Josselin: Mainstream traditions around the world are very codified and tend to jar foreigners, while alternative productions tend to be more "universal". How do you feel that affects the "global manga" production?

Berliac: Is there such thing as "global manga" production"? Or maybe better ask, David, do you feel there's an increasing manga influence in the submissions for Kuš!, since you started in 2007 to this day?

David: I couldn't say so. We’ve been inviting a bunch of alternative manga artists from Japan since our very first issues. Recently I discovered the brilliant Quang Comics from Korea and we had submissions from some of their members. I actually tried to involve Korean artists much before that, but the problem was the language barrier. So, well, in recent issues we do regularly have some manga contributions, which before was maybe less often. We're not consciously, looking for manga, but we just enjoy having a range of contributors from all around the world. Probably we should publish significantly more manga, this issue already turned out to be way more popular than our regular issues.

Art by Ben Marcus
Art by Ben Marcus

Berliac: I reject the notion of Universal Alt-Comics vs Jarring Mainstream altogether. I don't think "Kramers Ergot", "Mould Map", "Kuš!", or any other Alt-Comics publication, ever rubbed Japanese readers in the right spot the way "Dragon Ball", or "Akira" did to the western audience. I made a 60-page essay in (Alt)comics form about Alt-Comics, called "Playground", and I still find myself jarred by them, whereas not by "Sailor Moon", how did that happen?. If Alt-Comics were so universal, how come they sell so little, home and abroad, whereas jarring manga moves fully-grown adults to cross-dress like their favorite character? When people, like David, only read small-press publications, it occurs due to a frame of interest, a preference, a personal taste, even for political reasons, and not due to an intrinsic jarring characteristic of manga. Now, if we take your question in a less literal way, one is tempted to agree with Paul Gravett, who in the foreword suggests that the availability of Alt-Manga in Western languages influenced new generations of authors, consequently shaping their own work, etc. This is in some way true, but, call me a cynical maybe, it's hard to believe that any of us discovered "Red Color Elegy" in 2009 and suddenly reached Satori: "Oh, this is what I will make from now on!". If we reached such illumination, it surely happened with "Bakuman". A clear example of how such critical phallacy (I think artists know as much as I, the critic, does), is the case of contributor Xuh, from Poland, who made arguably the most Garo-ish piece in the whole issue, and she didn't even know what Garo was until Gravett sent his questionnaire.

Josselin: Some works in the collection don't reference manga's narrative style or aesthetic so much as they do the sort of supermainstream image factory that Japanese pop culture was for a few decades. What do you think that imagery (giant robots, schoolgirls, etc.) represents to non-Japanese artists?

Berliac: Same as for Japanese. I think in 2016 we should drop the idea that for-export pop culture belongs to its creators. You can't expect people to grow on a certain literature for decades and not make it part of themselves. In Spain there's a common phrase, for embarrassing situations: "I was left with a drop on the side". When I asked if they knew where it comes from, they don't have a clue.

David: I don’t know what that means.

Berliac: Oh, it’s part of manga/anime vocabulary. The drop on the side means "I’m embarrassed". Also, I can't stress this enough: artists are people above all, and as such, consumers of culture. We're subject to another culture's influence as much as anybody else. It's not that we're saying "oh, I love this Cherokee head-dress, I'll wear it in Coachella". Our generation grew up with manga and anime for years, it was a for-export cultural product spoon-fed to us, we literally learnt new vocabulary of our own native languages by watching the dubbed versions of "Sailor Moon" and "Ghost in the Shell". You can't expect that not to leave a mark.

David: I would confirm, contributors have generally a huge interest and respect for Japanese culture. Some even speak Japanese or try to learn it. Of course this shows in their comics.

Berliac: That's right, Vincenzo Filosa is a Japanese translator and is currently curating the Gekiga collection for Coconino press in Italy.

Art by Vincenzo Filosa.
Art by Vincenzo Filosa.

Josselin: Finally, you've expressed an interest in how the collection would be received in Japan. Have you had messages from Japanese readers? Do you have a better idea now how it looks to that audience?

David: It's difficult to say, as of course people don't write us their feedback regularly. We sent books to TACO ché, a book shop in Tokyo, and they said the issue is very approachable for their audience. Similar feedback we got from our Chinese bookseller, who already ordered more copies.

Berliac: My Japanese friends loved it so much that they decided to make their own manga. Recently I exchanged a few emails with Asakawa-San, ex member of the editorial team of "AX" magazine (the direct continuation of "Garo"), and he said he found it quite interesting. My hope is that this showcase is seen either as a curiosity, a "look at these crazy westerners, putting soy sauce on their pizza" kind of product, or, ideally, from the quality-based point of view: good/bad drawings, fun/boring stories, no more. That's what we're all our efforts go to, after all, to make good comics.