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Just a few things that have come up this week.

*Korea’s National Treasure Number One, Seoul’s Namdaemun (“South Great Gate”), severely damaged by an arsonist in 2008, has been reopened to the public after a US$24 million restoration project.

*Speaking of heritage issues, the New York Times reports that the Metropolitan Museum has agreed to return a pair of statues to Cambodia after Cambodian officials presented clear evidence that the statues had been taken out of the country illegally in the 1970s.

I find it heartening that the Cambodian Secretary of State is quoted as saying “This shows the high ethical standards and professional practices of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which they are known for.” It is wonderful to see the Metropolitan characterized in such a positive manner, as a potential partner and not as an adversary or obstacle.

*Meanwhile, on the subject of museums, there are apparently plans for a giant bubble to be installed at the Smithsonian’s Hirshhorn sculpture museum, seasonally, serving as a decidedly (post-?)modernist additional gallery space.

The Smithsonian Magazine article I found discussing this (thanks for the heads up, dad!) expresses concerns that the plan may not fly, as DC, the very model of a bureaucratic city, loves its drab grey concrete too much, and similarly creative contemporary-looking sort of projects have failed in the past. I guess only time will tell if it does manage to go through.

*On a separate subject, a recent blog post posted by the Queens Museum of Art invites us to consider social activist artistic practice, and the questions of what makes it “art”? and Why call it art?

Simply protest? Or Art?

There may be a standard term out there in the scholarly or art critic discourse for this precise type of art, but if there is, I do not know it. What this Queens Museum blog post, and I, are referring to is engaging in flat-out social activist activities — whether it be a protest poster, a march or sit-in, a stand where you sell or give away something in order to raise awareness for a cause, organizing communal/public vegetable gardens, or volunteering at, e.g. a soup kitchen or hospital — and then calling it “art” or “artistic practice.”

This is only extremely tentative, but my initial reaction was to, first, say that one key element is simply whether or not it is called “art” by its creators/organizers, and whether it is called “art” by critics or scholars. I think the difference is largely in how it is conceptualized. One person might engage in a given action or activity out of (more or less) purely political motives; she might make all organizational, logistical, and aesthetic decisions about the project based chiefly on how effective they will be towards successfully achieving the political goal. And others might see this activity, and might analyze it, describe it, through a political or social sciences lens. And then someone else might engage in precisely the same activity, but might choose to see the performative and discursive aspects of the act itself as being of chief importance over (or equal with) the success of the political aims. This person might call themselves an artist, and call what they are doing “artistic practice.” And others might examine the act, conceptualize it, describe it, in terms of art, aesthetics, or performance. Somewhere in there, I think, may be the answer. Not solely, simply, a matter of calling it art or not calling it art, but, truly, conceiving of it and conceptualizing its meaning differently, on a very fundamental basis.

Or, to touch upon a slightly different perspective of a closely related interpretation, perhaps what separates it is simply its cleverness and intertextuality. A protest that is powerfully clear in its targets, its aims, and its methods, may be art in the sense of the argument that everything is art, because everything contains aesthetic and performative aspects, and deeper meanings. But, when a social act is not clear in its targets, its aims, or its methods, when its purpose or meaning is not readily apparent, but requires some interpretation, discursive or intertextual references, or the like in order to understand – in short, when it’s clever – does that make it more strongly, more definitively, “art”?

As for the other question — why call it art? What does the person classifying it as such have to gain (or to lose)? — I leave it open.

What do you think? What makes an act of social engagement or protest “art”? What distinguishes it from purer, “non-art,” forms of social or political engagement?

Two years ago, I was honored to play a small role in a Hawaii Kabuki production, The Vengeful Sword, and to serve as dramaturg. This involved doing research on a variety of elements that come up in the play – including the historical events that inspired the play, the history of the locations, the meaning of certain terms – and sharing the results of my research with the cast & crew via a private (closed) blog. I’ve posted before, on numerous occasions, about the production, but now, I’m finally getting around to re-posting, publicly, some of that content. I hope you find it interesting.

What about The Vengeful Sword itself, our MacGuffin, the eponymous Aoe Shimosaka?

I have asked some friends who are crazy about swords and samurai history, and have come up with nothing as far as references to Shimosaka swords carrying a curse…


The design to the left, a “three-leafed aoi” design, or something very much like it, is i would guess imprinted on the blade of Manjiro’s heirloom sword, near the handguard (tsuba). It is either this, the swordsmith’s signature, or some other inscription, that Mitsugi is looking for as he pulls each sword out of its sheath and looks at it under the lantern light. ‘Aoi’ (葵 or 蒼) is often translated as ‘hollyhock,’ but is in fact a different plant. In any case, its leaves are commonly used in samurai crests and other such symbols. If you are familiar with the Noh, and/or the Tale of Genji, this is the same ‘aoi’ as the Noh play (and Genji chapter) Aoi no Ue or “Lady Aoi,” which centers on a woman known by that name.

It is called “Aoe” with an ‘e’ in the Stanleigh Jones translation, and rendered as 青江 (blue/green river/inlet) in the Japanese, as this was the crest of the Tokugawa clan, and the authorities in the Edo period were not fond of references to the shogun (or his family crest) in kabuki, ukiyo-e prints, or other forms of popular culture.

Shimosaka refers to the swordsmith. Yasutsugu I, or Shodai Yasutsugu, also known as Shimosaka Ichizaemon, was himself the son of a swordsmith as well, but began a new lineage. Born in a place called Shimosaka c. 1532, he later moved to Echizen province, was granted the title of “Echizen no kami” or Lord of Echizen (note this was just an honorary title and carried no political authority), and was from then on known as “Echizen Shimosaka,” a name he and his disciples (and their disciples) then often inscribed on the blades they produced.

Yasutsugu I, the originator of this lineage of swordsmiths, was later in his life granted the honor of using the family crest of the Tokugawa shoguns (seen above), and thus it was that the ‘aoi’ crest came to be found on Shimosaka swords.

The Certificate of Authenticity

The original play seems to just use the word orikami (折紙, lit. “folded paper”), but as for a term that actually denotes a “certificate of authenticity,” it would seem that one of the most common or standard terms is kanteisho (鑑定書). I don’t know how different ours would look, as our play is set a good 200 years ago, but perhaps it would look something like this:

A kanteisho written in the late 1950s or early 1960s, for a 14th-16th century blade, from the collection of a Col. Hartley, and forged by the swordsmith Shidzu 志津 of Mino province 美濃国. There’s a lot here that I can’t make out, but it does give the name of the swordsmith, his province of origin, the age or date of the sword, and its length, along with the signature of the appraiser and date of the certificate’s creation.

The kanteisho for this sword, forged by Fujiwara Hiroyuki of Kyoto (平安城藤原弘幸). This, too, gives the signature and seal of the appraiser – Hosokawa Moritatsu (細川護立), head of The Society for Preservation of Japanese Art Swords (日本美術刀剣保存協会), and, now that I look him up, the 16th head of the Hosokawa samurai family which once ruled Kumamoto Domain on Kyushu. The document is dated 1970, the year Moritatsu died, but while I don’t see any date for the age of the sword on the document, looking up Fujiwara Hiroyuki, we find that this inscription was only used from 1615-1624.

—-
A Protection Charm from Kompira Shrine

Iwaji (who is really Kitaroku) tries to pass off the document as a certificate of authenticity of a protection charm from Konpira Shrine. Konpira, in Sanuki province (which borders Awa), is probably the most famous shrine on the entire island of Shikoku. It is believed to have been founded in the 1st century, making it (along with Ise Shrine) one of the oldest shrines in all of Japan.

Incidentally, the Kanamaru-za, the oldest kabuki theatre still in operation, is located quite nearby to Konpira.

A paper protection charm from the shrine would look something like this (left), while protective charms (omamori) are more commonly enclosed within (or take the form of) little cloth bags (right).

If you’d like one of your own, you can visit a branch of Konpira Shrine at 1239 Olomea Street here in Honolulu.

Two years ago, I was honored to play a small role in a Hawaii Kabuki production, The Vengeful Sword, and to serve as dramaturg. This involved doing research on a variety of elements that come up in the play – including the historical events that inspired the play, the history of the locations, the meaning of certain terms – and sharing the results of my research with the cast & crew via a private (closed) blog. I’ve posted before, on numerous occasions, about the production, but now, I’m finally getting around to re-posting, publicly, some of that content. I hope you find it interesting.


In The Vengeful Sword, the courtesan Oshika claims to have lent the samurai Mitsugi ten gold pieces, or ten ryō in the Japanese. Each “gold piece” would have been a coin called a koban, roughly the size of the palm of your hand, and each worth one ryō.

Right: Two koban coins from roughly 1818-1830, each worth one ryō. Each would be roughly the size of the palm of your hand, and perhaps roughly as thick as a quarter. Not pure gold, they would have been roughly 80% gold, 20% silver, the coins having been debased numerous times since the beginning of the Edo period.

But how much money was this, really, in terms of value? Oshika talks of selling all her special kimono, and her regular kimono, hair ornaments, all to try to raise this money for Mitsugi. Must be quite a bit of money. Of course, given how expensive kimono could be, how many did she have to sell? This webpage indicates that a men’s ensemble (haori, hakama, and kimono) would have been about one ryô at the cheapest; I’m merely extrapolating, but I’d guess that the much more elaborate, embroidered, and otherwise more fancy kimono of the courtesans would have cost much more. Three ryô each? Five?

Still, that doesn’t give us a very good feel for the real value of the ryô. So how much is “ten gold pieces”? Well, it’s hard to say. For much of the 17th century, for the most part, one ryō was, at least in theory, equal to one koku, a set standard measurement of rice said to be equal to the amount needed to sustain a man for a year. But by 1796, when our play takes place, there was considerable inflation, and the coins were debased. One koban no longer contained enough gold to be worth a full ryō in terms of the precious metal it contained, but was one ryō only in face value; furthermore, one ryō was not worth as much as it once was – you couldn’t buy as much with it. As with all currencies, purchasing power, and thus “real value,” fluctuated widely across the Edo period, and so it is impossible to say with any certainty an exchange rate between 1796 ryō and 2011 US dollars.

However, a few figures might help us put it into perspective.1

*The salary of kabuki star Ichikawa Danjūrō I (1660-1704) peaked at 800 ryō.
*Yoshizawa Ayame I (1663-1729) was the first kabuki actor to attain an annual salary of 1000 ryō.
*The Kansei Reforms, in 1794, two years before our play is set, put a cap on kabuki actors’ salaries of 500 ryō.
*In 1711, a high-ranking hatamoto (direct retainer to the Shogun, rather than to a provincial daimyo) earned 483 ryō.

It’s only a rough estimate, and fairly sloppy, but let us assume for a moment that we can apply this figure of 483 ryō to 1796, eighty years later. If a high-ranking hatamoto is earning less than 500 ryō (and has expenses in excess of his income!), then this ten gold pieces that Oshika has supposedly given to Mitsugi is fully one fiftieth of what a very high-ranking samurai (or a top-ranking kabuki actor) is earning. Mitsugi himself is only a low-ranking Shrine priest – surely, it’s safe to assume that this ten gold pieces is a rather sizeable sum for him. What is his annual income? Ten ryō? Twenty? Fifty? I can’t imagine it would be above 100, or maybe 150 or 200 at the absolute most.

Cecilia Segawa Seigle, in her volume on the Yoshiwara, suggests an arbitrary conversion rate of $450 to one ryō, and suggests that one’s first visit to a major Yoshiwara bordello could cost as much as 10 ryō, including tips to the nakai (serving girls) and taikomochi (men who work in the teahouse) [hey hey! I get tips!].

One website, giving a rundown of typical Edo period prices, costs, and incomes indicates that an officer of the law, i.e. an officer of the magistrate’s office (奉行所同心) earned about 28 ryō a year.

Seeing a play at Ryōgoku in Edo cost 32 mon in 1820, or roughly 1/125th of a ryō, at 4000 mon to the ryō. Sending your child to temple school (terakoya) for a year cost up to 1/4 of a ryō, while hiring a maid cost roughly two or three ryō for a year. Buying a small room in Edo (roughly 80 square yards or 66 square meters) was 360 ryō.

So, in the end, I am not sure what we can say about quite how much money 10 gold pieces (ten ryō) is to Mitsugi or to Oshika, as we don’t really know their incomes. On the one hand, in terms of income, ten ryô might be a very sizeable portion of Mitsugi’s annual income – anywhere from 1/10th to 1/2 of his total annual funds. But, on the other hand, in terms of prices or costs, ten ryô could just be the price of visiting the Aburaya a few times. I guess it becomes clear that Mitsugi has been living far beyond his means. Even a high-ranking samurai like Manjirô (son of the Chief Counselor to the daimyo of Awa province), whose income is presumably much more than Mitsugi’s, got himself into debt with the teahouse, and had to pawn the precious Aoi Shimosaka sword.

So, while we can’t really come up with any particularly definitive answer, let us just suffice it to say that “ten gold pieces” is quite a lot of money. Yes, granted, it is only about the same amount as the cost of a visit to a prominent teahouse in the Yoshiwara, but it is also about four times the total annual salary of a housemaid, one third the total annual salary of a local officer, or 1/50th the total annual salary of a high-ranking shogunal retainer or top-ranking kabuki actor. So, not exactly the kind of money you just throw around. Nor would I want to encourage throwing it around – those gold pieces are large and heavy, and could do some serious damage if you hit someone in the head with them.

EDIT: This post, from two years ago, represents only my first tentative effort to dip my toe into this subject. Having looked into it a bit more in the last two years since then, the issue of how much a mon or a ryô is worth, and how much things cost, remains frustratingly elusive and complex. The multitude of currency denominations – not only koban and ôban and ryô and mon, but also momme and bu – along with differences between gold, silver, and copper, and of course the dramatic changes in the strength of the currency over the course of the Edo period, make an understanding of the real purchasing power value of the currency, and of the real ‘cost’ of this or that item, extremely difficult. But, I continue to explore the subject; what little I’ve come up with can be found in an article on Currency on the Samurai-Archives Wiki.

——
(1) Samuel Leiter. “Edo Kabuki: The Actor’s World.” Impressions 31 (2010). pp114-131

Disgusting and embarrassing as it is to think about, just over 100 years ago, so-called “human zoos” were a popular sight at World’s Fairs and the like. The 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair in particular featured each imperial/colonial power showing off their colonized peoples. Individuals from Africa, South America, the Pacific, Southeast Asia, and elsewhere were brought, most of them completely against their will, to live in mock-ups of their traditional homes, literally for the purpose of being on display as examples of their primitive, exotic cultures and selves.

I expect that at most of these World’s Fairs, the architecture was entirely temporary, and was taken down after the Fair. I’ve never been to St. Louis, but I imagine that nothing much remains, am I right?

But, apparently, according to a Messy Nessy Chic blog post a friend just posted on Facebook, a whole bunch of buildings from one such “human zoo” built in 1907, on the outskirts of Paris, are still standing.

I’m amazed that these things are still standing; I truly had no idea that the remains of any of these “human zoos” were still extant.

But, given that they are, it presents an interesting dilemma for the French authorities. As the blog post points out, if they knock it all down, it could be interpreted as trying to hide the past. But if they restore it, it could be seen as celebrating that period of its history, and not being properly remorseful and penitent over it. So, what to do?

A stereoview photo entitled “Stalwart Basutos (So. African aborigines) and their extraordinary homes, World’s Fair, St. Louis, U.S.A.” Not directly related to the Paris sites discussed in this article, but a genuine example of these types of terribly racist & dehumanizing “human zoos.” Public domain image courtesy of the NYPL, via Wikimedia Commons.

Two years ago, I was honored to play a small role in a Hawaii Kabuki production, The Vengeful Sword, and to serve as dramaturg. This involved doing research on a variety of elements that come up in the play – including the historical events that inspired the play, the history of the locations, the meaning of certain terms – and sharing the results of my research with the cast & crew via a private (closed) blog. I’ve posted before, on numerous occasions, about the production, but now, I’m finally getting around to re-posting, publicly, some of that content. I hope you find it interesting.

This post was just a cheeky mini-update to share a print series I happened upon.

William Pearl, a local Honolulu-based art collector and overall really nice guy, has, in “The Kuniyoshi Project“, put together a beautiful and thorough website cataloging and sharing the works of Utagawa Kuniyoshi (1797-1861), an ukiyo-e artist especially known for his print series depicting famous warriors, and for the innovative effects deployed in them. You may know him from a particularly famous work depicting a skeleton spectre.

In any case, in 1847-48, Kuniyoshi apparently produced a series of 10 prints depicting famous swords and the warriors / stories to which they belong. The one above features our “hero”, Fukuoka Mitsugi, with (presumably) Okon (a courtesan in the teahouse, and Mitsugi’s chief love interest character) in the background. Unless that’s Manno (the scheming mama-san of the teahouse)… I find it interesting that in a series of famous swords, it is Mitsugi’s name, and not the words “Aoi Shimosaka” (the name of the sword) which appear in the cartouche (the title box).

I have not taken the time to read through the whole inscription (it’d be better/easier if I had a larger version of the image), but one can assume it tells the story of the play. We see the artist’s signature in the mid-to-lower left, with a seal that I guess belongs to the artist, though it could belong to the publisher, Ise-ya Ichibei (a coincidence, I am sure). Another publisher’s seal, reading “hanmoto [printer/publisher] Ise Ichi”, appears on the stone by Mitsugi’s foot.

I was also interested to notice that another print in the series also features a sword by Shimosaka Yasutsugu, though I have yet to find anything much at all about the play “Oriawase Tsuzure no Nishiki” in which this character, Shundô Jirôemon, appears.

I love the splotchy texture of the red used here, and the realization that Kuniyoshi would have had to carve a separate woodblock of just handprints and such for applying the red ink onto the print. I cannot say for sure in what order the colors were applied, but the idea of having each copy of this print be relatively “clean” and then be “bloodied” in the course of its production is pretty interesting and amusing to me.

Ack, did I really never post about the symposium at which I presented this past February? And the associated small exhibition I co-curated? I’m ever so sorry.

Here’s the story. Some time ago, the National Museum of Japanese History (国立歴史民俗博物館, or Rekihaku for short) was planning to do an exhibition on processions and parades in Early Modern Japan, and decided they wanted to borrow a handscroll painting from the University of Hawaii collection to include in that exhibit. The University of Hawaii – and most especially Tokiko Bazzell, the Japan Specialist Librarian – decided to take advantage of the opportunity, to hold our own small exhibition, in conjunction with the return of that scroll painting from its being loaned to Rekihaku. I’m sure there were all kinds of behind-the-scenes considerations and negotiations, and then, completely unexpectedly, I found myself being invited to co-curate this small exhibition, alongside my MA advisor, Dr. John Szostak.

As I was graduating, I was not able to be on campus to work hands-on directly with the objects, or with the gallery, in order to help figure out what would fit where, or anything like that. But, having handled some of these objects before in person, and drawing upon my MA thesis research, I was able to contribute gallery labels, to suggest which sections of the scrolls to show, etc. It was an absolutely privilege and pleasure to get to have my curatorial debut be in Hawaii, and to be an Okinawa-related exhibit; and, of course, it was a privilege and pleasure to work with Tokiko-san and Prof. Szostak on this.

Long story short, the exhibit, entitled “Picturing the Ryukyus: Images of Okinawa in Japanese Artworks from the UH Sakamaki/Hawley Collection,” opened at the University of Hawaii Art Gallery, and showed from February 7-22 this year. While the Rekihaku exhibit featured a wide variety of early modern processions and parades, from sankin kôtai daimyô processions and festival parades to Korean, Dutch, and Ryukyuan embassy processions, ours focused in on just Ryukyuan (i.e. Okinawan) subjects. The highlights of the exhibit were a 1671 handscroll painting depicting a Ryukyuan embassy procession in Edo in that year, the oldest such Ryukyu embassy procession scroll extant, and another scroll, this one sixty feet long, and in much brighter, bolder colors, depicting a 1710 procession. The 1710 procession is of particular significance as a mission which set new standards in dress, ceremonial, and form of the embassy, precedents which would stand, to a large extent, for the remainder of the early modern period. Plus, it’s simply a wonderfully beautiful object. Given its incredible length, however, we were only able to show a small section.

Here is me talking about the exhibition:

(Backup video link)

Other objects in the exhibition included a scroll painting depicting Chinese investiture ceremonies in Ryûkyû and related subjects, copied by the Japanese artist from a Chinese source; a set of colorful woodblock prints depicting a procession of the 1832 embassy, the year of a so-called “Ryûkyû boom” – 1/4 of all popular publications produced in the early modern period were produced in that year; and, finally, a Meiji period accordion book depicting “customs and folkways of Okinawa.” All beautiful objects, and all just wonderful to see on display like that. I’m sad that the exhibit is gone, existing now only in our memories, in installation photos we’ve taken, and in the various documents we produced in the planning and preparation. But, fortunately, all of the objects are still quite visible and accessible online, either at the Sakamaki-Hawley Collection Digital Archives webpage, or through the UH Library’s Treasures from the Libraries webpage.

You can see all my photos of the installation here.

The exhibition was accompanied by a set of public lectures, and a symposium, held in conjunction. Prof. Kurushima Hiroshi from Rekihaku, Prof. Szostak, and myself, presented on a panel alongside two of the truly top experts in Ryukyuan history, Prof. Yokoyama Manabu of Notre Dame Seishin University in Okayama, and Prof. Gregory Smits of Penn State. It was kind of nerve-wracking to be up there along with such prominent scholars, but was really quite pleasant, and extremely informative, in the end. As they say in Japanese, taihen benkyô ni narimashita 大変勉強になりました.

I apologize to not summarize or comment upon the talks here, as I have been doing for the AAS talks I attended last month. But, many of the talks, associated PowerPoints, and even video of the presentations, are now available online, on a UHM Hamilton Library webpage. These will all eventually be added to the University of Hawaii University Repository, also known as ScholarSpace.


And, the full audio from my talk at the symposium can be found via the Samurai Archives Podcast. In the next episode of the podcast, I talk with C.E. West, Shogun of the Samurai Archives website, about the presentation, the symposium, and the exhibit. Now that the following third and final episode in the series is available, I’ve added the link to that here.

Meanwhile, you can also read about the Rekihaku exhibit here; I myself did not get to see the exhibit, which sounds like it was spectacular, but, at least I’ve managed to get my hands on the catalog, and a mighty beautiful catalog it is, for just 2000 yen.


Getting involved with thinking about and talking about comics, learning about new comics, is quite dangerous. It’s so tempting to just dive right in, and start reading all kinds of things… I’ve been reading comicbooks for almost as long as I’ve been reading, and when I was younger, comicbooks were my everything. As a kid, alongside astronaut or paleontologist or whatever, I wanted to run a comicbook store. And, when I was a little older, I entertained the idea of teaching courses or publishing books on the history of comicbooks; I guess part of me still does.

My interest in comics has never really waned, I don’t think – it’s just been sidelined as my schoolwork, and certain other hobbies and interests, have taken up more of my time and attention. And so, while some friends began to delve into and explore the indy comics world, and while others pursued serious graduate degrees in “new media studies” and the like, I’ve, basically, fallen behind.

So, give me an opportunity – like helping to put together a small exhibition on the history of comics, culminating with a three-day events-packed campus visit by Scott “Understanding Comics” McCloud himself – and, well, suddenly I’m spending a lot more time and money again on comics. I so wish I could go with the flow on that. But I have work to do!!

When my professor first started telling us about new and different and innovative things some webcomics were doing, I didn’t quite buy into it. Pretty much all the webcomics I read, all the webcomics I have ever read, follow the comic strip format, and don’t play around much with dimensions or animation or anything. So, whatever a few random extra-artsy people are doing over in some corner of the internet, I thought, that is not the mainstream of webcomics. And, for whatever reason, I had no interest. But, then Scott McCloud showed us some of them, and explained why they’re so cool. I wish I could reproduce, or even properly summarize, his entire talk here, but, to put it super-briefly, suffice it to say, the core of his argument is that, online, there’s no reason to adhere to the format of the page. There’s no reason that your panels have to be a certain size, or that you have to be limited to a certain number of panels before the viewer/reader has to “turn the page,” i.e. click “Next.” Why can’t you have a comic that’s entirely vertical, that you just scroll through, any number of panels, without ever going to a “next page”?

A Norwegian artist who goes by the handle “jellyvampire” on DeviantArt, has done just that, and gone further, in a super cute comic strip titled “Born Like an Artist.” I’m sorry to not share it with you directly here, but because of the size/format, and because I’d rather not steal the host’s pageviews or whatever, please do click through.

A comic called “Pup Ponders the Heat Death of the Universe,” by Drew Weing, uses similar means to great effect, as well. The scrolling action on a webcomic like this one actually reminds me a lot of traditional Chinese or Japanese handscroll paintings – as you scroll through it, viewing one section at a time, each next section can be dramatically surprising or impressive. Scrolling through this comic, coming across certain moments (no spoilers), reminds me of scrolling through the “Night Attack on the Sanjo Palace” handscroll, watching samurai gather up, attack a palace, and then, suddenly, coming across a huge conflagration! Granted, print comics can have a similar effect, too, and can vary in the size of the panels or of the images, as well; but, here we see it done in a different format, creating dramatic effects in a new and different manner.

And, it’s not just scrolls. As I mentioned in a recent post, the great ukiyo-e master Katsushika Hokusai recreated this scrolling feeling in a series of woodblock-printed books depicting the view along the Sumidagawa in Edo. As you turn each page, the image continues, seamlessly connecting into one, long, scroll-like panorama image. The Freer-Sackler has reproduced this effect in a beautiful online interactive.

On a different subject, McCloud talked about the use of animation in webcomics, and how most of the official professional electronic comics – e.g. “digital comics” versions of Watchmen, or of certain Marvel comics – do animation wrong. The fundamental feature of comics is their sequential nature – that as one moves through space, from one panel to another, one also moves through time. Introduce animation, that is, the moving through time as one moves through time, rather than through space, and it messes with this. These Marvel and DC digital comics seem to focus too much on the two-dimensional artistic character of the comics, and standard elements such as speech bubbles and narrative boxes, making these pop in and out, which only enhances the feeling of blockiness and flatness, and does nothing for the story, or for the enjoyment of the medium.

One solution McCloud suggests, based on seeing innovations by various webcomic artists, is the use of looping animation within panels, thus keeping intact that fundamental feature of the comic strip panel. BOL, by Vincent Giard, is a great example of this.

Furthermore, these traditional stick unnecessarily to the format of the page, essentially creating a printed & bound comicbook within the digital realm, rather than creating something more fundamentally attuned to the new/different format. If you are going to create a digital version of a printed & bound comic, then at least… well…

Consider this – one of the simpler, but most mind-blowing, things that McCloud suggested during his talks: Why did we ever decide that the single page, rather than the single opening (i.e. two pages), was the essential element of print media? Our laptop screens are horizontal. Our PC screens are horizontal. Our tablet and smartphone screens are, admittedly, vertical, but they can be horizontal as well. When we read real books, we have them open to two pages at once, horizontally. Why do we read books, and comics, in a vertical manner when they could be laid out horizontally?

Above: One page from “Exit Wounds” by Rutu Modan. Below: One opening from “How to Understand Israel in 60 Days or Less” by Sarah Glidden. Which do you think would look better, and would be a more engaging reading experience?

After last week’s talks and events with Scott McCloud, I’m certainly re-energized, re-motivated, to keep my eyes out for new and different and interesting comics. Do you know of any particularly innovative and interesting webcomics? Let me know! And check out Scott McCloud’s blog for plenty more links (and far more intelligent & eloquent thoughts) regarding comics & webcomics.

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