This is going to be more of a sloppy Blog post because it’s more out of sheer enthusiasm than it is actual research. For a while now I’ve been somewhat obsessing over an idea that I got from Julian Darius at Sequart: which is the distinction between Revisionism and Reconstructionism in comics. Whereas Revisionism takes superhero characters and adds a dark and gritty sort of realism to them and their stories, Reconstructionism brings them back to their more idealistic roots but arguably keeps much of Revisionism’s character development and mature themes. Sometimes it can be all the difference between dystopian and utopian ideals with regards to fictional characters in tights.
However, that is a very limited way of looking at it. After finishing an article that I’ve recently sent into Sequart and thinking about another one that I’ve been rereading and reworking, I wondered how these concepts of Revisionism and Reconstructionism would apply to something that is neither North American nor primarily focused on the superhero genre. I’ve actually been thinking about how, if at all, both ideas could apply to Japanese manga.
So here is where I begin to get messy and not get dates right or accurate or, really, try to be nice at all. I believe that in order to really look at considerations of Revisionism and Reconstructionism in North American comics and Japanese manga, you have to look at some quick and dirty historical contexts. North American comics, aside from perhaps Mayan and other Central American friezes came from European comics that date more or less from the nineteenth century: Egyptian and Sumerian sequential glyphs notwithstanding.
The earliest comics were satirical cartoons and depictions of folklore. Then they were Sunday morning slapstick cartoons. In North America, however, around the thirties the figure of the Victorian strong-man was adopted as an aesthetic for masked and super-powered heroes: beings depicted as fighting a whole lot of crime.
At the same time there were a lot of other genres of comics out there in North America: Romances, Westerns, War stories, and–of course–Horror. These different genres danced around our superhero friends: who were still in their terrible twos of “might is right.” I’m not even sure why they came about to begin with. Most likely–and in my opinion–they were made to symbolize hope for the future in a relatively new nation against the darkness of the past World War, the upcoming Great Depression, and the resulting Second World War that everyone could sense coming on some level. A disturbing sense of moral ambiguity and uncertainty, which you can argue really started to crop up in literature and culture after WWI, needed something clear cut and decisive to counter it: even if it was interpreted as being tied into adolescent power-fantasies which is a hilarious concept when you think about the fact that superhero comics were actually just in their infancy then.
But in the 1950s, and slightly before, the fear of Communism and nuclear war created a society of paranoia. All of the darker, gory, amorally violent aspects of comics were self-censored by the creation of the Comics Code Authority in order for comics businesses to continue during the censorship “witch-hunts” going on during this time. The irony of course is that the dark elements of horror and sexuality did not go away as a result but, rather, they literally went Underground: into the developing Underground Comix movements.
But the Comics Code-endorsed superhero genre was one of the few that actually remained and the audience became very specialized as a result and in contrast to the wider age and gender range that it had earlier. Many have said that superhero comics became “watered down and puerile” for a time until about wherever you can distinguish the Silver Age of comics coming into play: where Marvel and eventually DC as well started to make flawed superhero characters that nevertheless tried to do the right thing.
In about the 1980s, writers such as Alan Moore, Grant Morrison and Neil Gaiman took the superhero genre and started add some gritty, bloodier and more “graphic” elements back into it. I compare it a lot to how the Victorian Age and onward attempted to sanitize folktales into fairy-stories only for the old tales to come back and essentially eat their bastardized children: both those derived from them and those that were entirely new. Perhaps during this period of both heightened counter-insurgencies happening between the United States and the USSR and then the latter’s decline influenced this Revisionism: which tended to criticize and look at the real-world politics and attitudes of the era. Certainly the 80s was a time when authority was at its height and, at the same time, was also being heavily questioned along with the implicit idea that “all authority is good” and should be obeyed by even superheroes that defend the status quo.
In about 1995, the time Julian Darius defines as the beginnings of Reconstructionism through the publication date of DC’s Underworld Unleashed, America was the sole superpower of the world in the midst of an idea of globalization. At the same time, it was embroiled in a lot of various different wars and clean-up from its Cold War missions into other countries. The way I figure it, and I am pretty sure there are other elements you can identify here as well, the art and culture of this time was influenced by a need and a sense of morality or certainty: of heroic figures needing to be depicted as having such. At the same time, they could not really go back to being ignorant or having bad storytelling. So, in the end, people such as Grant Morrison tackled these issues in their works: neither shying away from brutality nor letting cynicism completely win out in the superhero genre. It seems such a paltry explanation for this idea, but that is the best I can think of at the moment.
And then we have Japan. Manga has arguably been around in Japan–and the other Far East Asian countries–but in particular Japan for a thousand years or more: from their different kingdoms, to their Empires, the Shogunate, the Meiji Restoration of the Emperor and onward. Early scroll work illustrated humourous, sexual, and mythological stories. The term manga itself or something similar to it was apparently coined in the 18th century: meaning something along the lines of “whimsical drawings.” However, it can be argued that comics creation in Japan has been a very long and ancient tradition.
Of course, you have World War II and then the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki as well as the American Occupation of Japan to consider. Unlike North America, or indeed any part of the world, Japan didn’t have to fear the possibility of a nuclear attack: it had already experienced it. At the time, the State-sponsored wartime version of Shintoism–that Japan was an invincible island blessed by the ancestral gods ruled by an Emperor of that divine bloodline–was pretty much destroyed by fire-bombing, nuclear-bombing, war trials and the U.S. Occupation. It is also during this period that many American soldiers brought over Disney comics and animated films.
Artists like Tezuka Osamu were very influenced by Disney aesthetics and adopted them to make strange artistic hybrids of “whimsical” cartoons. However, these cartoons became challenged by the genre of what is called gekiga: of “dramatic pictures” with realistic, gritty aesthetics that delved into the more graphic aspects of life and even politics. The foremost of the gekiga artists that comes to mind for me is the person who coined the term to begin with Tatsumi Yoshihiro: who started drawing such work–which he did not like to call manga–in 1957.
The aesthetics of gekiga would inform many more works after him such as Otomo Katsuhiro’s Akira.
What’s interesting to note about all of this is the contrast with North America. Aside from already experiencing a taste of what nuclear war could bring, Japan never really had something that was the equivalent to a Comics Code Authority: at least from my understanding. It’s true that, for the most, they seemed to have a very conservative and even authoritarian governmental structure even after the War and censorship did and does exist. However, the development of gekiga–as a genre or an alternative movement of comics–seems to display either dissent against such conservative elements or a method of purging the demons of war and nuclear atrocity from the psyche of an entire culture.
It is really interesting to note that Scott McCloud, in his Understanding Comics, argues that while “cartoons” function as essential images or ideas which are easy to follow in an unfamiliar or realistic world, realistic drawings seem to have a more alienating affect on the reader: making it harder to follow them. In addition, “cartoons” seem to provide a buffer or buttress against some very potential distressing elements of a story. Realistic drawings in comics would, arguably, not function as a safe point for the reader to view that depicted world and would force them to face its grittiness all on their own: unfettered and unsettling. So perhaps some decisions in gekiga literally make the reader face the collective demons of, arguably, Japanese culture after the Bombings and the American Occupation.
On another note, I also really find it fascinating that Japanese manga never really embraced the idea of a superhero until after World War II and, from what I understand, aside from a few changes in trends manga continued to cover a wide range of subject matter and retained a large variety of different readers.
I am so tempted to say that gekiga is Revisionism in comics that did not originally have superheroes: a concept which, if true, greatly fascinates me. And perhaps through Tezuka Osamu’s own very public manga-experiments with his COM Magazine, his continued Phoenix epic, and even his Buddha series he not only managed to adapt to the gekiga style from his original Disney and traditional Japanese art-derived aesthetics, but he adapted gekiga to his sensibilities as well. Perhaps one could argue that Tezuka was a Reconstructionist: bringing back manga to his more whimsical aesthetics but also developing a more mature and nuanced approach at character development and story line.
It is intriguing to think about the fact that he and others “discovered” Revisionism and Reconstructionism at times before even North America had due to different cultural experiences: North America seemingly delving into both in the 80s and mid-90s, and Japan looking into it from the late-50s to early 70s onward–and crossing over each other–respectively.
I’ve also been made aware that the realistic aesthetics of the gekiga element is not as mainstream in Japanese comics art now as it was before and now there is a trend in going back to the more “whimsical” and elemental cartoon aesthetics of the past: though not quite the partially-Disney inspired aesthetics of Tezuka himself. Perhaps Miyazaki Hayao himself is a better example of this in terms of his ecological and cautionary themes: though mostly his more modern animated films such as Mononoke Hime come to mind at that. I think another thing I find really interesting about Reconstructionism is that return to a mythos or even the rebuilding of a shattered or forgotten one that is made relevant to another time. Certainly, the fact that Tezuka and Miyazaki combine “the cartoon” with very realistic backgrounds could be indicative of what Reconstructionism may mean in Japanese manga and the media inspired from it: a return to a character aesthetic that the reader may feel safe in following–deceptively or otherwise if the artist chooses to subvert that image–while exploring a real or realistically detailed world.
I am only scratching the surface here and I am definitely not an expert in Japanese manga or culture or, well, anything. Applying one culture’s concepts to another’s is a problematic venture at best. Also bear in mind: you are not dealing with an otaku here, my friends: just a North American geek that likes to throw shit out there and is fascinated with interesting things. I just can’t get over the idea that maybe there was a place where superheroes did not form in comics naturally, or in the way that we understand them and yet Revisionism and Reconstructionism–a realistic depiction and an alternative return to an idealized element–happened in any case in a different place and at different times from North America.
It is definitely something worth thinking about.
3 thoughts on “In a Different Place, a Different Time: Revision and Reconstruction in Comics Without Superheroes?”
Very nice analysis, while Japan never fully embraced superheroes they did eventually adapt them to suit their own tastes. Spider-man being one of the few to be directly adapted and always given a Japanese alter ego and not Peter Parker. Heck when they do do superheroes, like Kamen Rider, arguably Japan’s Batman, they rarely if ever “fight crime”; either realistic or even faux-realistic crime. The closest they get are the fictional james bond like organizations and when they do “foil bank robberies” it’s usually a joke and they resume fighting fantastic monsters. Heck Goku’s son Gohan even tries to be a traditional superhero Saiyaman, played for laughs.
Tho I would argue that they do have something like superheroes, just sans masks, in many of the shounen jump works. What is Luffy from One Piece but a pirate Plastic Man? Or Shaman King? Like Goku they have no real need for secret identities.