Saturday, May 31, 2014

Belated Scanlation Interview

Sometime late last year, I was approached by an Indian fan who wanted to interview me and Minifig for scanlating two Asterix tribute albums from various French artists.  I was suspicious at first, since I'd heard of Nigerian princes asking for confidential information to access their bank accounts, but surely there must be an easier way to gain acceptance than through comic scans.  I checked the man's credentials online, and was surprised to find out that his online essays were better written than his emails.  Maybe he took greater pride of his outward presentation for the world to see than with online correspondence.  I know some people like that.

I decided to test the waters, since I didn't have anything better to do, and if the questions veered into personal territory, I would know to back off.  When I got back a set of questions, they seemed perfectly reasonable, and there was no possible way that any personal information could've been gleamed off those, save my personal opinions.  Having vouched for the veritability of the questions, I went about trying to find my scanlation partner.

The only problem was, I hadn't heard from my co-partner, Minifig for over a year, and he hadn't made his presence known on the internet for quite some time.  I felt bad about being the sole beneficiary of the interview, since I felt I should share the credit with someone who made the bulk effort of the scanlation process.  (Which I can tell you from personal experience is not as easy as it sounds)  At the last minute, I got a reply from one of my sources, and sent the list of questions his way.  After which, I was assigned to proofread an edited version of our questions to make it more palpable for Indian Comixology readers.

That was in mid-November, and I'd hoped to have it up in December so I could show the full questionaire in conjunction with one of my old blog posts about reading lips being made available for a Deaf newsletter. (Page 17)  A month went by, then two.  I contributed another blog post about deafness in movies (Page 13), and still nothing.

I asked the interviewer if he had any idea when our interview would be be shown, since I was becoming increasingly impatient as to when it would be shown.  (Even though I didn't sign a confidentiality agreement, I still felt I owed them that much)  He reassured me, saying that he was sending multiple reminders to the Comixology editors daily, but still wasn't getting any response.  Then, just last week, I got an apology email, saying that after a long delay, it looked like they weren't going to present our interview after all.  If this was a Phishing expedition, it was certainly the most unusual one I've ever been exposed to.

With that longwinded background detail over, here's what would've been the interview:

Greetings from Trivandrum, comic lovers. This time around, I have a special guest- rather, the duo consisting of DanielBT and Minifig who colaborated to translate several European comics into English, including 2 Asterix albums.

For those of you reeling in shock, the above is not a misprint - its not done by the usual team of Anthea Bell and Dereck Hockridge, and the two Asterix albums in question are ASTERIX ET SES AMIS (Asterix and his Friends- a tribute to Uderzo) and UDERZO CROQUÉ PAR SES AMIS (Uderzo as Seen by His Friends- a tribute to Uderzo), Asterix parodies done in the signature style of famous European cartoonists.

Don’t bother looking for it on Amazon. These two albums haven't been officially translated to English by the Asterix Publishers. And many Asterix fans in this part of the world had to wait... and wait and wait to see whether this would ever be translated. The scenario looked bleak and that’s when Daniel and Minifig joined hands and decided to translate the two comics... and legions of Asterix lovers are thankful to the duo for their valiant efforts. I had the pleasure and privilege to Interview them, and this is what they had to say:

From Asterix lovers all over India - a special thanks, thank you for translating to English ASTERIX ET SES AMIS and  UDERZO CROQUÉ PAR SES AMIS.

1.      What prompted you take the job of translating European comics-as you put it “mighty translation of European comics”?

Minifig: I was wandering around the convention floor of BICS (British International Comics Show, a now-defunct – and greatly missed - comic book convention) and I noticed a stand from a company called Cinebook. They had exceptionally good offers,which I soon took advantage of – 2 for 3, 1 Lucky Luke album, 1 Clifton and (I think)1 Blake & Mortimer. Unlike most of my impulse convention purchases, I didn't regretit! Soon after, I started seeing a few scanlated Eurocomics being posted on messageboards I was frequenting, and those two things inspired me to learn more about this world of comics that I'd previously been blind to.

DanielBT: Well, I'd been downloading various English scanlations of random European comics that weren't available in Heavy Metal (which as a gateway to European stuff, is mostly devoted to the serious stuff and offers easy wank material, but isn't always to my taste, and the few magazines I own are those I deem having enough quality content worth keeping) when I noticed that there was a surprisingly lack of variety in the choice of certain words, and a high rate of spelling mistakes.  Not to mention the sentence structure was all kinds of wonky from doing nothing more than straight translations without double-checking to verify an alternate use of a word.  Likewise, some French words would be left entirely untranslated, leaving a gaping hole in someone's sentence, and causing confusion to the reader.  (i.e. me)  I was going mad with these annoying gaffes, and would go about and edit them in the privacy of my home, when it occurred to me that I could simply cut straight to the middleman and bring my complaints to the translators themselves.  Besides, the only one benefiting from my edits was me, and I wasn't sharing my results with anyone, so why should others suffer from easily preventable mistakes?

Most of these translations were being done by people whose first language wasn't English, so they were completely unaware of the kinds of mistakes that could've been easily preventable.  Sometimes it was the usage of slang that would slip them up, and they would be unaware of an English equivalent.  One example would be the 7th volume of Game Over: "Only For Your Eyes", when it would sound better as "For your Eyes Only".  In some cases, it's a simple matter of rearranging words around so they'll sound better.  In other cases, it's not knowing which proposition to use.

One thing that I'm sorry I didn't include in my blog post about European translations was a tip to compare the translation of a well-known American property, such as Maus or V for Vendetta, or even Calvin & Hobbes, and see how even the most colourful slangy sentence can be reduced to a rather static flow of repetitive words.  For instance, lower-class swears such as "Oh Bloody Hell", "Goodness Sake", and "Goddamn" can all be translated into French as "Mon Dieu".

Once you begin to see how a quote can be pared down to the basic elements, you can reverse-engineer a commonly-said word into something that won't be limited to stock catchphrases.  These words are fine when used in moderation, but when they're used all the time, it becomes somewhat tiring, and smacks of repetition.  It's the difference between relying on a "KYAA!" and an "Eeek!" for a girlish scream.  As the saying goes, "If all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail".

Since I've pointed out these niggling details, I'm please to note that there's been an uptick of quality from various translators who I haven't personally proofread.  It's somewhat amazing that I'm able to help out at all, since I have barely a basic knowledge of French, and all my personal translation projects comes from retyping the entire sentence on GoogleTranslate and trying to decipher their results in a coherent manner that makes sense.

2.      How did you guys happen to meet?

DanielBT: Well, it was somewhat of a happy coincidence.  I started out by pointing out various spelling mistakes on a blog that was translating the 2nd and 3rd albums of Violine (a girl with purple eyes who can read people's minds by looking in their eyes), and wanted to improve the quality of the text.  Surprisingly enough, the translator was happy to receive my input, and I was able to help out to the album's completion.  We hoped to continue with the remaining two books, but other side projects kept getting in the way, and the translator's been kinda busy with other stuff, and hasn't had much time after I've helped proofreading Fabrice Tarrin's blog comics.  I hope to get back to Violine someday.

Anyways, from there, I offered my services to anyone who would be glad to accept my harsh criticism. Minifig showed up on a plus4chan page that was full of English translations projects, and when he mentioned that he was working on an Asterix book, but he hadn't heard back from a proofreader, I offered to lend my services in his direction, but was reluctant to give my contact information for the world to see, and suggested he log in on a comic forum I was acquainted with, and things expanded from there.  He wasn't even aware of a second Asterix parody/tribute book until I mentioned it.

Minifig:  I'd  already  completed Asterix et ses Amis when DanielBT offered his services; I'd been having trouble with one joke in particular that I couldn't figure out. I had been offered help with proofreading before, but the original volunteer never got back to me. He also introduced me to Uderzo, which was a surprise to me - I thought I'd  already dealt with Albert's old birthday presents well before his 90th birthday!  However, I welcomed the challenge, as working to a deadline means you're a lot more productive.

3.      How does the work process of translating the comics go?

Well, Minifig did the main bulk of translating the comics while sending me a copy of the French original so I could check for punctuation and word usage.  My aim in cleaning up the English version is to portray a version that comes as close to the original without betraying anything that could be lost, and choosing words that'll match the action on the page.  The tricky part is finding words that'll fit in the balloons, and making sure space isn't too cramped, which can result in some creative rewriting to remain as faithful as possible.  I also double-check to make sure that any dialogue isn't missing.  I've had to deal with more than one blank balloon.  You'd be surprised how often it comes up.  I once had a page (not Minifig's) that had ALL the dialogue blanked out, and I wondered if that was how it was supposed to appear.  The correct version showed up in the next installment, but fortunately the damage was caught before it was released to the public.  One could only imagine the amount of confusion that would've resulted otherwise.

I can't speak for how Minifig's translation process went, but from the notes from our correspondence, his philosophy was that in the instances where he deliberately skewed from the text on the page to implement his particular brand of humour (which I objected to) since he was following the same model as Ted Woolsey for creating silly sentences that skewed far from the source material, but didn't necessarily improve on the joke.

There was an instance where Minifig used the word "pot" for one of the comics, but I suggested the proper use of "cauldron", since it was the term used in the Asterix books, even if it meant scrunching up the dialogue on the page.  One thing I would've liked when these corrections were being done was to have the same font used again.  It might be undetectable to the casual reader, but these little inconsistencies really stick out in my craw.  Of course, considering my method for finding a matching font is to type a typical sentence besides the original, then scroll through the entire list until I find a close match without bothering to take notes, so its perfectly understandable why Minifig didn't go the extra mile.
An unseen first draft of the page in question.
Minifig:  I  translate  on  a  panel-by-panel  basis,  using  Google  Translate  for  every sentence (It's not a perfect tool, so sometimes I use Reverso for specific words). Next,I edit out all the original text, then I start typing in my translation. I generally use Google Translate as a rough guide; as I said, it's not a perfect translation tool, and I usually have to reword what I've been given into something an actual human being would say. Sometimes, I can translate a sentence purely by sight alone. I sometimes have to tweak things here and there, usually the font size. I use Paint.NET for editing images - I find it a nice halfway house between Photoshop's breadth and versatility and Microsoft Paint's utilitarian functionalism. When I'm done with a few pages, I send my work to DanielBT, who points me in the right direction. I tend to get a little self-indulgent, and he's very good at making me adhere more to the actual story, not how I wish the story to be.

4.      I am curious about the username Minifig- tell us something about the man/woman behind this strange name?

DanielBT: You'll have to ask him.  It could be a short combination of Mini figurines, but until he shows up to clarify otherwise, we'll never know for sure.

Minifig: I'm afraid it's a rather dull story – I was getting into the Lego Star Wars games, which rekindled my love of all things Lego. I learnt that the little Lego people are called "minifigures", or "minifigs" for short. I thought it sounded nice, so I started using it for a username. And now you know the rest of the story!

5.      Now, as I understand what you are attempting is independent translation of comics done purely out of passion for comic lovers. Do you ever wonder if the actual publishers may create trouble in any way?

Minfig: It's not unheard of. I heard of some brouhaha with Shueisha and some Narutoscanlators a while back, and Disney removed some pages of a fan translation  of PKNA. However, I don't think that the majority of scanlators have too much to worry about, especially eurocomics scanlators – most of what we translate isn't going to get an official release any time soon. Asterix et ses Amis was a perfect example of that - when I started reading it, I was thinking "Why hasn't this gotten an official release?" and then when I saw the story where Donald Duck and Gyro Gearloose take Asterix and Obelix to Duckberg I thought "Oh, that's why..." - an official release would be nice, but realistically it's too much of a legal nightmare to even contemplate.

DanielBT: That's the basic question that's been plaguing the Manga industry, which has its own dilemma from having TOO MANY titles available, often with similar plots, so its the ones with the most outrageous art and stories that stick out from the crowd that get the most attention.  Mostly, it's the current long-running titles such as Naruto, Bleach and One Piece that's had the highest number of interested fans wanting to see the newest installment which hasn't hurt their sales or popularity one iota.  There's been talk about shutting down these sites down for ages, but as long as fans keep somehow finding early releases of these titles, one cease and desist order will just spring up a dozen imitators elsewhere.

Nowadays, its these properties that get widely pirated that get the highest interest rate among the audience even as Hollywood openly decries against such practices.  The irony is that those movies and TV shows that are widely shared via bittorrent are those that are also the the most bought for personal use.  You'd think that after having tasted a free sample, you'd be content with having gotten a story for free, but that hasn't been the case here.  The audience having had a taste of a quality piece of merchandise feel more assured that they're getting something worth keeping and want something for posterity.  whereas other properties that flounder about in obscurity shows the extent of audience interest in certain titles.  That kind of data is extremely valuable to companies who want to know where their customer's tastes lie.  The more used you become to certain artwork and stories, the more likely you're willing to spend money on them.  I get the sense that European artists would love to see their old work get wider distribution outside their country, which couldn't hurt their recognition factor.

It makes sense if you think about it - you're normally reluctant to try something new, even if your closest friends praise it to the skies as do so many reviews of a stellar book, you get the feeling that they're trying to sell you something that's basically "TRY this new dishwater!  You'll LOVE it!"  Especially daunting are long long long works that take awhile before they become worthy of the hype, which because of their slow buildup, can be something of an acquired taste.  It also speaks that people are more likely to revist their favorite comics they read as a kid, so implanting these various kinds of comics early on can't help but broaden their horizons.

The difference between Manga and BD is fairly wide.  Manga has hundreds of pages in black and white, but mostly large balloons, which gives you a feeling of accomplishment when you finish editing pages in a rapid manner.  Whereas, BD have colour pages (which take longer to scan) and plenty of dialogue throughout and becomes something of an uphill struggle where you feel relieved just to finish one page, with more to go.
The closest comparison would be old-school Mangas with their numerous amount of talking panels per page.  Given the amount of dedication and work needed to put out a quality work, I wouldn't be surprised if the burnout rate was fairly high.

I think what the real concern over is, is that people will grow more accustomed to stealing stuff online rather than actually purchasing the things themselves.  Food produce manages to overcome this hurdle by giving out free samples of their fares, but I don't know how far that analogy comes when it comes to telling stories.  Unless there's material that'll make more sense upon rereading, once you've got the general gist, there's not much point in going back and checking for clues.

6.      How do you guys decide which work deserves to be translated?

Minifig: It's either a random choice ("Ooh, this looks cool!") or pure nostalgia ("Hey, Johan & Peewit! I remember them from The Smurfs cartoon!"). I then ask around, to see if anybody plans on translating it, or if it's any good. If it's "No" to the former and "Yes" to the latter, then I get to work.

DanielBT: After we finished with the Asterix books, there was an online poll regarding which other projects people would be interested in us doing next.  The turnout was rather disappointingly low, with votes for Ric Hochet, one for Johann & Peewit, and some redundant requests for Clifton, even though Cinebook was doing those.  The whole purposoe of scanlations was to bring publicity to comic titles that might not be otherwise known.  We wound up doing the first album of Johan and Peewit, and two albums of Michel Valiant, which wasn't entirely to my taste.

Some titles I wouldn't mind proofreading would include the remaining SODA albums, Spoon & White, Pauvre Lampil, Sentai School, Pacush Blues, later albums of Les Jungles Perdues, or pretty much anything that looks potentially interesting.  Of course, I'd have to find someone willing to work with me for that.  I contemplated doing the solo tribute to Lucky Luke, Rocky Luke, but the amount of photoshopping of certain pages scared me off, (I mainly use Paint) and I haven't made much progress since.

7.      Now in India - European comics means Asterix and Tintin. There is a huge fan following for Goscinney-Uderzo and Herge. Now that Asterix has been finished, will you be now turning to the works of these two legends which have not yet been translated to English??  Haute Tension is the only work in the Quick and Flupke series not to have been translated to English; and Mr. Mops.,  Mr. Bellum, etc. still have not got English translation. Same with Goscinney /Uderzo’s other works like Luc Junior and Jehan Pistolet have not been yet translated to English.  Would the  “Mighty Translation” team take the wishes of Indian comic lovers in consideration?

DanielBT: I had no idea that there were English copies of Quick & Flupke in India, but since sales and knowledge of that series is so abysmally low here, they might as well not exist.  There was a fan attempt to translate some volumes as well as some comics that were left out, but I don't know how that panned out.

There would have to be some kind of outside demand for this kind of material.  It's the catch-22 situation where there's worthy historical comics by cartoonists before they became famous, but they can't be made available if there isn't demand for them, and there won't be any demand until they become available.  Its the factor of not knowing what the audience wants that they don't even know what they want.  Then there's the possibility of their old stuff not appealing to today's readers.  Dr. Slump was passed over here, because of its gag Manga format and overreliance on poop jokes.  (Even now, scanlations haven't progressed past the 6th volume)  As for Herge and Uderzo's lesser-known works, I'm afraid I'm not knowledgeable enough about them to help out there.  But if there are any aspiring translators willing to work on them, I'd be happy to lend a helping hand.

Minifig: The main problem is that Europe has an embarrassment of hidden riches, as far as the comics scene is concerned – there  are many beloved series going back decades. I've already attached myself to a handful of these classics: Johan & Pirlouit, Professor Palmboom, Ric Hochet, Michel Vaillant... the problem with being a kid in a sweet shop is that if you try to eat everything you see, you'll make yourself sick.

Fortunately, there are more Eurocomic scanlators now than there were when I first started – I've occasionally come across somebody who knows some French, but doesn't know where to start, so I point them in the direction of older comics. There's also the question of available scans; Europeans are less comfortable with the idea of scanning their own comics, as they consider them to be works of art, or at least view them with more than a little nostalgia. We're very lucky that so many Europeans have decided to sacrifice their own collections so that we all can enjoy them. At the end of the day, the best way to get classics translated is to let publishers know that you want to see series like Jehan Pistolet and Quick & Flupke translated. The main reason a story isn't published is because the people in charge think the story won't sell. Raising awareness can be the best way to get what you want!

8.      Have you ever thought of starting your own comic, or are you satisfied staying as unsung hero for scanlators?

Minifig: I've toyed with a few ideas, but I've not been able to expand on them in any meaningful way. I think I might need to find more time to work on both scanlating and writing...

DanielBT:  Oh, I've had all kinds of comic ideas just waiting to be jotted down.  I've written several drafts that have yet to be completed.  My desk is full of little pieces of paper of written notes taken from dreams and daydreams and anything that strikes my fancy that I've yet to organize in a coherent manner resembling a proper narrative.  The problem basically stems from a lack of motivation from nobody to spur me on.  Not to mention minor annoyances such as constant interruptions to schedule conflicts and not feeling like writing when I'm anxious.  I basically have to be persuaded into writing, and apart from outside influences, I'm unlikely to finish a personal project anytime soon.  I'm a terrible self-motivator without a deadline.

The main obstacle comes from finding an artist whose artwork I feel can properly convey the worlds I have in my head.  I worry about my vision becoming squandered by the artist's limited ability to show the full range of my imagination, or me failing to take advantage to the artist's main strengths and wasting their time.

When there was the announcement of a program where you could virtually "Make your own Manga", I was potentially excited, until I actually had a chance to use a sample of the program in question, and found it somewhat limiting.  It was more suited for 4-panel comics, with stock character bodytypes in typical school settings, which limited the amount of subject material and variety somewhat.  Even the wider Manga page was composed of straight borders, without allowing for crooked borders or even collage collapsible panels typical of Shoujo Mangas.  Then there was the constant zooming in and out of their poses and the word balloons were oftentimes larger than I would've personally wanted, which was something of a pain.  I understand there are people who are satisfied with this kind of thing, but it's simply not for me.

This is further hampered by only allowing a small portion of my writing to be seen among a select number of people I trust.  And short of posting them on my blog or a site like, they're unlikely to garner much attention unless I display a fair amount of publicity, and I'm loath to do much cross-promotional advertising.  Besides, I'm forever constantly rewriting my work, and worry about releasing an inferior product to the world until I'm completely 100% satisfied.  Considering my impossibly high bar of quality, and how nervous I am about showing my work to anyone, and the distraction of video games gobbling up my time, I worry that I may never get a chance to show my writings until I overcome these fears.

The majority of comics I've contributed to Square Root of Minus Garfield is just the barest fraction of the scope of my creativity.  But that's basically taking the template of an already popular character and running with it as far as my imagination goes.  I want to be able to explore concepts with characters of my own making.

9.      Asterix and the Picts is coming our this month - with new artists and writers behind the creation. How do you see the future of Asterix without Goscinney and Uderzo?

Minfig: When I read about the decision, I wasn't surprised. They've been trying to revitalize the Asterix franchise for years, with varying levels of success.  Albert Uderzo's 86 years old now, so it's only natural that he wants to step down – he's done everything he wanted to do. Eurocomics are handled differently to franchises owned by Marvel and DC; instead of any available artists and writers being put on whatever's going stale, you're more likely to be attached to a character for life. I don't envy Jean-Yves Ferri, because he's got some immense shoes to fill, but I'm willing to give him a chance to prove himself.

DanielBT:  Well, the last few books by Uderzo were disastrously abysmal from a storytelling perspective, even as the art remained spot on.  The last book which was basically a gallery of the Asterix gang in various artistic interpretations along with background commentary from the gallery was acceptable ONLY if you looked at the pictures and ignored the text entirely.  So any replacement could be nothing but an improvement.

However, just by looking at the new cover alone, I'm not holding out much hope.  The body positions look unnaturally stiff compared to the fluid energy of Uderzo's pen, and are emblematic of replacement artists doing their best to emulate a style that's not their own.  [Addendum - apart from looking through the French copy, and finding it was slightly above par - not that good, but not that bad - I still haven't actually read the English version, so my opinion is still unfounded]

The animated movies haven't helped much, because instead of an Asterix who's capable of wit and only using his Magic Potion when he's extremely frustrated or at the end of his rope, we get an Asterix with the personality of Bugs Bunny with a winged helmet in place of bunny ears.  Asterix has basically become a franchise not unlike the Simpsons whose popularity continues to chug along its own energy despite the lack of enthusiasm surrounding the brand, and appeals to fans wanting to recapture its glory days when it took satirical barbs at themes that resonated throughout the ages.  Those early strips with Goscinny at the helm are revered for a reason.  Uderzo managed to hold up until Asterix & The Magic Carpet when he started to go downhill.

In terms of speed, it's gone from Mach 5 to Mach 3, but even at reduced speed, it's still going fast enough for investors to want to continue going with it, and fans keep going back to it because like The Simpsons, it's comfort food that we keep gulping down, even if it tastes terrible simply because it's what we're used to from our childhood, and will undoubtedly sell over a hundred million copies.  Our only hope is that the "Political commentary" attached to the story approaches satirical levels along the levels of Obelix & Co. and not Asterix & the Falling Sky.  Until then, we'll just have to wait and see.

One thing that it occurred to me that was missing in the Asterix tribute books would be something from Peyo's successor.  It wouldn't be entirely out of place if Fisher Smurf and Handy Smurf got into an argument over the smell of fish, which would wind up involving the whole village getting into an argument, with Brainy Smurf acting as the neutral party (yet still getting bound and gagged to a tree) with Grouchy Smurf on the sidelines saying "I HATE fish!" while Papa Smurf would wonder what trivial issue his beloved Smurfs were fighting over now.  (At least he'd have the sensibility not to introduce Magic Potion to these blue-skinned elves)

10.  What's next for you both?

DanielBT: Apart from hearing back from the other scanlators who've been busy with other stuff, and my personal blog updates the future's pretty much unknown until other interested parties say otherwise.

Minifig: I'm currently working on another Michel Vaillant album; the characters may be absurdly verbose, but there's an ineffable charm to the whole thing that draws me inevery time. I won't finish it until I'm 103, but that's what labours of love do to you...

All the best for the same - and on this note, I think we can end this chat. We hope to see from you the translations of Luc Junior, Jehan Pistolet, Mr. Mops, and the hitherto untranslated works by Goscinney- Uderzo and Herge. Thank you for joining us and be sure of the constant pestering from Indian comic lovers.

Sunday, May 25, 2014

Non to Nonnonba: Autobiographical Visual Metaphors

Recently, I read the pseudo-autobiography of Shigeru Mizuki, the residential founder of Yokai (Ghost stories) Manga.  While recent reviews of the book seem to garner mostly praise, my perception was more closer to the Comics Reporter's review, which found the book an outright bore, and had to struggle to even finish the damned thing.

While the majority of the narrative focuses on the lead protagonist, the true co-star clearly belongs to the grandmother, Nonnonba, who was a great influence on the young boy, telling ghost stories of folklore that were preserved for future generations.  While every country has their versions of imaginary monsters (even in Australia, which has enough real-life monsters of its own), Shigeru managed to retain the numerous ghost stories of his youth for posterity, which would account for his popularity.  Fairy Tales or urban legends (which are in a way, kind of adult Fairy Tales) are ways for people to make some kind of sense out of the world they're living in.  Here, Shigeru is haunted by Mr. Sticky (who looks like the mascot of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy), the ghost that follows the sound of your sandals.

Sadly, that reputation doesn't seem to apply very well when talking about his life. While Shigeru Mizuki was the founder of Yokai in Japanese Manga, his reputation for stylish storytelling for schlocky horror themes doesn't apply very well as an autobiography.

The bigger problem stems not just from the wandering narrative, which goes nowhere, but also from the over-reliance of stock poses, of characters constantly holding their hands in repetitive fashions.  (There are similar issues with videogame novels)  Here, haggling, delegating responsibility, lavishing praise, looking contemplative, offering helpful advice, recalling fond memories and basically being lost in thought are all drawn with the same stance.

I realize that Japanese society tends to repress outbursts of outlandish behavior (which is why I have issues with their live-action movies failing to convey emotions convincingly), but that same standard shouldn't have to apply in a particularly cartoony-looking Manga like this.  Constantly relying on old poses for everything is just lazy.  While the time period takes place in the 1920s when the latest Western technology and Japanese tradition were still clashing with each other, Shigeru's mother makes a point of referencing to her family history, using the same pose three times.  One could make bonus points for her not snorting out of her nose in the last panel alone, but that would be too generous.

Whether it's from holding their hands in front of them when they talk, rolling their eyes in thought, putting their arms behind their heads, or stroking their chins in contemplation, there's a lot of sameness to the quality of the drawings.  And the constant display of Shigeru's duck lips don't help either.

One suspects that if Shigeru's assistants didn't help work on the heavily detailed backgrounds, he wouldn't be as highly regarded today.

The bigger problem I have is that whenever a Yokai appears, there's no metaphorical meaning behind them.  No attempt is made to differentiate between whether a Yokai appearance is either happening in a child's imagination, a storytelling element or the result of someone's superstition.  (It's very unlikely they would've actually shown up, since only a select few people can verify for their presence, and that's mostly from a biased perspective)

An underused method is to use visual metaphors in autobiographies, as popularized in Maus, which plenty of people seem reluctant to emulate.  But that shouldn't be a deterrence for keeping others from trying.  For instance, Cancer Vixen, has dozens of visual metaphors to get the point across more succinctly than any passage of longwinded prose ever could.  (Yes, I'm aware that DAR made some similar metaphors for the strip below)

The real reason why Nonnonba seems so dissatisfying is that there are other autobiographies out there that have far more imaginative scope than what Shigeru manages here.  As far as visual grandiosity goes, few can manage to hold a candle up to Epileptic, David B.'s masterpiece about his handicapped brother, and the twisting narrative that led to futilely try to find a cure for his condition.  Like Shigeru, David B. is strongly influenced by his Grandparents, even in their absence, which is imagined in the form of bird-like humans.

To put the two in context, in Nonnonba, a Yokai appears during a robbery, but its presence could either mean that the hostage is fainting from the severeness of the situation, or is overwhelmed by the robber's menacing aura.

Where this falls apart is when the hostage wanders off in a bright area, chasing off the shadow Yokai, at which point, he starts feeling better.  The shadow then leeches onto the robber, and only Shigeru and the Grandma can see it, and warn the robber to change his ways.  What exactly we're supposed to get out of this is hardly relevant or clear.

In comparison, in Epileptic, the disease makes itself represented as an armed snake-creature that ensnares around its victim.  In the early French books, the covers are sparingly drawn with several spare monsters
upon a yellow background, until the sixth book when the numerous creatures have crowded out everything else, leaving only the snake-creature visible on the back cover.

Shigeru has numerous conversations with one particular Yokai, the bean-tossing Azuki-Hakari whose wide-smiled wild-haired appearance always appears head on, never in profile.

This isn't too far removed from having literary character avatars as a form of talking to oneself.  And somehow, borrowing elements from The Last Canterbury Tales seems more sophisticated.

Ironically enough, even though  David B. is capable of drawing tense scenes of horrific imagery, when he tries to emulate the feelings that his epileptic brother conveys in him, he finds it an uphill struggle to do so.

Compared to naval-gazing Indy biographies with Woody Allen self-loathing, Manga biographies are largely tame, considering their source material.  Even Junji Ito's Cat Diary, while filled with grotesquely warped faces, is surprisingly charming and adorable, instead of disturbingly scary.  By all rights, autobiographical Manga should be filled with grandiose visual spectacles conveying the emotional turmoil they're going through.  The closest a Manga biography actually manages to convey the artist's vision in a warped mirror of their life is Hideshi Hino's Panorama of Hell.  But the symbolic imagery that's so prevalent in commercial Manga is strangely absent in these self-contained stories.  Furthermore, when groundbreaking authors spill the beans on their deepest darkest secrets, the results are largely toothless.  Even the master of the short story Gekiga format, Yoshihiro Tatsumi's A Drifting Life had the man going through events at the founding of the Manga industry with nary a drama in place.  While this is more true to life in that "living in interesting times" doesn't mean that there's action on every page, the outright sensibility and lack of visual imagery can make reading these works somewhat of a chore.

Especially annoying are Manga biographies of famous people.  When the historic character spouts rousing emotional platitudes that seems meaningful, upon closer observation, they don't really contain much content.  Furthermore, there's no real sense of "getting in their heads", since all analysis of these historic figures are from second-hand observers and admirers.  It's as if they're so scared of offending any sensitivities, that they don't even bother to tread over some of the more interesting or outrageous parts of that person's history. In fact, its those detractions that make the person truly stand out and become alive.

To use another fitting example of expressing unspeakable, indescribable and unnameable horrors, let's use Lovecraft based on the screenplay by Hans Rodionoff, adapted by Keith Giffen, and drawn by Enrique Breccia.  It was originally intended to be made as a movie, but works just as well as a comic.  But first, a minor digression: early on, it's briefly mentioned that he dressed up as a girl in his youth.

While this could be considered gender confusion nowadays, this kind of practice was actually quite common in its day, and brought up well-adjusted boys like the 32nd President of the United States.  With that incongruous explanation out of the way, let's take a look at an unusual bedtime story, a ritual strangely compelled to associate reading books with drowsiness.  (Which despite evidence to the contrary, is not a cause of drops in literacy)

In case you're not familiar with that particular passage, that's because these titles are no longer in print. (Probably for a good reason)  Despite getting night terrors from these stories, Howard is still drawn to an obscure tome called the Necronomicon, despite all attempts from his mother to forbid him from reading the material.  Censorship - a wonderful way to increase readership.

After his grandfather dies from mysterious circumstances, Howard takes his inspiration for storytelling from his grandfather's old stories.  In fact, most of Lovecraft's weird stories are obscure literary references to ancient passages.  He goes on a personal one-man crusade to prevent these unspeakable horrors from ever entering our world by writing about the very creatures that plague his every waking moment.

In Nonnonba, Chigusa, a young girl with an unnamed sickness is reassured by the numerous stories Shigeru makes up.  Same goes for Miwa, another doomed girl who's eventually sold off.  Shigeru creates numerous fantasy worlds in an attempt to cope with their sudden dying and departure at a young age.  Because of his grandma's influence to show the power of stories (such as dressing up as an ogre to chase bullies away), he was able to

In Lovecraft, the protagonist and his wife make a similar (less magical) journey into the realms of Arkham, where all his stories were said to originate from.  This is the pivotal moment of the biography, so spoilers are abound.  Feel free to skip if you have a queasy stomach for gruesomeness and premature revelations.
After a series of chase scenes and mishaps from typically Lovecraftian creatures, losing his wife along the way, Lovecraft (named Carter here) comes upon the abode of the cruel creature ruling over the realm of this mad and twisted world:

Then Lovecraft's rational twin makes the novice mistake of saying that "we should find and destroy that book", leaving Lovecraft to wonder that if the man opposite him was him, he would already know where the Necronomicon was.  In the end, he stabs the calm man, who devolves into a reoccurring creature that'd been chasing him all his life.  This can be read as a metaphor where both the fantasy and the reality can exist simultaneously.  Whichever one you decide to believe in is entirely up to the reader.  I know that most would prefer to imagine the more interesting story.

When comparing the movie Life of Pi to the book, I was asked which one I preferred better.  The answer I gave was, "The one with the tiger."

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Interactive Videogame Comics

An admirable themed article on Robot6 devotes various recommendations to webcomics that deserves wider recognition.  One of these recent articles gave a glowing with faint praise to a fun adaption of The Wizard of Oz, The Black Brick Road.  While most interpretations of the Emerald city have either been to celebrate it's childish American Fable worldview for a general audience, while remaining faithful to Frank L. Baum's text, or to dwell on adult themes with dark overtones while paying only the barest superficial similarities to the original, this one straddles the line in between.  (Oz Squad being a possible exception) There's still the sense of being lost in a hostile alien fantasy world, with some minor significant changes; Dorthy has amnesia from her crash, Toto is a cat with Heterochromia Iridum,  (Go ahead, look it up), and the Scarecrow has no fear of fire, since there are scarier things out there that he's incapable of scaring off capably.  However, where the review falls flat for me is the denounciation of the video game inserts that "feels tonally out of place with the rest of the webcomic."

It's a sure sign that someone who doesn't see the appeal of silly meaningless games that consists of doing repetitive tasks wouldn't be able to see the attraction of enjoying a slight divergent into a realm that isn't technically a comic, even when they have comic overtones.  As someone who's used to playing games on the computer (as well as reading comics off them), I wasn't as bothered with the sudden shift as the reviewer was.

Rather, it seemed to play on the concept of the "infinite canvas" that Scott McCloud often invoked about
of ReInventing Comics, and much like how the Old Guard is highly resistant to embrace anything new, pretty much any foray into unexplored territory is bound to attract derision.  In fact, there are indy games such as A Duck has an Adventure and Icarus Needs that used the innovative concept of an infinite canvas to create a game along those lines.

You can click around not just the arrows, exploring the strange new world you're in, but also click on the glowing pumpkins, the various scraps of paper lying around, and even the hypodermic needle water(?) fountain.  The only annoying part is having to copy and paste the links in the sidebar below, rather than actually have them appear on the webpage.  But it's a small dividend for such a huge return.  The first noteworthy link goes to a point-and-click adventure where you roam the island that amnesiac Dorthy Gale is stranded on, surrounded by nightmarish candy dolls and all.  By experimenting around, you can find out and eventually stumble upon a shed that's a key figure for the next strip.  The second game is putting various objects in their proper place, while finding various Easter Eggs sprinkled around the room.  Sure, actually "playing" the game isn't a necessary requirement to understanding the story, but it makes the overall immersion that much more enjoyable.

Possibly what the reviewer objected to was being forced to excel at a silly meaningless mini-game in order to proceed, the first one of which was admittedly, not that very well designed.  At least you could bypass that game entirely, compared to the series of Flash animation by Kirbopher, the world of TTA (TV Tome Adventures) that was consisted of DragonBall-inspired fights on a Megaman Battle Network grid.  You'd think that kind of combination wouldn't work, but it manages to work amazingly well.  In between the rounds of action, there are multiple stages of dialogue that can be either pondered over or skipped entirely by clicking the green "play" button on the lower right side of the screen.  Only episodes 025 and 028 would take slightly longer than usual, since they require a kind of memorization and split-second timing in order to see the fights that take place.
Though, like any battle Manga, things don't really start to get interesting until the tournament arc.  (Episodes 14-29, the highlight of the run, spoiled only by a lackluster conclusion and a weak second season)

Interactive comics make the reader feel more involved, and they're more controllable than those animated motion comics with sickening shaky moving panels that tried to make reading the book a visceral and exciting thing to experience.  The problem is, the panels that these comics came from were not regulated to a strict rigid screen, leaving quick panning shots without being able to comprehend what was being shown, and displaying events at a breakneck speed that didn't allow you time to contemplate what's just happened.  The alternative and more reasonable method is to display the action for a while, pausing at key events, allowing the audience to choose their own pace.  Being subjected to the same reading speed as everybody else is along the same lines as Treating Everyone Equally.  Upon first thought, it's a noble cause, but there's a severe drawback to it - not everybody responds to the same level as everybody else, and some need to be accommodated to their special needs.  The ending for the SNES Adams Family is a perfect example.  There are only five screens of dialogue between Mortica and Gomez, taking about 15 seconds each for the reader to read their dialogue.

But this concept of equality is taken to absurd lengths in the last two frames consisting of their classic exchange, which lasts another fifteen seconds, and is longer than what would be considered comfortable.

The Utopian world of City of Reality has several intriguing and unusual Flash comics of the choose-your-adventure variety that would be extremely difficult to replicate in book form.  The outcome of what happens next can be different depending on when you're coming in.

A later ambitious storyarc had multiple episodes that consisted of a single panel that after clicking the first arrow, the remainder could be seen either by clicking "next", or using the arrow keys, much like various Manga scanlation sites.  (You know where those are)  The ease of access and ability to put the audience in the driver's seat is what compels these people to keep coming back.

Sunday, May 18, 2014

Lazy, Lazy, Lazy

For a site titled Sunday Comics Debt, I seem to be updating mainly on Sundays lately.  This wasn't supposed to happen, as my intent was to update at least two or three times a week.  This could easily be blamed on the sudden onset of Seasonal Affective Disorder.

The more likely culprit is that the fault of the lack of updates is none other than mine.  I've been finding it difficult to keep my mind properly focused on a topic, since I seem to have come down with a kind of writer's block.  I've been having trouble concentrating without being distracted every fifteen minutes on something else of interest, which is a major contributing factor.  When too many distractions pile up, I become easily discouraged, and don't bother to get back to my writing, focusing on something else entirely.  Normally, I would wait until no one's around, so I could immerse myself in sensory deprivation, but since I can no longer afford to stay up all night, that's no longer an option.  (Which is a shame, since I'm a night owl, and being forced to follow the same ritual as the rest of the waking world puts a strain on my productivity)

Then there's the pressure of after having spent so much time not actually doing any writing that I feel compelled to create something worth reading, only to try and become unable to come up with the words that once seemed so easy not long ago.  Turns out that like muscles on the body, your fingers can forget how to type if you haven't indulged in the practice as often as you used to.  It's especially disconcerting when I look back on my old posts, and marvel at how much content I was able to put out that I can't seem to replicate today, and feel further discouraged.

I seem to be veering into the murky realm of Blogging about Blogging is a Sin, so I'll make this brief.

For a long time, I was having trouble finding inspiration for the kind of topic that I would gravitate towards that would make me write up a storm.  Then a few days ago, I had several subjects pop up that spurred a rush of connecting ideas together, until I did a little more research, and found out that there was a conflicting notion with one of my motivational mental links, which meant that it would require either further in-depth digging, or cut it out entirely, which put a damper on my enjoyment somewhat.  Further complicating matters was a necessary scan in a book I lent to my sister, who I'm hoping to get back from tomorrow.

Hopefully, I'll be able to create something of worthy content in the remainder of the week that'll be actually worth reading.  If not... well, you know which day of the week we'll be getting back on schedule.

Sunday, May 11, 2014

Boxers / Saints Text

The two-volume series by renown creator of American Born Chinese is something of a fascinating read.
My only knowledge of the Boxer Rebellion was from a throwaway line from Tintin in The Blue Lotus, so this quasi-fantasy narrative helped fill in some historical blanks amidst the various Chinese legends of yore.  Much of the story focuses on the Chinese uprising against the British colonies and their hardstrong spreading of Christian ideals that flew in the face of years of Chinese tradition, and the ensuing fallout that resulted.  The first book, Boxers is more along the lines of an action-packed romp, while Saints, focuses on the Chinese citizens who willingly converted to Christianity (which is notably thinner than the first volume for various obvious reasons) and a more muted colour scheme compared to the more action-filled half.

It wasn't until I started reading the second half of the story, Saints, that I started to notice that there was a certain... pattern showing up in the seemingly nonsensical text.  Namely, the number of characters said were the exact same number as what was translated at the bottom of the panel.

This was most obvious when the Father's constant proclamation of "Mother of God!" was consistent, and the same letters representing certain words repeated themselves across the board.  I later found out that this was something that wasn't entirely missed out on in an interview with the creator.

With a little deductory reasoning and comparative analysis, anybody could reasonably figure out the meaning themselves.  However, for anyone too lazy to do it themselves, I'll helpfully spoil other people's homework by giving the answers away.  Of course, without a copy of the book in your hand, most of the following won't make much sense without context.  That, you'll have to figure that out yourselves.  Spoilers after the cut.