Will Apple’s iPad save the Comic Book Industry? :: Part One

When CEO Steve Job introduced the world to Apple’s new tablet device in January, many comic book fans and industry insiders questioned how the iPad would impact comics. Some hailed it as the saviour of the industry, while others stated that not much would change, at least for now. This article will be presented in two parts. The first part will discuss the behaviour of comic book fans and collectors as consumers. The second part will analyze how this device – and the switch from direct to digital distribution – will affect how comic book fans and collectors will collect comics.


Culture is described by Solomon, Zaichkowsky, and Polegato (2008) as “society’s personality” (p. 461) or the “accumulation of shared meanings, rituals, norms, and traditions among the members of an organization or society” (p. 461). The way in which we understand the world around us is influenced by our culture. As such, culture is comprised both of intangible and tangible things and has a profound effect on the choices that consumers make. In other words, “a consumer’s culture determines the overall priorities he or she attaches to different activities and products. It also mandates the success or failure of specific products” (Solomon, Zaichkowsky, & Polegato, 2008, p. 461). Therefore, in order to understand the way consumers behave the way they do and why they make the choices they do, a successful marketer needs to understand the culture out of which the consumer understands the world around him/her.

However, understanding the overall culture of a society is not enough. Found within the overreaching normative culture of any society, there are a number of distinct subcultures to be found. Simply stated, subcultures are groups of like-minded individuals whose norms, values, and customs are distinct from that society’s mainstream culture (Hebdige, 1984). Some examples of these types of subcultures are comic book fandom, Trekkies, Goth, Hip Hop, Emo, and Furry. Subcultures can affect consumer choice every bit as much as mainstream culture can, especially when it comes to predicting the success of a new product.

In terms of  “Comic fandom, and the practice of comic-book collecting in particular, is evidence of the complex and structured way in which avid participants of popular culture construct a meaningful sense of self” (Brown, 1997, p. 13). In this paper, I use the term comic book collector and comic book fan interchangeably. While they have been discussed in the literature two unique concepts, the distinction between the two has blurred significantly in recent years to allow for the substitution of one term for the other. Historically, the distinction has been made based on the level of fandom participation between the two groups. Comic book fans are comic book collectors who participate in fandom. Collectors are typically older and do not participate in fandom (though they have usually participated in it in the past).

While many herald the release of Apple’s tablet computer, the iPad, in spring 2010 as the great saviour of the beleaguered comic book industry, this study has found that this assertion is unsubstantiated. On the one hand, there is evidence to demonstrate the potential of digital distribution channels, like the iPad, to help revitalize the industry. On the other hand, there are a number of identifiable challenges facing the comic book industry in terms of adapting its printed content into digital formats. In other words, this report determines that digitizing comic book content is a promising future distribution channel; however, there are still a number of logistical challenges that this channel presents that need to be addressed.

This study will first discuss comic as a form of sacrilized consumption and argue that the participation of fans and collectors in comic book fandom as a form of ritual and rite of passage. I will then provide a brief history of the Comics’ Code Authority and the changing distribution channels that resulted in direct market distribution – both of which are responsible for shaping the industry into what it is today. Furthermore, I will provide a snapshot of the current demographics as well as explore the psycho-social and mythic functions comic books perform within society. Following this, I will discuss and analyze fan participation and fan communities. The movement of both of these things on to the World Wide Web has the potential to increase the level of diversity in terms of gender and race within the consumer demographics.

Following this situational analysis, I will discuss the potential of the iPad as it relates to its role as an e-reader, as a part of the Web 2.0 phenomenon – including the democratization of technology and the generation of user-generated content, and the potential for increasing consumption via digital distribution channels. Finally, I will discuss the challenges facing both publishers in successfully implementing the iPad – as it currently stands – including issues with the Apple App Store, the cost associated with digitizing content, and the act of collecting comics and being counter to the digital distribution channel it promotes.

Collecting as Sacred, Collecting as Ritual

The definition of a ritual “is a set of symbolic behaviours that occur in a fixed sequence and that tend to be repeated periodically” (Solomon, Zaichkowsky, & Polegato, 2008, p. 467). Ritual experiences that are ascribed to comic book collectors and fans are subculturally-, group-, and individually-based rituals. Examples of the subcultural rites of passage include the process of becoming a fan, and cultural rituals include events like Free Comic Book Day (FCBD), which is an annual event held on the first Saturday of May. Another example of a cultural ritual is comic book conventions. While smaller conventions are typically held three or four times a year, there is usually one or two large conventions that are held annually and are places where members typically congregate. Group and individual rituals are combined during the weekly trek to the comic book store on Wednesdays (known as New Comic Book Day) to purchase comics. Brown (1997) argues that “Comic fandom is rather unique in relation to other popular culture fan communities because it is almost exclusively centered around a physical, possessable text” (p. 22). It is the centrality of the physical artefact within collecting that differentiates comic book fandom from other types of fandom (such as science fiction fandom, fantasy fandom, or a number of different fandoms associated with individual texts like Star Wars and Harry Potter).

Comic book collecting is a form of sacred consumption whereby comic books and their associated merchandise “are set apart from normal activities and are treated with some degree of respect or awe” (Solomon, Zaichkowsky, & Polegato, 2008, 475). Furthermore, the ritualistic aspect of comic book fandom demarcates the fan’s local comic book store where he/she is a regular as a sacred place. Unlike a religious or historical building, a comic book store is a normal retail space found within “the profane world and imbued with sacred qualities” (Solomon, Zaichkowsky, & Polegato, 2008, p. 475) by the fan or collector. However, it is not only the space that is scared but also the comic books themselves. Objectification refers to the process by which comic books come to “take on a sacred meaning” (Solomon, Zaichkowsky, & Polegato, 2008, p. 477) for comic book fans and collectors. This process of sacrilization occurs during the process of physically collecting comic books. Searching out, travelling to the store, acquiring a new comic book and adding it to his/her collection – often reorganizing and displaying them – are all parts of a process that transform a profane object into a sacred one. This new acquisition “takes on a special significance to the collector” as the process by which the object is obtained occurs systematically and rationally – though there is an emotional component to it as well (Solomon, Zaichkowsky, & Polegato, 2008, p. 477).

At the store, fans and collectors usually congregate to discuss the previous week’s offering and to speculate on the current week’s releases. In this case, I define group loosely, consisting of two or more individuals. This process can take anywhere from minutes to hours, depending on the desired level of individual engagement and the ability (such as time and inclination) to participate in these discussions. These discussions serve an important symbolic function within comic book fandom: “Knowledge and the ability to use it properly amounts to the symbolic capital of the cultural economy of comic fandom, but it is the comic book itself that represents the physical currency” (Brown, 1997, p. 22). This knowledge forms symbolic capital for the individual who has acquired it and communicates it. Expanding on Bourdieu’s notion of cultural capital, Sarah Thornton (1996) argues that individuals within subcultures acquire subcultural capital – that is, the specialized knowledge about certain objects within the subculture. Furthermore, the acquisition of this knowledge raises the individual’s status within the subculture.

Ultimately, the process of physically reading the comics and then arranging and storing the individual issues are usually individual rituals that both precedes and immediately follows the group discussion of the comics – as this is a process that is repeated weekly – and occurs either in person at the comic book store or in an online forum. The discussion can be immediately following the individual rituals or can be postponed until the next week (Solomon, Zaichkowsky, & Polegato, 2008, pp. 467-469). In other words, owning and reading the comic book serves an individual ritual function whereas the interaction and discussion among fans is “the focal point for the entire community” (Brown, 1997, p. 22).

Becoming a Comic Book Fan:  A Rite of Passage

The process by which an individual becomes a member of comic book fandom is a rite of passage, a time “marked by a change in social status” (Solomon, Zaichkowsky, & Polegato, 2008, p. 474). This change in social status, for comic book fans, is both a figurative and literal one. The literal change in social status is connected to the stigmatization of both comic books and their fans in North American society. Being a fan, especially of comic books, has long been perceived as being both low-culture and low-class. This is a common trait that all levels of popular culture fandom share: “Both the practice of fandom and its object of enthusiasm . . . are usually perceived with disdain within the dominant value system” (Brown, 1997, p. 13). The association of comic books as child’s literature and with the dangerous and salacious content that psychiatrist Fredric Wertham (1954) warned was corrupting children in his book, Seduction of the Innocent: The Influence of Comics on Today’s Youth, also help to stigmatize the medium and those who are fans and collectors of it. Due to the negative associations  linked to comic books, Lopes (2006) argues “Since the introduction of comic books in the mid 1930s, stigma has been associated with the form itself, its content, and its producers, creators, readers, and fans” (p. 399). As a result fans often flock to these communities in order to be able to interact with like-minded individuals. The internet has been, most recently, an important hub of fan activity as individuals can easily transgress geographic distance.

The figurative transformation that a non-fan undertakes to become a fan is similar to the three stages detailed by Solomon, Zaichkowsky, and Polegato (2008). First, the non-fan must separate him/herself from non-fans. For example, the individual first encounters comic books and decides to learn more about the medium and its narratives. The second stage finds the non-fan in between his/her fan status and non-fan status. In other words, he/she is not yet a fan. During this stage, the individual has accumulated some knowledge of comic books but does not know enough to be considered a true fan. The individual might participate in online fan communities and discussion but has not transitioned this social interaction into his/her off-line life. The third and final stage occurs once the rite of passage is complete and the individual has transitioned successfully into a fan. This occurs when he/she adopts an identity as a comic book fan and integrates that identity into his/her life (pp. 474-475; see also Jenkins, 1992). In other words, fans and “collectors devote a great deal of time and energy to maintaining and explaining and expanding their collections, so for many this activity becomes a central component of their expanded self” (Solomon, Zaichkowsky, & Polegato, 2008, p. 478). In other words, comic fans integrate the subculture of comic book fandom into their lifestyles and the fandom and those other members of it become an important reference group – or a group of individuals who have a “significant relevance upon an individual’s evaluations, aspirations, or behaviour” (Solomon, Zaichkowsky, & Polegato, 2008, p. 311), especially when it comes to purchasing decisions.

The Comics’ Code Authority and Changing Distribution Channels

During the 1940s, the comic book industry saw an increase in both the production and sales of comic books. Primarily produced for adults, comic books encompassed a wide-variety of genres, including war, romance, science fiction, fantasy, horror, and crime stories. However, the popularity of this medium would fade during the 1950s as, what started as a small grass-roots movement, successfully incited a moral panic against the form. These anti-comics crusaders condemned the medium for threatening the moral foundation and social order of society. Fredric Wertham’s (1954) polemical, Seduction of the Innocent: The Influence of Comics on Today’s Youth, blamed comic books for juvenile delinquency, illiteracy, damaging children’s vision, and “promot[ing] a fantasy world” (Lopes, 2006, p. 401; Wright, 2001).

The constant juxtaposition of comics and the harm that they cause children created within the public a correlation between the two. This connection was further reinforced when – in order to allay the fears of the anti-comics crusaders – publishers in the comics industry voluntarily developed and enacted the Comics Code of America (CCA) in 1954. Similar to the Hayes or Motion Picture Production Code, the CCA was a self-censoring regulatory body within the industry; an action preventing any outside or government regulation (a senate sub-committee had been convened in order to determine how dangerous comic books were to children) over the industry. Simply stated, the purpose of the CCA was to police content contained within comic books to ensure that they were safe for children to read. As a result of these strict regulations, all of the major firms in the industry – especially Marvel, EC, and DC – stopped publishing any comics with adult content (especially horror and crime stories) and most adult fans of the medium abandoned it and sales declined. As sales declined, a number of genres were eliminated – publishers chose to focus on the superhero genre almost exclusively – creating another barrier to attract or retain an on-going adult readership. By 1970, most of the comic books that were published were of the superhero variety and were aimed exclusively towards children and adolescents (Nyberg, 1998; Wright, 2001).

When combined with a new generic and audience focus, the changing network channels through which comic books were distributed also resulted in a declining adult readership. Before the 1970s, comic books were sold in a wide variety of retailers and their popularity was due, in part, to the relative ease with which they were available for purchase. During the 1970s, however, the comic book industry shifted to direct market distribution; comics were sold directly by a centralized distributor to specialty or comic book shops. The largest comic book distributor in North America is Diamond Comic Distributors, Inc. Founded in 1982, they are responsible for shipping comics and comic-related merchandise from the publishers to retailers. Furthermore, as retailers were not allowed to return unsold comics for a refund, they began to actively police their ordering to save money. In other words, retailers ordered just enough comic books to meet their customers’ demand as a cost-saving measure – if they ordered too many comics, for instance, they would be left with product that would be unsellable and unreturnable to the distributor.

The industry was able to survive the downturn that accompanied the infantalization and sanitation of the form but its growth and ability to recruit new comic book readers was severely diminished as the access to the product moved outside of the mainstream. Consumers could no longer go to the local newsstand and purchase a comic book because the cover caught their eye. Consumers now had to travel to specialty retailers and impulse purchases diminished. While occasional impulse purchases never comprised a large percentage of sales, the industry also lost those individuals who could not travel the extra distance to a specialty retailer. Furthermore, one could argue that the first step in making an individual a regular purchaser of a product is to get them to purchase it once and then to keep them coming back. Therefore, while some retail sales were assured, the recruitment of future comic book readers and the retention of current readers stagnated; the larger companies simply continued to sell to a small market of fans that had remained loyal to comics (Nyberg, 1998).

During the 1980s and early 1990s, the collectability of comics as an investment created a boom in comic book sales. Special incentive and collector’s edition covers promised consumers an easy investment product and this drove both the quantity of the books sold but also the price at which speculative buyers purchased them at. The collector’s market was a direct result of the profits made from selling old comic books from the 1930s and 1940s – especially the first appearances of Superman (Action Comics #1 (June 1938)) and Batman (Detective Comics #27 (May 1939)). However, the high prices of these old, first-appearance comics reflected the scarcity of both the quality and quantity of surviving copies. Before the collector’s market exploded in the 1980s, comics were disposable products – to be read once and thrown away. As a result, there were not many surviving copies of these books and those that existed were bought and sold for higher and higher prices as demand for them increased. In the 1980s and 1990s, the sheer volume of high quality copies of the same comic guaranteed that prices would remain low (Wright, 2001). By 1993, however, the speculative market had reached its peak at $850 million, before crashing (McAllister, 2001). When the speculative collector’s market finally crashed in the mid-1990s, the industry was faced with the consequences of a flooded market. Prices dropped and there was a significant downturn in the market as the number of purchases declined. Marvel Comics – which was at the time (and still is) one of the two largest and most powerful comic book publishers in the industry (the other being DC) – filed for bankruptcy protection in 1996 (Wright, 2001).

While the market has recovered from the 1990s slump – a result of publishers adapting their products into film rather than an increase in sales of comic books – the market is still a shadow to what it once was in its prime. For example, in comic book market of the 1940s, 125 different titles collectively sold 25 million issues. Overall, “annual sales [were calculated] at nearly 30 million dollars” (Lopes, 2006, p. 400). Reflecting the changes brought about by the CCA, a popular title in the 1970s sales of about 300,000 an issue (Mackey, 2007). However, less than 30 years later, these titles only sold around 40,000-60,000 a month (Lopes, 2006). For example, in the 1940s, sales of “the most popular book, Superman, reached average sales of $1,250,000 per issue” (Lopes, 2006 p. 400). In 1995, per issue sales of the most popular comic book, Amazing Spider-Man, was only $234,000 (Lopes, 2006). Taking inflation and price increases into account, there was a drop in readership of 81.28% from the 1940s to 1997.

Despite the overall drop in sales from the 1940s, Anderman (2009), states that comic books – unlike the rest of the publishing industry – have shown remarkable resilience during the downturn of 2008 and 2009. Furthermore, “More people are reading comics than at any time during the past two decades” (Anderman, 2009). The success of comic books can be attributed both to the die-hard comic book fan and to the popularity of film adaptations which “have been catapulting comic book characters into the mainstream cultural consciousness” (Anderman, 2009). In order to capitalize on their vast collection of comic book characters, Disney Company’s 2009 purchase of Marvel Entertainment for $4 billion demonstrates that the future of comic books is more likely to be on the film or television screen rather than on the page (Phegley, 2009). Similarly, in September 2009, DC Comics’ parent company – Warner Brothers Entertainment – also formed a new company in order to adapt DC-owned characters more successfully into other forms of media (Paul Levitz, 2009).

Demographics and Diminishing Sales

Based on demographic figures released between 1991 and 2009, industry insiders state that the small group of female readers has remained more or less constant during that almost twenty year period and comprises less than 10% of the total readership of superhero comic books. In other words, male fans represent over 90% of total superhero comic readership (D’Orazio, 2009; Draper Carlson 2009; Fost, 1991; Nyberg, 1998). Whether this gendered split is a function of content or form has long been debated by those both inside and outside of the industry:

For decades comic book creators had presumed that the audience for superheroes was overwhelmingly male. There had been many female superheroes over the years, but most of these seemed targeted more at adolescent male lusts than at discerning female readers. And very few successful series featured women on their own. Acknowledging that most superheroes and most comic book readers were male, Stan Lee wondered, ‘do less females read comic books because they seem to be aimed at a male audience, or are they aimed at a male audience because less females read them?’ (Wright, 2001, p. 250)

Citing an “extremely competitive nature of the comics industry” (Brown, 1997, p. 14), neither distributors nor comic books publishers rarely share their data on sales figures or the demographic composition of its customer base. Most of the information that is currently available is found in reports by bloggers who used to work in the industry and who were privy to sales and demographic information. As mentioned previously, the overall market for superhero comic books is male. It is estimated that over 90% of superhero comic book readers are male. This rate has remained fairly static over almost two decades (D’Orazio, 2009; Draper Carlson 2009; Fost, 1991; Nyberg, 1998). While comics have been positioned for children and young boys, many of those boys have grown up and still continue to collect comics. D’Orazio (2009) identifies the typical comic book consumer: “male, 20-25, video-game player, disposable income, ‘techie’, [and] single.” Similarly, Fost (1991) notes that, while adolescents still comprise a vital market, older comic fans – those who read and/or collected comics since childhood – currently make up “the core group of comic collectors” (p. 16).

In 2008, “comic books were a $715 million business in the US and Canada” (MacMillian, 2010), with the strongest increase in sales found in non-superhero graphic novels aimed at adult audiences and sold in mainstream bookstores. Over that same time, there was a decrease in demand for superhero comics. Furthermore, in the United States, there are only currently 3,000 specialty comic book retailers. This is a decline of about 68% from the some 10,000 stores in the 1990s. The decline in the number of stores has resulted in a number of places where consumers have no retail outlet to purchase comics without travelling to another city or purchasing their comics online (MacMillian, 2010).

Psychosocial and Mythic Functions of Comic Books

Comics serve both a psychosocial and mythic function in modern society. Witek (1999) argues that comics have a psychosocial function: the “realms of fantasy, of wish fulfilment, of projections of power, and in the ritual repetition of generic formulas” within the narrative offer a space where power fantasies can be explored safely (p. 13). The entire form and function work toward this aim; that is, identification with the superhero on the page. The need for the (assumed male) audience to identify with the superhero on the page in order to experience and engage in imaginary power plays could also be the reason why, despite our diverse and multicultural society, superheroes are regularly figured as white and male. Non-white heroes and female superheroes exist within the comic book continuum, but they are few and far between when compared with superheroes who are male and Caucasian (Mackey, 2007).

The psychosocial function of comic books is closely connected to their mythic function. George (2010), asserts that “comic books and superheroes are likely to be some of the key cultural and literary contributions made to modern society.” Solomon, Zaichkowsky, and Polegato (2008) describe myth as “a story containing symbolic elements that expresses the shared emotions and ideals of a culture” (p. 464). It is through these myths that a culture can communicate and maintain its social order in addition to prescribing ways of behaving within the world to the reader.

Some theorists locate the inability of the industry in attracting new readers as the result of comic books occupying a nebulous time warp where they “are heavily vested in catering to nostalgia for a fan base” (Jeet Heer, qtd. in Mackey, 2007). Instead of attracting new readers they simply pander to the same old kind of readers, refusing to grow and change as the market does. It is notable that many of those who are currently in positions of power within the industry started out as comic book fans. Are these industry leaders simply unable to respond to market demands? Peter Birkemoe (2007) argues that they may not be able to: “Companies run by fans with comics drawn by fans rarely think of catering to anyone but themselves, which unfortunately means [that] comics [are] aimed primarily at adult men who still want to read comics featuring characters suited to children’s entertainment” (qtd. in Mackey, 2007).

Comic Book Fandom: Increasing Diversity of Readership

Fandom refers to the organized set of fan activities and the social network that comprises a subculture. Fans come together based on their shared love of a popular culture text or object, in this case, their love for graphic narratives. As Brown (1997) asserts:

Rather than blind devotion, fandom is a means of expressing one’s sense of self and one’s communal relation with others within our complex society. Individual fans and entire fan communities develop intimate attachments to certain forms of mass-produced entertainments that, for whatever reason, satisfy personal needs (p. 13).

As the majority of comic book consumers are male then, it follows that, the majority of those who participate in fandom are male. However, the less than 10% of female readers of superhero comics have found a space and a voice online. Many of these female fans – most of whom self-identify as feminists – have congregated online and have formed fan communities. This demonstrates that online fan communities can be used to increase the diversity of the demographics targeted by marketing initiatives by comic book publishers. Using blog and message board postings, these female superhero comic book fans, some of whom who also work or have worked in the industry, have begun to build their own websites (such as Girl Wonder, Sequential Tart, the Occasional Superheroine, and Comics worth Reading). They are vocal, actively calling on the comic book industry to recognize them as fans, encouraging them to hire more female writers and artists, and challenging what they see as sexist and often misogynist representations of women within the pages of superhero comics. The most famous – and one of the earliest – examples of this feminist activism and call-to-action is Gail Simone’s Women in Refrigerators (War) list. A lifelong comic book fan – and now comic book author – Simone (2007) composed the list after identifying a alarming trend in superhero comic books: “that strong women in comics were to be depowered, that kind of women were to be humiliated and that loving woman were to be stuck in a woodchipper” (qtd. in Garrity, 2007, p. 74).

However, the emergence of online comic book fan communities is of no surprise. Numerous studies examining science fiction, fantasy, and cult film and television series finds that the majority of fans are women (Jenkins, 1992; see also Bacon-Smith, 1992, 2000; Harris and Alexander, 1998; and Hills, 2002). Internet fan communities transcend distance and enable female fans to connect with like-minded individuals who share similar interests. Given the small number of women who read superhero comic books, this sense of connection is especially important and ensures continued consumption of superhero comic books. Furthermore, female fans adopt these texts because – as with female manga readers – they feel a connection between the text and their own experiences. As Jenkins (1992) asserts:

For the female reader, there could be no simple, clearly defined boundary between fiction and experience since their metatextual inferences relied on personal experience as a means of expanding upon the information provided and (…) character identification be[comes] a means of self-analysis. (p. 109)

In other words, these women identify are able to find aspects of the text to identify with, demonstrating that – within superhero narratives – there is something more than just a place to engage with male adolescent power fantasies. What do these women engage with and is it possible to extend this experience outward so that other readers can get the same pleasure out of engaging with the text that these female fans do?

Participation in fan communities is a similar rite of passage process as there is in offline fandom. Individuals first enter online communities as lurkers, “asocial information gathering” (Solomon, Zaichkowsky, & Polegato, 2008, p. 327). During this time, they simply watch but do not participate in online fan activities. As they move into a more active and participatory role in the online fan community “the intensity of identification with a virtual communication” (Solomon, Zaichkowsky, & Polegato, 2008, p. 327) is dependent on how much of the individual’s self-concept is related being a fan – for example, whether or not the individual has adopted the lifestyle and identity of a fan – and whether or not the individual has formed close relationships within that community. In other words, if a fan has adopted the identity of a fan and have formed close strong bonds with other members of the community, his/her involvement will be high with the community. These individuals are known as insiders and they typically have great influence over the group. For those individuals who have adopted the identity of the fan but have fairly weak social ties are known as devotees. Minglers, on the other hand, have not adopted the identity of a fan but have made close relationships with other fans in the community. Finally, tourists do not identify with fandom and they have few, fairly shallow social ties (Solomon, Zaichkowsky, & Polegato, 2008, p. 327).

The number of women who participate in the industry and within comic book fandom has increased since the late 1970s. As mentioned earlier, female fans have become particularly vocal online, forming communities of like-minded individuals to interrogate and evaluate comic book content. Furthermore, an analysis of sales data demonstrates that women are purchasing the bound collections of monthly issues that comprise story arcs (trade paperbacks) as well as original narratives (graphic novels). In 2006, for example, North American sales of graphic novels increased by 13.27% – an increase ascribed to the increase of female consumers purchasing them (MacDonald, 2007). In fact, when sales data is closely examined, female readership of comic books and graphic novels have increased across the board – except in the genre of superheroes. Most notably, “the popularity of Japanese manga and DC comics’ edgy, sophisticated Vertigo imprint, which features mystical and fantasy series” are two specific examples of products that have been successful with women (Anderman, 2009). The increase in female readership has coincided with a change in distribution channels for trade paperbacks and manga from comic book stores and comic book conventions, both of which have been accused of being unfriendly and unwelcoming to women, and into more mainstream book retailers (DiBello, 2008). In other words, comic book stores and comic book conventions are both barriers to entry into comic book fandom. By removing these obstacles by changing distribution channels with a concomitant increase in participation in online fandom, there has been an increase in women consumers for graphic narratives.


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Shelley Smarz is a comic book and business scholar. When she’s not discussing the behaviour of consumers of comic books, you can find her enjoying a cuppa hot tea. As much as she wishes that she could say that she takes it “as it comes”, she actually takes it with a splash of cream and two sugars.


“Tell Me, What Are Your Thoughts on Yaoi?”

The following is an article I presented at the 28th Annual Meeting of the Southwest Texas Popular Culture Association/American Culture Association (PCA/ACA) in Albuquerque, New Mexico in February 2007. It examines and analyzes the popularity of Yaoi (or Boy Love) comics/manga and in the tradition of fan-created slash fan texts. Enjoy!

Though they deal with similar subject matter in similar ways, Yaoi Manga – a Japanese import steadily gaining popularity in North America – and Slash fan fiction – a North American fan staple are two distinct types of cultural texts that are produced and consumed in two completely different socio-cultural contexts. However, I argue that, while they may go about it in different ways and within different cultural contexts, the similarities between the two are theoretically significant. In other words, our analysis of one will invariably aid in our analysis of the other.

At first glance, comparing Yaoi Manga, a collection of texts that are directly informed by Japanese history and culture, with Slash fan fiction – which is distinctly a North American fan writing genre – is like comparing a cow to a pair of long johns. Sure, they may both may deal with homoeroticism but that’s only a surface similarity. Upon closer examination, however, it appears that both Slash and Yaoi accomplish similar things in similar-but-still-different ways. In this paper, I will first analyse Slash fan fiction – what is it, what is its history and subcultural context, and its function for those who produce and consume it. I will then examine Yaoi Manga, its history and cultural context, and the function of Yaoi in Japanese society. Throughout my examination, I will call attention how these types of texts are similar but also to how they are different from one another.

Fan fiction1 is a fannish activity whereby fans appropriate characters and situations that are drawn “from film, television, comic books, or popular fiction” (Green, Jenkins, & Jenkins, 2006, p. 63), Slash fan fiction “is one of the most pervasive and distinctive genres of fan writing” where authors explore a non-platonic, romantic, and/or sexual relationship with two male characters from the source text (Green, Jenkins, & Jenkins, 2006, p. 62). It should be noted here that the primary focus of a Slash narrative is not on the characters’ sexual identities. Rather, the focus is on the emotional entanglement of the two male leads – specifically, that Slash “is about being in love” (Kustritz, 2003, p. 379). Slash stories first appeared in the late 1970s in the Star Trek fandom and they focused primarily on the romantic pairing of Kirk/Spock. At first these stories were compiled with a number of other fan texts – art, poetry, and non-fiction articles – in fanzines. It remained hidden, a “subculture within a subculture of Star Trek” until the internet make the fan activities such as these increasingly popular and prevalent (Kustritz, 2003, p. 372). While there were some other slash pairings during this time, it was not until the mid-1990s – when fan-writing found its way onto the internet – that slash pairings really began to develop “in almost every science fiction, fantasy, or police drama imaginable” (Kustritz, 2003, p. 372). This is due to the relative ease that individuals could privately and easily access individuals who shared their love of the source text. An increase in the number of fan activities and the number of fandoms – fan communities – to which a fan could belong, resulted in an increase in the number of participants within the fandom and the number of fan texts that were produced out of it.

Fans identify a number of “contradictions, inconsistencies, and ambiguities” within the original source text which they then elaborate on in their own fan writing. Kustritz (2003) argues that fan fiction in general and slash fiction particularly, “fill[s] in the motivations, emotions, and personal histories of the main male characters, or rescript[s] and replac[es] those elements of the character’s emotions and actions that were provided in the source product” (p. 374). In terms of the male characters, fans – whether they were interested in Slash texts or not – ended up resisting the “ideal masculine self” that the male characters within the text reproduce. These representations of hegemonic masculinity are fond in the “unfeeling, unmoving, masterful, and impenetrable” hero in an effort to reproduce it (Kustritz, 2003, p. 374). As a consequence, heroes were especially seen as shallow, one-dimensional embodiments of the ideal form of masculinity. To rectify this fan writers looked at the gaps and the contradictions within the original source text and supplemented it in order to make these characters “real people with personalities, faults, needs, illogical desires, and weaknesses” (Kustritz, 2003, p. 375).2 So, you must be asking yourself, well, if any fan can do this by writing fan fiction, why Slash? Generally speaking, the most intense relationships within these source narratives occurs between the male hero and his male companion or buddy. Women are incidental but it is the close friendship with the buddy that the hero depends on. Slash writers simply expand upon this idea by taking that close friendship and transforming it into a romantic and/or sexual one.

Though the demographics vary from fandom to fandom, numerous studies stipulate that Slash writers are disproportionally made up of “overeducated but underemployed” women, the majority of whom are heterosexual (Kustritz, 2003, p. 376). As these women negotiate meaning with the text – and within the confines of their particular fan community — they also negotiate with the dominant ideology that is reproduced in the original source text. In doing so they bring the source text in line with their own worldview and their own beliefs of what an ideal relationship is. Many theorists speculate that slash writing is a way that women can negotiate their place within a normative heterosexuality. Slash writers use their paired romantic couple in order to speculate about a relationship that is more equal than a heterosexual one is. In other words, fans negotiate meaning with the source text so that they are able to explore their own experiences, needs, and desires in a way specifically challenges problematic, and often normative, representations of gender and sexuality. For example, Green, Jenkins, and Jenkins (2006) argue that it’s not the mechanics of a Slash relationship – who puts what where – but how it “rethink[s] and rewrite[es] traditional masculinity” by providing a more equitable example (p. 71). It is this equality that is a place where women can explore their ideas of “the kind of love [they] want to have” and how that relates to their specific realities (McLelland, 2000a, p. 29).

Yaoi is a genre of Japanese Manga, fan art, and anime that is produced by and for the consumption of women. Yaoi is an acronym that comes from the phrase (yama nasi, ochinashi, imi nashi ) which can be translated to men “No climax, no point, no meaning”. However, an alternate phrase (yamete, oshiri ga itai) “Stop! My ass hurts!” may better characterize what Yaoi’s really all about (McLelland, 2000b, p. 227). Yaoi is a fantasy genre where “the romantic, emotional, and . . . sexual relationships of” two men are explored using a woman’s world view and through a female gaze (Johnson). Some fans have compared the genre to romance novels – they are both read by women, written and drawn by women, and marketed towards women.3 As one fan describes the genre, it “embodies the . . . female notion that m/m relationships are the stuff of high romance and beauty, and true love and angst and possible wonderful sex five times an hour” (Johnson).

Yaoi describes those texts within the wider genre of Girl’s Comics that are sexually explicit. Those texts that “refer[s] to sexually implicit or non-sexual romantic male-male relationships” are called Shonen-ai or Boys Love (BL). For the purposes of this paper, I have disregarded the distinction between explicit and non-explicit texts using Yaoi to represent both. I do this to contextualize Yaoi and Slash in North American texts – where he level of sexual explicitness and content can:

Yaoi describes those texts within the wider genre of Girl’s Comics that are sexually explicit. Those texts that “refer[s] to sexually implicit or non-sexual romantic male-male relationships” are called Shonen-ai or Boys Love (BL). For the purposes of this paper, I have disregarded the distinction between explicit and non-explicit texts using Yaoi to represent both. I do this to contextualize Yaoi and Slash in North American texts – where he level of sexual explicitness and content can:

rang[e] from ordinary romantic situations with mild adult content to subgenres containing extreme fetishism, including anthropomorphism, cosplay [costume play], non-consensual sex or “non-con”, monsters, incest, orgies, shotacon [or pederasty], and various other taboo depictions of male homosexuality. (Yaoi)

In other words, just as a Slash text’s narrative of sexiness varies over the entire genre, as can Yaoi’s – at least for the purposes of this paper.

The manga industry in Japan is massive. It accounts for 30-40% Japan’s print output (that’s about 470 million copies printed annually).4 Published as both magazines and trade paperbacks, various genres are marketed different demographic or market groups.5 Interestingly, manga readers are found over every demographic group in Japanese society,  including but not limited to: “school boys, university students, businessmen, female office workers, and housewives” (McLelland, 2000a, p. 14). Furthermore, the breadth of subject matter is enormous – all of the genres of writing you can think of are represented in manga and even some that aren’t. Furthermore, the size of the plots can “range from simple short story length through multi-volume graphic novelistic treatments spanning years of the characters’ lives” (Perper & Cornog, 2002, p. 20). After World War Two, manga’s popularity increased. However, at the time manga was only marketed to teenage males. However, in the 1960s, manga publishers turned their attention to the potential of a female audience and several titles were released. At first, these manga were written for women by men and “tended to follow the familiar tropes of heterosexual romantic love” but as these texts’ female readership grew up, they entered the manga market as writers and artists and sought to change what was being written for them (McLelland, 2000b, p. 275).6 In the 1970s Yaoi emerged as a specific genre.

Sexuality in manga – for adults, adolescents, and young adults – does deal with sex and sexuality. This is due to the fact that Japan’s manga industry is informed by cultural, aesthetic, and religious principles that “unif[ies] sex with human life elegantly and enjoyably. . . . sexuality is often vividly depicted as emotionally deep and physically delightful for” both men and women (Perper & Cornog, 2002, p. 8).7 This is likely the reason why Yaoi manga is more of a mainstream success when compared to North American slash fan narratives. Slash remains underground, still a product of fans for fans only.8 Yaoi, on the other hand, is very much out in the open. Titles are sold openly in book stores and most Japanese – even if they don’t consume it themselves – know that the genre exists and what it deals with. Even doojinshi – which is the closest correlate to Slash fan fiction – has attained more mainstream success. Doojinshi are fan texts that draw their material from an original source product – which may or may not be manga fandom – and create their own texts from it. Doojinshi are produced and marketed to fans at komikettos – giant manga conventions that are a lot like science fiction and fantasy conventions in North America – and online. Furthermore, unlike Slash, official manga publishers tolerate doojinshi texts, seeing them as a supplement to the official source texts. Furthermore, many manga publishers recruit their manga-kas (manga authors and artists) have from the doojinshi and komiketto markets. Therefore, the attitude of manga companies towards these amateur artists gives this kind of “fan fiction” legitimacy, something would never happen in North America.9

Furthermore, like Slash, Yaoi figures male-male sexuality differently than, say, gay pornographic representations do. Authors “seldom dwell on the mechanics of penetration” instead they represent the sex act as pleasurable for those involved (McLelland, 2000b, p. 282). Furthermore, the authors tend to glaze over the more visceral realities of homosexual sex. In these narratives, the penis is not used just for penetration but to “bring together and unite two bodies, to make them one flesh during the act of love” (McLelland, 2000b, p. 282).

Perhaps one of the starkest differences between Slash and Yaoi texts is how the main characters are represented. Unlike slash, Yaoi’s representation of its male characters, known as Bihonen, are quite uniform. Bishonen means “beautiful boy” in Japanese but the aesthetic of this representation is uniquely Asian. These beautiful boys need to be understood within their cultural context – several male figures in Japanese popular culture are famous for their “gender bending and ambiguous sexuality” (McLelland, 2001). These characters are represented as an androgynous ideal: “tall slim, elfin figures with big eyes, long hair, high cheekbones, and pointed chins” (McLelland, 2000b, p. 277). They are, simply stated, “young men whose beauty and sexual appeal transcends the boundar[ies] of sex” and gender (Bishōnen).

Contrasting the bishonen with the representation of men in Slash fiction – men who represent the idealized hegemonic masculine form – one sees that “are much more like women are supposed to be: emotional, nurturing, and nice” (McLelland, 2000b, p. 286). In no way represent do they realistically represent gay men who, when encountering the Yaoi genre, have “tend[ed] to snicker” at it (Johnson). Nor does the Bishonen represent the heterosexual men – even those who reject the confines of hegemonic masculinity. Rather they “embod[y] all the most attractive figures of [the] female gender while being able to move through the world unencumbered by the burdens of [the] female sex” (McLelland, 2000b, p. 286). In other words, the beautiful vulnerability and idealized sensibility of these androgynies acts as a fantasy trope. They enable women to play with gender and sexuality, possibly providing an outlet for women readers to work out their own issues with normative ideals of their own heteronormative femininity and with their own uncertainty about the stereotype of the hegemonic male.

What is the why of Yaoi? Most certainly there the aforementioned exploration of gender relations non-traditional way. However, there has to be more to this that idealizations being an outlet for playing with gender, sexuality, fantasy, and desire. In a system that takes a man’s authority over women for granted, in fact, is naturalized, is also problematised by the genre of Yaoi manga. Think of it this way, within any sex scene, the male body is a symbol of “men’s power over women” because, for the most part, he penetrates her. However, when represent sex between men, this power relation is disrupted because just as a penis can penetrate a woman it can also penetrate a man. Yaoi, therefore,

remove[s] gender-related power differentials (by making both lovers the same sex), limit[s] age-related power differences (by representing characters of a similar age), and eliminating power differentials based on desirability (by representing both characters as Bishoonen, i.e. equally beautiful and, therefore, equally desirable). (McLellend, 2000b, p. 246).10

One of the most popular reasons given as to why women enjoy Slash and/or Yaoi has to do with desire and of the aesthetics of sex. For instance, “if heterosexual men enjoy the idea of two women getting it on, why should heterosexual women not enjoy the idea of two men bonking?” (McLelland, 2006). This attraction is aesthetically pleasing in a non-threatening way. While I definitely will not disagree that, yes, the idea of two men getting it on is all kinds of hot, Yaoi and Slash also say something about the nature of fantasy and desire. Both kinds of texts demonstrate and dichotomize the idealized same-sex relationships with “reality” – the everyday experiences of people living in a specific culture, at a specific time, and in a specific place. It is a discussion of how things are and an idea about how things should be. Playing with fantasy and desire, therefore, problematizes the status quo and – in conjunction with a number of different interrogations – may even serve to help formulate change.

But Yaoi and Slash may also support the status quo. Kind of like the consumption of romance novels and day-time trash TV, Yaoi and Slash form “an imaginary playground where I can flee the realities of everyday life” (McLelland, 2000b, p. 287). Slash and Yaoi are a safe place to interrogate, manipulate, and speculate about the sexist features of any patriarchal society in a way that enables women to “disrupt sexual and gender boundaries while at the same time being committed to normative gender performances in their daily lives” (McLelland, 2006). Furthermore, even though Slash and Yaoi are a place of fantasy that doesn’t necessarily mean that these women are unhappy with the status quo. Consequently, Yaoi and Slash are consumed solely for amusement and not as a means of subverting the status quo. As one Yaoi fan argues “not all of us actually want to live out our fantasies” (qtd. In McLelland, 2001).

Slash and Yaoi are “liberatory shphere[s] within which presumably heteronormative women readers can experiment with” desire, fantasy, ideals of gender and ideals of (romantic) sexuality.11 Furthermore, opposition, liberation, and change may come from such a place of play. However, it appears to me that this only occurs when combined with other instances where ideal norms of heteronormativity and gender dualism are disputed. In other words, it’s not the act of producing, consuming, and enjoying Slash or Yaoi that propels social change. Rather it is when this production, consumption, and enjoyment occurs in concert with an impetus to challenge norms of gender and sexuality in other ways that these texts may help to influence social change.


[1] Fan fiction is, by no means, the only fannish activity. Other activities may include fan art, poetry, non-fiction articles on the source texts, and (perhaps the most important fan activity of them all) coming together with other, like-minded individuals and discussing, analyzing, and negotiating meaning with their favourite source text.

2 Kustritz (2003) argues that “Fan writing preys upon characters who reproduce traditional masculinity, traditional class and race hierarchies, and traditional relational scripts and reconfigures them into tales of communal societies, racial equality and sexual transgression” (p. 376).

3 Even if a man did write and draw Yaoi manga he would have to do it through the eyes of a woman.

4 In 1993, women’s manga represented only 8.8% of all commercially published manga. Which, given the size of Japan’s manga industry, translates into about 41 million titles published (McLelland, 2000a). To put this into perspective, one of the earliest ‘boy love’ monthly magazines is June, which was first published in 1978. In 1995, it was a 300-page bimonthly format with a circulation of between 80,000 and 100,000 issues – which is twice the readership of Japan’s best-selling gay magazine, Badi. (McLelland, 2001)

5 Perper and Cornog (2002) describe manga titles “are classified by [their] market niche: shojo manga for girls, shonen manga for boys, seinen manga for young adult men, seijin manga for adults (mostly erotica for men), and redi komi or redisu [which is] romantic/erotic manga drawn by women for adult women readers” (p. 4).

6 It was these women authors – writing for Boys Love manga for women – who challenged the censorship laws regarding to the representation of sex n manga. The enforcement of these laws has recently decreased, resulting in a boom in sexually explicit manga (McLelland 2006; Perper & Cornog, 2002, p. 7).

7 As a genre of storytelling, Boys Love “ha[s] a long tradition in Japan, usually focusing on the attraction between a priest or samurai love and his acolyte” (McLelland, 2006). However, these stories were initially produced by male authors who intended a male audience. It was only since the 1970s that women authors have produced Boys Love comics are were marketed to a solely female audience.

8 Almost all North American Slash narratives are produced by women who market their fan fiction and art in printed zines or over the internet

9 Usually, North American fans are just mocked as geeks and losers who are too attached to their source material. (Oh, and who are 30 year-old virgins still living in their parent’s basements.)

10 However, this is where some theorists say that things get problematic. Though the aim of Yaoi is to depict romantic and sexual relationships that are equal, the structure of Japanese society and language makes strict equality difficult. For instance, “The elder partner is referred to as seme (from semeru, to attack) whereas the younger partner is labelled use (from ukeru, to receive). [Giving the audience] the idea that sex is necessarily something that the dominant partner “does” to the submissive partner.” (McLelland, 2000b, p. 4). However, you find the same problem in Slash fan fiction – it is generally, though rather simplistically, implied that the penetrator is more powerful than the person who is being penetrated. Furthermore, equating penetrator with power very much oversimplifies the power dynamics in any relationship.

11 Which may, in tern, affect her own subjectivity.


(n.d.) Bishōnen. Retrieved from: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bish%C5%8Dnen

Green, S., Jenkins, C., & Jenkins, J. (2006). “Normal female interest in men bonking”: Selections from The Terra Nostra Underground and Strange Bedfellows. In H. Jenkins (Ed.), Fans, bloggers, and gamers: Media consumers in a digital age (pp. 61-88). New York, NY: New York University Press.

Johnson, J. (n.d.) What is Yaoi? History. Retrieved from: http://www.angelfire.com/va3/ky411/history.html

Kustritz, A. (2003, September). Slashing the romance narrative. The Journal of American Culture, 26(3), 371-384.

McLelland, M. (2000a, January). Male homosexuality and popular culture in modern Japan. Intersections: Gender, History, and Culture in the Asian Context. Retrieved from: http://wwwsshe.murdoch.edu.au/intersections/issue3/mclelland2.html

McClelland, M. (2000b, July). No climax, no point, no meaning? Japanese women’s Boy-Love sites on the Internet. Journal of Communication Inquiry, 24(3), 274-291.

McLelland, M. (2001, October). Local meanings in global space: a case study of women’s “Boy Love” web sites in Japanese and English. Mots Pluriels (19). Retrieved from: http://www.arts.uwa.edu.au/MotsPluriels/MP1901mcl.html

McClelland, M. (2006, December). Why are Japanese girls’ comics full of boys bonking? Retrieved from: http://intensities.org/Essays/McLelland.pdf

Perper, T. & Cornog, M. (2002, March). Eroticism for the masses: Japanese manga comics and their assimilation into the U.S. Sexuality and Culture, 6(1), 3-126.

(n.d.) Yaoi. Retrieved from: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Yaoi

Bibliography/Further Reading:

Bacon-Smith, C. (1991). Enterprising women: Television fandom and the creation of popular myth. Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press.

Bowring, M. A. (2004, July). Resistance is not futile: Liberating Captain Janeway from the masculine-feminine dualism of leadership. Gender, Work, and Organization, 11(4), 381–405.

Jenkins, H. (1992). Textual poachers: Television fans and participatory culture. London, UK: Routeledge.

Kelly, W. W. (Ed.) (2006). Fanning the flames: Fans and consumer culture in contemporary Japan. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press.

McLelland, M. (2000, March). The love between “Beautiful Boys” in Japanese women’s comics. The Journal of Gender Studies, 9(1), 13-6.

McLelland, M. (1999, December). Gay men as women’s ideal partners in Japanese popular culture: Are gay men really a girl’s best friends? The U.S.-Japan Women’s Journal English Supplement, 17, 77-110.

McLelland, M. (2001). Loincloths, ladyboys, and Lolita’s little brother: Women’s culture and the consumption of “Gay” pornography in Japan. In K. Atkinson & J. Finnerty (Eds.) Queer in the Twenty-First Century: The Body, Queer, and Politic (pp. 97-118). Brisbane, Australia: GLWA, Inc.

Penley, C. (1992). Feminism, psychoanalysis, and the study of popular culture. In L. Grossbery, C. Nelson, and P. Treichler (Eds.), Cultural Studies. New York, NY: Routeledge.

Penley, C. (1997). NASA/Trek: Popular science and sex in America. New York,

(n.d.) Shōnen-ai. Retrieved from: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sh%C5%8Dnen

(n.d.) Slash fiction. Retrieved from: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Slash_fiction

Welker, J. (2006, Spring). Beautiful, borrowed, and bent: “Boys’ Love” as girls’ love in Shôjo Manga. Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society, 31(3), 841–870.

Woledge, E. (2005, August). Decoding desire: From Kirk and Spock to K/S1. Social Semiotics, 15(2), 235-250.

Shelley Smarz is a comic book scholar and business woman. She’s currently reading every Greg Rucka book she can get her grubby little hands on. Her current Starbucks obsession is a mango blended passion tea (FYI (for a grande): fill to first line with mango juice, to second line with passion tea, throw in a little less than a full grande scoop of ice, and blend).

Tentacle Sex and the Politics of Pornographic Pleasure in the Urotsukidoji Saga

Since this article analyzes porn from an academic perspective and contains some images of early examples of the genre, I’d say that this article is definitely not for anyone under the age of 18. It is also not safe for work (NSFW). Furthermore, as Pete so helpfully pointed out, since this paper analyzes tentacle porn, it’s probably not safe for life (NSFL). All snark aside, this paper does deviate from our general tone of keeping the site PG (or PG-13), so please click at your own risk!

That being said, while transcribing the manga and censorship panel at TCAF, I was inspired to return to this paper that I wrote back when I attending Brock University to complete my MA in Popular Culture (also known as my Masters in Comic Books). I presented this paper at two conferences. The first was the 27th Annual Meeting of the Southwest Texas Popular Culture Association/American Culture Association (PCA/ACA) in Albuquerque, New Mexico (February 8-11, 2006). The second presentation occurred at Mansfield Conference at Oxford University in England at the 4th Global Conference on Monsters and the Monstrous (Myths and Metaphors of Enduring Evil). My paper was consequently published online, along with the other papers presented at the conference, which occurred from September 18 to September 21, 2006.

While wandering around the Metro Toronto Convention Centre during the 2005 Fan Expo (a local comic book, science fiction, horror, and anime convention), I passed by a vendor’s stalls who had an assortment of anime DVDs laid out on the table. I barely noticed it because I wasn’t looking for anime but the latest issue of Bear (a comic book by most awesome Jamie Smart). I was snapped out of my quest when that stall’s proprietor barked out, “Those aren’t for you!” at a group of teenage boys. I paused, turning to see why the older man had such an intense and almost angry reaction to the boys’ browsing. And there he was, his hand covering the tentacle sex DVDs from the boys’ gaze. While his statement was an appropriate response for those teenage boys, I was left wondering who those DVDs are for and (perhaps most importantly) what those DVDs say about the cultures out of which they are produced and consumed.

I first encountered tentacle sex as a teenager. Several of my male friends were, and still are, fans of the genre – though their interest has shifted from the tentacle sex found within the narratives to the narratives themselves. Tentacle porn was their first experience of pornography of any kind; and they bonded over it, together, as a rite of passage. Last August was, however, the first time that I questioned the genre’s wider socio-cultural implications (other than its role in my mates’ sexual maturation). In this paper, I will explore the social context of tentacle sex in the Legend of the Overfiend or Urotsukidoji saga, specifically how it responds to the anxieties about the changing gender roles in Japanese society. The word Urotsukidoji is a combination of two existing Japanese words: urotsuki, which means ‘scaled’ and doji, which means ‘child.’1 Images of monstrosity – or the scaled child – abound in the saga but the term also refers to the ‘scaled child’ of contemporary Japanese society, that is, the metaphorical child-figure produced from a period of gender role confusion and transition.2 In order to complete my analysis, I will first look, briefly, at the medium of anime, the category of hentai anime, and the tentacle porn genre. I will then move onto how the social anxiety surrounding shifting gender identities in Japanese society has affected gendered representations in tentacle porn. Finally, I will analyse examples of representations of both women and men in the Overfiend saga.

Cartoon and animated pornography allows more diversity in content because the form gives greater freedom to the artist. He/she is not constrained by the limits of either the human body or the technology used to depict it. For example, animation is the only medium that tentacle sex – complete with its phallic tentacles, gargantuan penises, and the mechanics of depicting sex acts with such monstrous creatures – can be depicted. (Even if such fantastic things were to be included in a live-action film, CGI animation would account for some, if not all, of the special effects). Animation, in other words, is a medium of fantasy. Furthermore, since artists do not (necessarily) require human models, taboo or illegal subjects and sexual acts – such as rape fantasies – can be depicted within the medium safely and fantastically. Animation also solves one of the chief problems with live-action pornography: the visual representation of female sexual pleasure. In her analysis of hardcore pornography, Linda Williams argues that “the genre as a whole seems to be engaged in a quest for incontrovertible ‘moving’ visual evidence of . . . women’s [sexual] pleasure” (Williams, 1999, p. 31). Pornography is a genre of and about the body. Its goal is two-fold: it must not only demonstrate the sex act – penile penetration – but it must also represent its culmination in orgasm. In other words, it seeks to make explicit the bodily confession of pleasure for both its male and female participants. The first criterion is fulfilled through the use of close-ups, the hard-core narrative film is able to show the penetrative “meat shot” (p. 72). However, capturing the second – the visual representation of climax – is more problematic. While the “money shot” is visual proof of male climax and ejaculation, there is no visual verification of female orgasm (p. 94). Therefore, the pleasure of the female protagonists in live-action hardcore films cannot be authenticated because of the limits of the body and the technology used to capture those responses. Although there are live-action, hardcore pornographic texts that do feature an ejaculating female, the physical response – unlike its male equivalent – is rare, occurring naturally in a very small percentage of the female population. Female ejaculation, therefore, is not necessarily an accurate market of female orgasm.

Animation, on the other hand, becomes a way that pornography can visualize and verify a woman’s orgasm. A scene in the first episode of the Overfiend saga demonstrates the ability of anime to capture the bodily evidence of female pleasure. When Akemi is raped by Miss Togami, a demon disguised as a human, visual evidence of Akemi’s pleasure can be seen on both Miss Togami’s fingers and on the tentacles that she’s penetrated Akemi with. Presented to the audience as sparkly vaginal secretions, anime is able to call attention to the proof of female pleasure by visually colour-coding it.

As the availability and popularity of anime and manga – anime’s static, graphic form – have increased over the last fifteen years so has its journalistic coverage (Newitz, 1995, p. 2).  Journalistic coverage has often associated all anime with excessive violence and tentacled sex. These representations in popular media ignores the complexity and variety of the texts found within anime. Its generic coverage is the same to that of live-action cinema and includes “everything from politics and history to homosexual romance and hard-core sado-masochism” (Pointer, 1997, p. 49). Both its generic scope and narrative complexity leads Napier (2001) to conclude that anime provides a greater level of “psychological probing . . . [that is] seldom attempted in recent mass-culture Western film or television” (pp. 6-7). In other words, there is more to anime than gratuitous violence and monstrous sex – but even those movies that do contain these elements are more complex than they seem at first glance.

Erotic texts, especially ones dealing with tentacled or monstrous sex, have a long-history in Japan. Classically known as Shunga they date back to the Edo era (1603-1867). Modern Japanese erotic or pornographic texts are known, in the West, as hentai. Hentai differentiates itself from live-action pornography through its use of narrative to frame the sex acts depicted rather than being framed by them. It should be noted that the Japanese rarely use this term, which when translated means “abnormal” or “perverted,” to describe pornographic anime. They differentiate it from non-pornographic texts by shrink-wrapping and labelling them as “not for sale to those under the age of 18,” by calling them H-anime, or by using the term (y-)etchi, signifying an attempt to pronounce the letter H (Drazen, 2003, p. 60). According to Zitomer, the typical hardcore, live-action narrative “consists [solely] of sexual action”. There is “no real story, no characters or character development, [and] no attempt at imaginative camerawork” (qtd. in Pattern, pp. 115-116). The sex displayed in hentai, on the other hand, is only one part of the narrative; it does not comprise it entirely. In other words, if you remove the sex in hentai there is still a plot to carry the narrative forward. Sex, therefore, is used as a means to an end rather than as an end onto itself. Unlike its live-action counterpart, Japanese animated pornography is, therefore, “both thematically wide-ranging and narratively complex” and is also able to differentiate itself from other narratives within the genre (Napier, 2001, p. 64). Hentai artists and animators (therefore) must remain innovative, continually creating more sensationalistic titles to keep the audience’s interest. For example, one way that they can accomplish sustained audience interest is to integrate sex into narratives “that are . . . related to the fantastic, [the horror,] the occult, or science fiction” (Napier, 2001, p. 64).

Its focus on plot and characterization as well as the originality and creativity exhibited by its authors and animators has resulted in some theorists describing hentai as “the next step in animated storytelling” (Pattern, 2004, p. 116). The shift from episodic depictions of sex with very little plot to a plot-centred narrative with some sex scenes marks a dramatic shift in how pornography is presented in Western society. As a testament to the popularity of sex with a narrative storyline you only need to look at the numbers: hentai accounts for anywhere from 15-40% of the anime market in Japan. However, it only enjoys marginalized mainstream success in North America indicating that North Americans still prefer live-action, hardcore pornography. So while anime and hentai are no longer only in the domain of science fiction (and I say this lovingly as I am both) geeks and nerds, “the American general erotic video/TV market does not seem to be interested in tapping into the lode of Japanese animated titles” (Pattern, 2004, p. 118).

As a genre of hentai, tentacle sex – also known as tentacle porn or tentacle rape – demonstrates the use of horror, fantasy, and the occult to create sensationalized and creative pornographic narratives. Tentacle sex is form of erotic horror that depicts female characters being penetrated by tentacled monsters and demons. The genre often portrays and explores rape fantasies, bondage fetishes, domination, and humiliation. The earliest instance of the genre is found in Katsushika Hokusai’s Edo-era (1820) woodcut depicting a woman being molested by a pair of octopi titled The Dream of the Fisherman’s Wife (Weiss, 2002, p. 158). The rape fantasies that tentacle sex explores are typical of the bodice-ripper genre in romance novels where a female protagonist derives pleasure out of being “ravished.” Williams (1999) notes that “Although rape is invoked as a word, the film undercuts th[e] idea of rape as coercive sex by showing the woman enjoying it, an image contrasted to the resistance she is supposed to put up” (p. 164). Coercive sex, therefore, turns into ecstasy for the person being coerced – “her mouth says ‘no!’, but her body says ‘yes!’” In the Overfiend saga, this trope is used. After the Overfiend’s resurrection in a local hospital he rapes a nurse – reminding us of the belief that the best way to affirm that one is, in fact, alive is to have sex. This rape, therefore, represents brute force, coercion, as well as affirming the Overfiend’s rebirth after three thousand (3,000) years. The nurse’s pleas of “No! Stop it!” soon turn into moans of ecstasy as she climaxes. As he penetrates her, visual evidence of her pleasure drips to the floor, demonstrating her body’s compliance in his coercion. It is this bodily consent that becomes the measure of the female’s pleasure. Her orgasm, therefore, ultimately excuses his coercion, his violation.

Modern tentacle sex was pioneered by Toshio Maeda, a famous manga artist in the 1980s. Overfiend – along with La Blue Girl and Demon Beast Invasion – were developed as a response to and a way to circumvent Japanese censorship laws that prohibited penile – but, strangely enough, not tentacled – penetration in manga and anime. Censorship laws were so strict that until 1991, two years after the release of the Overfiend saga in North America, the entire pubic region, whether shaved or not, was so obscene to Japanese society that any representations of it were deemed unpublishable. Though censorship laws have since been relaxed, the genre is still used to explore anxieties of the culture in which it was produced. Tentacle sex is one of the ways in which drastic ideological shifts and the social anxieties that accompany them can be explored and controlled. Changing social roles and the resulting anomie are represented symbolically in “the violent and demonic depictions of both men and women in [pornographic] anime” (Napier, 2001, p. 80). As women have become more independent and powerful in Japanese society, Japanese men have suffered an identity crisis. Though marginal in comparison, the transference of both the medium and the genre to North America indicates North Americans share a similar crisis of gendered identity.

The Overfiend saga is the most famous (and most infamous) example of tentacle porn. It was first published in manga or graphic novel form but was soon produced as an animated series of five episodes. The prevailing belief that all anime is full of sex and violence partly stems from the fact that the saga, which is “the most extreme example of the sex/horror” genre, was the first example of tentacle sex seen by North American audiences (Drazen, 2003, p. 74). The narrative is vast and complex – getting more complicated and convoluted as the series progresses – and, like most tentacle sex anime, the sex is surrounded and supported by a narrative. The narrative chronicles the re-emergence of the Overfiend after an absence for three thousand (3,000) years. He is a creature more powerful than any other and who will merge the universes of men, beast, and demon into one giant universe and rule over them all. However, though the Overfiend will bring unity to these three realms he also brings chaos and destruction.

Napier notes that the female body in hentai can be read as one of abjection and submission; of punishment, violation, and mutilation. However, she argues women’s bodies are also “awesomely powerful” forces within the narratives (Napier, 2001, p. 65). An example of this can be found in the second episode of the Overfiend saga. The sexually-liberated Megumi has sex with a demon. Their frantic thrusting culminates in Megumi’s orgasm which kills the creature, his lifeless body falling to the ground, harmlessly. She emerges from the sexual encounter sated and smiling, saying that “I haven’t come that good for a long time.” When you contrast this scene with the resurrection of the Overfiend and the subsequent rape of the nurse late in the first episode, it demonstrates that both Megumi and the Overfiend have the power of orgasmic destruction.

The female body is both a site of pleasure but also a place of fear. After his orgy goes horribly wrong, Ozaki is caught and consumed by the demon that has killed the three women Ozaki was having sex with. After a brief struggle, Ozaki is pulled into the creature’s belly through an opening in its pelvic area. This scene of consumption reminds the viewer of the myth of the vagina dentata. According to Freud, fear of a “toothed vagina” signifies men’s fear of castration. Though the demon’s vagina lacks teeth, the creature’s distended abdomen, when combined with its vaginal-like opening, suggests that its belly is, in fact, a womb. The scene, therefore, becomes a scene of abjection, a nightmarish inversion of birth where the monstrous mother consumes her offspring. Ozaki is pulled back into the womb through the demon’s “vagina.” The uterus is no longer a place of life, but a place of death – the womb is meant to become Ozaki’s tomb.

Williams argues that hardcore pornography is a site of masculine “uncertainty and instability” (Williams, 1999, p. xvi). The genre of tentacle rape is no different from live-action hardcore films. In the Overfiend saga, the masculine body is a site of contestation and bifurcation, torn between the feminine and the masculine. The two masculine character types in the Overfiend saga are the “comic voyeur” and the “demonic phallus incarnate” (Napier, 2001, p. 65). The former is embodied by men who are powerless, weak, and social outcasts. The only “powerful” male – that is, one who adheres to the values and norms of hegemonic masculinity – is the popular basketball player, Ozaki, who is killed within the first 28 minutes of the story. The “infantile, passive” males remain and are continually frustrated in their attempts to “see, touch, and ultimately have sex with women,” specifically Akemi (Napier, 2001, p. 65). Their narrative function is to provide comic relief. In the Overfiend, the role of the comic voyeur is filled by the character Amano. When we first encounter him on-screen he is hidden in a closet off of the ladies’ change room at the university. There, he masturbates, watching the cheerleaders change. Amano’s loud climax alerts the women to his presence and he is forced to hide behind some athletic equipment, narrowly escaping detection by Akemi. As the narrative progresses, the audience comes to realize that Amano is the “letch that everyone laughs at,” After Amano is reborn – he is the Overfiend’s human host – Niki takes over the role of the powerless, yet comic, voyeur. To escape this powerless, passive, and pathetic role, Niki is only given one option to acquire the hegemonic masculinity he so desperately desires to have: he must cut off his own penis and replace it with a demon’s. He must then shed the blood of two people to reinforce his status as a powerful male. Masculine power and privilege, however, comes at a cost: self-mutilation. Consequently, Niki’s phallic power is false because comes from the transplanted demon penis (a penis that eventually rots off his body) and not from his own masculinity.

Similarly, the tentacled demons also lack masculinity. They are presented as everything the comic voyeurs are not: powerful, active, and penetrative. The demonic “male body [is the one] that constantly gains sexual satisfaction” but it is also an inhuman one. His “origin, iconography, and substance” makes him the “Other” (Napier, 2001, p. 79). He is “demonic, made of steel, [and] bulging with [phallic] tentacles” (Napier, 2001, p. 79). While the voyeur watches, the demon acts, penetrating his female partner-victim with both his penis and with as many tentacles as is possible. The men in the narrative occupy a tenuous and shifting gender – they are neither male nor female. Literally and figuratively the Other, they are associated with the feminine with their bloated womb-like abdomens, complete with a vaginal-like opening. Both male body types, therefore, demonstrate that there are no “real” men who can access “real” power in the Overfiend saga.

You cannot separate the text from the socio-cultural context out of which it was manufactured. As it is consumed, it reproduces those values, norms, and fears of the culture that informed its production. Going back to the questions I posed at the beginning of this talk (paper), I conclude that both of my questions (“Who are these DVDs for?” And, “What do they have to say?”) are ultimately connected. In general, these narratives are concerned with the postmodern condition: the fluid nature of identity and the fragmented society. They “speak sex” as a way of exploring the resulting anxieties and it is through the “fascination with gender roles and . . . transgressions” that these tensions can be resolved (Williams, 1999, p. 229; Napier, 2001, p. 11).


1 My thanks to thanks to Professor David Hopkins of Tenri University, Japan – my co-panelist at the 27th annual meeting of the  Southwest Texas Popular Culture Association/American Culture Association (PCA/ACA) in Albuquerque, New Mexico – for pointing this out to me.

2 Another presenter at the 4th Global Conference on Monsters and the Monstrous: Myths and Metaphors of Enduring Evil, Dr. Natsumi Ikoma (from the International Christian University, Tokyo, Japan) also noted that urotsukidoji can also be translated as the wandering child (from urotsuki, ‘wandering,’ and doji, ‘child’). In this case, then, the title not only refers to the metaphorical product of gender role changes but also the state of gender role anomie – the wandering, child-like normlessness – that precipitated it.


Drazen P. (2003). Anime explosion: The what? Why? And Wow! Of Japanese animation. Berkeley, CA: Stone Bridge Press.

Kinsella, S. (2000). Adult Manga: Culture and power in contemporary Japanese society. Honolulu: University of Hawai’I Press.

Levi, A. (1996). Samurai from outer space: Understanding Japanese animation. Chicago, IL: Open Court Publishing Company.

Napier S. J. (2001). Anime: From Akira to Princess Mononoke. New York, NY: Palgrave.

Newitz A. (1995), Magical girls and atomic bomb sperm: Japanese animation in America. Film Quarterly, 49(1), 2-15.

Patten, F. (2004). Watching Anime, reading Manga. Berkeley, CA: Stone Bridge Press.

Pointer, S. (1997). Transcultural orgasm as apocalypse: Urotsukidoji: The Legend of the Overfiend. Wide Angle, 19(3), 41-63.

Scholdt F. L. (1996). Dreamland Japan: Writings on modern Manga. Berkeley, CA: Stone Bridge Press.

Weiss A. S. (2002, Winter). The epic of the cephalopod. Discourse, 24(1), 150-9.

Williams L. (1999). Hardcore: Power, pleasure, and the “frenzy of the visible.” Berkeley: University of California Press.

Shelley Smarz is a comic book scholar in her spare time. She’s currently fighting off the flu, which is why it took her three hours to format this post on Word Press (most of it was spent napping). She hates it when she goes brain dead from all the cold and flu meds and is looking forward to when she’s recovered enough to dive back into Planetary.

Lonely Planet (Comic Book Stores in Berlin and Paris)

When I mentioned the other day that I had been listening to a Blaxploitation mix that I had picked up in Paris made me think about my trip (done in September 2007) to Berlin, the south of France, and Paris. I dug out this article I wrote for Big B Comics’ monthly newsletter, The Informer, upon my return, detailing the outstanding comic book stores I found on that trip.

When I travel, I like to go to the local comic book stores. In my experience, this has led to a number of happy surprises – usually hard-to-find or didn’t-know-they-existed finds. Whether I leave with a new acquisition to my growing collection of stuff or not, it’s always nice to see what the stores are doing differently. During my time away, I had the opportunity to visit a number of different comic book shops in both Berlin and Paris.

The first shop I encountered in Berlin was Japan Shop. Devoted to everything Japanese, manga and anime (and related merchandise like toys, music, and imported snacks) dominated the main area of the store.

A couple of days later, I made it to the second shop, called Grober Unfug. While they had a fair selection of manga, the store prided itself on its extensive collection of American comics and graphic novels (some were in German but most were in English). As I was making my way through the store, I found a couple of cute little designer toys to add to my collection. There was a small room to the back devoted to new comics, two or three showcases devoted to collectables and smaller toys, and a fair selection of graphic novels (in both English and German) off to one side. The design of the store really called out to me and it was well stocked, there wasn’t anything to set it apart from any other comic book shop I’ve been in.

The third store was called Modern Graphics and reminded me a lot of Grober Unfug. There I found some postcards – which are still waiting to be framed and hung – and some more designer toys. I picked up a couple small books. This is a bad habit of mine – buying too many books on vacation. Over the course of my vacation, I ended up spending a small fortune shipping books back to Canada and still ended up having to pay overages on my baggage for going over weight. (What? I’m a bibliophile. I can’t just NOT collect books.)

The last store was the one I found by chance, and was my favourite in Berlin. I had found it during a Berlin Walks walking tour about Jewish Life in Berlin. It was on our way to the New Synagogue on Oranienburger Strasse and it was also close to St. Hedwig’s hospital in the Spandauer Vorstadt/District of Berlin.

I wish I had photos of it to show you because it was an amazing store! This “comic gallery” focused more on selling independent and alternative comics. Despite knowing very little German, I picked up a number of comic books for the art. While the shabbiest of the three, I was intrigued to discover that the store also contained a lending library for members to share their books (consisting of independent and alternative press books) with others. While it may not have been pretty, this sense of community that the store fostered made me feel quite comfortable there.

In Paris, I found a number of shops in the Latin Quarter area of the city, close to the Saint Michel Metro station and across the river from Notre Dame Cathedral. The first two stores I encountered was really one giant megastore called Album – it reminded me of London’s Forbidden Planet – that had spread out over the space of the two stores.

The first shop was devoted to gaming – cards, miniatures, Heroclix, models – but had some, higher-end Disney, Asterix, TinTin, the Smurfs, Barbapapa, and Le Marsupilami toys and collectables. Its sister store was devoted to toys, action figures, and designer toys, as well as comics (both new and old), graphic novels, and manga. Both stores were well stocked (there was something for everyone) and very nicely designed (if not a little cramped), and I enjoyed joining the crush of customers (it was a Wednesday and hence, New Comic Day) in a shopping frenzy.

It was clear that this store dominated the sales in the area. However, I found two other, smaller stores, the Boulevard des Bulles and La Comete de Carthage – one was devoted to anime and manga, and the other was devoted to both new and old American comics – in the neighbourhood that did mange to survive, despite the competition.

Across town, I found Super Héros, which was this awesome little comic book shop that specialized in alternative, import, and quality bande dessinée.

Shelley Smarz is a comic book scholar, fan, and student. Writing this article has made her travel sick and she’s contemplating jumping on a plane so she can walk the streets of Paris and Berlin again.

Toronto Comic Arts Festival 2010 :: Reflections

Reflections on Day One:

On the drive into the city today for the second day at the Toronto Comic Arts Festival (TCAF), I had a few moments to reflect about yesterday, what I did, and what the atmosphere of the event was. I was able to put these thoughts down on paper as I was exceptionally lucky to have someone driving me into Toronto from my current home north of the city. (Props to Jordan!)

The first thing I thought of this morning is, WHAT IS UP WITH THIS SNOW? It’s MAY! It wasn’t that I was surprised, per se. We always get a last skiff of snow sometime in April (though this year it I thought we had escaped that fate). However, my outrage was far more superficial than paying attention to weather patterns in the great province of Ontario. Rather, I had been expecting to be able to wear one of my cute little sundresses to the festival. Rather, I had to dig around the closet for my winter coat, realizing too late that I had prematurely packed it away for summer.

Now, since this ISN’T my personal blog, how about we talk some TCAF, eh?

The more I write for the website, the more I realize that cons are now different for me. And, don’t get me wrong, I’m not bemoaning the fact that I have to work at cons now. It’s kind of like when I was working the Big B booth at Fan Expo a couple of years back. The con experience is just different when you’re working behind the scenes (or, like now, when I’m covering the event). In both instances, you plan a little differently – you still have the freedom and time to have fun and do what you want to do, but you also have to keep in mind that, despite all that, you’re there to do a job.

It all comes down to what you’re paying attention to and what your overall purpose of the day is. Yesterday was spent networking with creators, lining up interviews, “taking in” the whole of the experience (more on that later), and going to a couple of panels that I thought looked interesting. I still got the chance to get some stuff signed, buy some books, and have a great lunch with Pete, David, and Scott.

Now, this is my first TCAF. It’s always been on my list of things to do during the summer but it kind of always fell by the wayside. And it’s very different from the cons I’ve been to. You have the opportunity to really interact with comic creators and it’s really groovy to just be able to talk with them one-on-one. Yesterday was a little hairy to do that (the venue was packed!), so I hope today that I’ll have more of an opportunity to do so. Though, don’t let the fact that it was packed deter you from talking with the creators. It’s not like you couldn’t possibly get through the throng of people to talk with someone. People could and were taking the opportunity to do so. I simply took more of a spectator approach as I knew that the last day of a con tends to be a little less hairy as a lot of people only attend the first day (which is also why we try to schedule all of our interviews on these days).

I was happy to see that the event was packed and that a lot of indie creators were getting the opportunity to get their stuff noticed. One of the things I picked up was David Bruins’ and Hilary Leung’s  The Legend of Ninja, Cowboy, Bear, which a kids’ book about three friends coming to realize that no one is better than anyone else and appreciating their differences. It’s an awesome read and I’d recommend it for kids of all ages. A sequel to the tale will be released this September.

I got to go to two panels yesterday – one that reflected on the production process of comic books (aligning it with that of an assembly line) and one on manga censorship. I’ve posted the first and am in the middle of editing down my notes of the second (I have to admit, bringing my wee little net book to the event really made keeping on top of everything a lot easier – especially since the library offers free wireless internet). I may post some reflections on them later but I haven’t decided if I have anything to add to what was already said. I posted them for informational purposes more than anything else

So, that was day one. I look forward to beginning day two.

Reflections on Day Two:

More mayhem and craziness!

The day was a little less busy and less crowded than the Saturday, but it was still jam packed. I missed a couple of panels I wanted to go to (so, sadly, no more panels are covered by me) because of I was doing an interview with Faith Erin Hicks and it took a little longer than I anticipated.

All in all, the day was insane. And time just flew by. We arrived right as the festival opened and then, the next thing we all knew, we were getting word that the festival was closing.

The venue itself – the Toronto Reference Library – is very interesting. It’s pretty awesome to have all the creators set up in such an environment. Usually cons are held at convention centres and it’s just big empty rooms filled with tables. The ambiance of being surrounded by all of those books while talking about books just reminds me of my old elementary school and the book fairs we used to have in the library. So, there’s this comforting nostalgia of it all that leaves me with a warm fuzzy feeling. I don’t even mind the crowds (as awesome as the venue is, even I have to admit that it’s a pretty small space to hold a con).

After interviewing Faith, I interviewed Danielle Corsetto, who does the web comic Girls with Slingshots. Both lovely ladies were such a pleasure to interview and ended up spending quite a bit of time talking with me.

All in all, it was an outstanding (if exhausting!) weekend.

From some of the stuff I picked up, I’d heartily recommend:

Shelley Smarz is a MBA student and a comic book scholar. She enjoys good books, good food, and good times. Her cellular phone’s charger slot has broken and she is without a phone for the first time in a very long time (she feels naked without it). Her friends suspect that she might be addicted to dairy products but doesn’t think she has a problem. Her favourite yoghourt flavour is vanilla. Currently playing on her iPod is a Blaxploitation music mix she bought when she was in Paris.

Toronto Comic Arts Festival (TCAF) 2010 Panel Report :: Manga Censorship

On Saturday afternoon, I sat in on a panel on censorship of manga. Generally speaking, I feel that censorship ultimately does more harm than good. I think that being told what is “safe” for me to read is incredibly paternalistic and patronizing and I know that a lot of “studies” that people cite in defence of censorship are often methodologically or logically flawed in some way. My opinion is that people should be able to decide for themselves what is and what not “appropriate” material is (or, in the case of kids, the job of the parents to be informed). I also find it incredibly hypocritical (not to mention reflective of some outdated puritanical morality) for sex and naughty language to be often censored in the States but that violence is okay.

Panel: Tentacles, Crosses, and Cigarettes: Manga Censorship in America (and Everywhere)
Where and When: The Pilot (2nd floor), 3pm-4pm
Featuring: Jason Thompson (Author of Manga: The Complete Guide, King of RPGs)

As manga has became more popular in the US, you start seeing more media coverage of the subject matter (often taken out of context). This shows the culture clash – what’s acceptable in Japan is considered unacceptable in the US. In Japan, you can show anything and everything in comics. In the US, not so much.

In the 1940s and early 1950s – during the heyday of Comics in the US – there was a moral panic about the dangers of comics to young people (salacious (i.e. sex and violence) content in horror and crime comics). No laws were passed but the resulting outcry resulted in the Comics’ Code (which toned down what you could show in comics in the US).

At the same time in Japan, manga as we know it was just basically children’s entertainment. But there was a similar outcry that comics caused juvenile delinquency (mostly from Japan’s PTA). But it never caught on like it did in the US. Despite the outcry, manga artists kept pushing the envelope. As the art form developed, adult comics became more acceptable and a number of adult genres grew.

In 1987, Viz Publishing started publishing Japanese manga in English. There was some censorship (Mai: The Psychic Girl). It remained in the small press scene but there still was some censorship. At this time, manga was published and released through the direct market (through Diamond and in the comic book stores).

Pokémon was one of the first manga to sell large number of copies in 1998-1999. This broke records and was distributed through non-comic book stores (Toys R Us, Wal-Mart, big box bookstores like Barnes & Noble and Borders). Drifting away from the direct market, these new distribution channels had more stringent regulations regarding what material was appropriate. Therefore, most of the censorship was economically motivated and usually determined by these channels. In other words, manga was censored to ensure that these new channels would still sell it.

Censored manga seeks to eliminate images of:

  • Nudity (i.e. use of towels and bras)
  • Cigarette smoking (i.e. turned to lollipops)
  • Sex (i.e. just taken out)
  • Drug references (i.e. pot leaf to generic clip art)
  • Swearing/offensive body gestures (i.e. use of strategically placed speech bubbles and action boxes)
  • Gun violence (i.e. especially in kids’ manga)
  • Use of non-Japanese brand names (i.e. turned into generic brand names)
  • References to real celebrities (i.e. manga characters are often named after real celebrities — In America, you have the right to use other people’s likeness but you can’t profit off of it (i.e. Tony Twist suing Todd McFarlane). In Japan, you can name characters after celebrities and use their likeness.
  • Religious imagery (i.e. removing Christian iconography; crucifixion; Islamic imagery)
  • Nazi imagery (i.e. removal of Manji/swastika, removal of Nazi uniforms)
  • Racist depictions and imagery (i.e. stereotypical images)

Censorship is often subtle (i.e. removing references to “God”). A lot of the violence, however, isn’t censored. It’s interesting to note that all the English censorship/changes have to be approved by the creators of the original manga. In Japan, all manga is creator-owned but heavily editorially interfered with.

In terms of pornography, the majority of the censorship is mostly seen with Yaoi – boy-on-boy pornography. Typically, there are issues with the homosexual sex and the non-consensual sex acts, incest fantasies, May-December romances (in the English translations, everyone is 18+/adult). But it’s not just the mainstream stuff. Even the 18+/pornography (that’s shrink wrapped) has been censored. Why? To be able to sell through more mainstream channels.

Another place where there is a lot of censorship is where characters (both male and female) are depicted as super young/child-like/underage. The attraction to these types of narratives is ascribed to the feelings that they evoke in the reader. Moe describes the feelings of love and protectiveness when they see images of underage characters. But these characters are often sexualized. Loli-Con describes pornographic narratives of underage characters.

The backlash against Loli-Con is not just a US phenomenon. Due to its consumption by a number of sexual predators (Tsutomu Miyazaki) had been known to consume this type of pornography. After his trial, there was a lot of censorship of manga within Japan. One of Japan’s most prominent manga artists, Mimei Sakamoto, was reported as saying:

This fetish you call moe is a pedophiliac fetish and is nothing more than perversion. It’s not really something you should be gushing over. In other countries, they’d call what you’re fantasizing over child pornography and you’d all be arrested. I’m ashamed that these otaku who are perpetual criminals have entered the mainstream and started an otaku boom. All the world is going around talking about maid cafes and stuff and making these so-called otaku look good. But people must realize that these guys are simply men incapable of recognizing reality and are incapable of being in a normal loving relationship. I can’t stop crying over the fact that these people have been labeled as otaku and that we are now going through an otaku boom.

When it comes to extreme pornography, the most extreme example in the US is tentacle pornography (Demon Beast Invasion, Overfiend Saga, La Blue Girl). Both Loli-Con and tentacle porn came from Japanese censorship laws (no penises or pubic hair). Despite both Loli-Con and tentacle porn being small sub-genres of manga, they’ve been at the heart of manga censorship controversies.

In Japan, the Japanese PTA release a list of the most offensive/obscene manga. The list usually contains mostly shojô manga meant for teenage girls. (It’s not necessary filthy (i.e. the sexual explicitness is borderline)  but it’s for teenage girls and so is inappropriate). Other examples of Japanese censorship is found in narratives that detail the Japanese atrocities during World War II (such as the Nanking massacre), nudity, and homosexual sex.

Where is this all going? In Japan, more and more manga are being censored and the laws are being upheld. Continual push to tighten censorship laws (similar law to the US Protect Act, the law that Chris Handley was charged under). Critics state that this is just a reaction to negative Western media coverage.

Shelley Smarz is a life-long comic book fan and is nearing the end of her tenure as a professional student.