Robot 6

What do women want? Part 2


Having looked at what women want in superhero comics, let’s examine their attitudes toward poop jokes.

Sean Michael Wilson, the editor of the alt-manga anthology AX, didn’t do a scientific survey, but he did read the reviews of his book and noticed something interesting:

However, one aspect has surprised both myself and Asakawa, the Japanese editor – quite a few female American reviewers have taken issue with the large amount of scatalogical toilet humour and also the sexual content of the collection. Somehow they seem to find it offensive, or unpleasant, or immature. It was surprising to me to see this kind of reaction, as it never occurred to me at all – as a British person – that these could be seen as negative.

It was surprising to me that Sean would find this surprising, but maybe that’s because I’m a female American comics reviewer, and I have always regarded potty humor as the purview of seven-year-old boys. I haven’t been to Scotland since I was six years old; now I’m beginning to wonder what I’m missing. Do sophisticated people there stand around at gallery openings sipping Cabernet and cracking fart jokes?

I have paged through AX but I haven’t sat down and read it cover to cover. That’s partly because of the issue Sean addresses—I have a pretty high threshold, but I still found some of it distasteful. That wouldn’t stop me from reading it, though. I don’t mind being challenged by good literature. What stopped me was the crudeness of the art. Sexual content in a comic is fine—no, it’s awesome—if it’s done well, but that wasn’t what I saw, at least not at first glance. You can give it a French name and call it a style if you like, but it’s still bad drawing, and bad drawing is no fun to look at. (Don’t get me wrong—there’s a lot of good drawing, too, but the crudeness of the drawing seems to scale directly with the crudeness of the content.)

I know Sean thinks he has stumbled onto a cultural phenomenon here; he notes that only “North American ladies” objected to the sexual and scatological content, implying that men and non-North Americans had no problem with it. While it’s true that I can’t recall ever hearing a man complain about toilet humor, I think painting the ladies as prudes with regard to sexual content is too much of a stretch. Read a cross-section of reviews by North American women, as I do every morning, and you will see these same writers giving two thumbs up to some mighty sexy manga. It’s just that we like a little style with our smut.

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22 Comments

I have no use for Scat humor myself, but I always just chalked it up to the uptight part of my personality and let it go at that- heaven knows it certainly seems like the majority does not share my discomfort.

Sean T. Collins

January 6, 2011 at 10:34 am

You don’t need to give it a French name, Brigid–it already has a Japanese name: heta-uma.

To all the Poocaso’s out there–keep up the good work.

>>>haven’t been to Scotland since I was six years old; now I’m beginning to wonder what I’m missing. Do sophisticated people there stand around at gallery openings sipping Cabernet and cracking fart jokes?

Yes

Ducking and running

I hate bathroom humor. And am also a prude. And also a guy. And an American.

So that’s one.

I think, with either gross-out humor or sexual content, it’s always better when it’s being used in the service of some narrative purpose rather than just for shock’s sake. Look at Detroit Metal City, which traffics in both, sometimes simultaneously, and still manages to be smart and funny satire. I think the problem with some of this content in AX is that it felt more like the author was reveling in what he or she could get away with rather than there being a larger point to its use. I participated in a Twitter discussion of Ax with mostly male participants, and nobody seemed particularly elated with the more gratuitously gross pieces.

And I say that as someone who was thrilled with the conception of the book and enjoyed the overview it provided of a neglected corner of the manga canon. But there is a quantity of material in it that’s merely gross or crude.

More seriously, Japanese culture (based on what I’ve seen) has a very different attitude towards peeps and poops and all that stuff. I enjoyed AX because it was all unbridled id right on the page. Sometimes ugly id.

I remember in Crumb, Robert Hughes was utterly flabbergasted when he found out that Bob actually masturbated to his own drawings. The thought that sexually crude art might be titillating to its audience and its creator was utterly alien to him. I don’t know if that’s because he was the definition of a pretentious art critic or because he was British (is that a prerequisite for being the definition of a pretentious art critic?) but I do know that what I’ve seen of European advertising and television culture makes most of those countries seem very accepting of sexually and scatalogically crude humor. Much more so than America.

There’s a part in AX where a man is absent from work because his farts are so painful that they’re keeping him from getting him out of bed, and when his friends go to his house to investigate they leave immediately because it smells so bad that they just assume he’s dead.

I’m sorry, but that’s Perfect Comedy to me.

Also Heidi echoes my sentiments exactly. The cultural climate of when a lot of these were made is also pretty important to take into consideration: Many of these short stories are to comics in Japan what early ’80s D.C./L.A. hardcore was to music in America.

People must really love fart joke: Wizard Magazine is basically a fart joke book, and look how well it’s doing….

Also, people must really love fart jokes: How else do you explain Larry the Cable Guy’s popularity?

Indeed, in what little underground manga I have read, pouring the id out has featured strongly, and I chalk it up as both cultural and scene issue, this is something that is produced as an antithesis for something else, where being offensive for its own sake is artform-pushing enough. Comparison to 80s hardcore scene works, as do underground comics by likes of Crumb, Shelton, Wilson and so forth (I have read a good deal of 80s punk comics from elsewhere too, and scatological content combined with respected icons and purposefully crude art is always a popular choice).

Makes one wonder about the background of the reviewers or their expectations: were American female reviewers expecting to get, well, regular manga, or do they have experience on catharsis-driven underground comics of America or Europe?
I don’t know that many European female comics critics but those I know do have background in indie and thus probably can get over direct attempts to shock, or even appreciate them.

(Oh, and many North Americans are prudes. We try to be nice about it, but it’s true.)

Brigid Alverson

January 6, 2011 at 5:36 pm

@Sean: Thanks! One more thing to add to my treasure trove of obscure information.

@Heidi: That seals it! I’m booking my tickets!

@Simon DelMonte: I think I know some North American ladies who would like to party with you. :)

@David Welsh: Yup, you nailed it.

@Julian: I heard Gustav Klimt did that too.

Brigid Alverson

January 6, 2011 at 5:38 pm

@AS: I can only speak for myself here, but I have great fondness for American underground comics. I enjoy Crumb and Shelton, because they are not just gross, they are entertaining. I can tell you pretty clearly where the line is for me: the Checkered Demon is just on the other side of it.

We are fortunate to have a large cadre of educated and well-read female manga reviewers, and AX was well publicized beforehand. Nobody was expecting Fruits Basket. Most of us have read Tatsumi since his stuff started coming out in English, and I would say the most transgressive manga in English is not AX but Monster Man Bureiko Lullaby, which came out a couple of years ago. That was another book I started reading and then set aside; the publisher was pretty up-front about the fact that it was a gross-out comic, and again, the lack of anything other than gross-out made it less entertaining to me.

See, I really liked Monster Men Bureiko Lullaby, precisely because it was so utterly scatological and offensive, to the point where I began to wonder if the author might not be all quite right in the head. I put the fact that it disturbed me as a point in its favor.

Takashi Nemoto has one story in AX too and that was about the correct dose of him for me: One story every once in a while from that guy. I put down Monster Man also; if I try to read more than 10 pages of that guy at a time I get nauseous, not because of the content but because of the sensory overload.

Brigid Alverson

January 6, 2011 at 6:06 pm

I’m with Chris Jones—a little Nemoto is better than a lot.

I agree that most gross-out for its own sake does not really appeal to me, mainly because too often it comes as one-trick pony and, well, cheap. There are some works though which go for gross-out but manage to put some extra imaginative twists to it to turn the result into something genuinely disturbing which is a good thing.

And even those one-trick cathartic id-comics do have their place in their willingness of pushing the boundaries of what is acceptable and thus defining the medium (crudeness of the expression is another way to do it, offending preconceived notions of what is “good art”). Brian Eno said about avantgarde music that some forms of music are like North Pole: nobody particularly enjoys staying there but someone has to go there, and same analogue goes for all art.

Of course it doesn’t mean that one should enjoy everything (or even read everything), but accept the intrinsic value of something exposing the preconceived notions of what is “good”, “acceptable” or even “possible”. One is allowed to draw personal limits and leave stuff outside them, but be conscious about it. So yay for Checkered Demon :)
Personally I have found my limits to come up much sooner elsewhere, when I quit reading Love Hina in disgust, because I absolutely hate comedy drawn out of sadism. Scatology I can deal with (I might find it boring though) but making sadism funny is beyond my limits.

Hello Brigid – this is the Ax book editor, Sean.
I am glad that there is an intelligent debate sparked off by our AX book here, thank you.
But had to comment to redress a couple of things that you said here that are not all what I wrote. Or not what my words meant anyway – regarding ‘prudes’ and what i was try to ‘imply’ . I’ve noted them on my blog, underneath the relevant comments.
Yoroshiku!

Brigid Alverson

January 7, 2011 at 6:38 am

Hi Sean,

Sorry—I know with a post like this there is a danger of over-interpreting, which is why I quoted you directly. I get that you’re being descriptive, not judgmental, but it seems to me that if you single out one group (North American ladies) as being particularly sensitive then it’s not hard to make that leap to the rest of the world not caring.

Granted, the “prude” thing was stretching your words a bit, but that’s a pretty common description of someone who objects to sexual content. It’s not a question of right or wrong—we all have different tastes, and that’s fine. It’s really a question of painting with too broad a brush. The critics who objected to sexual and toilet references in AX might be fine with the same subject matter in a different context. That was my point. But I look at a lot of reviews every day in the course of compiling MangaBlog, and I can see where your point of view is different—suddenly all these people are saying the same thing about your book.

BTW I’m glad that AX was published, even though it’s not to my taste. Even if I don’t necessarily like it, I think it’s good to make this work accessible to the English-speaking world, and it certainly has made it onto a lot of best-of-the-year lists. I’m planning on giving it another look soon myself. And congratulations on your new book!

Thank you for your more detailed and thoughtful response Brigid.

The key thing, i think, is the motto of Ax as “manga should be independant, open, experimental”. Everything stems from that, both the things people like, and what they don’t like. For us involved in making the English version to be true to that admirable and rare attitude means, i guess, that there will definitely be some contentious contents, one way or another. But then, as you note, that attitude is what makes the Ax collection something special. So, im glad it has had a lot of interest.

Yes, it wold be good if my other recent books, ‘Hagakure:manga edition’ and ‘The Story of Lee’ get half as much attention!

Sean

As I said in the Manga Critic’s comments on this, there’s always a certain amount of post art-school-y “look at me! I’m free!” in any experimental anthology. I’ve never seen the intrinsic humor in toilet and/or sexual jokes. Comedy has to actually be funny for me to laugh, not just about things we don’t talk about at dinner. There’s a line that is slightly different for everyone, so what is hilarious to one person, another will roll their eyes over.

However. Prudery is also in the eyes of the beholder. I cheerfully read demon rape novels (and laugh at them) manga with all sorts of sexual situations, and generally am open to just about anything. When I read anthologies like Ax, Raken Le Paradis, Ikki, Morning 2, Comic Beam, I expect some stories that simply do not appeal. In fandom not liking a thing = not liker must be stupid, ignorant or a prude. There is, unfortunately, no room for simply not liking a thing.

I will go on record as never really thinking bodily functions, breasts or genitalia are in and of themselves a fabulously funny or clever topic. If a fabulously funny or clever or well-constructed story includes them, then it continues to be a fabulous story. But if there’s nothing past the raging hard-on of the “look at me!” school of experimental creation, then it just ain’t that good.

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