Don’t Fear the Gutter: Platforms, Formats, and Comics in Postwar and Postmodern Japan

Friday, January 5, 2018: 1:50 PM
Empire Ballroom (Omni Shoreham)
Andrea Horbinski, University of California, Berkeley
Most writing on comics assumes that the medium is popular because of its content, i.e. the stories it tells and the fact that it tells them using a seductive combination of text and images. Looking at the history of manga in Japan from approximately 1945-80, however, leads to a very different conclusion: the spread of media is more heavily correlated to the platforms and formats it adopts than to the content of that media. In other words, manga became widespread in Japanese society in this time period less because of any intrinsic quality of comics than because of the affordances of the platforms and formats through which it was distributed. Although manga undoubtedly served and still serves as a vessel for escapist fantasies, it was not inevitable that comics would become the primary medium for such in the years after 1960. Instead, the accommodations in platform and format that manga readers, publishers, and creators made to emerging social phenomena played a key role in heading off efforts to censor manga and enshrining its prominent role in the Japanese mediascape. Drawing on the format theory of Jonathan Sterne and the platform media discourse analyzed by Marc Steinberg, this paper argues that analyzing manga specifically, and popular culture generally, in terms of its material history is a more effective approach for understanding the causes of its appeal than appeals to content or culture.