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“Asian Comics: Evolution of an Art Form”

By Liz Goldner

Bowers Museum, Santa Ana, California
Exhibition continues through September 8, 2024

April 20, 2024


© Du Gu, character design for Zao Dao in “Le souffle du vent dans les pins,” 2016, published by Editions Mosquito

Four hundred plus expressive illustrations and other comic-inspired pieces are featured in the largest Asian comic art museum exhibition ever assembled. The visual and written stories, from the 19th century to the present, describe the histories, folklore, politics, and even depravities of the countries represented. This collection of work reflects the countries’ cultures, myths and legends.

The works, complemented by extensive wall labels, go so far beyond the Disney, superhero and even Doonesbury comics that we grew up with and perhaps still peruse, that even comics junkies might experience culture shock — from the artwork itself, but also from the sheer volume of the show.

© Ide Chikae, “Viva! Volleyball”

Zao Dao’s large print, “Du Gu” from "Le souffle du vent dans les pins" (2016) personifies the dramatic character of the works here. Inspired by martial arts and Chinese folklore and executed in traditional pen and ink, it depicts a fierce androgynous character with dragons emanating from its hair. Many other images, by contrast, defer to the Asian prototype of demure, doe-eyed females.

Included are artists from 22 countries, including Cambodia, China, India, Indonesia, Japan, Korea, Malaysia, Mongolia, Pakistan, Philippines and Vietnam. Curated by writer/publisher/broadcaster Paul Gravett, with 20 international advisors, all backed by the UK’s Barbican Centre, “Asian Comics’” range of media runs the gamut: Japanese woodblock prints, Hindu scroll paintings, digital media pieces, mass-produced comics, a hologram pop star, and a motion-capture robot that viewers can interact with.

The show is divided into six sections. The first three describe work from the “manga” genre, a graphic style developed in Japan more than 100 years ago. With its popularity growing since the 1950s, manga encompasses children’s stories, action, fantasy, erotica and other aspects of contemporary life. The genre is so popular that many other Asian countries have adopted its model wholesale.

© Keiichi Tanaami, “Comfort Bridge.” Courtesy of the artist and NANZUKA

The most recognizable Japanese manga comics are shōnen for boys, and shōjo for girls, styles that first emerged in the 1950s and which continue to develop. These contain inspiring dramas about young people who work hard, develop their skills to overcome obstacles and then achieve their goals. Graphics include bursts of intense lines portraying energy and movement, along with enlarged, expressive eyes — especially in girls’ comics — to convey emotions and inspire empathy.

Comics are also used to describe various nations’ histories. In Shōtarō Ishinomori’s astonishing 55-part series, “The Manga History of Japan,” about 10,000 pages describe his country from prehistory to the 1990s. And as Manga proliferates beyond Japan, many comics refer to pan-Asian folklore, as illustrated by drawings of dragons, mermaids and mermen. They also include illustrations relating to belief systems, including Hinduism, Buddhism, and Shintoism.

Politically oriented comics illustrate violent wars, massacres, and struggles for decolonization and democracy. This extends to charged depictions of the repercussions of communism, the regimes behind the exile of the 14th Dalai Lama, the rise of Cambodia’s Khmer Rouge and the Tiananmen Square massacre. One wall label explains, “Asia’s comics are deeply woven into the fabric of each culture and can be seen to embody many of the social and political concerns of the region.”

© Sphinx Scribble, “Star Punch Girl”

The fourth section, “Stories and Storytellers” details the lives, travails, frustrations, and successes of significant comic artists who live and work throughout Asia. This section affords an intense look at the remarkable people who provide entertainment, education, stimulation, and political criticism via the comics medium.

One sub-section, “Through a Woman’s Eyes,” explains, “Only in Japan are so many women making and consuming comics. As female creators grew up, so did their stories, and publishers … The 1980s saw the development of josei manga, aimed at late teens and young adults, and redikomi (ladies’ comics) for adult women.” Artist Maki Kusumoto strives to subvert the sexism, stereotyping and patriarchy that is common in Japan’s mainstream media, even in some cases in manga produced by women.

The fifth section, “Censorship and Sensibility” is roped off with no one under 18 admitted. It contains the disclaimer that adult themes, including violence, and sexuality in comics, have often been censored by the state or local authorities. Post-war manga X-rated images prevail in this very small section.

© Is Yuniarto. “The Grand Legend”

In a portion of this section are self-published images, known as dojinshi, which question women’s gender roles and societal constraints. Illustrations include females making love with each other, tying men and women up as well as brandishing weapons.

Older erotic images (shunga) depict detailed genitalia. One wall label explains, “These woodblock prints … were consumed either privately for stimulation and sex education, or communally as after-dinner amusements.” The 2017 catalog “Mangasia: The Definitive Guide to Asian Comics” provides more erotica, including a panel with many sexual positions and a large drawing of many nearly naked men frolicking alongside a single distraught woman.

The sixth and final Section, “Multimedia Mangasia” describes how comics have influenced and interacted with other cultural mediums throughout Asia. Comics, not surprisingly, have influenced film, animation, television, video games, smartphones, and the digital revolution. This entertaining interactive section includes the world’s first virtual pop star, singer Hatsune Miku, singing to a live audience. And there’s a video of an enormous motion-capture robot. When standing in front of the robot, and activating it, the robot exactly mimics our every action. Concluding a tour of this exhilarating, exhaustive, and exhausting show with an interactive robot is to experience firsthand the continuing influence of Asian comics’ evolution.

Liz Goldner is an award-winning art writer based in Laguna Beach. She has contributed to the LA Times, LA Weekly, KCET Artbound, Artillery, AICA-USA Magazine, Orange County Register, Art Ltd. and several other print and online publications. She has written reviews for ArtScene and Visual Art Source since 2009. 
Liz Goldner's Website.
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