Falling Out of Love (with WebComics)

“All my love gone for nothing. Days of my love, years of my love.” ― Sophocles, Electra

I fell in love with webcomics as a medium in college. I had a pretty steady schedule which left plenty of room to check in on the comics that updated regularly and a steady WiFi connection that did not discriminate. That means that there are some comics that I have literally been reading for over a decade. I say this because it brings me no joy to admit that there are comics that I have absolutely fallen out of love with. I am passionate about this artistic style and some of the creators have been integral to finding form to the things I feel inside but some are in their slow death and to better understand how we got to where we are and how things used to be.

I don’t do this because I really just enjoy being negative. I don’t do this because I just really hate small creators. I do this because I do genuinely love the medium of comics and especially the kind for web. I love the creators that pour their hearts into this medium. I admire them. I consider myself lowly in comparison to them.

I’ll start with a comic that I started reading in more years ago than I care to admit: Go Get a Roomie. This comic done by Chlove centers around the titular Roomie (yes, that’s her name because she’s a bit of a wanderer who is everyone’s roommate at one point in time) and her misadventures through free-love and freeloading. I fell in love with the free-spirited Roomie and her friends including a dom named Ramona and her twink brother, Richard and the ultimate foil to joyous Roomie: Lillian. When this comic was just a slice-of-life day to day adventures in regional beers and taking home a different person each day, I loved it. But then the series too a more narrative turn and now in pure predictable fashion, the comic now centers around Roomie and Lillian in a relationship. Now, I have no issue with this from an LGBTQ standpoint (I hate that I have mention this) but I have a problem with it from the cinnamon roll vs. promiscuous person trope. It’s the exact same problem I had with Yuri On Ice which went out of its way to mention how innocent and pure Yuri is to his clear lecher of husband, Victor. Roomie has been around, it’s part of her character and while it is somewhat nice to see someone change for a partner, it’s just a trope I’m tired of. Additionally, it puts most of the owness on Lillian to be more like Roomie rather than having to reign in anyone else. Lillian starts off as a listless amorphic blob who barely leaves the house: sure, her arc of doing more than sleeping has been fascinating but it all just seems out of left field considering that these are all changes that happened in the comic in just the past few years. I love GGaR for its dedication to authentic diversity and mostly strong storytelling but I’m bored of the tropes, quickness to fall into a more traditional love story and occasional preaching from the author.

Next on the list are the collective comics of Giselle and the rest of the folks who work on such works as Menage a 3 and Dangerously Chloe. I found this comics in the second half of my college career and was sold on them being a little raunchy. Ma3 billed itself as an HBO-style rom-com and it was. Love triangle after love triangle and that was fine for many years. The comic is working towards its ending but with its out of nowhere wrestling plot arc for a character who is literally only known for her bust, I am tired of keeping up with its updates. Dangerously Chloe has a similar problem where we have strayed so far from the original plot of man meets succubus that I am simply wishing for the sweet release of death.

We now reach the comic I take the most ire with. We’ve reached the ultimate comic I have absolutely fallen out of love with. Each update further confirms that I dislike the current direction and only further alienates me from a narrative I began nearly a decade ago: Sister Claire.

Sister Claire started as a comic about a nun who through shady God dealings gets pregnant. The comic references a ton of other media in homage and in blatant ripoffs and at first was a mostly light-hearted romp of magical lands and a questionably hot version of God. What the comic is now…oh boy. Now the comic centers around a quest for a magical deus ex-machina, more anachronisms than a Tarantino movie. But what really irks me is the shift in comic from when it was done by one creator, Yamino, to now two creators with Yamino’s wife, Ash. Ash has seemed to take over the writing of the comic thus the shift from kind of magical romp to anachronisms and heavy-handed guilt narratives about LGBT themes. The homage and rip offs in Sister Claire have also caused some controversy. Famously, there’s a scene with some strange mecha that is somehow related to a holy war and the words to speak the robot to bring it back from its sleep are “Cast into the name of God, ye not guilty.” If that sounds familiar, congratulations, you’ve watched Big O. And so did many of the fans of the comic. And many of us said so. And Yamino was defensive! She said it was a Crusaders’ chant, which, sure. It was. But it was also in Big O and instead of just being humble and accepting that she was caught in a small rip-off, she caused conflama. Yamino has also straight up steals a character from Rose of Versailles in the form of Lady Oscar who is so indistinguishable from her anime “inspiration” that people forget that Oscar is not an original creator at all. And wait, you may be saying, but Sister Claire is so diverse with its lesbian couple at the helm and cast full of queer people. Sure, that’s fantastic. I’m happy to have diverse characters and diverse creators: you know what else makes me happy? Strong storytelling. Being full of queer characters does not an automatically good story make.

This was a negative post and I’m sure by now, many of you are asking: well, why don’t you just stop reading these comics if they cause you such strife?

Good question, astute straw-man. I have put time, energy and money behind almost all of these comics between donations and Kickstarter campaigns, I have invested in these works. Because of that investment, it’s even more personal and tragic to watch them fall from grace. It’s never easy to admit that a relationship is over so I will continue to check in on these stories just because I want to know how it ends. I want to see how we end this saga. I want to know what the final moment where either I break from weak storytelling and leave the series or how it so graciously redeems itself.

Only time will tell.

The Woman, Framed

“I hope she'll be a fool -- that's the best thing a girl can be in this world, a beautiful little fool.” ― F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby.png

I still remember the first boy’s love series I picked up as a young one. It was Gravitation when I was a youngling and almost immediately I loved how radically different the series from from the shonen action fodder that dominated my anime landscape.

Ever since then, I’ve been a huge fan of shonen ai. For one reason or another, I found the aesthetic and tone much more rewarding and interesting than the typical  romance anime and their shojo counterparts. But because shonen ai by default focuses on male characters, the women in them tend to be…well, they’re something. And sure, we’ll pause here for the folks saying:

Well, why are you up in arms about the women in a boy’s love comic?

Because biologically, I’m female and boy’s love is, hilariously, mostly read by women; particularly, young women and the internalized misogyny attached to the genre can be very damaging.

Today we’re going to go over the three main ways women are framed in boy’s love narratives.

For some vocabulary, framing is how we look at a person or a person’s actions. We’ve talked a lot about framing this year but I think it’s an important part of fictive language. Even though we may know a character is in the wrong or in the right, the framing around that act or character can flip those two things very easily. Again like with Killmonger in Black Panther or Thanos in Infinity War the movie frames them oftentimes in the right even though we know they are both genocidal and very very wrong. Framing is an issue because as a viewer, it isn’t always easy to point out the negative in that character. If everything else in the film or work is telling you that this thing, character or act is okay it’s difficult to buck against that even though you may know logically or in your heart that it may not be true.

And now without any further interruption: here are a few ways that women are framed in boy’s love.


The Woman, Obstacle

This is probably the most common and most hurtful. The woman in so many narratives from Gravitation to Yellow feature subplots or plots where the woman stands in the way of the love between the two male leads. Now, this isn’t entirely unheard of. Sometimes men do discover they do not care for their female partner and try either out of curiosity or genuine desire to be themselves be with a male partner. And sure, not every woman is gracious during such a time but the idea that the woman is a consistent barrier to love is frustrating and exhausting. You also see this a lot in fanfiction where authors who wish to ship two male characters will demonize the female aspect the more canonical heterosexual pairing. This is troubling for more than one reason, the first is again the often flat out demonization of the female for standing in the way. Gravitation is the example I’ll use because it is still one of my favorite animes of all time and does absolutely face is issue. Right as Yuki and Shuichi are ready to finally say they are together, a young woman appears claiming to be Yuki’s fiance. This throws a wrench into the entire plot of these two men finally accepting that they may have feelings for each other and the plot (which is peak Murakami hating women and she will continue to do this in almost all of her works for the series) is a series of sight gags trying to get this woman (whose name I refuse to Google or recall) out of the way. Her refusal to “give up” Yuki, a man she is promised because Yuki’s father is a terrible garbage fire of a person along with the rest of the Uesugi family is seen as not courageous or valid but as irksome and immature. Eventually, the plot of the anime and manga give her the sloppy seconds that are Hiro and she is forgotten as Shuichi and Yuki find better things to argue about like whether Yuki is bisexual or gay.

Another example of this is Lizzie in Black Butler. Lizzie is…well, she is a precious little thing (says this Sebastian through gritted teeth). Lizzie is Ciel’s fiance and she is entirely oblivious to the obvious relationship between Sebastian and Ciel while also managing to be the one thing that keeps Ciel from completely diving off into the abyss of the black space where Sebastian’s heart would be. Lizzie’s helplessness and stupidity (which is somewhat corrected in later parts of the manga and the movies but as far as I am concerned, the damage is already done) make her an item that often requires saving: she is in fact that only character that requires as much saving as The Little Master does. Her needing rescuing and just well, existing on screen takes moments away that are more vital to the narrative and Black Butler has a lot going on; story-wise, we simply don’t have time to humor Lizzie and thus she’s consistently one of the least popular characters in the series.


The Woman, Duplicitous

Ah yes, the woman who plays the field for the sake of ruining the main couple. If there is a more common trope in boy’s love, it’d likely only be rivaled with bad hand proportions and hair that covers over one of the protagonist’s eyes. I’ll pull one more Gravitation example because this is my blog and I can do what I want. Yuki’s sister, Mika (who confirms the concept of the Uesugi family being full of garbage people) spends most of the manga and a vast majority of the anime gaslighting Shuichi for the simple sake that she doesn’t like the pink-haired brat with her precious little Eiri. There’s just one problem: this is awful and manipulative and tiresome. And while, yes, Gravitation is an adventure in keeping Yuki Eiri miserable, it’s particularly harmful because Mika is one of the few female characters that: 1) is important 2) has a great deal of lines and 3) isn’t a moron. Mika’s fall from grace is tragic because of what she could be which is a supportive sister who does rightfully have some reservations about her brother’s new boyfriend. We’ll pull a recent example as well, Hitorijime My Hero is the anime that made my heart sing after the Summer of Incessant Ice Skating. Hitorijime My Hero is pretty standard as far as boy’s love plots go centering around Setagawa ( a high school student ) and his mentor and crush Kousuke. During one of the later episodes of the series, Kousuke’s somewhat overly protective friends including one of his stylish female associates decide it’s a great idea to plant seeds of doubt in Setagawa’s mind. Keep in mind, Setagawa comes from what may be one of the more tragic of backgrounds for a mainstream boy’s love character that includes him being a former member of a gang, a neglectful mother and him struggling with the fact that he is in love with a man that’s easily 10 years his senior. It’s actually such a turn from the heart of the series that it took me a while to get back to it: I felt Setagawa’s betrayal and resented the show for using such a cheap trick for the sake of plot advancement.


The Woman, Pious Saint

On the opposite end of the spectrum is the woman as victim and saint. This one is strange at first because it makes you wonder why it’s such a bad thing. Isn’t it good after all of these examples of women who are bad that a woman can be good and pure? Well, here’s why it’s a problem: it removes a woman’s agency and choice. A noted example is Lies are a Gentleman’s Manners where Dr. Haskins’ wife is absolutely oblivious and in the dark about just how much of a tool her husband is. Dr. Haskins is as garbage of a garbage person as you can get, he’s been cheating on his wife since before they were even married and in one of the best parts of the manga, Dr. Haskins is entwined with his polo partner: Danny, who mind you is also engaged to a lovely woman; all the while, Dr. Haskins refuses to acknowledge the commitments either men made to their respective future wives and during their time entangled, Danny’s fiance is looking for him, calling for him and she almost catches them in the act and while Danny struggled to stop the encounter, he didn’t want to be caught.  During the whole thing Dr. Haskins continues not only egging Danny on but actively stopping any of his partner’s protests towards the act. It’s selfish and terrifying. This sets up one, Dr. Haskins as a tool (we’ll pause here for people saying he’s gay and just trying to live his life but cheating is cheating) and that his wife can do no wrong as she is during him cheating with Danny which is alluded to be one of many times, is conveniently out of the country . What’s even more tragic is that Dr. Haskins is a loving family man on the surface despite his affair with the series protagonist, Johnathan. One of the most interesting scenes in Lies are a Gentleman’s Manners involves Johnathan meeting Dr. Haskins’ wife and daughter and she is nothing but gracious and loving and treats the starving college student to a lavish ice cream sundae. She seems totally unaware that her husband is a serial cheater and she praises how loving her darling is despite her constant traveling for work.

This is tragic. We see a woman who is so in love with her husband that she cannot see what is in places a very obvious lie. There are chapters in the manga where it doesn’t even seem like Dr. Haskins cares much about hiding his torrid affairs from his doting wife and robbing women of agency is a huge issue in any narrative. At least if she knew about the affairs, it would still be tragic but it would either be her choice to stay or her choice to leave: both automatically give her more power in a narrative that is strongly run by one man. And yes, it isn’t her story Dr. Haskins being married is a huge part of the story. And his wife isn’t even given the chance to be an obstacle like Lizzie from Black Butler is; she’s just sort of there and she does her best to be supportive and kind. She does eventually become a bit of an obstacle, Johnathan does feel immense guilt after meeting his lover’s wife but not enough to stop sleeping with Dr. Haskins as a means to achieve his goals.


I’m going to take a moment here to address that pin I’m sure all of you have of:

Well, it’s boy’s love. What do you expect?

Here’s the thing. I know plenty of boy’s love stories that feature almost zero women entirely, especially if all they are going to do is be blocks of wood or literal obstacles to plot. Fumi Yoshinaga is an excellent boy’s love mangaka and many of her works either feature no women at all or they are relegated to supporting roles which means they cannot ruin the plot. Even Yoshinaga-senpai’s most noted female character in Antique Bakery appears for an episode and vanishes after dropping a bomb on the plot that is neatly wrapped up within the same episode she appears. Kyo Kara Maoh features several female characters that either push the main pairing together or are there to support the other main characters and not a single one is an obstacle to plot: some are antagonistic but none ever grind plot to a stop.

And here’s why we’re doing this: readers hold onto that misogyny and perpetuate it. I’ve been reading shonen ai for longer than I feel comfortable admitting as well as just shonen anime in general and years of women being irksome plot obstacles sticks with you. Even now, if you’ve been blessed or cursed to read any of my fiction, you can practically see me struggle with writing female characters that aren’t either aggressive Mary Sues or utterly useless pieces of furniture. It would be one thing if that internalized hatred simply stayed on the page but it leaches into other aspects of life. It forms and informs casual sexism and keeps old stereotypes afloat through confirmation bias. It fosters a complacency that means we don’t challenge the norms of female characters and thus create a feedback loop that perpetuates all the things we hate about them and quells any desire to change them for the better.

What’s even more fascinating is that many boy’s love novels are written by women who seem to hate or are irked by women; it’s typically the male shonen ai creators that either don’t worry about female characters at all or show them in a more complex light either as mostly supportive or actively antagonistic. And it is almost entirely women who read (indulge) in shonen ai so this harmful message is really hit home.

Challenging female characters regardless of genre is one of the only ways we can continue to hold creators and characters to a higher standard. Having the same message hammered into your head over and over again that just by being a woman you are lesser in a narrative is immensely hurtful and readers deserve better. They deserved to be loved, respected and appreciated. If we can do it for the boys, even in a trashy shonen ai manga, we can do it for the girls.

A Whole New Commodified World

 

_Stories are one of the means by which a culture preserves its identity._Edward Zwick.pngI have vivid memories of being in high school and parroting the Cantonese version of Honor to Us All. My anime club officers and I did our best to mimic the language that was foreign to all of us and we made plenty of of mistakes in our pronunciation but we were earnest students and it wasn’t long before we had the whole thing down. But there was one big problem: none of us were Chinese. Most of my anime clubbers were white, a few of us (me included) were black (albeit very culturally abandoned African-American youths) and a few of my anime clubbers were of Asian decent but were Vietnamese or Korean. The long and short of it is: none of us were Chinese and this was a brief moment of cultural appropriation. Come to think of it, I as an African-American human person running Japanese culture clubs for over 10 years is another grand moment of cultural appropriation.

We’ve talked about cultural appropriation a lot but I wanted to talk about a very special kind of cultural appropriation: the Disney variety.

Disney has a long history of picking, choosing and sanitizing the history of many different cultures. Moana features the culture and language of Polynesia. Pocahontas is the very whitewashed version of the story of the real life heroine and Native American. Lilo and Stitch features a mostly native Hawaiian cast and Mulan borrows from many Asian cultures and practices. The main feature of that which makes it appropriative is that Disney is still a mostly white-led company. And even though Moana featured many people of color as voice talent and as researchers, the leads of Disney are still wealthy white men that then get to profit on this somewhat indigenous story.

This is especially troubling for me because as the little culturally abandoned person I am I find myself more drawn to narratives that are not my own. I fell for stories like Mulan and Moana because they were so unlike my own. I did my best to commit the songs to memory and tease apart the language that was so unlike my own. I sold my soul to Japan years ago, so such a desire to flee my own narrative makes it easier to cope with the narrative that was meant to be written for me. But what is the issue with culture and Disney?


Let’s be honest: Disney is a company. They have items to sell. Parks to market and all sorts of other things to put in front of the eyes of children and their parents. This means that Disney has to sanitize parts of history. Pocahontas is a stellar example of: literally none of it happened that way. The Disney way of telling the story puts all the blame on one greedy white man and tries to Devil’s Advocate the whole racism thing. Which is…let’s just pause for a minute to think of how troubling that is. But in their attempt to make this story more palatable for children, they ruined a perfectly good narrative. The real story of the native peoples and their interactions with colonists is far from safe for children but is a harrowing tale of survival and the pain of cultures being forgotten and rewritten due to technological superiority. Princess and the Frog has a very similar problem with race considering its black protagonist and Jazz Age setting. Tiana is so self-actualized she’s hardly a character and Lottie and her family are rather accommodating considering that they still essentially own Tiana’s mother. Because remember kids, the reason she couldn’t own the restaurant was because the bankers were worried about a woman running a business all by herself. No other factors. Nothing else. Nothing at all. What systemic racism? No, eat more French donuts.

Disney tries to fix this issue by ignoring colonialism entirely with Lilo and Stitch and Moana. But the same main issues remain: Disney is not doing anything to benefit the communities it is taking inspiration from and just because there are occasionally people of color behind the screen does not mean it is actual representation. This is particularly interesting with how Disney uses language for music. Some of my favorite Disney songs are not in a language I grew up with. Honor to Us All centers around a very old and distinctly Asian view of marriage and what it means to be a good daughter (though as a Southern debutante, I can admit those feelings aren’t too far off the mark for someone in my position). My favorite parts of Moana feature a language whose words are very unfamiliar but with more familiar sentiments. Heck, my favorite part of Pocahontas is the opening song sung in the native language of the Powhatan tribe.

I want to talk about merchandising for a moment since it is also a key part of this whole cultural appropriation thing. And no, we’re not going to talk about the little brown-face/brown-body Maui costume that Disney decided was a good idea last year. But the buying and selling of cultural artifacts to help bolster support for a movie is dubious at best. I remember being a kid and McDonald’s selling a copy of Pocahontas’ necklace from the movie but the idea behind such a necklace does hold some significance for the Powhatan tribe.

Moana had similar issues with native pieces and accessories suddenly becoming en vogue again. All the shell jewelry and tribal prints.

But wait, Amanda, someone shouts from the edges of the comment section: This isn’t the only time Disney has messed around with other cultures. What about Hunchback of Notre Dame or literally most other Disney movies. Here’s the problem with that: cultural appropriation is a neutral term but it’s mostly a problem with a colonizing culture appropriates a colonized culture. So not a problem for Disney to go French for a while but it is a problem for them to go pan-Arab for Aladdin. (We’ll talk about pan-culturalism soon because I have thoughts!)

And what’s interesting is how wrong this all feels now in hindsight. Cultural appropriation is made painful by the fact that really only the company (Disney, in this case) benefit from taking over or taking aspects of a culture and no one (short of the occasional actor or cultural specialist) really benefit from them making a powerhouse movie like Moana or Coco. And while the cultural impact is huge like with Coco (that cannot and will not be denied) who benefits when someone buys an mp3 of the soundtrack or gets a hoodie or t-shirt from the movie. What about when someone goes running around with a sugar skull t-shirt without knowing the story or meaning behind them? Insidious, isn’t it?

Actually an interesting work around to this came about from a conversation about porgs with Carlos. For those of you who have been living in a cave, porgs are a new and adorable Star Wars. Porgs are adorable and the reasoning behind them is very practical. They are little digital costumes for the local puffins that could not be removed out of every shot in the movie The Last Jedi. Porgs are adorable and the reason is interesting but the fact that Disney now is profiting so much out of a necessity is strange. Carlos mentioned ratherly quickly “It’d be cool if they just gave some of the toy sales to help the real puffins out.” and that was very valid. What if some of the money from Coco or Moana went to cultural centers or to organizations that support these at times at-risk communities or populations. Is this just another form of tokenism: sure, probably. But it’s tokenism that could prove more valuable than letting an entire generation grow up with a sanitized narrative and none of the context behind what is so compelling about the narratives told by other cultures.

Next time, we’ll talk about pan-culturalism!