Adult Comics and Mature Readers

I will first explain how I employ the term mature. For this section of the chapter, I would like to draw attention to Berndt’s (2006) essay, “Adult Manga: Maruo Suehiro’s Historically Ambiguous Comics,” and how “adult” is used in comics:

In comics’ discourse, however, the attributive term “adult” refers less to economical or cultural maturation than to issues like the following three: first, to sexual or pornographic content; second, to a specific kind of reader [...] and third, to comics as a valuable form of art. [...] “Adult” should be understood less as a matter of thematic content or reader’s age-groups than as a mode of expression and a way of reading. (Berndt 2006, 109)

From here on I will refer to the third kind of comics described by Berndt as “mature,” while limiting the use of “adult” to those referring to adult topics not aimed at children or teenage audiences. Although I agree with Berndt’s reasoning, I prefer the word “mature” (when applied to comics) due to both the subtleties of the term and what it connotes as a process.

The revival of a national graphic novel is addressed in the widely influential monograph La Novela Grdfica [The Graphic Novel] by Santiago Garcia (2010). According to Garcia, comics have grown up into graphic novels. In Garcia’s statement “along the past twenty-five years a phenomenon took place as comics arose as an adult art form” (2010, 15), he uses “adult” to mean “mature,” implying a rich medium and stressing the process implied by the word.

Some researchers analyze “adult” comics with a focus on topics and reader age, instead of approaching graphic novels as a mature art form. This attitude stems from the old idea that comic books are meant for children. It is well accepted that manga as a medium touches on a myriad of topics for a diversity of readers. While most manga titles released today in European and American markets are mainstream teenage-oriented series, in Spain adult topics were introduced with the very first manga publication.3 However, only within the last decade (and with the arrival of gafo- taku) has a mature Spanish manga industry emerged.

On the matter of how the label relates back to consumers, gafotaku is driven by historical, conceptual, and intellectual concerns, rather than by specific themes or genres, and therefore it should be acknowledged as mature. A mature reader seeks titles outside the mainstream, distinct in regard to form, visuals, and narrative. Here I refer to those titles that do not have an original artistic intention but rather are meant for popular consumption as mainstream. Although this applies to all manga,4 in Japan, in Europe, and the US scholars distinguish between popular titles and those that should be addressed as art because the latter resemble bande dessinee (BD) and use alternative comics’s stylistic language or because both the works and the mangaka [manga artists] have gained a reputation as experimental or avant-garde due to groundbreaking or unusual narratives. Of course it is possible to read mainstream manga in a mature way, but non-mature readers do not seek this experience, preferring rapid consumption. Therefore, I use the word “mature” rather than “adult” to address the readers who do not only read mainstream manga titles but also read a broader range of titles. If they read mainstream manga, they may seek a deeper experience than rapid consumption. “Mature” suggests a degree of comics-related knowledge or expertise regarding a specific topic, while “adult” implies an age:

The idea behind this argument is the absolute equality between the maturity of the public and the maturity of the work. Claiming for itself a mature audience, the graphic novel implies it is a mature medium too. [...] It cannot be said that, by the simple fact of being addressed to an adult audience, the product must necessarily be mature and therefore more developed, or vice versa. There is a confusion of terms that, although related, are not interdependent: the adult/mature/developed comic on one hand, and the comic meant for an adult/mature/educated public on the other. (Gomez Salamanca 2013, 176-177)

Gomez Salamanca (2013, 177-178) explains the concept of mature comics (with regard to the graphic novel but also applicable to manga) in two different ways. The first addresses comics that are “mature” because of the skilled use of the codes of the medium, regardless of the specific content being transmitted. The second suggests that an intellectually mature audience legitimizes a particular type of work. Many adults read mainstream manga but lack expertise in this medium. For example, while many people would describe Miura Kentaro’s Berserk as adult for the sex and violence depicted, it is a title not necessarily aimed at a mature reader.5 A newcomer might enjoy it as well. However, this is not the case for Kago Shintaro’s Kasutoroshiki, a scatological and sordid eroguro [erotic-grotesque] manga promoted as underground and avant-garde.

The debate over the meaning of “adult” and “mature” continues. At this point, Berndt’s analysis of manga circulation in Europe and the USA comes into consideration. Aside from mainstream, well-known titles, Berndt adds another two other classifications of manga:

One type of manga the typical manga fan would not easily obtain, is the second sort: comics reminiscent of avant-garde or underground traditions, which often draw upon horror, pornography, and scatology, popular for their shock value [...] The ‘third manga’, works that neither unconditionally serve not drastically provoke their readers. Dedicated to this type [...] is the label Sakka [author]. (Berndt 2006, 107-108)

The authorial perspective (the “third manga” Berndt mentions) is important to my argument inasmuch as it connects with the prevalent global discourse on the graphic novel. It is also deeply rooted within Spanish discourse, as Garcia suggests (2010), which I will discuss later in this chapter. Berndt continues with a catchphrase used in the early twenty-first century by the French publisher Casterman in reference to the sakka collection: “Sakka, l’autre manga” [sakka, the other manga], accompanied by the Japanese sentence “manga wa otona ni naru,” literally “manga becomes adult” (2006, 108). Casterman still uses the sakka label to differentiate its manga line from BD but does not distinguish between mainstream shonen and shojo titles and those originally labeled as sakka, such as the works of Jiro Taniguchi or Seiki Tsuchida. Ultimately, in the French market, l’autre manga is just manga. In Spain, however, the boundaries remain quite clear between the three types of manga described by Berndt. Some smaller publishers specialize in the third type (the author manga), such as Ponent Mon or Astiberri, while EDT was popular among fans due to its line of eroguro manga. There is remarkable compatibility between the idea presented by Milky Way Publishing’s Chief Editor Carlos Subero in an interview on Zona Negativa [Negative Zone] and Casterman’s old catchphrase: “We represent the other side of manga” (2014).

Casterman’s statement “manga wa otona ni naru” clearly advocates the idea of “auteur” comics as a marker of “adult,” implying that mainstream manga is childish. This line of thought is problematic as it uses the adult label irrespective of quality. While the word “mature” would equally address stylistic virtuosity (without judging the age of the readers), “adult” attends to the hypothetical preferred reader’s age. In this regard, Subero’s idea of highlighting the quality of the works as distinctive from mainstream titles, rather than focusing the debate upon the reader’s age, is apt. At any rate, sakka manga has been absorbed by the comics industry in Spain, labeled differently from other manga (as is also the case with nouvelle manga), and clearly intended for a distinct readership (familiar with the European graphic novel and its visual style). Many of these auteur manga appeal to a global audience since they cannot be easily identified as “typical manga” or mangaesque (Berndt and Kummerling-Meibauer 2013). For example, Jiro Taniguchi or Taiyo Matsumoto’s works are typically labeled “author manga.” While some of these titles remain unknown to mainstream readers, they make up a disproportionate amount of the manga studied by academics, which therefore may create a distorted view of what typifies manga.

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