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As promised, here's my talk from the conference Intercultural Crossovers, Transcultural Flows. You can see the presentation in Prezi form below, followed by a quick summary in text form.


(Note: this is just the condensed version of the talk, not a full speech text or conference paper abstract, although a paper based on this talk is in production and will be published sometime in the first half of 2011. I'll be expanding on this text in the near future, adding extra links and hopefully a couple of spinoff posts based on my favourite points of the talk.)

What I hoped to do during this presentation was to highlight a number of methodological issues that come up when we try to do a transcultural comparison of fan comics, and suggest that these issues may be relevant for transcultural comparisons of more mainstream manga/comics. An attempt to conduct a transcultural comparison of fan comics quickly bumps into several issues that at first look like obstacles, but may invite us to reconsider how fan comics (or perhaps even comics/manga in general) can be effectively compared.

Particularly the identities and art styles of creators of fan comics provide food for thought. It is clear that determining the nationality or even cultural background of the creator of a fan comic is often difficult or impossible, because creators who work in a given language (e.g. English or Japanese) are very often not native speakers, and because the wide use of pseudonyms by fans limits attempts to identify them. Art style is also seldom a reliable indicator. For instance, many fans who publish in English or in other European languages use a clearly manga-influenced style.

Focusing on the identities of creators of fan comics highlights the importance of questions related to gender and sexualities. Many creators of fan comics use fanworks to play with gender in ways that would be unthinkable in the commercial media product on which their fanwork is based (e.g. genderswitch, mpreg). On the topic of the sexuality/sexualities of fan creators, recent research in English-language fan studies and boys' love studies indicates that the old maxim that slash/yaoi/BL is created "by and for heterosexual women" is likely untrue. Surveys suggest that a large percentage, maybe a majority, of slash/yaoi/BL fans on the English-speaking internet self-identify as "queer". Considering the importance of gender play and creator sexualities, we might say that the question of privilege and power relations should be a very important one in research on fan comics.

Social semiotics is one discipline which very explicitly foregrounds questions of privilege. Viewing fan comics from a social semiotics-inspired angle has the added benefit of suggesting that it would be productive to read fan comics as conversations/interactions between individuals and groups rather than "representations" of individual creators' reality. This approach may be especially suitable to the examination of fanworks, because it has been shown fandom/fannish interactions are inherently social by definition.

The basic ingredient that makes these "conversations" work is repetition. Fanworks repeat and rework familiar characters, stories, and tropes ("neta" in Japanese. Researchers have claimed that repetition can be a powerful element for creating affect (Kristina Busse), artistic effect (Umberto Eco), or even deconstruction, for instance deconstruction of gender (Jens Balzer, speaking about comics/manga).

To make all this more practical, I conducted a quick social semiotics-based analysis of an English-language and Japanese-language example, both of which are contained in the presentation. 

In conclusion, I claim that in the case of fan comics:
  • Works may be called "transcultural" because creators themselves present themselves as such.
  • The "cultural" is not confined to the "national"; the "cultural" is a very blurry concept in and of itself. I mention issues related to the "transcultural" or (lack of) "national" nature of fan comics because these were central themes of the conference.
  • Issues related to trans/gender and power relations are extremely important.
  • Fan comics/manga are perhaps more usefully interpreted as interactions/conversations than as "representations" of something.

How relevant these conclusions may be in the case of commercially published manga/comics is a question for further research.

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