In academic publishing – in any field or area – how do you differentiate between a good publication – and one that is truly extraordinary? One easy way is through citations – a paper that has been cited a hundred times is probably more influential than one that’s only been cited a couple, or never at all. But in of themselves, citations are not a measure of quality, merely an indication of a connection of some sort between two pieces of scholarship.
Another indicator is awards – the “best paper’ honors that are frequently presented by academic societies and individual academic departments. One such award, for example, is the Stuart L. Bernath Scholarly Article Prize, awarded annually by the Society for Historians of American Foreign Relations to the “author of a distinguished article appearing in a scholarly journal or edited book, on any topic in United States foreign relations” – in 2011, it went to Andrew McKevitt for his “You are not alone!”: Anime and the globalizing of America (Diplomatic History, 34:5).
But awards like these are only really meant to impress a small circle of other academics in the specific field or area, and rarely mean anything to the general reader. Is there something similar that’s directed not at academic departments, but at wider audiences? If there is anything, it’s the Eisner Awards – more formally, the Will Eisner Comic Industry Awards. The Eisners have been presented at the San Diego Comic-Con since 1988, and although they are generally known – and generally meant – to honor comic artists and writers, in fact, they have consistently included a “Best Comics-Related Book” category, and, since 2012, a specific award for the previous year’s Best Educational/Academic Work.
Already in 2012, one of the nominated books (Critical Approaches to Comics: Theories and Methods, New York: Routledge) featured manga scholar Pascal Lefevre’s ‘Mise-en-scene and framing: Visual storytelling in Lone Wolf and Cub‘. There were no manga-related publications in last year’s nominated books. But the nominees for 2014 have now been announced – and among them are two titles that should be of interest to anyone interested in academic approaches to Japanese comics.
The first is the essay collection Drawing From Life: Memory and Subjectivity in Comic Art – the latest in the University Press of Mississippi’s series of books on comics around the world. The chapter ‘Yukiko’s Spinach and the nouvelle manga aesthetic’ is an in-depth study of this new “tradition” of comic art that draws on not just the images and art styles of manga, but on what Neil Cohn calls a standardized ‘Japanese Visual Language’ that is distinctly different from the languages of American and European comics. In fact, a significant portion of the essay specifically highlights how nouvelle manga is influenced by – but different from, manga proper.
The second nominated title is actually a bit surprising, and maybe an awkward fit for the category. The International Journal of Comic Art is no longer the only regular scholarly publication devoted entirely to comics (broadly defined) – but it’s the oldest, and perhaps still the most prominent. Proudly print-only, it certainly lacks the accessibility of other, more recent journals like ImageText: Interdisciplinary Comics Studies and the Journal of Graphic Novels & Comics. But just by sheer size and page count, its influence cannot be understated. By my count, it has published some 70 individual articles on Japanese comics, from ‘The Marumaru Chinbun and the origins of the Japanese political cartoon’ in its first issue (1999) – to ‘CLAMP, the Magic Knights, and Art Nouveau’ and ‘From Sherlock Holmes to Heisei Holmes: Counter Orientalism and post modern parody in Gosho Aoyama’s Detective Conan manga series’ in the most recent.
Will either of these publications receive this year’s award? Probably not – not against obvious competition like The Superhero Reader. Will it even matter one way or the other? Also probably not. But for all that is worth, at least it’s good to know that comics scholarship – and manga scholarship – is something that is being recognized not just by scholars, but by industry professionals, and hopefully, by fans.