By Ali Frauman
In his lecture “Comixing Cultures! The Shocking Transnational Affair of Japanese Manga and Euro-American Comics,” IAS Visiting Fellow Adam L. Kern explored manga’s origins, arguing that theses graphic novels should not be treated as essentially Japanese but rather as the product of cross-cultural dialogue between Eastern and Western comic traditions. Specifically, he suggested that two “streams” came together in the mid-19th century to give rise to Japanese manga as we know it today: Japanese kibyōshi or “yellow covers” and Euro-American editorial cartoons. In regard to Japanese logo-pictorial representation, Kern pointed out that despite attempts to call kibyōshi the “direct progenitor” of modern manga, we cannot discount the influence of Western graphic art, noting that there may have been cross-cultural influence much earlier than previously thought, with an image by Koikawa Harumachi using vanishing point perspective as early as 1775. But for Kern, the most important moment in Japanese-Western cultural exchange came with the introduction of Japan Punch to Yokohama in 1862. This English-language magazine, founded by British cartoonist Charles Wirgman, went on to inspire Nipponchi, Tokyo Puck, Marumaruchinbun, and other publications showcasing Japanese-language editorial cartoons. Kern moreover called attention to early forms of manga in the West such as the Four Immigrants Manga by Henry Kiyama published in San Francisco in 1931, complicating previous studies that set manga’s entry into Western popular culture in the 1980s. Instead, Kern equated the development of comics, both Eastern and Western, to a “chicken and the egg” scenario, born not from one tradition leading to the other, but instead through learning, mixing, and revising sparked by cross-cultural exchange. Following manga legend Osamu Tezuka’s claim that manga is “world comics,” Kern pushed his audience to forsake nationalist tendencies and instead view manga as “a global phenomenon,” avoiding the “inherent dangers in claiming manga is an outgrowth of native Japanese culture” and instead acknowledging it as an amalgamation of artistic innovations on a global scale.
As Professor of Japanese Literature and Visual Culture at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, Kern specializes in early-modern Japanese popular literature, poetry, theater, and art, particularly the kibyōshi and haiku traditions. Kern is currently working with Institute Residential Fellow and Professor Emerita Sumie Jones as co-editor to “A Kamigata Anthology, Literature from Japan’s Metropolitan Centers, 1600–1750,” the final volume in a three-part anthology of early-modern Japanese literature in English forthcoming from the University of Hawai’i Press.