Since their origin, comics have proven extremely adaptable and with that in mind, it’s no wonder that their history has long been tied up with sex. From the hidden but long established connection to pornography that the Big Two have to Tijuana Bibles to R. Crumb, comics have never been dissociated from sex, yet we rarely talk about sex in comics. That’s where Fluid Exchange comes in, as an opportunity for LC’s staff to pontificate on the more erotic artistry that’s out there in the medium, whether it’s the gorgeous and painstakingly detailed work of the Manaras and Moebiuses of the world to the quirkier sexperiments of Los Bros Hernandez and the boom of erotic webcomics, we’re here to discuss it.
This time we’re looking at Massive: Gay Erotic Manga and the Men Who Make It, a new collection from Fantagraphics that is exactly what it says it is.
Japan has a rich history of gay erotic art and culture that reaches back several hundred years. But since the commencement of Western commercial interaction in the 19th century, a lot of that of that culture has been stigmatized and demonized. What was, for centuries, a mundane fixture in everyday life is now seen as a perversion. In fact, a lot of the artists profiled in Fantagraphics’ new collection Massive: Gay Erotic Manga and the Men Who Make It use pseudonyms and wanted their faces obscured for fear of reprisals—families they haven’t come out to, jobs that may be in jeopardy because of their sexuality, etc. Legally speaking, homosexuality hasn’t been criminalized in Japan for a number of years, but that doesn’t stop people from discursively and physically maligning gay men and women, so the reasons for anonymity are obvious.
It’s only been in the last thirty or so years—paralleling the Western world’s slow recuperation of gay culture and piecemeal acceptance of queer people into mainstream culture—that gay art (manga specifically) has reemerged. The type of gay manga (comics centering on male-male sexual or romantic relationships) most widely popularized and accepted was shonen-ai, which literally means “Boy love,” and was a genre of manga primarily created by women to be consumed by women. Yaoi is a variation of shonen-ai that is more hardcore/sexually explicit, though both are visually dominated by bishonen boys (a term which refers to more feminine, lithe men who are young in appearance, muscular but skinny, and generally hairless), and it’s this mode of gay erotica that’s become most popular in the west. What Anne Ishii and Graham Kolbeins (with unspecified editorial and design work from Chip Kidd) are trying to spotlight in Massive: Gay Erotic Manga and the Men Who Make It is a different sort.
The mangaka featured in Massive are all men and they work within the gei genre. Some readers may be more familiar with the term “bara,” (lit. Rose) a term which came from the publication Barazoku (Itself a name rooted in the writings of Yukio Mishima) and sprung out of pirated fan-translations; online message boards co-opted the term and, because knowledge about the genre outside of Japan is scant, thought it an appropriate label. But most artists prefer the more widely accepted “gei,” because the “bara” is derisive and, according to the mangaka in Massive, tantamount to the English “pansy.” Whereas yaoi is aimed at a straight female audience, gei is aimed at a gay male audience. The men depicted in gei manga are more burly, and the genre conventions all allow for more diversity in body types—larger, hairier, stouter, etc.
The book itself presents itself as a spiritual sequel to 2013’s The Passion of Gengoroh Tagame: Master of Gay Erotic Manga from the now-defunct PictureBox and attempts to further the inroads made by it. But as opposed to the PictureBox release, which focused solely on the titular Tagame, this Fantagraphics book emphasizes diversity and academia, operating as much as a historiographic, cultural artifact as it does an anthological, artistic one. It profiles nine mangaka—Gengoroh Tagame, Jiraiya, Seizoh Ebisubashi, Kazuhide Ichikawa, Takeshi Matsu, Fumi Miyabi, Inu Yoshi, Gai Mizuki, Kumada Poohsuke—all of whom are currently living and working, producing work of cultural import and influence.
The connection to The Passion implies a certain explicitness to Massive, but the two books almost exist on separate, if not entirely discrete, planes of reveal. The Passion is a collection of brutal short stories that showcase Tagame’s penchant for BDSM (at almost body-horror levels) and features explicit penetrative sex. There are certainly connective narrative elements between this and the previous installment, but Massive is, by and large, a much more restrained collection.
For example, the closest Tagame’s own “Do You Remember South Island P.O.W. Camp?” comes to actual sex—oral, anal, or otherwise—is a kink power dynamic and an American WWII soldier peeing on a Japanese man’s head (and that’s not very close at all, is it?). It’s an excerpt of a longer work, so I have no doubt that Tagame got around to some more hardcore material, but it isn’t presented here. Similarly, Takeshi Matsu’s sex is only ever alluded to; it’s more a sexual and romantic attraction—taboo and under the surface, only ever hinted at and teased out—that’s the focus moreso than anything consummated. But there’s more than enough sexual detail rendered in works like Jiraiya’s “Caveman Guu,” Miyabi’s “Tengudake,” and Seizoh Ebisubashi’s untitled short for the entire anthology.
I’m not the intended audience for these comics, as I’m a straight guy, but as Massive’s contents operate most immediately as pornography, my sexuality allows me to divorce the visceral, potentially-erotic qualities from the broader, artistic aspects.
From this perspective, Massive takes on an interesting role—that of cultural, narratological ambassador, as opposed to a prurient one. This role isn’t entirely ascribed, though, because the unified whole is presented as if that role is its larger, more primary one and the patina of pornography obscures that fact by taking superficial primacy. And the erotic component is a big feature of these stories, no two ways about it. But its importance varies from cartoonist to cartoonist. Kumada Poohsuke’s yonkoma gagyu (four panel gag strips), for example, emphasize comedy more than sexuality, and even at their more explicit—a man, hypnotically entranced, screws his co-worker with machinelike endurance; the co-worker spasmodically ejaculates in his own face—a sense of humor threatens to overwhelm the sexual component and push it to the side. These are rendered in a comedic chibi/super deformed style, which stands out amongst the more mimetic, classically seinen cartooning (an attention to anatomy, an emphasis on facial expressions, adult, young adult protagonists, etc.) of Jiraiya, Tagame, and really everyone else in the book. Others, like Kazuhide Ichikawa, use the sex as an entree into larger narrative conceits—a machine that drains people of their energy (I think? It’s not clear) through implanting wet dreams, in one specific instance. More than anything else, this variation in subject matter and execution—not to mention aesthetics, paneling, pacing—reveals the versatility of the gei genre and the diversity of material that exists within it.
What I found most interesting, however, was that almost all of sex acts herein are depictions of rape. A tengu is drugged and then raped; two yakuza bosses are hypnotized into compulsive sex; two gay men independently force themselves on a straight man; a domestic sex robot masturbates a contest winner without his consent; a third party mysteriously forces together the genitals of two straight men; a caveman rapes three others because he’s stronger (actually refusing consensual sex from a woman so that he can force himself on scared men). There are two stories that allude to gay relationships—one romantic, the other (apparently) more strictly physical—but never explicitly depict a single sex act; all but one of the others feature stories in which at least one party (sometimes both) are, at the very least, reticent. Some of these stories end with the initially-reluctant party eventually coming around, but there’s no denying the non-consensual component here. The fact that these non-consensual advances are eventually affirmed and enjoyed by the victims (or, do they stop being victims when they stop refusing and start enjoying?) presents rape as a valid and acceptable way to acquire a partner and engage in sex; but it also signifies homosexuality as a choice, and any man exposed to sex with another man will invariably enjoy it and will henceforth be attracted to men—Jiraiya’s “Caveman Guu” actually ends with the victims of assault and rape seeking out the helpless protagonist to pay him back, wink, wink (because they really liked it?). While there’s nothing morally inherent to gay sex—it is neither good nor bad—there is something inherently repugnant about rape, and its inclusion problematizes the stories (because the work does have aesthetic and cultural import, it can’t be written off completely and must be engaged with in spite of this unseemly quality).
But that’s not the interesting part, no. Rape isn’t interesting, and it’s a narrative device we see more than our fair share of in mainstream American comics, but the frequency of its inclusion is. Its recurrence almost problematizes the entire anthology because it opens up speculation for why it’s so prevalent—not that I think rape is a particularly common aspect of gay culture and I’d never imply such a thing, but the anthology itself presents it as if it were more common than it actually is. Each of the cartoonists cite Tagame as a huge influence, and Tagame is known for his more taboo stories; could it be that they felt compelled to include it by dint of imitating someone who utilized it so often? or maybe the consumption of so much Tagame eventually lead them to unconsciously express that influence in this manner? Reading an earlier draft of this essay, its editor pointed out that it’s possibly indicative of particularly Japanese attitudes regarding sex in general, hetero or homosexual, citing examples of heterosexual shunga art, seinen manga, and films from the Japanese New Wave by directors like Shohei Imamura Nagasi Oshima that feature it in much the same way as in Massive.
I lack the expertise to properly contextualize its place within Japanese mores and gender-politics (the paradigms of which do differ from the Western ones, I assure you), but, in an effort to not be ethnocentric, they are important to keep in mind, and it would be unfair to malign characteristics of a work that originate from a culture in which those characteristics aren’t thought of in the way I’ve been socialized to think of them. But the inclusion of rape isn’t necessarily a bad thing (the glorification of it, though? Uh…), and there are plenty of good comics that feature it. Though, I think the merits of its inclusion are entirely dependent on whether or not it serves a legitimate purpose or if it’s just cheap and gross (it almost always is). I would argue that it’s meritless in the works presented and would call it unnecessary. But you may feel differently.
Other than that, though, the biggest problem with Massive is that almost all the works featured are excerpted from longer works. They serve as nice introductions to each cartoonist, but in and of themselves, they don’t provide very much entertainment value. Which isn’t necessarily a reflection on the works themselves, because they are being stripped of a broader narrative context and being presented in a different format than the one they were originally designed to. Not all of the works are excerpts, however, and the self-contained works like Fumi Miyabi’s “Tengudake” are among the anthology’s strongest.
But even I’m not convinced that that’s a valid point of criticism, because the ethos and structure of Massive appears more intent to document an underexplored genre of manga and gay culture than to showcase the best examples of gay erotic manga. It’s not a primer for a broad and deep sub-genre of manga, the outstretched hand of an emissary, it’s meant to whet your appetite as opposed to sating your hunger, and in that respect it’s a total success. The books most entertaining and engaging segments are the textual components: profiles of the mangaka that precede each of their contributions, introductory and explanatory essays from the editors, the timeline of gay art in Japan.
These text pieces situate the work in a broader cultural context, but they also contextualize the work more specifically within the individual artists’ oeuvres. Also worth noting is the fact that the profiles illustrate in direct, personal rhetoric the effect that illicit scanlations and online piracy has on cartoonists. Whereas film, as an industry, is large enough to withstand whatever the financial impact of online piracy is—or it has up to this point—these gei comics are niche enough and small enough in scale/profit margins that piracy’s effects are more deeply felt. While the pool of gei mangaka subsisting on their work is small enough already, it’s hurt by translated scans, and almost all the cartoonists featured in Massive make mention of how English, French, and Italian fan translations have discouraged publishers in those countries from officially licensing their work.
These text elements buoy the more problematic and inconsequential comic portions, though they exist in entirely distinct intellectual spheres. They give this installment more to parse, and more worth engaging with, than the previous volume, even if it doesn’t all withstand substantive scrutiny.
Shea Hennum is a Texas-based writer who currently serves as the lead writer about comics for This Is Infamous. His work has also been featured at The Comics Alternative, eFantasy, The Fringe Magazine, and Schlock. Essays of his will be included as backmatter in upcoming issues of Shutter from Image Comics, and he can be found as sheahisself on both Twitter and Tumblr.