It was Katherine Dacey’s enthusiastic review of Town of Evening Evening Calm, Country of Cherry Blossoms that first caught my attention. I was already planning on tracking down and buying the book — so glowing had the critical consensus been up till that point — but I was taken not only by Dacey’s ability to draw allusions to cultural touchstones outside of manga (R.G. Collingwood no less!) but also her passion and sincere enthusiasm for the book shone through but never once turned her prose into fannish mush.
As Senior Manga Editor for Pop Culture Shock, Dacey comes to the comics world from a different angle — having entered through the manga door she doesn’t have the baggage that many of us shoulder when trying to talk about our favorite comics. In other words, she’s got a unique perspective on not just manga, but the comics industry in general that’s worth taking in. That, plus the fact that she’s an incredibly smart and perceptive critic, made this interview a pleasure to conduct.
Q: First of all, tell me a little bit about yourself. How did you get interested enough in manga to want to write about it?
A: Well, I’m actually a graduate student, and I was looking for something fun and diverting because my thesis is on Soviet music and I wanted something a little bit lighter to read at the end of the day. That initially lead me to manga, and the more I read the more addicted I got. I started blogging about it and that’s how I ended up writing for Pop Culture Shock.
Q: Give me a little bit of a timeline. How many years have you been writing for Pop Culture Shock?
A: I’ve been writing for Pop Culture Shock since 2006.
Q: And how long were you blogging before that?
A: Not very long. Probably about six months.
Q: How were you introduced to manga? Had you been reading comics before?
A: Actually, I had never touched a comic book in my life. But I had been watching a few series on Adult Swim, specifically InuYasha, and I was very interested in that, so I went up and started picking up the manga by Rumiko Takahashi. So I looked at the InuYasha manga but I also picked up books like Mermaid Saga, and some of her older stuff that Viz had published five, ten years ago like the Rumic World Trilogy. I got really interested in that and from there I started branching out and discovered CLAMP’s work and it just mushroomed or snowballed from there.
Q: Where are you from originally?
A: I grew up in the Boston area and I’ve lived and worked in Boston. I went to college in New York City and I lived there for quite some time. I’m also getting my PhD in NYC and now I’m back in the Boston area.
Q: Looking around Pop Culture Shock, there’s a strong mainstream, superhero presence. And the general consensus seems to be that manga and superhero cultures don’t meet. How do you see your reviews and the other manga reviews fitting within the Pop Culture Shock collective?
A: Well we do a mixture of reviews. A lot of the reviews we do are honestly the equivalent of the kind of superhero coverage that you find at Pop Culture Shock only you’re talking about Naruto and Bleach and other mainstream properties like that. We certainly review a healthy selection of manga that fit into that category. The stories are similar in some respects in that the themes they evoke are similar – the kind of ordinary character who discovers that he has a superpower is analogous to popular figures like Peter Parker and some of the other … (laughs) you can tell I don’t read a lot of the comics and capes stuff. I’m scratching my head trying to come up with another example. But I think there’s some equivalency there. We also cover older titles and stuff that’s more on the fringes. That doesn’t always sit as well with the more mainstream comics coverage that we do.
Then we try to bring the two together in our picks and pans feature which we run every week where we have a rundown of books that are arriving in stores. Sometimes people have greeted the manga review with a little bit of contempt or frustration. They’d rather see that segregated somewhere else on the site, as if having those manga reviews beside the review of the latest Civil War installment is somehow contaminating the page. But I would say by and large it fits in better than you might think.
Q: I guess the fear would be that there’s your section of the Pop Culture site and then there’s the other section and the twain don’t really meet. That they might become seen as two separate Web sites. Is that something you worry about at all?
A: I think the fact that we created a special blog for the manga reviews and for manga and anime news coverage helped a lot. Because it gave people who were really specifically interested in that a place to go on the site. They knew they’d find that content all together in one place.
I do sometimes worry about it, but honestly we’ve made some efforts to bridge that gap. We sometimes run a feature for example called Comics for Manga Lovers where we take a look at stuff which is perhaps the kind of thing that might come out on DC’s Vertigo label or stuff coming out of Top Shelf or Oni Press or some of the smaller publishers we think might appeal to somebody who was interested in manga but was open-minded enough to try something that was being published outside of Japan.
I also write reviews of other stuff. I wrote a long review, for example, of The Red Star, which is a book that’s very near and dear to my heart. I have a separate blog, a staff blog, at PCS, where I often blog about non-manga related comics and other kinds of popular culture. So we do make some efforts to bridge the gap. And you’ll see if you log into the site there’s always something about manga in that top feature story box. So it’s there. Sometimes it co-exists peacefully with the comics stuff and sometimes it doesn’t.
Q: Now your official title is Senior Manga Editor. What does that entail?
A: Really I’m sort of the herding dog and chief. I’m the person who assigns reviews to the other people that write for the site and corresponds with all the publicists and editors to send us material. And I’m also the person who does a lot of the formatting and cleaning up of other blog entries so there’s a consistent style in the manga recon blog even though we have three different reviewers besides me whose styles and approaches to reviewing are all a little bit different.
I don’t do a whole lot of editing per se in the sense that I don’t go in and heavily edit the contributors’ material but I do a little bit of that. Most of it is very light copy editing. And, as I said, herding. Just making sure that people have stuff to review and that they post it in a timely way and that I’m in touch with publicists to let them know we’re actively on top of the material they’re sending us.
Q: That was actually my next question — how do you work with the other writers? How do you see your role with them?
A: The site is casual and this isn’t a print publication. It’s a slightly different ethos. I was editor in chief of an academic journal for several years and that was a very different kind of thing because I edited those articles quite heavily, going in and reorganizing them and rewriting passages and working with authors to have them clarify sections that didn’t make a lot of sense or that needed further amplification.
I’ve done that kind of editing, where you’re really rolling up your sleeves and you’re digging around and tinkering with what someone has submitted to you. But this is a little different because the site’s a little more casual and I don’t want to mess around with other writers’ style, cause as I said each one has a really distinctive voice and if get in there and start editing too much that gets lost.
Q: Do they come to you if they’re having trouble with a review? Do you offer any guidance, not as far as telling them what to write, but maybe shepherding?
A: Actually the way it usually works is the most senior writer, Erin Finnegan, I don’t edit her stuff because Erin was at the site before me, and she does quite a bit of freelance writing. She writes for Otaku USA and Publisher’s Weekly. As far as I’m concerned, I don’t touch her stuff unless I see a typo or something. And people come to the site looking for Erin’s reviews. People know Erin’s name. And she has a very distinctive way of writing about manga that really appeals to a certain kind of fan who’s knowledgeable, that is really enthusiastic about the books that they’re picking up. So I don’t mess with that because it’s a good thing. She brings a lot of people into the site. I can’t imagine what I could do to her reviews that would make them better.
With some of the other reviewers, they send me a completed review and I just go in and look it over, and maybe tweak something if it isn’t clear. But I’m not providing that editorial supervision or oversight that I would be if this were a print publication.
Q: Tell me a little bit about your own tastes. You mentioned InuYasha. What sort of manga do you lean towards? What are your favorite series?
A: One of the great things I think about Vertical putting out so much old-school manga is that it’s really helped give me an education. It’s made titles available to me that I had previously only been able to read about on other people’s blogs because I don’t read Japanese. I really fell in love with Keiko Takemiya’s work. I enjoyed To Terra immensely and I really liked Andromeda Stories, the first two volumes. I haven’t read the last one yet.
I’ve loved the Tezuka they’ve brought out and I’m really excited that they’re bringing out Black Jack this fall. I read the few volumes that were available through Viz and was frustrated that there wasn’t more available in English.
As I mentioned, Rumiko Takahashi and CLAMP are favorites of mine. I like a lot of Fumi Yoshinaga’s stuff a lot. Although I don’t read yaoi. I’d say I tend to like her social dramas a lot better. Yaoi’s one of those areas where I understand intellectually why it appeals to people, it just isn’t something I read a lot of.
Right now I’m really enjoying a series called Kekkaishi by Yellow Tanabe, which is one of those underappreciated shonen series in Viz’s catalog. I love it. I guess I would say that I’ve been reading a fair amount of shojo. A lot of classic manga. Some shonen. I also have a special place in my heart for Kazuo Koike. Like everybody else I’ve read Lone Wolf and Cub. That was one of the first things I read when I really started exploring manga. but I also really love Lady Snowblood. As ridiculous and operatic as it is, I think that’s part of what I love about it.
Q: Do you find that there are certain traits or themes that you look for when you’re reading manga? Is there certain stuff you drift towards?
A: I think the great thing about reviewing manga is that it’s exposed me to titles that as a casual reader I would have never picked up or been interested in. I have fewer tendencies in any one direction than I did say two years ago when I was reading a lot of stuff that had a folkloric quality or element of horror or the supernatural folded into it. I think the one thing I will say is I tend to be attracted to stories with strong female characters in them. In part because I found casually sampling token cape stuff I wasn’t finding a lot of those kinds of characters. I know that there’s a long tradition of characters like Wonder Woman and so forth but I didn’t find those characters speaking to me as anything other than camp or kitsch and I found a lot more strong and interesting female characters in the manga that I was reading and I think that if I had to say anything about my reading habits, that was something I was really drawn to.
Q: Your reviews, I’m thinking particularly of your review of Country of Cherry Blossoms, which was actually one of the reasons that led me to want to interview you, I was impressed with how erudite it was, quoting Collingwood. I get the feeling you have a pretty wide breadth of cultural knowledge. Can you tell me a little bit about how you apply that to your manga reviews, how conscious you are of it, and how it affects your writing style?
A: I think initially it was just my natural frame of reference when I first started writing about manga because I write about Dimitri Shostakovich and I have degrees in history and American Studies in addition to this music degree that I’m working on. So I’ve had a lot of experience writing academic papers and writing book reviews in that context. Plus, I’m an old movie buff and read a lot anyway.
That was initially my frame of reference because I just hadn’t read a lot of manga. And so when I was looking for analogies sometimes it was easier to compare it to a movie that I had seen recently or to bring in something else, some historical knowledge that I had because that gave it a frame of reference. I couldn’t say “This is just like so and so’s work” or “This reminds me of the Magnificent 49ers.”
I think as time has gone on my strategy for making those kinds of comparisons has changed. I’m making fewer of them perhaps, but when I am I’m usually reserving it for something like Town of Evening Calm, Country of Cherry Blossoms because it’s the kind of book that really deserves a serious review. Part of what I was trying to do with that and when I reviewed the Times of Botchan for example, is to suggest that there’s a way of talking about manga that isn’t just about speed lines and sound effects and whether or not the latest plot development makes a lot of sense. There is a lot of manga for which Collingwood would be a completely inappropriate reference (laughs)
Q: Do you feel like there’s not enough of that sort of writing being done? Do you feel as though critics aren’t drawing enough upon other types of art?
A: I think in the world of indie comic reviews there’s already a pretty good representation of people doing that. There are a lot of people who write incredibly intelligently about comics and about manga. Really when I started doing it, imitation isn’t quite the right word, but it was certainly inspired by some of the other reviews that I was seeing. I was seeing other people call on a rich array of cultural references when they were putting together a review. I don’t know who actually writes Jog the Blog, but that’s what I read.
Q: Joe McCulloch.
A: I love his reviews because you have such a sense of the person behind the review. They’re like a really good, intelligent movie review. When I read his stuff it reminds me a lot of Joe Morgenstern’s reviews for the Wall Street Journal’s movie section, in that there’s a really clear sense of what the book is about and there’s so much going on than just a summary of the work’s strengths and weaknesses and calling out good performances and bad performances. There’s a real context for understanding why the critic is saying it’s good or bad.
David Welsh is another person whose reviews I read a lot and really enjoy. I think those are two examples of people who write reviews that I’ve tried to pattern my own off of.
Q: Anyone else? Any other critics you really enjoy reading in or outside of comics?
A: Sure. I mentioned Joe Morgenstern because for me he’s the platonic ideal of a mainstream review in that it’s well-written, it’s good but it’s not just a self-conscious performance. It’s not just about how he can dazzle you. There’s a lot of thoughtful analysis in addition to good prose.
In the world of comics I really like Brigid Alverson’s writing. She doesn’t write a whole lot of reviews over at MangaBlog, but when she does, she has this really great, direct way of telling you what’s really good or bad about a book. It’s no nonsense, it’s not fussy or showy, but again it’s really insightful.
Q: This ties back into talking about your writing style, but do you have any philosophy when you sit down to critique a manga? What do you look for as far as good or bad points? This is a very generalized question, but do you have any rules of thumb?
A: Well, I don’t have the art training that some people do. I haven’t spent nearly as much time thinking about how comics are put together from an art point of view, so that tends to be less of an emphasis in my reviews than it is in some people’s reviews. If you look at someone like Johanna Draper Carlson, she’s really meticulous in talking about the art. If I had to say there was a weakness to my reviews, it’s that I sometimes don’t address the art. I only do it in a couple of sentences.
Part of that grows out of the fact that there can be a sameness about a lot of the shonen and shojo manga that’s licensed by the big American publishers. My feeling is that if the artwork is distinctive, either really bad or really good, then I will spend some time talking about it. But if it reminds me of the last 15 books that I reviewed, I probably won’t spend a lot of time talking about the artwork.
I do spend a lot of time talking about plot and characters because my feeling is that if you’re going to spend the money on a series that’s 10 or 20 volumes long, that’s going to be the book more than the art. If you’re going to buy more than one volume, it’s because you’re interested in the set-up, in the universe, in the characters. And so I spend most of my time in a review talking about that. And how well they’re presented and whether or not it makes sense, which seems to be a problem with a lot of comic-book writing. People have fantastic ideas and sometimes the execution isn’t as fantastic as the ideas themselves.
Q: What do you find encouraging about the manga community right now?
A: I think one thing is something a lot of commentators have pointed out, which is the sheer number of female fans. This is a medium that lots and lots of girls and young women are picking up in record numbers, and doing it unself-consciously. It’s not an act of reclamation – “We’re taking back comics!” – it’s just an interest. I would say that’s one thing that’s really exciting.
I also think the sheer number of fans and the number of people who are blogging intelligently about manga means that publishers are willing to take a risk on books that four or five years ago there wasn’t a market for. I think that’s another real strength of the current manga community: the sheer number of people who are really knowledgeable about manga’s history and the artists. There’s been a lot more discussion and call for manga like the Rose of Versailles and some other seminal works that haven’t been licensed in English. That’s another real strength.
Q: Conversely, what frustrates you? What would you like to see improved?
A: One thing I find frustrating is a kind of knee-jerk reaction among some fans that if a publisher makes some small alterations to a book, in order to make it more appropriate for American audiences, there’s are a lot of fans who get really up in arms about this. A good example is from a couple of years ago when Viz made a really small change in some artwork in Fullmetal Alchemist. There was a character that was strapped to a stone crucifix in the original Japanese. And I think the editors at Viz felt that the iconography was such that it might offend people who were devout Christians and so they made a slight alteration of the artwork so that in the American edition the character was actually strapped to a slab. If you looked carefully you could see where the crucifix had originally been. Some of that had been preserved in the shape of the slab, but they had changed the shape enough so that it didn’t immediately evoke that crucifix iconography.
Initially nobody seemed to notice, but somebody compared it with the original Japanese and this took on a life of it’s own and there was a very angry thread on the Anime News Network with people shaking their cyberfists in indignation that Viz had done this and they wanted the original Japanese and this is terrible. It’s one thing that just frustrates me because there’s this naivety about that kind of thinking that you’re going to get some kind of literal repackaging of the material, only in English. Given the differences in the two language and given all the cultural frames of references that simply aren’t there when you’re bringing a work from Japan to the U.S., it’s incredibly naïve to think that you’re going to be getting “the American version” and that other things aren’t going to be lost or changed or tweaked in the process. That sense of fan entitlement drives me nuts.
Unless it’s a really bad adaptation and I’ve seen that in the script where say a Japanese pop star’s name has been removed and some American celebrity’s name has been dropped in as a replacement. If it’s not done skillfully it can be very jarring. But if it’s done skillfully you don’t even notice. I don’t mind because it saves me the trouble of having to flip to the back and try and figure out who a particular person is. For someone like me who has less investment in Japanese popular culture, I don’t mind that if it’s done well.
Q: Let’s apply that to manga reviews. What do you like and what would you like to see changed?
A: I think right now some of the most popular destinations for manga reviews are really casual blogs where people are just providing a summary of the latest volume and saying a really causal take on what’s good or what’s bad about it. I would really love to see a bit more formal criticism. One of the reasons I mentioned David Welsh is I really liked his Flipped column. I was really sad to read that was closing down because it was a good model for the kind of thing I’d like to see more of.
There’s a really intelligent way that he writes about books. There’s a context he brings that isn’t just about if it’s good or bad or how it compares to the anime. When he chooses not to do a review but those weeks he’s writing about the state of the industry or trends, there’s that same analysis and thoughtfulness about it. I’d really love to see more of that on the Internet.
Q: I’m very curious as to how the young Naruto fans now are going to change the industry down the road, if at all. Are they going to keep reading manga as they get older and get jobs and have families? Are they going to do their own comics or are they just going to drop out and it will be a perpetually new audience every time? I was wondering what your take on that is.
A: That’s a really tough question to answer because so many who are writing about manga are not part of Naruto Nation. I think we’re very atypical of manga’s audience. We care very passionately about manga’s history. We’re the people who have a completist mentality so we want to read high and low and everything in between. We’re not really representative of manga’s mainstream audience.
I think for a lot of kids this is a fad, something they’re interested in high school and college and won’t continue to read once they’re beyond college. But I see them being enthusiastic or supportive if they’re own kids are into manga and I see that might be one way in which they may end up reconnecting with manga 10 years down the line, when their own kids are interested in it.
I do think there are readers who are going to graduate from Naruto to Black Jack or maybe Monster or other series that are aimed at a more adult audience. I do think there are readers who are coming to manga who are in their twenties, driving sales of things like Buddha and other things that have an almost literary cache about them. There is certainly a niche market for literary manga. I certainly see that there’s a pretty healthy market for stuff that’s aimed at teen-agers. The question is are teen-agers going to want to read Josei and Seinen when they outgrown Naruto and Bleach? I don’t know.