“‘Seeing’ Music from Manga”

Synesthesia thesis

Many years ago, I spent a solid half decade publishing manga, eventually becoming the editor-in-chief of the U.S. edition of the magazine Shonen Jump. It was an amazing experience, one I treasure to this day. However, my work on manga rarely overlapped with my interest in sound.

Traveling to Japan for work over the years did give me the opportunity to attend concerts at Tokyo venues I’d otherwise never have even heard about. Also, there were times while preparing an issue of the magazine when we got to debate how to translate sound effects, or how to effectively help a young reader (this was back from 2004 to 2009, before manga was as mainstream as it became outside Japan) understand things like the vertical ellipses that signify an extended silent pause. Most of the shonen comics I worked on were about fighting (e.g., Naruto, One Piece), the main exception being, as one reader put it, “the one about moving stones around a board.” (The latter was a joke at the expense of Hikaru no Go, which was one of my favorite things we published.)

And so it was with great interest that I read a new academic study from two authors based at National Taiwan University, Taipei: “‘Seeing’ music from manga: visualizing music with embodied mechanisms of musical experience.” The article looks specifically at how music is represented in manga (for the uninitiated, the word is both singular and plural, as is the norm in the Japanese language) that take music as their subject. Iju Hsu and Wen-Yu Chiang, the article’s authors, study such highly recommended series as Nodame Cantabile (about a classical music student ) and Detroit Metal City (the title is self-explanatory), among others.

Are You Experienced?: This diagram from the article maps “how music is transformed into visualized music”

The article, which came out in the recent volume 21 of the journal Visual Communication, explores visual metaphors for sound in various manners, notably the Visual Metaphor Identification Procedure, or VISMIP. Another approach explores “six embodied mechanisms that induce emotion.” In the words of the authors: “this study sheds light on our overall understanding of audio-visual cross-modality, musical experience, metaphor and embodied experience.” It’s dense stuff, and I’m still making my way through it for a second time — and beginning to explore the trove of articles and books cited as references. (Thanks, Gene Kannenberg Jr. and Bart Beaty!)

My One George Booth Story

September 19, 1981

My one George Booth story: The first large outdoor concert I ever attended was the Simon and Garfunkel reunion in Central Park, which occurred on September 19, 1981. It was a Saturday. I remember opening up the New York Times and seeing this huge advertisement for a concert by one of my then favorite groups, who had broken up before I’d even entered kindergarten. A long decade had passed since then. This was now the first semester of 10th grade for me. I called some friends to see if they wanted to go. I lived out on Long Island, an easy train ride into the city — not that, if I remember correctly, I had ever gone into the city without an adult at that point. (Maybe I had?) Only one friend’s parents consented. We took the train in, had an amazing time, and then when the concert was over, everyone heading downtown filled the streets, curb to curb, and the sidewalks, as well. There were too many people, and cars just had to wait as this massive phalanx made its way. A sizable portion of those funneled into Penn Station, and of those a substantial subset ended up on the train that my friend and I took back to Long Island. It was the most packed I’ve ever been on a train, just filled shoulder to shoulder, knee to knee. Everyone clearly had come from the show. Except there was this one older man right next to me, leaning with his back against the door. He looked confused. I struck up a conversation, and this man turned out to be George Booth, who lived even further out on Long Island than I did. (And it occurs to me that I’m just a few months older now than Booth was that day.) We chatted about various things. I was really into comics, and we talked about illustrators a bit. I eventually asked what he was thinking going into the city today of all days. He said he wanted to get some work done and he figured Saturday at the office would be quiet.

RIP, George Booth (1926 – 2022)

Personal Aesthetic Forensics

The labor of Labor Day

The physical and emotional labor of Labor Day. Typical Gen X housecleaning: replacing old long boxes with new ones, and neglecting to whittle whatsoever.

I was streaming videos of Mountain Man as I performed aesthetic forensics on my teens, 20s, and 30s. I generally listen to very little music with vocals, and yet I listen to Mountain Man all the time. Their harmonies kill me, and today’s activity, packed as it is with nostalgia, aligned with their music tonally.

I am a nut for anything by Tim Sale, Eddie Campbell, and Guy Davis. Challengers of the Unknown is one of my favorite formally playful superhero series. (And yes, “formally playful” is one of my favorite oxymorons.)

One more round, as I pack up the sixth of today’s long boxes: minis from Ellen Linder, Jason Shiga, and the late Dylan Williams.

I edited comics for a decade, and dipped into it a few more times in more recent years, and revisiting this material really brought me back to that work, which I always found incredibly rewarding.

Peers and Friends Remember Justin Green

In The Comics Journal

John Kelly at The Comics Journal put together a great memorial to comics artist Justin Green, whose work I edited in Tower Records’ Pulse! magazine for many years.

Bookended with pieces by Carol Tyler, Justin’s wife, at the start and, at the end, Catlin Wulferdingen and Julia Green, his daughters, there are entries by Bill Griffith, Denis Kitchen, Kim Deitch, Robert Armstrong, Dan Clowes, Jim, Woodring, Ron Turner, Patrick Rosenkranz, Shary Flenniken, Drew Friedman, Dan Nadel, Paul Karasik, Seth, Mark Newgarden, Glenn Bray, Kayla E., Joe Matt, Glenn Head, Monte Beauchamp, George Hansen, Bruce Chrislip, Jon B. Cooke, Bruce Simon, James Romberger, Steve Powers, John Kinhart, Everett Rand, Robert Beerbohm, and John Paul.

Here is mine:

Justin Green lived in Sacramento when I did, in the early 1990s. As I write this, it’s been barely a month since he died. I still grieve for my friend who taught me about art and life, emphasis on the “and.” A folder filled with remnants of our collaboration provides some solace.

I’d moved from Brooklyn to California’s capital city in 1989, a year out of college, to take a job as an editor at Pulse!, Tower Records’ print magazine. After two years, I suggested to my fellow editors that we experiment with comics in the magazine. The first two artists I signed up were local. Having never edited comics before, I looked for people whom I could work with in person. This was late 1991. Email was rare, cell phones even more so. We spoke by landline, sent faxes, wrote letters, and met in midtown Sacramento cafes like Greta’s and the Weatherstone. The first of these artists was Adrian Tomine, who I knew lived in town because his mailing address appeared in his self-published Optic Nerve, one of numerous minicomics I was buying at the time. The second was Justin Green.

I was aware of Justin’s comics from the magazine Raw, the 1991 issue of which listed Sacramento as his location. I tracked him down, and thus began the longest-running comic that Pulse! published, for upwards of a decade. It’s comically—forgive the common pun—absurd that the first two artists I published in Pulse! were so talented, given that I actively, at the beginning, limited myself to locals. It’s also cosmically—pushing the pun further—intriguing that one of them had, decades earlier, produced an ur-text of autobiographical comics, and the other was among the youngest artists pursuing that line of creative activity. Arrangements were formalized at the end of 1991, and their initial Pulse! comics appeared in the first issues of 1992. Justin’s presence in the magazine no doubt helped as I built our roster of contributors, who in time came to include his wife, Carol Tyler.

There are a lot of things I could share about working with Justin at such length and regularity. I could talk about his love for glass ink nibs. Or about how he aggressively remade any scripts supplied by writers other than himself (I wrote a few), always for the better. Or about his painstaking use of multiple drafts to refine stories. Or about how the strips’ seemingly most surreal grace notes were often there from the first sketch (whimsy as linchpin). Or about how telling it was, to me, that this elder statesman of underground comics was always open to editorial input, while some far younger artists (not Adrian) flinched and bristled at editing, needing to be sensitively coaxed.

The thing I think is important to share in the context of The Comics Journal is how central financial matters were to Justin’s comics. He was, in the truest sense, a working artist. His art (in Pulse!, other commissions, sign painting) was defined by his need to make a living. It’s understood how Justin’s autobiographical work was informed by his religious upbringing. It’s just as important to understand how, in adulthood, practical matters determined and shaped his self-expression. One marvel among many of Justin’s comics is just how much of himself he brought to what was, always, the next job.

John included four piece of ephemera I shared with him, including two rough drafts and a two-page letter Justin sent me. Here’s one of the rough drafts:

Read the full collection of Green tributes here:


Justin Green: First Contact

The start of a long collaboration

My old friend Justin Green died late last month. Obituaries have been appearing that begin to plumb the depths of his work, life, and influence: nytimes.com, chicagotribune.com, tcj.com, cbr.com, dailycartoonist.com. As I mentioned when the news broke of his passing, I was fortunate to live in the same town as him, Sacramento, California, in the early 1990s, which led to me editing a ton of comics that he produced for the pages of Tower Records’ Pulse! magazine. After I began to process the news of his death, I looked through an old file of documents from that period of time, and I found this copy I’d made of a letter I sent to him following our first phone conversation. Eventually he would decide to, rather than create a serial, produce a sequence of richly idiosyncratic and lovingly rendered biographies and anecdotes from musical history, which the publisher Last Gasp later collected in the book Musical Legends. The letter is from mid-November 1991. His first strip of many would appear in the March issue of Pulse! the following year.