Welcome to Critical Jam, J.A. Micheline’s monthly column on criticism.
I don’t write about unlicensed Japanese comics. I’d like to. There are some incredible BL cartoonists and books that I’d like to tell you about, for example, but the thing is: no English-language publishers have picked them up for translation, so as far as the English-language critical world is concerned–they don’t exist.
I mean, they do, obviously, but then we get to the tougher questions from readers, namely: “Oh cool, where do I read it?”
One answer is “pick the book up in Japanese.” I do this with some frequency, but this is more practical an answer for me than a large swath of manga fans, as (1) I live in a city with Japanese booksellers–yes, Amazon delivers almost everywhere, but their selection of Japanese titles is much narrower than what’s available in a full fledged bookstore–and (2) I can read Japanese, so the investment becomes much more worthwhile.
But for everyone else, there is another answer that is only spoken in the privacy of DMs, in the back alleys of cons, in the ghost town IRC channels of the world: scanlations.
This is a quick extra post today; a review will still go up at 1:00 PM.
I’d encourage you to take a look at J.A. Micheline’s latest Critical Jam. She has some interesting questions regarding unlicensed/illegally distributed translations and the critic’s role/responsibility in reviewing unlicensed material.
The question of the morality of reading scanlations has been running circles around the manga/comics reading community for as long as PTP file services and IRC boards have existed. I think JAM asks some interesting questions here, and I don’t have good global answers – I can only say what my position is, and I can’t speak for the rest of our community of critics.
Micheline brings up the commercial & financial implications of reviewing scanlations. This is the basis of my opinion on whether a critic should review unlicensed material. I think one of the major differences between the Western comics scene and its interactions with the Japanese scene is that when you look up Spiderman on Google, you see official websites etc. When you look up the Enterbrain title Ran to Haiiro no Sekai (AKA Ran and the Grey World AKA Grey and Wonder Around Her), scanlations are in the top 10 search results. In this case, “the all publicity is good publicity” specifically benefits scanlation aggregators, which are businesses in their own right. The official Japanese website is nowhere to be found. Therefore it is much more likely that the aggregator is the benefactor of any critical output compared to the creator and their publisher.
Clearly it’s easy enough to get your hands on scans of pamphlet comics and other stuff from bit torrent sites, but you have to specifically go and look for those things. We can imagine a world where a critic’s output drives readers to the official release of a book via import, but this isn’t the simplest route to the manga; scanlations are. Between the import hypothesis and the scanlation hypothesis, scanlations is the simpler, and therefore the most likely.
Like Micheline, I do greatly desire more critical discourse surrounding unlicensed titles, hopefully leading to their wider legal availability. But because of the pervasiveness of scans and their financial impact on creators, I’m loathe to review any scanlated material. Even though there are great comics that haven’t been published in English, despite the desire to inform readers about these cool comics, my desire is outweighed by the harm caused to the creator (even if it is indirect harm).
I’d love to see other opinions on this topic – it’s a tough one. Thanks for making me think, @pebblesandjamjam.