Japanese Woodcuts and Drag Queen Bingo

Jim Gabour sees the graphic of living through nineteenth-century Japanese woodcuts to Drag Bingo, via West Coast illustrators and his own country and western posters
Jim Gabour
18 December 2011

Amazing, the extremes of popular, or at least popularly-distributed, entertainment.

This past Saturday I received an express package from a friend in L.A., a large envelope packed with comic books that read back-to-front, right-to-left.  Manga, they are called in Japan, where they have been all the rage for decades.  They’ve also caught on here in the US for quite a few years now, especially with the visual/organizational hook of staying in the original format, though they would have been hard pressed to completely rearrange the drawings to read backwards, in western style.  There are still many irremovable Japanese words embedded in the drawings, but the balloons are also filled with Anglo teen and gen-x angst, and occasionally somebody gets laid.  One book in particular took constant pride in showing the very plain blank panties of all its female components, in every possible frame, though little else of any sexual nature took place.  All the characters were late teens to mid twenties, and nobody seemed to be having much fun, though their eyes were large and glassy.

Two-dimensional black-and-white angst will do that to you.

My friend, involved in marketing for the publisher, had sent the manga to me to ask me what I thought of them. It seems that since I am involved in storytelling in various media, and now have been self-cast as a person with a quasi-connection to 'comics', I am fit to be consulted on such matters.

These publications are indeed selling by the truckload to specific young target audiences, and the publisher now wants to “broaden the product demographics”.   Presumably to resistant but credit-card-bearing individuals such as myself.  I had remarked to my friend that I had seen a rack of his company’s product in a local Barnes & Noble bookstore just a week or so ago. I wouldn’t want to actually buy one, as they looked pretty cheesy, and I suspected the subject matter might be exactly what it turned out to be.  Shallow and contemptuous of truth in what could only vaguely be construed as human relations.  And, more damning to me, they were boring, blank panties or no.

This however, set me to thinking about their source, and the rich cultural history of this style of drawing.  The Japanese woodcut artists of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, especially Katsushika Hokusai and Ando Hiroshige and their contemporaries, were wildly amusing and blatantly sexy.  They made no claims on High Art, and considered themselves entertainers and illusionists as much as artisans or artists.  Hokusai was the consummate performer, drawing wall paintings in person for the emperor on silk with the empty shell of a sparrow egg, or creating vast paintings that filled an entire courtyard of the palace by wielding paint with an inked mop while a crowd of aristocrats watched from a high balcony to be able to see what he was making.

Many of his most popular woodcuts were erotic in nature.  It is quite easy to picture a nineteenth-century working-guy samurai, caught out on the perimeters of civilization fighting another year-long war, with a wallet full of provocative Hokusai prints to remind him of what was waiting at home.

But, they were not just side-show artists.  These men were indeed creators of genuinely timeless work which would hugely affect western art through the next century.  Unfortunately, their own people took these great imaginative geniuses at their word when they themselves said that they were not artists. They even disdained the designation.

So, in direct reaction, Japanese society of the day considered their work disposable.  The vast majority of this art now lies in western collections, especially in Paris. They had a very unique way of looking at things, these woodcutters, and largely utilized what was called “hierarchical perspective”. Basically that means that whatever is further up in the picture is further back, away from the viewer.  Western perspective was considered a child’s game as far as Japanese visual media were concerned.  Much simpler to just look up the picture and know how things were ordered.


A country-western concert poster drawn as a homage to Japanese woodcutters many, many years ago. Image: Jim Gabour. All Rights Reserved.

Whatever the cause, that particular part of their legacy has not made its way into the general artistic parameters of the twenty-first century.  Except in my own.  In my own youthful days of courting concert poster commissions to get myself through another month's rent and school fees, I found it a seriously entertaining bit of perversion to produce illustrations for country-western concerts employing hierarchical perspective.  I don’t think many of the concert-goers cared or even noticed, but for me it was a personal statement in a field that was basically advertising.

In the US we paid the woodcutters more mind, and their influence was especially strong  among West Coast illustrators.  Here, for well over a century, such collections of drawings had, of course, been called comic books, first working the crowd for laughs and gasps before they grew larger in scope and ambition. In recent stages they have even become “graphic novels”, basically comic books that tell adult stories, like Art Spiegelman’s Pulitzer-prize-winning epic Maus, a story of the Holocaust, told by a mouse.

No comics were as deeply “adult” as the narratives revelled in by a brilliant and brilliantly demented group of misfit X-rated artists in San Francisco in the late sixties and early seventies, of which Spiegelman was also part for a time.  R. Crumb, Victor Moscoso, Gilbert Shelton, Robert Williams, and of course the eminent master of debauch S. Clay Wilson, with whom I have continued to correspond until his physical debilitation this past year.  This work could also withstand the trial of time – once exposed, who could ever forget the delicately nuanced post-existentialism drawn boldly into Wilson’s landmark corpus “Captain Pissgums and His Perverted Pirates”?  I ask you, who?

S. Clay Wilson

One of S. Clay Wilson's cartoons. All Rights Reserved.

The comparison is obvious. The woodcuts, the graphic novels, the West Coast comics, are all brilliant, and culturally significant for different reasons.  Contemporary Japanese manga, considered as a whole, are mind-numbingly dull.

Especially since, by the usual coincidental track of life, I had just finished reading Japanese novelist Hurami Murakami’s (yes, again) unsettling, sci-fi-ish 925-page masterwork 1Q84.  I went to bed Friday after finally closing the covers on Murakami’s strange tale of human minds living simultaneously on multiple planes, and fell asleep wondering at the value of my own mental and emotional presence. Dreams that left me unsettled and hungry for answers.

Then the manga arrived.  And have now been relegated to the hinterlands of my library, to a high shelf.  I find myself all the more embarrassed for now owning them, and for the Japanese at having produced such an aesthetic waste of ink and paper.  But at the same time I cannot seem to put them in the recycling bin.  This, happening at the same moment that the power of Murakami’s words in print was causing a gai-jin on the other side of the world to question his value systems.

But the wildest and the most timeless concepts age very much alike in very different areas of life.

Saturday noon, when I finally get a chance to read the entertainment section of the morning’s newspaper,  I find a reviewer extolling the development of a new solo cabaret show by the infamous drag queen Bianca del Rio.  When in town Bianca normally holds residence four blocks from my house, in a boa-filled loft above an antique store. The newspaper’s reviewer raved about the performance piece, in which Miz del Rio impersonates half a dozen or more screen mavens, all the while filling the periods of her onstage costume changes with banter spicy enough to take the saccharine crust off a truckload of artificially-sweetened Sara Lee peach pies.

However, in chronicling the star’s current workload in other clubs around the French Quarter, the newspaperman missed the significance of one particular gig listed quietly elsewhere in the paper:  three nights a week she flaunts herself at Oz’s giant dancehall on Bourbon street hosting a very different show.  Indeed, Bianca is the solo hostess of “Drag Bingo Night”.

I had heard and read descriptions of those events.  Hilarious monologues held together by the actual drawing of numbered balls from a wire-frame mixer, and the awarding of bar tabs to winners.  In summoning an image of the Oz event, I compulsively had to mix in the memories of a five-year-old boy, me, being dragged by three spinster aunts to the Knights of Columbus Hall, where the median age was at least seventy-five, to listen to amplified howling of numbers, and hopefully win one of the homemade German-chocolate cake prizes.

The personal history rattles my consciousness.  Then I am again faced with Drag Bingo.  The mind reels through a series of images of both.

Though, after two hours of listening to genuinely mind-boggling transgender patter, I am sure my sharp-tongued eighty-year-old Aunt Chris could have held her own with Bianca.  Besides, they both favour astronomically bouffed  hair of decidedly unnatural chroma and shape.

And with this reduction of events to a series of single-panel memory flashes, once again I think of the woodcut, the cartoon, the graphic of all this living.

It is all comics, isn’t it?

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