Bootlegs for the bande dessinée crowd?

Bless all those scanlating souls out there. For those of you who don’t know what scanlation is, here’s a long, useful primer. I’m tired, so here’s Wikipedia to take it away:

Scanlation (sometimes scanslation) is a term used for manga comics which have been scanned and translated by fans and pirates from its native language (usually Japanese or Korean) to another language, commonly English, French or Spanish. Scanlations are generally distributed for free via the Internet, either by direct download, BitTorrent or IRC. The word scanlation comes from scan and translation.

Despite the questionable legality, copyright issues, and ethics of all this activity, and despite the fact that all this work is being done by non-professionals for no pay, scanlation is basically a cottage industry. There are lots (and lots, and lots, and lots) of sites devoted to making previously unavailable Japanese comics accessible to English-speaking Westerners. Usually, scanlation sites are devoted to specific genres of manga, but several are across-the-board. This amateur phenomenon has reached such heights that The Comics Journal has written extensively on the subject, and a book–Watching Anime, Reading Manga–that explores the subject in one of its chapters. It won’t be long before there’s a media-studies course on the aesthetic, sociopolitical, ethical, and linguistic concerns involved.

I’m very interested in amateur communities that crop up around specific (most often cult or obscure) art, usually in a conversational and haphazard fashion, primarily so that they can document and disseminate art that would be otherwise inaccessible. This folks—be they bootleg traders of live concerts, scanlators, fansubbers—know full well that there’s no profit in all this. In fact, given the amount of work involved, the cost of maintaining a website, and the oblique but ever-present threat of litigation, these amateurs are actually losing a lot.

I’m not as interested in fan fiction (read: not at all), whereby fans write new episodes of Star Trek and Buffy the Vampire Slayer using the parameters and mythologies established by the shows’s creators. I understand the impulses–both the egotistical and the communal–to create art that’s readily available; I’m a blogger, after all. We all want attention. Fan fiction writers can get it by piggybacking on the work of others. (That’s not, by the way, a criticism. It’s just a fact. Joe Blow, who dreams of being a sci-fi writer, might not get any attention or readers if he just published his own stories for free on his site. If he writes a story starring Dana Scully, however, he’s guaranteed that his stories will at least be found by googlers searching for The X-Files, and means that he’ll tap into a community of like-minded fans.)

But scanlation amounts to essentially a curatorial function. The emphasis is on making the work of others accessible, to expanding the manga’s audience through translation, high-quality scanning, and downloading capability, and to preserving comics that aren’t popular enough to be translated and reprinted in America by Tokyopop or Viz. The scanlators themselves are mostly invisible, known more through the quality (or lack thereof) of their work rather than through their own creations.

Again, all that’s interesting to me. But it’s not the focus of this post, for a simple reason: Manga’s not as interesting to me as comics from outside Japan. Sure, there are artists I love (Jiro Taniguchi–please read The Walking Man, if nothing else) and respect (Osamu Tezuka and Yoshihiro Tatsumi). Manga’s influence has been impressive but the standardized aesthetics–and I know there are exceptions upon exceptions, potential naysayers–and the dominance of the fantasy/sci-fi/horror genres leaves me cold. It’s telling that, of Japanese comics, I greatly prefer the domestic/daily life stuff to the fantastical stuff that typically makes it to America, which is 1. why scanlation sites are so valuable—they provide an outlet for this; and 2. why I like Ponent Mon more than any other manga publisher.

So, I’m not gonna delve into copyright, or give an extensive critique of manga, or anything like that. Rather, I’m posing a basic question: Why is scanlation limited to manga? I’m an ardent reader/champion of European work, particularly Francophonic comics. (The Montreal-based press Drawn & Quarterly is my hero.) But I know from reading Bart Beaty’s columns for the Comics Reporter that there’s a whole world of French, Belgian, and Canadian comics that most Americans won’t see because they’re in French. Argentina, Mexico, and the Phillippines are all big, as is the Malaysian comics scene. The Spanish, German, Italian, and Dutch scenes, taken collectively, rival the enormity of Japan’s output. The Franco-Belgian comics world has yielded as much invention, iconography, and theoretical discourse as anything produced in America or in Japan.

There are, however, few scanlation sites out there that aren’t devoted to manga. Why is that? Are there sites that I’m missing? I assume there’s a sizable cult of Euro-comics readers here, so why hasn’t a group (or several groups) formed to address the lack? What is there about Japan—as opposed to Malaysia, China, or Korea, all Asian countries with major comics industries—that holds us under sway? Certainly, there’s more people in this country (and in England and Canada) who’ve taken high-school French and Spanish than there are who have even moderately fluent in Japanese. So, why aren’t there obsessive amateurs out there providing us with a fumetto fix? There’s enough action-adventure, Western, and sci-fi bande dessinée to provide genre fans with material to translate, but no French-comics projects that I can see.

It’s enough to make me want to start up on Spanish again. Until I’m fluent enough to think this through, though, does anyone have any sites or suggestions to recommend? Does anyone want to start up a group? Please, help us all out.

About Walter Biggins

Walter Biggins is a writer based in Athens, GA. His work has been published in RogerEbert.com, Bookslut, The Comics Journal, Salon, The Baseball Chronicle, Jackson Free Press, and Valley Voices: A Literary Review. Follow him on Twitter (@walter_biggins), and check out his bimonthly newsletter (https://tinyletter.com/Walter_Biggins).
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