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CR Sunday Interview: Anne Ishii
posted May 5, 2013



Anne Ishii is a writer based in New York City. She may be best known to comics fans for her time at Vertical, helping fashion a market for adult-themed literary manga back when whether or not that would ever happen was still in doubt. Since leaving that company in mid-2007, Ishii has worked a series of gigs outside of comics on behalf of a number of wide-ranging projects. In just the last six months this has included writing work at her own Ill-Iterate and her shared-site Blasian, driving attention to the 2012 installation Architecture For Dogs, penning a Slate piece on Eddie Huang's book and acting as a public point person for the recent film series They're All So Beautiful. Ishii is also a talented translator, bringing with that gig a skill-set that would prove to be deeply useful in both instigating and executing her current comics-related project.

Ishii is a driving force behind the publication of PictureBox's brand-new The Passion Of Gengoroh Tagame: Master Of Gay Erotic Manga, on which she has a producer credit. It's a formidable book: visually powerful, directly engaging and stuffed with forcefully-told stories. It makes its formal debut at next weekend's TCAF, with Tagame on hand; a slew of New York City-based events are planned for the week after the big Toronto comics show. I'm grateful Ishii had the time to talk with me during a busy week of pre-show preparation.

I encourage everyone in attendance at next weekend's festival in Toronto to stop by the PictureBox booth and check this book out; it's something to behold. Ishii may even have merchandise on hand. -- Tom Spurgeon


imageTOM SPURGEON: I think maybe a way to approach a first question is ask after this specific project's provenance, how Passion came into being.

ANNE ISHII: This goes back to when I was still working at Vertical. I was slowly -- not slowly, really -- making my way out. Chip [Kidd] came to me personally with his collection of books by Tagame and said, "I love this guy's work, and I wish I understood what was going on in them. Can you translate some of this stuff for me?" My eyes felt like they popped out of my face [laughs] when I saw this content, not the least of reasons is that I didn't know Chip was into stuff like this.

The nature of it was so novel to me. We spent the next year just kind of talking about it. My translating it for him came in various levels of formality, from my actually translating it into a script, to just kind walking him through and telling him what the plotlines were. He really wanted to do an English version, some official version of it. He'd written English fan mail to Tagame's e-mail. We learned later that at that precise moment when Chip wrote in, Tagame was going through a bit of a depressive funk so he wasn't in any condition to answer publishing queries.

Years passed. Chip was like, "What's the deal? Is this guy interested in an English-language edition?" Because it's in Spanish and in Italian and in French at this point. A couple of years ago I met Graham: the editor, Graham Kolbeins. He does a lot of queer media stuff. He had expressed an interest in doing an editorial piece on gay Japanese manga artists. Not specifically Tagame, but Tagame came up. And the extent of his research was so broad that I actually suggested to him that maybe we should be talking about doing a book rather than you just doing an article on this stuff. When I put Graham and Chip in touch with each other, the three of us all came into the same room and said, "Yeah, let's do something like this if someone's willing to publish it and we can get these artists." Then I wrote Tagame an e-mail and this time he was very eager and willing. Tagame deserves a producer credit on this book, too, as through the course of working with us has introduced us to so much and has given us a completely open look at the gay Japanese manga scene, as it were.

I had a short list of publishers I wanted to approach about this. Dan [Nadel] was both willing and eager. I love PictureBox, so that was a no-brainer. That's the long... [laughs] that's probably a longer version than you wanted.

SPURGEON: No, that's perfect for us.

There's a bunch of stuff that comes up in that response. You mentioned other books... how is the PictureBox book like the other editions that came out? It has to be at least a little bit different for the inclusion of the story "Class Act," which was commissioned. But other than that, is
Passion basically what was released in Tagame's name in the European markets?

ISHII: No, this is very different. So what makes it different is what has happened in the past with the Italian and Spanish editions. To lump them into one translation bucket, those were direct adaptations of Japanese graphic novels. They took Japanese editions and just swapped out the language. What we did was a) the format's larger. It's about 125 percent of the original Japanese format that Tagame's used to; b) we looked at pretty much his entire canon or oeuvre -- you can make up something pretentious there [laughs] -- and while we obviously didn't pore through every single one we looked at what was available digitally and what was available rights-wise and what Tagame thought were his better stories before we made our selections. The three of us, we each picked the ones we wanted. Then, to make it new, Chip had always wanted to commission a story. So that seemed like a natural extra bonus thing to add.

SPURGEON: The second question that I have off of that original response is you talk about how Tagame could have received a producer credit distinct from his creator credit. "Producer" is how you're credited on this work; it's not a word that tends to be used with comics projects. I was wondering if you could talk about that title, and maybe draw some distinctions in what you did as opposed to the other people whose names are on the books.

ISHII: It's probably just egotism, but it's because the book involved so many moving parts between the production, the rights -- which were sort of tied up in different places because we sort of pulled different stories out of different things -- and then managing Chip, Graham, Dan and Tagame; all of those things. I guess my producer credit is due to the fact I sort of agented the book and then also translated and made sure everyone was communicating with each other. I borrowed this term from what I understand film producers go through: budget, schedule, development, overseeing -- and the one thing I did not do is anything creative. So it would have been unfair to call myself an editor or anything like that. Really I just kind of made sure everyone was heading to the same place. To that end, Tagame was an integral part for sure.


SPURGEON: Credit is fascinating in publishing, both comics and prose, because sometimes who does actual work on books is not how we credit or even conceive of people working on a book. Even when we know better, sometimes we'll say, "That person really did the work," but we don't make sure that's reflected in a title or credit. You've been around publishing long enough I have to think you've seen this kind of thing go on. Was it important to you to find a credit that fit what you did, just in terms of the statement that makes?

ISHII: Yeah, absolutely. Titles are so weird. Because I spend so much time working in marketing and other things -- sort of what I would call "Business Service" -- and for so long, regardless of industry, titles are always something that come up. In the business world -- not to tell you anything that everybody doesn't already know -- your title comes with a lot of different rules and even pay structure. So for those reasons, I think titles are more important than they really should be. Every piece of media has a million different fingerprints on it, and I'm sure each of those people would like to be identified. Even once this comes out, there will be things like, "Oh, I was the inspiration for that story." I actually don't even know the interns that work for Dan, but they should certainly be credited in some way.

I think the reason why "producer" was important to me is when I look at a lot of copyright pages in books, I know the title page is really the most important part. Wherever you can find real estate in a book is important, purely from a business standpoint. Not to sound grotesque about it, but I work for myself, and this is something I want to continue to do. It's only for those reasons I want to be called out. If I had some other amazing career that didn't require me to depend on this [laughs] I wouldn't care so much.

I think it's actually sort of symbiotic. If I give myself an important title, I think I'll work harder, be more present.

SPURGEON: There's a casualness to comics publishing that can work to the detriment of the people that do the work. There's an expressed, shared ethos that you shouldn't care about those things. You see a shrugged-shoulder reaction, "Whatever you want to call yourself."

ISHII: Yes! It's funny you should say that. If the Eisner Awards are any indication, I remember being floored the first time I saw that and the number of awards that are given out and how it's segmented. An equivalent awards show in Japan doesn't get as detailed, I would say.

SPURGEON: Now when you say this is something you want to continue to do, I'm not exactly sure what that means. Where does this book fit into your plans? This isn't our first interview; you certainly used to work in comics full-time. At the same time, this isn't something you've done a lot of since; it's been a while. Is this something you want to do, these kinds of publishing projects?

ISHII: A friend of mine who I'm actually working with over the summer on a different project had a really good point about what is a project. She made this point that for some people the project is the end product, the project is about getting something done. For a lot of other people, a project is a process. For somebody like me it's definitely important to have an end product, but it's much more important just for my career to be able to say I can be part of a process. So in that sense, maybe a more accurate title would be "project manager." But "producer" has that implication of producing a product.

Yeah, I want to do more of these producer-role projects, where it's as much about the process. For example, I wouldn't call myself just a translator. If that were the case, I'd only be working on the language of the content. There's so many more interesting things to do than wait for an editor to call me with a book they want in English. That's kind of it, I suppose. I want to package things.

SPURGEON: So what was particularly satisfying to you about the process of putting together the Passion book?

ISHII: I think a large part of it is that I knew it was something that brought pure joy to lot of people that hadn't seen it before. Including Chip, right? He was so excited about seeing this in English. He's the first person that I know of -- I'm sure there are others -- that wanted to make this available to the rest of America.

When I showed the original content of it to people, and met other people that knew about his work, they were only ever really excited. Everyone was just like, "When is this going to be in English?" I find that hugely ironic, because to me porn really isn't about narrative. [laughter] I thought it was really awesome that people wanted to read these stories. Part of the satisfaction for me was to give something that was going to be really exciting. I'd be lying if I said every single book I publicized or worked on was exciting. This one, I knew it was going to have an audience. It felt more like a social service, a public service.

I guess I have not enough meaning in my life. [laughter]


SPURGEON: You've talked a couple of times now about the power with which the work hit you. In fact, according to the introductory material, Chip discovered this work after picking up and looking at it for only a couple of seconds. There is an obvious punch to Tagame's comics. What kind of hit you about the work right away?

ISHII: [pause] Well, I think obviously the graphic nature of the content. And something about it being so outrageous, it was like listening to rap with parental advisory labels on the covers for the first time. It felt like that. It was like, "Oh, my god: dick. So much dick. So much anus." [Spurgeon laughs] It's so graphic. It's visceral: you look over your shoulder, you know?

Another thing -- and this is something we talk a lot about internally, and I hope it makes itself more obvious. It's big Asian dudes. And I had never seen that. Ever. Besides maybe sumo wrestling. Depictions of Asian are by and large small, skinny, effeminate. So that was really exciting. I just felt, "Wow. Big, burly Asian dudes."

As far as the artwork, there was something distinctly Japanese about it. There were only a handful of stories that I had seen that were in a Japanese period setting. Plenty of them were set in quote/unquote western settings. I kept confusing the settings and I kept referring his work as being very Edo and classic Japanese. I said that without realizing actually not even the majority of his narratives are set in classic Japan. I just sort of thought that because of the style. There's something very classically Japanese about it.

SPURGEON: Is there anything that revealed itself in the work as you translated it, something that you maybe didn't see at first? Is there a way your appreciation of it deepened as you worked with the material?

ISHII: The language he uses is really interesting. I find it actually arcane. Without getting too anthropological about it, the Japanese language does have so many layers. It can be as casual or as formal as it needs to be. There's this third axis in Tagame's writing that's a play on characters -- by characters I mean the ideographs. It's a very arcane usage of a lot of letters, even in the modern settings. Maybe that's why I kind of assumed it was classical Japan, because the language is... multi-layered. Those are things I didn't appreciate until I dug deeply into the production and the translation.

imageSPURGEON: So where does Tagame's work -- and I realize this may be an impossible question -- fit into what is available in terms of porn in Japan? Is there a lot more work like this, or this very distinct and idiosyncratic within that context?

ISHII: I can't pretend to know a lot about gay erotica in Japan. But I have seen enough of it to be able to contextualize Tagame. I'll borrow the description from the opinions of the real expert. There's another artist named Jiraiya, who is really popular. In my mind I feel like Tagame and Jiraiya are kind of the mom and dad of gay manga in Japan. Jiraiya is more about -- pardon the expression -- happy endings. [laughter] His stories have to end on a positive note because the last thing gays need is more torture and sadness and self-doubt.

He said something really interesting, that Tagame is the undisputed progenitor of this genre. Tagame's work is actually in a weird way open to a much wider audience. In other words: straight people, women... his audience is quite diverse. Whereas Jiraiya's work, because of how much more about fraternity and positive feelings and positive depictions of healthy male bodies, his audience is almost entirely gay men. He actually doesn't know any straight people that are really into his work. I'm sure that's an exaggeration, he probably does have straight fans. But I see what he's saying. Something about what Tagame does isn't even about being gay. It's not about homosexuality. It's about desire and the darker side of desire. It doesn't fit into a sexual category to me; it's about desire. Once you think about it that way, Tagame totally evades category. He stands out.

What's interesting to me is that it inspires so many people to do gay comics. I think a really important part of that is that Tagame is somebody that has made a stand-alone career out of this. He doesn't have a day job. This is what he does. Do you know what I mean? Everybody else, as far as I know, is working as a graphic designer or something similar somewhere else, and does this on the weekends. He's been able to make a career out of it.

SPURGEON: Before I forget, it seems to me that the comics themselves are pretty straight-forward formally. Is that a fair thing to say? Could that be part of their appeal? They seem... accessible. There's nothing about the way the stories unfold or the way the comics move that seems obtuse or arch or dependent on complex storytelling solutions. They seem easy to understand.

ISHII: Yeah, I'd agree. I think you're totally right. There are a couple of tricks in form that I think are pretty interesting. I didn't really catch this until a couple of reads. Flashbacks have a black background. There are details he forces you to call out. He does a lot of flashbacking. That's one little trick.

He might disagree, but I don't think he's a formalist. It is straight-ahead, but most of his writing... it's serialized first. He talked a lot for the next book about the relationship between artists and editors. I don't know how tight that relationship is in the US, but I know that you basically get serialized in a magazine. That's something with which you collaborate with an editor. Then they compile them into collections. There's a commercial need.

SPURGEON: The thing that's interesting to me about this work's relative accessibility is that you are forced to confront what he's talking about; there's nothing that gets into your way. There's no way to settle on some obtuse reaction to the building blocks of formal presentation distinct from content. He's in-your-face that way.

What I liked about that is the effect on tone. There's a lot that's funny in
Passion, but it's not processed the same way I think a lot of American erotic comics prefer to be processed -- there's an earnest quality that comes through. He's not joking around with this stuff. You're never laughing at what's going on even though there's an outrageousness to what you might be seeing. It's never disconnected from some serious, human engagement with ideas about desire and, say, violation. Is that a fair reading?

ISHII: Oh, yeah. I agree. I think he would say that his work is as much about making you ask questions as it is provoking a reaction, a physical response. I would say that there are as many question marks as there are boners in his work, for sure. [laughs] That's something I think he's very deliberate with. He has very specific back stories to each of his mangas. It's calculated. There's something about that that's very in tune with the BDSM culture he's from. The ritualistic aspects of provocation and reaction, the roles people play, how far is too far. He's kind of poking at the boundaries, and he's asking you to be part of his experiment in a way.


SPURGEON: I don't want to get too deeply into a direct reading of an individual story, because I think that's always best left to the reader. But there's a story in Passion called I think "Arena"...?

ISHII: Oh, yeah. Yeah.

SPURGEON: That is an amazing story.

ISHII: I know. [laughs]

SPURGEON: I think that's the stop and stare. I think that's the belle of the ball.

ISHII: [laughs] I completely agree. I thought that was an incredible story. I think for me what made it so powerful was that it's so inter-textual: there's America, there's military, there's boxing vs. karate, there's Street Fighter, my God, which I find endlessly hilarious... it's one of the only stories I saw with as diverse a cast of characters.

It's kind of like... this is a really shitty analogy, but I remember seeing La Bohème, and there's a famous scene where everybody is on the street. Like Carnival. In the production I saw, they actually brought in a fucking horse. [laughter]

SPURGEON: That's a great point.

ISHII: I was like, "Oh, my God. A real horse. A live horse just walked onstage at the Metropolitan Opera. What?" My mind started to think, "Oh my God, they had to feed it in the back. [laughs] How did they bring it in...?" That's kind of what I went through when we were editing "Arena."

SPURGEON: You're right in that one thing that is remarkable about that story is that it has all of these layers, all of these things going on. All of these individual narratives -- there's like 15 stories you could have wrung from that material just by isolating different lines of erotic inquiry. To build on your other point: you say Tagame is a deliberate artist. So this wall of effect, this tapestry of effect, that's likely deliberate, too. It's specific, anyway. How does he intend that to work, do you think? Is it that these layers play off of one another? Do they build one on another? What effect does he get out of this tightly-woven, really intense layering of narratives?

ISHII: Like a lot of literature, I suppose it forces you to slow down. There are stories I won't forget inside that one story. I think it's just the tools of a good storyteller. Maybe in experimenting with so many narrative threads, he's rendered it literary.

I don't know, I'd like to know more about the story, too. Between that and several other stories, there's a lot of voyeurism and his personal proclivities not withstanding I think that's interesting, too. Not as a motive for eroticism, but I had taken for granted until reading this the idea of being watched by a bunch of people. That's sort of pornography, isn't it? It's being read by a bunch of people. I don't know. There's something weird about a bunch of people watching the same sex act. A lot of his stories touch on that.


SPURGEON: To pivot off of "Arena," that's such an obvious anchor piece for this book, but is there one that you're happy that is in there that's maybe not as bold. Is there a story you'd send someone back to re-read, one that you liked quite a bit?

ISHII: I'm looking at the book... because I feel like looking at gay porn. [Spurgeon laughs]

"Country Doctor" is a perversion of Japanese cultural history, but it's interesting how he incorporates an animistic element. I think it scratches a couple of different itches. I think anyone looking to this as a Japanese book, and not just gay or Tagame or Chip for that matter, this is proto-Japanese. I think it was "Missing" that was really interesting also. It was called "Missing" in the original Japanese, too. It's a play on the idea of being missed and also being absent. I guess the the play on the transitive and intransitive meaning of "Missing" is interesting from a linguistic point of view. "Arena" is really sort of the centerpiece. But yeah, "Country Doctor" as well.

SPURGEON: Other than the fact the story he commissioned is in there, have you given any thought to this being a Chip Kidd book? Where might this book stand in terms of Chip's career, and how might we see Passion in the context of how we receive and process Chip's career?

ISHII: I think it's a culmination of a lot of things Chip is about, without it being his. While he's certainly worked on other gay content and he's gay, there are so many different iterations of that lifestyle that may or may not be pertinent to anything.

This represents his passion for comics. This represents his passion for Japan. And Tagame as a singular artist. I have a weird perspective on it because Chip knows everything about comics, but when we worked at Vertical together, there was quite a bit of a learning curve for him with manga. He knows tons about it, of course, but at the time we were learning about a lot of it together. I have a distinctly manga background, if anything. It was interesting to learn it together, I guess. If that makes sense. To see this book with his name on it and my name on it represents an education. I don't know how else to put that.

SPURGEON: You're bringing Tagame over to North America: first to TCAF, and then for some New York City events the week after. You're either managing or working with Dan Nadel on the PR end of this book. Can I ask you a couple of questions about that?

ISHII: Yeah, sure.

imageSPURGEON: Are there specific challenges in placing a book like this with its audience? I don't even know if you feel like you're creating an audience here, or if it's just about finding where those people are.

ISHII: This will never be blurbed by the Tibet House. [laughter]

You know what it is? I have yet to show this book to anybody that has the guts to tell me they're appalled by it. So what's happened is that everybody has said they loved it. They might be lying. I say that I like things that I don't sometimes, to get people off of my back. I think the beauty in a book this obscene, this technically obscene, is that if it offends you, it will be so offensive you're not actually going to care. It's not uncanny. It's just pure. I think its spectrum is pretty narrow.

I don't think this will be a nationwide bestseller. The people that like it are going to love it and the people that are fascinated by it are going to own it as an artifact. So that's the market. That's how I'm thinking of it strategically.

It's not just for gay people. It will be for people in the BDSM community, for sure. It will also be for women who are into depictions of men. Sex is sex is sex.

Having said that, with the PR stuff, Dan and I sort of agreed that it was going to be hard to get straight-ahead book reviews of this. Having said that, a lot of people want to talk about Tagame, and our role in making this book. That's what I hope is the vehicle for this book, a discussion about the publishing process, so that more books like this get published. I know a lot of people are interested in something like this, but they're afraid there's not enough of a market for it. I think by talking about how the book was done, people will do more books like it. If that makes sense.

SPURGEON: It does. That kind of takes us full circle. There is an element to a lot of the work you've done in comics that you're not just presenting an original work but providing an argument for more of that work. There's a social service aspect to it.

ISHII: Yes. Exactly. I have to keep reminding myself that there are things in this book that will freak out or offend people. It manages not to be about politics. It manages not to be about hate crimes. There's violence in here, but it's not anti-gay. My agenda might have just been to see more iterations of different kind of Asian male corpulence and corpulence in general. So in that sense it's also a social service from my point of view.

SPURGEON: Is there a specific misconception you're worried about?

ISHII: About the book?

SPURGEON: The book is very direct. If you push back against this book, you're pushing back against the content of this book.

ISHII: Right.

SPURGEON: Is there a way this book can be processed about which you worry?

ISHII: I hadn't really thought about this. One big misconception I'm definitely worried about is sometimes when I talk about this without showing the content, a pretty common, sort of knee-jerk reaction I hear is, "Well, Japan is the country where you can buy used panties in a vending machine." Right? I hear that a lot. That there's something more perverted about Japanese popular culture.

I wouldn't want this to be put into the same category as panties in a vending machine. As long as people know that these things don't exist in the same place. If you go to a bookstore in Tokyo and find Tagame's book, you'll see that they're packaged like [Roberto] Bolano books. They're beautifully packaged. That's because he's respected. Not that there's anything disrespectful about panties in vending machines, per se, [laughs] but I wouldn't want anyone to think this was just some simplistic, pulp artifact.

SPURGEON: Chip Kidd talks about this a bit in his introduction. He brings up the Tom Of Finland comparison -- specifically, that it's not apt, that Tagame is a very different artist, his own artist. And I would imagine there's a fine line between granting someone that individuality and seeing them as a specific creature of culture. But Tagame strikes me as a world artist.

ISHII: I do think that his holding hands with us, an Chip in particular, sets the context in a really positive way. If we had just done something like the Europeans, and repackaged something that had existed in Japanese, it would have been out of context and left to flail on its own with American readers. I think it helps that Chip and Ed White wrote prefaces. It's not so isolated.


* The Passion of Gengoroh Tagame: Master of Gay Erotic Manga, Gengoroh Tagame and Anne Ishii and Graham Kolbeins and Chip Kidd, PictureBox, softcover, 256 pages, 0984589244 (ISBN10), 9780984589241 (ISBN13), April 2013, $29.95.
* Gay Manga!
* Anne Ishii on Twitter
* Anne Ishii Site


* other than the cover, art for this interview is split between imagery from "Arena" and "Country Doctor." The jpegs were supplied by Graham Kolbeins. Thanks, Graham.