Amidst the magical girls and sentient robots that dominate the Japanese graphic novels and comics known as manga, pockets of intrigue and eroticism lie. Not just octopus fucking and sailor-suited school girls, either. Massive: Gay Erotic Manga and the Men Who Make It, published by Fantagraphics Books, profiles the big stars and brave pioneers in the bara subgenre of manga, which stylizes burly male-on-male sex/love. Clean, directional, and graphic, Chip Kid’s wondrous cover design and layout perfectly reflects the layouts of modern magazines, making for a smooth, enjoyable experience.
It should be pointed out that we’re not discussing yaoi here, a rather popular subgenre also known as “boy’s love,” which is much more delicate, romantic, and focuses on decidedly feminized boys. Bara is fuck-you-in-the-face hyper-masculine homoerotica with authentic autobiographical story lines that touch on the reality of homosexuality in Japan, while yaoi has a more fantasy-like atmosphere. And, though Bara has a devoted cult following, it has not achieved the heights of Tumblr fame the more subtle romanticism of yaoi has.
The story begins, both literally and historically, with Gengoroh Tagame, the granddaddy of bara manga. He lifted portrayals of (male) same-sex love both from furtive underground publications and the hands of heterosexual women artists to create profitable mainstream manga written by and for gay men. Tagame took off in the mid-1980s, first with the supplement Bara-Komi (which appropriated the term “bara,” an epithet comparable to the English “pansy”) and then the wildly successful G-Men Magazine, where he began the mainstream portrayal of more graphic, masculine portrayals of homosexuality in manga. At the end of a recent interview with Tagame, published in Massive, the book’s editors remark:
“Art history contains hidden erotic dimensions. It’s not enough to read only the androgynous male beauties of the past expressions of queerness — we must expand our notions of how different bodies can and have been eroticized for centuries. To limit our interpretations of historical homoeroticism to the type of feminine beauty familiar to a heterosexual audience, Tagame asserts, is to deny the full diversity of male-male sexuality.”
Massive indeed accurately describes not only the multiple manifestations of homosexual desire, particularly in Japanese culture, but also a common aesthetic throughout all of these artists’ drawings. Some bodies are dense with compact flesh, others playfully chubby, some incredibly broad and chiseled. Most are hairy, some seem to defy physics in the amount of space they take up in a single panel. They’re larger-than-life specimens of male erotic handsomeness, whose stories match the fantastical elements associated with a clandestine love that brings copious amounts of secret satisfaction. Perhaps this is to on the one hand differentiate itself from the fragile, effeminate bodies typical of yaoi and to assert a representation of hypermasculinity that dominates the desires of gay men.
“I draw big guys,” another featured artist, Takeshi Matsu, says, “but I’m kind of more into … the skinny guy with glasses. [Big guys] are what everyone wants to see …. Bigger guys are more manly.”
In a subsequent interview, artist Jiraiya, counters that predilection, instead saying he prefers “men with big bodies.” In spite of preference or a savvy understanding of the manga market, almost every comic in this genre features massive, massive men.
The book highlights the vast similarities and individuality of nine eminent artists contributing to this genre today. Inu Yoshi found escapism in manga during his youth, and his cartoonish and playful erotica has a touch of silliness with cute, buoyant men. Takeshi Matsu keeps a low public profile, being openly gay with very few people, and his work reflects this: high school dorks pining over the big (no pun intended) man on campus. There’s a wonderful balance of deeply personal stories and prime examples of bara throughout the book.
A huge theme throughout the expository and profiles (one perhaps focused on too heavily) is the issue of internet piracy. “Scanlations,” digitally uploaded pages of the original Japanese texts translated by fans to their native language, have ravaged manga in general, with particular damage to this genre. Since it’s quite niche in Japan, the opportunities for global editions were already slight, and the pirated copies making their way around the internet have forced bara to shrink by the year. Lots of authors, like Gai Mizuki, already publish most content digitally. Anne Ishii, one of the editors of this anthology, even begins the book with an essay beseeching readers and fans to reach out to authors directly to form a legitimate translation of their works. “Scanlations” show intense interest and fandom for bara manga, but ultimately end up hurting the genre.
Even as bara begins to dwindle and seek formation elsewhere, it remains a very important part of manga culture and LGBT culture in Japan; hopefully this anthology will please ardent fans and raise the awareness that will stoke the new talent and audiences necessary to bara manga’s longevity.