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“Two boys have bad eye”: The Labor of Looking and Representation in The Four Immigrants Manga

Henry Kiyama’s semi-autobiographical bilingual comic strip, The Four Immigrants Manga: A Japanese Experience in San Francisco, 1904–1924 (1931), follows four Japanese student immigrants in the early years of the twentieth century and depicts the hardships they face as they try to settle in California, find employment, and learn to navigate the modern American metropolis. The Manga takes on contemporaneous cultural representations of East Asian immigrants, simultaneously uncovering and giving form to the affective, social, and historical processes that underlie the production of racial stereotypes. At the same time, it traces the author’s artistic development and shows him working assiduously to master traditional Western painterly techniques in order to “create some masterpieces, fusing the best of East and West.”[1] In this way, the comic strip represents and examines its own mode of production, typifying the modernist artwork’s self-conscious reflection on its own conditions of possibility. In setting up the parallel between Henry’s artistic labor and the other characters’ abortive attempts to secure jobs and make profitable investments, Kiyama’s work makes explicit the interdependence of the historically specific forms of aesthetic production at the turn of the century and the form of labor under capitalism. It gives expression to what Stewart Martin characterizes as the “antinomy of autonomous art in capitalist culture,” whereby the modernist work of art “obscures its constitution within commodity culture” by way of its formal abstraction, only to converge with the commodity form by virtue of the exchange-value it accrues, paradoxically, as a work of art.[2]

Following Frankfurt School theorists Walter Benjamin, Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer, Martin locates this tension in the opposition between “high” art and mass culture, arguing that the illusion of art’s autonomy is dispelled as soon as an artwork is situated in a broader set of cultural and economic practices. Through its numerous references to other artistic media, including painting, poetry, and sculpture, the Manga juxtaposes these more traditional art forms with the comic strip, embodying the tension between the highbrow and the lowbrow. These references are typically embedded in panel backgrounds, as objects decorating an interior, or implicit in the setting of particular episodes, such as the four episodes that take place at the 1915 World’s Fair. In this way, the Manga invites its readers to focus on the context in which the highbrow work of art emerges as the highbrow work of art. It concretizes Adorno and Horkheimer’s theoretical account of the relationship between the lowbrow and the serious, whereby “[l]ight art has been the shadow of autonomous art” over the course of the modern culture industry’s development and functions as “the social bad conscience of serious art.”[3] Light art is instrumental in generating the illusion of “the purity of bourgeois art,” allowing us to grasp high modernism as high modernism (Adorno and Horkheimer, “The Culture Industry,” 135).[4] This dialectical approach to the relationship between aesthetic form and social reality allows us to make sense of the emergence of the early comic strip as well as its formal distinctiveness.

Existing accounts of the relationship between comics and the art world take the form of a “sociology of the arts,” drawing on Pierre Bourdieu’s theory of cultural production, which situates artworks within distinct cultural fields and classifies them according to their level of independence from the economic sphere.[5] While this mode of analysis connects the cultural value of works of art to historically variable conditions of production, circulation, and consumption, it fails to grasp the value of aesthetic autonomy as both an illusion produced by the formal properties of modernist works of art and as a product of the labor relations that characterize the modern economic sphere. It reduces the function of an artwork to the position it occupies in the realm of consumption, thus reproducing the dichotomy between the everyday products of mass culture and the experimental avant-garde. This article calls for a reconsideration of the comic strip’s status in relation to high art in an effort to reveal the mutual dependence of mass culture and high modernism as aesthetic forms that give expression to social reality and simultaneously point beyond it.

The tropes and stereotypes produced and reproduced by the culture industry reflect the material conditions of the laboring masses, often comprised of immigrants and minorities, in capitalist America. The hybrid form of the comic strip—its assimilation of these vernacular tropes, of high modernist techniques from a range of media, and of artistic practices from diverse cultural traditions—itself embodies the tension not only between the highbrow and the lowbrow, but also between the dominant mode of cultural production and its marginalized producers and consumers. This article treats the early comic strip as high modernism’s shadow, its dialectical “other,” and, through the example of The Four Immigrants Manga, seeks to bring to light contributions made to modernism by those subjects of modernity who have traditionally been excluded from its narrative of progress. The first section, “Mistaken Identities,” contextualizes the emergence of stereotypical representations of laboring East-Asian immigrants and, through close analysis of early episodes in the Manga, discloses the logic of ambivalence at the heart of the stereotype. The figure of the stereotype focalizes the comic strip’s conflicted relation to its social and historical subject matter as well as its own status as an art form.

The comic strip exemplifies what Miriam Hansen termed vernacular modernism, an innovative, popular form born out of the cultural and linguistic collisions that defined the experience of modernity for the urban masses in the early twentieth century.[6] This article’s second section, “Hybrid Modernism,” explores three interconnected forms of hybridity in the Manga: 1) the fusion of literary and visual elements; 2) the synthesis of Eastern and Western artistic practices; and 3) the convergence of highbrow and popular art forms. This hybrid modernism is informed by and gives shape to new “readerly” forms of spectatorship and “spectatorial” forms of reading, signaling the democratization and globalization of culture. Although Kiyama ended up publishing the entire comic strip as an integral story, he had originally hoped to have it serialized in one of the Japanese language or bilingual dailies that had appeared at the turn of the century and marked the beginning of the Japanese immigrant press in America. Kiyama’s oeuvre owes much of its stylistic and narrative approach to coeval American comic strips, such as Rudolph Dirks’s The Katzenjammer Kids, Frederick Burr Opper’s Happy Hooligan, and Winsor McCay’s Little Nemo in Slumberland, to which Kiyama repeatedly alludes.[7] Yet he also draws on Japanese written forms and aesthetic traditions, which he combines with Western artistic conventions, allowing us to re-conceptualize the aesthetic relationship between the East and the West and to grasp the distinction between high art and popular culture as determined by notions of race, nationality, and class specific to capitalist modernity.

Kiyama’s take on the comic strip form demonstrates its power to illustrate the representational difficulties, in both the sociopolitical and aesthetic sense, faced by minority groups in their attempts to remake their image and identity among the larger urban communities. His work reveals the formal and discursive processes that produce racial and gendered stereotypes while also pointing to the possibility of moving beyond the norms that are reproduced through these images. In the final section of this article, I consider Kiyama’s use of the topography of the World’s Fair to generate contrasting models of spectatorship that challenge the reliability of stereotypical images of East Asian immigrants and African American women. His representations of race and gender coincide with moments of self-reflexivity in the comic strip, where depictions of artistic labor point to the constructed and fluid nature of stereotypes and help situate them in a larger context of socio-economic relations under modern capitalism. The comic strip’s mode of aesthetic production allows for a clearer understanding of the political possibilities of modernism as a whole by making explicit its reflection of historically specific relations of production in the industrialized world of the early twentieth century.

Mistaken Identities

As Yuki Ichioka explains in his historical study of the first generation of Japanese immigrants in the United States, student laborers were the pioneers of the Japanese immigrant community, encouraged by their government to set up businesses to import Japanese products as a way to boost their country’s exports.[8] The opening episode of Kiyama’s Manga, entitled “Arrival in San Francisco,” reveals its protagonists’ ambitions, which echo Ichioka’s narrative: “to become a successful California farmer like Mr. Ushijima, the ‘potato king,’ to help others come here”; “to import goods from the Empire, and thus help our nation become the most prosperous” (fig. 1). Kinji Ushijima, who changed his name to George Shima after immigrating to San Francisco in 1889, had been a member of one of the first agricultural colonies in California.[9] He had in turn been inspired by accounts of the settlement by student immigrants and by popular guides to America, many of which appeared in Japan in the 1880s and the early 1900s. Ichioka describes several examples of important periodicals and guides for student-laborers, which presented a hyperbolic and “deceptively alluring image” of the United States (The Issei, 11). Kiyama’s Manga functions as a satiric foil and a corrective to such images by presenting the difficulties and discrimination experienced by the student immigrants, as well as the darker aspects of the community, such as gambling and prostitution, which had given the Japanese government cause for concern over its image overseas.

Henry Kiyama, “Episode 1: Arrival in San Francisco,” The Four Immigrants Manga: A Japanese Experience in San Francisco, 1904–1924, trans. Frederik L. Schodt (Berkeley, CA: Stone Bridge Press, 1999), 30–31.
Fig 1. Henry Kiyama, “Episode 1: Arrival in San Francisco,” The Four Immigrants Manga: A Japanese Experience in San Francisco, 1904–1924, trans. Frederik L. Schodt (Berkeley, CA: Stone Bridge Press, 1999), 30–31. © Estate of Yoshitaka Kiyama.

The “Arrival” episode introduces the title characters as they land in San Francisco and give themselves new names and Americanized identities. This moment of self-effacement and self-reinvention, marked by the characters’ incarceration and subsequent liberation, provides the reader with their cultural background, though not with their real names or any specific biographical information. It simultaneously evokes and erases their pre-existing identities in order to clear the slate for their new life and their possible self-realization as modern subjects in “the land of opportunity.” In contrast to the first six panels, which depict the protagonists’ disembarkation as well as their detention and “disinfection,” presumably at the famous quarantine station on Angel Island, the background of the introductory panels is mostly blank. The empty space visually highlights the gesture of erasure and the uncertainty faced by the characters, both as individuals and as representatives of a minority group still in the process of formation. Read as a meta-reflection on the formal-generic status of the comic strip, the blank space also reflects the burgeoning form’s characteristically modernist anxiety over its own origins and development.

Against the bare background of these panels, the reader encounters token cultural signifiers in the form of East Asian dishware and eating utensils symmetrically juxtaposed with the written dialogue and with the capitalized Western names.[10] They seem to undermine the enthusiasm for cultural reinvention expressed in the dialogue by diverting the reader’s eye down and away and by re-inscribing the characters’ national identities. The characters in Chinese dress serving and eating food in panels 8 and 10 further disrupt the process of identification (fig. 1). Their images are already prefigured in panel 4, in the dialogue between Frank and Charlie and in the form of the written characters on the wall. They function as reminders of the decades of discrimination against Chinese immigrants and of the long-term tendency on the part of Western readers to conflate the Chinese and Japanese cultures into one stereotype of the East Asian “other.”

The merging of Chinese and Japanese features in popular Western representations contemporary with Kiyama’s Manga is explored by Colleen Lye through Jack London’s 1904 essay “The Yellow Peril.” According to Lye, London develops “a discourse of Western decline . . . through the opposite and combined categories of ‘Japan’ and ‘China,’” where the Chinese are characterized as ideally “suited to industry” and the Japanese as the inheritors of Western civilization’s “potential for historical development,” prepared to undertake the management of Chinese labor power and thus “[mediate] the modernization of China.”[11] Lye writes:

The binary opposition between “East” and “West” assumed by the “yellow peril” also therefore entails a binary opposition between the key identities that compose the “East”. The possibility of a Western exclusion effected by the rise of East Asia rests on the notion that Japan and China are two opposite types of civilization . . . The yellow peril fantasy is thus to be located within this constellation of discourses. (America’s Asia, 16)

Her binary-within-binary configuration helps illuminate the different sets of cultural relationships illustrated in the Manga, where the Japanese and Chinese characters are simultaneously differentiated and blended together. This process is exemplified in the eleventh episode, entitled “Mistaken Identity,” where an American woman looking for a Japanese domestic worker is not able to tell whether the foreigners she encounters are Chinese or Japanese, and ends up offending the Japanese consul by mistaking him for a laborer (fig. 2). In this episode, Kiyama turns the woman into the object of the Chinese cook’s joke in panel 8 for seeing “all same” and not being able to spot the carefully inscribed class differences between the two nationalities. The Westernized clothing of the Japanese characters—especially the consul—as well as the newspapers held by the students in the first two panels that signify their education and worldliness stand in vivid contrast with the broken chairs carried by the Chinese carpenter, but remain invisible to the woman, who focuses solely on the race of her interlocutors. Her conflation of ethnicity with an endless supply of free wage labor exemplifies the use of stereotypes to perpetuate the social dynamics of capitalism.[12] The generic reference to Japanese immigrants as “Charie,” echoed by other Western characters in the Manga, negates the individualizing gesture of the characters’ self-naming in the “Arrival” episode.[13] The character of Charlie is thus reduced to a stereotype linguistically as well as visually but also reveals the contingent and mutable nature of the characteristics affixed to him.

Kiyama, “Episode 11: Mistaken Identity,” The Four Immigrants Manga, 50–51.
Fig 2. Kiyama, “Episode 11: Mistaken Identity,” The Four Immigrants Manga, 50–51. © Estate of Yoshitaka Kiyama.

This episode not only presents a satirical representation of Americans in their xenophobic attitude towards East Asian immigrants, but also ironizes the questionable attitude displayed by each immigrant group towards the other that permeates the entire narrative of the Manga and, as we shall see, extends to other ethnic minorities. It reveals the complex multidirectional effect of stereotyping, whereby its objects internalize its discourse and attempt to reclaim subjectivity by reproducing and applying this discourse to a different object. At the same time, we are made aware of the fragility of the process through the American woman’s and the Chinese cook’s failure to identify and define “the other” in a reliable and fixed manner. As demonstrated by Homi Bhabha in his famous essay on the ambivalence at the heart of the stereotype, the object of stereotyping is shown to be unstable, and the attempts by objectified characters to recover representational agency demonstrate that it is precisely this fluid and contradictory nature of the stereotype that ensures its reproducibility.[14] Bhabha acknowledges, however, in his first footnote, that he does not adequately address “the representation of class difference in the construction of the colonial subject” (“The Other Question,” 18). As a result, the dynamic he articulates provides an invaluable framework for thinking through the instability of identity in philosophical terms, but fails to account for the historical specificity of identity categories as such. In the Manga, the emphasis on the characters’ class and their role in a larger set of relations of production allows the reader to recognize that the treatment of race and ethnicity is inextricably bound up with the concrete economic conditions that characterize the comic strip’s historical moment.[15]

The character of the Chinese waiter who deflates Charlie’s introductory speech in panel 10 of the “Arrival” episode further discloses the representational mechanisms at work in the construction and possible breakdown of stereotypes (fig. 1). As Charlie expresses his hopes for “the democratic systems of this republic” and, by extension, for its proclaimed ideals of freedom and equality, the waiter symbolically looms over his shoulder, striving to silence him. He serves as a historical reminder, exemplifying the fate of the majority of Chinese immigrants in San Francisco, who had to learn the English language and resort to low-wage labor in the restaurant and laundry industries. It is clear from Charlie’s adoption of Western fashion and from his body language—he is turning away from the waiter—that he seeks to be differentiated from this previous group of East Asian immigrants. The color contrast between their clothes and backgrounds emphasizes this desire for difference. However, the waiter’s dismissive remark in pidgin English, made while Charlie echoes his friends’ clichéd ambitions to acquire new skills, wealth, and knowledge in order to bring prosperity to the Japanese Empire, serves to undercut the interpretation of the young men’s national pride and attachment to their cultural background as an affirmation of a stable identity or as a safeguard against its erasure. The waiter’s mockery exposes the characters as stereotypes of the naïve Japanese student immigrant and points to the importance of language and discourse in the production and regulation of such images and identities.

Through the waiter’s interruption and the antagonistic juxtaposition of two images of East Asian stereotypes, Kiyama brings to light the tension at the heart of the concept of the stereotype—its non-identity with itself—which, according to Bhabha, enables its reproducibility and simultaneously exposes its limitations. The characters’ positions within the panel, which can be interpreted in several possible ways, depending on the direction or order in which the visual elements in the panel are read, help further illustrate this tension. The figure of the waiter is seen standing behind Charlie’s left shoulder in the background, yet Kiyama’s disregard for the rules of Western perspective has the effect of collapsing the distinction between the panel background and its foreground and suspending the waiter alongside Charlie on the space of the page.[16] This spatial collapse generates a temporal ambiguity within the panel by combining the past, present, and the future into one moment. It functions at once as a pre-existing image against which Charlie and his friends would be read and classified by the new society they are about to enter as well as a future image, predicting what they might turn into and the adversity they are destined to live through. Kiyama’s representation of the relationship between the two groups of immigrants, combined into one figure of otherness by the dominant culture, exposes the vacillation or moment of slippage that takes place between the fixed image of the object of stereotyping and its repetition or reproduction, highlighting the temporal ambiguity of the process. It also demonstrates that this slippage is not merely external to the object of stereotyping but is internalized and reproduced from within as well.

In panel 10, the intersection of the doorframe with the horizontal line marking the bottom of the wall works with the panel borders to create a frame around Charlie that stresses his function as an image as well as a character (fig. 1). The lines in this panel recall those of the fence of the detention station in panel 3 on the opposite page and accentuate the extent to which Charlie’s attempt at self-definition is discursively bound by the stereotype of the waiter. Kiyama thus points to the interdependence of discursive and spatial containment as gestures perpetuating Asian exclusionism. Furthermore, the door frame and the serving tray form a partial frame around the waiter, simultaneously equating him with Charlie—an ironic materialization of the concept of equality invoked by Charlie’s reference to democracy in his speech—and underlining their differences. These framing devices emphasize and de-temporalize the connection between the two characters, again revealing the temporal ambiguity underlying the ambivalence of stereotyping. At the same time, they suggest that the roles of wage-laborer and customer are reversible and therefore contingent. The formal strategies developed by the comic strip thus work to elude any one fixed or stable interpretation and show it to be an ambivalent form itself. By making apparent in spatial and temporal terms the slippage that takes place within stereotypes and thus de-contextualizing them, the strip dialectically reveals the extent to which stereotypes as identity categories are historically constituted and bound to their specific socio-historical contexts. In order to understand the stereotypes of Chinese and Japanese immigrants referenced by Kiyama, we need to read the details in each panel—the characters’ facial features, their clothing, and the eating utensils—and to grasp their socio-historical significance. Yet we must also take into account the characters’ function as images or figures that exceed their backgrounds and the sum of their accouterments. The interdependence of these two modes of interpretation brings to light a dialectical image of identity that is grounded in concrete historical conditions—those experienced by immigrant laborers in the United States at the turn of the twentieth century under modern capitalism—but is simultaneously striving to operate outside of these conditions by overcoming them from within.

Hybrid Modernism

The complex spatial organization of the panels in the opening episode fuses the existing conventions of the American comic strip with formal and stylistic elements from Japanese pictorial and calligraphic art. Similarly, their linguistic dimension combines mostly English and Japanese words, working to further multiply the interpretive possibilities and offer potentially different meanings to different groups of readers with varying readerly practices. As Frederik Schodt, the translator of the Manga, explains, Kiyama predominantly arranges the sequence of the panels and the dialogue within them to be read horizontally, from left to right.[17] This arrangement imitates the format of popular American (and European) cartoonists, thus conforming to the Anglo-European reader’s habits and prompting Japanese readers to adapt (the numbering of the panels works to facilitate this process). However, throughout the work, Kiyama occasionally reverts back to the Japanese-style narrative progression within panels, requiring the English-speaking reader to switch modes and mentally flip the panels into their mirror image. Interestingly, Schodt assumes this to be unintentional and attempts to correct the mistakes by digitally flipping some of the “problem panels” in the translation in order to standardize the narrative logic across the entire book, but he runs into difficulties with this editing technique in moments where it corrupts or displaces significant visual elements within the panels and risks further confounding the continuity of the story (“On Translating,” 17). Schodt focuses primarily on the order of the dialogue as the determinant of the direction of reading and as the source of the interpretive ambiguity. However, the ambiguity is also built into the spatial arrangement of the additional visual elements in the panels, which can be apprehended differently depending on whether the reader is accustomed to the Western tradition of perspective and sense of space in art or to the Japanese tradition, or able to operate within both. In panels such as the one depicting Charlie and the waiter, where meaning arises from the tension between the background and the foreground, the different elements can be read either synchronically or progressively, as occurring simultaneously or unfolding across time (in either direction along the horizontal axis of the panel) depending on whether one relates the close-range features continuously to the distant range along a geometric axis, as in the Renaissance theory of perspective, or juxtaposed synchronically across the spatial plane, with no middle range.

Timon Screech dates the rise of Western perspective as a mode of representation in Japanese popular culture to the second quarter of the eighteenth century and explains that “[i]n Japan too, many ways of simulating the third dimension had been known since antiquity, but the calculation and rigid application of such techniques had never been thought the definition of good art, much less the primary objective of representation.”[18] Western perspective pictures were associated with a cumbersome number of conventions, both for the artist and the viewer. They involved rules that guided viewers towards a “correct” way of looking, to make sure they were able to distinguish between the foreground and the background and attain a realistic effect. The Western style was thus regarded as connoting carefully crafted illusion and, ultimately, as antithetical to the notion of a realist aesthetics. Furthermore, “perspective manifested itself less in painting than in prints,” because few European paintings ever traveled to Edo Japan and the majority of imported prints were cheap, “single-sheet townscape views . . . aimed at the ordinary citizen . . . [and] not billed as great art” (Screech, “The Meaning of Western,” 59, 60). Perspective, therefore, came to be considered as a mark of lower-grade products such as disposable prints and Japanese versions of the vue d’optique known as “peeping pictures,” which were viewed through “peep-glasses” or “peep-boxes” to create a three-dimensional effect. Screech’s research thus suggests that the Manga draws on a long-standing practice of incorporating Western perspective into popular art forms while, at the same time, emphasizing the relative novelty of such incorporation into ostensibly more sophisticated forms of art, such as painting.

When Kiyama came to the United States, his goal as an art student, according to Schodt’s biographical notes, was to “[master] . . . the Western techniques of color, shading, and perspective.”[19] The character of Henry declares as much in panel 7 of the first episode and is subsequently seen working towards his intention (fig. 1). Episode 15, “News of a Parent’s Death,” for instance, features him practicing nudes and landscape painting in front of Charlie, who complements him on his improvement (fig. 3). In this episode, Henry is seen laboring in the background of panels 6–12 in a manner that echoes the waiter from the opening episode and illustrates the interdependence of artistic labor and the larger set of relations of production under modern capitalism. Kiyama also has his character make clear in the opening episode that he hopes to “contribute to the art world back home in Asia” and to integrate his Western training into the Asian aesthetic tradition. The themes of integration and consolidation are concretized through the image of Henry painting a Japanese cemetery in San Mateo County in episode 15, combining Japanese subject matter with an American setting. Additional references to Japanese art and calligraphy are embedded alongside allusions to Western art elsewhere throughout the Manga in order to underscore the hybrid nature and the multicultural origins of Henry’s (and, self-reflexively, Kiyama’s) style. The Manga thus brings together disparate sets of artistic conventions from the Eastern and Western traditions and combines high and low stylistic registers, reproducing existing practices from popular art forms while simultaneously referencing more highbrow forms like painting. It also invokes modern technological media—cinema, photography, and telegraphy—alongside the traditional artistic media of writing, drawing, and painting (among others), highlighting the comic strip’s indebtedness to and fusion of these various means of aesthetic production. The comic strip form combines and superimposes all these elements, creating a kind of pidgin aesthetic vocabulary that parallels the pidgin language spoken by many of the characters, including the Chinese waiter in the opening episode.

Kiyama, “Episode 15: News of a Parent’s Death,” The Four Immigrants Manga, 58–59.
Fig 3. Kiyama, “Episode 15: News of a Parent’s Death,” The Four Immigrants Manga, 58–59. © Estate of Yoshitaka Kiyama.

Kiyama’s idiom typifies the aesthetic tendency identified by Christopher Bush as ideographic modernism. It enacts the transformation of artistic practices through “cross-cultural imaginings and encounters,” showing how these practices are absorbed and, in turn, reshaped by mass culture.[20] Kiyama’s use of the written Japanese characters allows him to illustrate the interdependence of visual and linguistic elements in his conceptualization of the relationship between Japan and the West. This interdependence is prefigured in the linguistic juxtapositions in panels 4 and 5 of the “Arrival” episode, where English, Chinese, Russian, and Greek become indistinguishable and therefore interchangeable for Charlie and Hank, and where Chinese and Japanese characters are collapsed onto the page alongside English, with the spoken form of language in the speech bubbles set against its written or visual form on the wall of the detention station to emphasize its plural identity (fig. 1). The languages are layered alongside the additional visual and numerical elements in the panels to help signpost the multiple interpretive options.[21] This discursive superimposition, therefore, operates on both perceptual and conceptual levels, and results in a kind of prototypical universal language that brings to mind Walter Benjamin’s notion of prompt language:

Significant literary work can only come into being in a strict alternation between action and writing; it must nurture the inconspicuous forms that better fit its influence in active communities than does the pretentious, universal gesture of the book—in leaflets, brochures, articles, and placards. Only this prompt language shows itself actively equal to the moment.[22]

In his examination of twentieth-century vernacular modes of story-telling, Jared Gardner compares the aesthetic properties of the comic strip to those of Benjamin’s prompt language, identifying each form as a product of the creative alliance between the intellectual and the worker with the potential to democratize the notion of authorship and help literature adapt to new social realities. Gardner points out that Benjamin ought to have recognized “the foundational importance of the comic form when looking at newspapers” and celebrated their role in the foundation of  “an international moving script” (Benjamin, One-Way Street, 62–63).[23] Like prompt language, the comic strip was born out of the cultural and linguistic collisions that characterized the experiences of the urban masses in turn-of-the-century American cities. These masses were comprised, in large part, of immigrant laborers with diverse language and literacy levels who were learning to navigate their environment through these accessible popular forms, which in turn helped educate their audience into new narrative practices and reading methods for the new century. Much like the newspapers that housed them, comic strips regularly depicted city life, class conflict, and the plight of the immigrant poor, while also deconstructing the operating myths of American society that were fed to this increasingly attractive demographic through dazzling images and advertisements. The promise that wealth and success were attainable even to disenfranchised immigrants in a country purportedly distinguished by a fluidity of social classes is rehearsed by Kiyama’s characters in their introductory speeches in episode 1 but is simultaneously undermined by the formal machinations of the comic strip.

In order to further elucidate this process, I would like to return briefly to Screech’s account of the development of Western perspective in Japan, where he places particular emphasis on the different ways of looking entailed by different uses of perspective and the different degrees of reliability that they produce. He quotes Shikitei Sanba’s reference to an exaggerating “ten-league European gaze,” implying that perspective, even when used by Japanese artists, still required the ability to “[look] in a Western way” with the understanding that the resulting gaze was a “convoluted, anti-empirical” one and that perspective pictures represented “precisely what was not true or not real” (Screech, “The Meaning of Western,” 66, emphasis removed). In episode 15, as Henry is practicing landscape painting from the top of a hill in Colma, Charlie makes a reference to the difference between their ways of looking at the Japanese cemetery on the next hill: “You’re a painter, so you see art. Me, I see a forsaken graveyard, and the suffering we endure until we all arrive there” (fig. 3). Unlike Henry, who looks out into the distance, Charlie, who gazes down at his feet, refuses to be deceived by the Western point of view. His “funny line” in panel 11 about gazing down (with his eyes closed!) from a hill at the “hearths of people,” which turn out to be the chimneys of a crematorium, parodies the “ten-league European gaze” and subverts it with a dose of morbid reality. Meanwhile, Henry appears unmoved by Charlie’s references to the material conditions—the ongoing suffering of the Japanese immigrant community—that have produced the subject matter for his art. As will become apparent throughout the subsequent episodes, Henry’s artistic development will necessitate the reconciliation of the embellishing point of view with the empirical one.

Screech mentions existing hybrid forms—illustrated popular stories that used “traditional Japanese spatial configurations only to switch to Western perspective when a flashy or insolent interior is invoked” (“The Meaning of Western,” 66). The implication here is that the combination of the two styles calls for suspicious reading on the part of the audience and teaches them to question not only the truth content of what is presented, but also the manner in which a point of view is constructed. These hybrid forms anticipate the tension between different modes of viewing that we find in Kiyama and prefigure the relationship between visibility, truth, and representation in colonial discourse as theorized by Bhabha in “The Other Question.” The example in episode 11, where the Western woman’s gaze arrogantly erases the difference between two distinct ethnic groups, can therefore be situated within a framework that classifies different modes of spectatorship according to their reliability and unveils the positions of power and domination that construct these (fig. 2). Similarly, in the arrival episode, the characters’ ability to see and therefore read is immediately questioned by the first foreigner they meet, who tells them, in panel 2, that they have “bad eye” and must be quarantined (fig. 1). This first encounter indicates that they are about to enter into a subordinating relationship with the dominant culture. This relationship is then reversed in episode 11, where the American woman is derided by the Chinese cook, whose accusation—“look see all same”—suggests that the woman’s position as a representative of the dominant culture, much like her inability to see correctly, is contingent on a historically specific power dynamic, one shaped by the relations of production—expressed in this case as the relationship between the wage-earning immigrant workers and the capitalist seeking free labor. The interaction between the characters here also underscores the co-implication of spectatorship and commerce, suggesting that ways of looking are also ways of consuming.

Back in episode 1, the immigrants’ sight is seemingly lost in panel 5, when the lights are turned out and the background goes dark, shortly after Charlie and Hank are seen attempting to decipher the written characters on the wall in panel 4 (fig. 1). This coincides with the moment where the distinction between languages becomes blurred and meaning is lost, which then leads Charlie to complain that no one understands his English and Frank to insist that they need to study it anew. The act of reading and interpretation presented in panel 4 also functions as a moment of formal self-reflexivity, with Frank gazing meaningfully at the readers and inviting them to recognize this situation as a mirror of not only their attempt to understand the character of the immigrants, but of the encounter between Eastern and Western cultural and written forms more broadly. In this way, the strip offers readers a mise en abyme of its own mode of storytelling and meaning production. Schodt’s translation of the “Hey, stupid!” Japanese graffiti in the margin directs it even more insistently towards the reader than the original on the wall, and implies that the reader, just like the characters, will need to acquire a new language and adapt to new reading and viewing strategies over the course of the book. In this light, the blank background of the introductory panels 7–10 that gradually fills up with detail comes to signify a renewal of vision and a reinvention for the reader as much as the characters.

Visualizing Race and Gender at the World’s Fair

In the second half of his book, Kiyama devotes four episodes to the Panama Pacific International Exposition of 1915 (PPIE), which embodies the protagonists’ visual and cultural experience of the United States and encapsulates the large-scale cultural and aesthetic encounter between Asia and the West exemplified and challenged throughout the Manga (figs. 4–7). This World’s Fair, also known as the “Jewel City,” was curated in celebration of the completion of the Panama Canal and of San Francisco’s reconstruction after the 1906 earthquake (which Kiyama deals with in episodes 20–23). The countless displays, showcasing the latest feats and technological developments in the spheres of art, communication, transportation, education, agriculture, energy, infrastructure, and warfare, were “intended to expose the visitors to the newest and greatest aspects of human culture, creativity, and ingenuity from around the globe,” while also symbolizing American modernization and the country’s prominent influence on the global economic and political scene.[24] A particular emphasis was placed on strengthening economic relations with East Asia and celebrating a half-century of US-Japanese trade, which had led to a dramatic expansion of US military and commercial power in the Pacific.

Kiyama, “Episode 32: The Panama Pacific International Exposition,” The Four Immigrants Manga, 92–93.
Fig 4. Kiyama, “Episode 32: The Panama Pacific International Exposition,” The Four Immigrants Manga, 92–93. © Estate of Yoshitaka Kiyama.

In her recent study of the PPIE, Laura Ackley confirms that the Fair’s organizers meant for the event to “cement the Golden State as a trade gateway between Europe and Asia through the newly opened waterway” of the Panama Canal, and that Japan’s presence at the Exposition, along with that of China, was, therefore, crucial to developing this image of California.[25] Yet diplomatic relations with Japan had become strained in the years leading up to the PPIE because of discriminatory measures taken against Japanese residents in California.[26] Japan’s participation in the PPIE was, therefore, a complicated and contentious issue on both sides. These tensions resulted in a mixed dynamic between the two countries, simultaneously marked by aggression and collaboration, rivalry and exchange, which manifested itself in the organization and layout of the PPIE, and which finds a unique reflection in Kiyama’s depiction of the event via the comic strip form.

Kiyama was not the first comic strip artist to reproduce the topography of a world’s fair and to explore the resulting cultural and aesthetic contrasts: Winsor McCay, in Little Nemo, had used the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair, and the architectural image of the White City in particular, as a site of crossover between labor, leisure, and the oneiric and waking worlds. For both artists, the fair and the comic strip form alike serve to concretize the cultural hybridity characteristic of both modernism and modernity. The fair and the comic strip also embody the ephemeral nature of the commodity form under modern capitalism: like the majority of the structures created for the fair that were dismantled or displaced as soon as the event came to a close, a comic strip was typically discarded and replaced on a weekly or even daily basis by the next installment in the newspaper that ran it.[27]

Kiyama, “Episode 33: The Panama Pacific International Exposition,” The Four Immigrants Manga, 94–95.
Fig 5. Kiyama, “Episode 33: The Panama Pacific International Exposition,” The Four Immigrants Manga, 94–95. © Estate of Yoshitaka Kiyama.

Kiyama sets his narrative in and around several intricately detailed key attractions of the Fair: the Palace of Fine Arts, the Tower of Jewels, the rides and amusements of “The Joy Zone,” and the Foreign Pavilions along the Avenue of Nations—particularly, the Japanese Pavilion. Significantly, the Japanese Pavilion was the first and largest of any foreign nation’s displays along the Avenue of the Nations, and was situated almost directly across from the Palace of Fine Arts.[28] The Palace was designed to present international artworks from twelve foreign nations, including Japan, which, again, brought over the biggest collection out of all the participants, and thus stood out as the most prominent counterpart to the magnificent showcase of works by American artists and the Western European masterpieces that influenced their development. According to Ackley, the art collections were arranged in such a manner as to make sure that those critics and viewers who “found the gallery spaces too eclectic, too broad, or overstuffed, could discover more focused art experiences within the Exposition”—in other words, they could extract mini-exhibitions out of the material to focus on specific styles, movements, or artists, and essentially construct their own virtual shows within the larger exhibition (San Francisco’s Jewel, 230). This spatial organization duplicates the format of the comic strip by delineating multiple sites that construct cultural difference, while also allowing for an interpretative openness by offering potentially different meanings to different groups of viewers with varying viewing practices. It thus serves to highlight the multivalent nature of the relationship between the aesthetic traditions of Japan and the United States.

In the Manga, the Fair not only provides a setting for Kiyama’s narrative but, like Bush’s ideograph, becomes a figure for the overlap of the textual and contextual elements of a work of art. The microcosm of the Fair not only represents the historical and cultural context for the Manga; it also takes on a textual character through its assimilation of a range of aesthetic forms, including literature. Ackley explains that literary inscriptions drawn from classical poetry and proverbs from around the world (including the Japanese waka poet Hitomaro, quoted alongside the statuary group The Nations of the East) were selected based on their universal appeal to accompany the exhibition courts and the sculptural program in order to underscore their themes (35). The PPIE episodes of the Manga reference the aesthetic forms represented at the Exposition—architecture, sculpture, music, dance, and literature. Kiyama depicts Charlie singing and reciting Japanese poetry, including a poem by Michitsuna no Haha, one of the Thirty-Six Immortals of Poetry, in panel 7, episode 34 (fig. 6).[29] These citations are woven into the narrative of the Manga and, much like the literary inscriptions accompanying the visual exhibits of the Fair, exemplify the modernist artwork’s impulse to explore the relationship between the textual and the visual through its formal practices. They are also symptomatic of modernism’s preoccupation with its own position with respect to literary and artistic tradition.

The demotic character of the comic strip form, however, allows it to reframe these anxieties of modernist art in terms of the ephemeral character of everyday life and the identities of those subjects who inhabit the world shaped by the culture industry and consume its products. In its vernacular form, modernist ideography not only “makes legible . . . the constitutive role of cultural difference” in modernism’s attempt to make sense of its own formal practices; it also makes explicit the ways in social reality finds expression in the formal properties of a work of art (Bush, Ideographic, xxx). Those formal properties thereby reflect categories essential to the structure of that reality: namely, race, gender, and class. The class anxieties expressed by Charlie in panel 4, episode 34, for instance, manifest the stereotyped representations of women found in this and the other episodes set at the PPIE (fig. 6). Charlie’s ironic remark about a server from the Japanese Tea House acting like an “upper class princess” is juxtaposed with his citation of Michitsuna no Haha’s lines about a noblewoman’s experience of heartache. In the same episode, Frank’s comment about the tea server sounding stuck-up is turned into a pun, visually and verbally, when the characters find themselves stuck at the top of the Telescope ride and, having potentially missed their appointment, are literally forced to change their perspective (fig. 6).

Kiyama, “Episode 34: The Panama Pacific International Exposition,” The Four Immigrants Manga, 96–97.
Fig 6. Kiyama, “Episode 34: The Panama Pacific International Exposition,” The Four Immigrants Manga, 96–97. © Estate of Yoshitaka Kiyama.

Over the course of their visits to the PPIE, the characters’ attention is divided among the several attractions detailed by Kiyama. Through the diverse viewpoints of Charlie, Frank, and Henry, the reader is presented with a set of different topographic perspectives of the Exposition and with distinct yet complementary models of spectatorship that challenge the reliability of stereotypical images of ethnic minorities and women. We follow the characters into the indoor spaces of the intimate Tea House and the crowded theatre dance show, around the gardens and rotunda outside the Palace of Fine Arts, along the linear, mile-long, boulevard of the Zone, and then up three thousand feet into the air on the defective Telescope ride for a panoramic, bird’s eye view of the whole Fair, reminiscent of the deceptive “ten-league European gaze” in Screech’s account. Whereas Henry is interested in the art and sculpture exhibits, and we see him closely examining James Earle Fraser’s End of the Trail statue in panel 5 of episode 32 (fig. 4), Charlie would rather admire the Japanese women at the Tea House or enjoy the sights and rides of the Zone with Frank, and sneaks away from Henry to avoid “staring at blocks of concrete.”

On the one hand, their differing preferences reflect opposing cultural and aesthetic affinities, and set up an East-West dichotomy, as Henry is drawn to the “American” or “Western” sights, while Charlie only cares about meeting a potential partner with the same cultural background as him. This is evident in panel 4, where Henry’s gaze is turned outward in the direction of Alexander Stirling Calder’s Fountain of Energy as he marvels at America’s wealth and the beauty it generates, while a surly-looking Charlie looks inwardly at an imagined figure of a traditionally clothed Japanese woman (fig. 4). Calder, who acted as co-chief of the exposition’s sculpture program, contributed two additional pieces entitled The Nations of the West and The Nations of the East, which further emphasized the cultural contrast between East and West as the tone of the PPIE. The Fraser piece inspected by Henry is set in juxtaposition with the Golden Buddha statue at the entrance to Japan Beautiful, the Japan-themed showcase village on the Zone, in panels 6 and 7 of the following episode, while the buildings, the tea garden, and the replica of Mount Fuji inside the village (in the background, behind the Buddha statue) work in contrast with the rotunda and colonnade of the Palace of Fine Arts, modeled on classical Roman architecture (fig. 5). Finally, the tea server in traditional Japanese dress, who fails to materialize in American clothing, finds her cultural counterpart in the African-American woman mistakenly accosted by Charlie because of her American flag-themed red hat and blue dress in panels 8–12 of episode 33.

On the other hand, these oppositions also depict the characters in their attempts to orient themselves in, and visually process a world of socio-cultural collisions, and thereby model different possible modes of looking and “mis-looking” for the reader. Henry’s close inspection of End of Trail and Charlie’s encounter with the black woman constitute moments of confrontation with other minorities for the young men and expose them to the concept of the racial stereotype not just from the point of view of an object of stereotyping, but from that of a subject with the power to generate and perpetuate stereotyping behavior in their turn. Through End of Trail, the famous statue depicting a downcast American Indian on horseback, Henry is looking at an image of the oppression of Native Americans, and, as a student of art, learning about the mediating role of representation in the circulation of stereotypes. Meanwhile, Charlie is reproducing a racist, and sexualizing discourse by referring to the woman as a “kuroto” and “a darkie moll.”[30] Accompanied by Hank, in episode 35 (fig. 7), he finds himself in all-male audience at a theatre in the Zone, where he directs an equally objectifying gaze at the dancer on the stage, as he admiringly exclaims “how exotic!” These two scenes with Charlie, which reveal the interconnectedness of racialized and sexualized forms of objectification as modes of differentiation, portray the darker aspects of the PPIE. Ackley writes that, through the cultural villages of the Zone, “the PPIE followed precedent in exhibiting cultures in a hierarchical manner that exalted the host country and the dominant, white, male powers behind the Fair above the foreign, the non-white, and the female” (San Francisco’s Jewel, 259–60). The villages, along with several façades “sculpted into offensive African American caricatures” (268). demonstrated the degree to which racism and sexism were integral to the atmosphere of the Zone and the Fair as a whole. In his review of the Exposition for the Springfield Daily News, Fred Ferguson commented on the transition from the space of the palaces and pavilions to that of the Zone: “Behind you are the works and ideal of America. Before you is America at play.”[31] The playfulness included not only the offensive portrayal of racial others, but also the “girl shows,” like the one attended by Charlie and Hank, that moved into the vacant spaces of failed Zone attractions and elicited complaints from women’s suffrage organizations.

Kiyama, “Episode 35: The Panama Pacific International Exposition,” The Four Immigrants Manga, 98–99.
Fig 7. Kiyama, “Episode 35: The Panama Pacific International Exposition,” The Four Immigrants Manga, 98–99. © Estate of Yoshitaka Kiyama.

It thus initially appears as though the juxtaposition of the spectacles of the Zone with the sights in and around the palaces in the Manga corresponds to two different models of spectatorship, a “right” and a “wrong” way of seeing and conceptualizing otherness via “positive” or “negative” images. While Henry’s gaze seemingly epitomizes the artistic program’s educational goals and models an encounter with a “positive” example of a stereotype in the form of End of Trail, Charlie’s provides a debauched foil and a two-pronged “negative” image of otherness in the way that he sees the black woman and the dancers and in how his manner of seeing consequently turns Charlie himself into a “negative” representation of “the other.” Yet we are also shown that the “negative” and “positive” images in this situation are not so easily delineated and equally instrumental in the reproduction of stereotypes. The two models of spectatorship persistently bleed into each other, transgress the physical border between the Zone and the palaces, and, at times, even seem mutually constitutive. Charlie directs his objectifying gaze towards the tea servers at the Japanese Pavilion and, even though he claims to be seeking romance and marriage in panel 2 of episode 32 (fig. 4), it becomes clear that he conceives of these institutions in economic terms. It is for this reason that he wishes to see the tea server in American dress, equating the latter with wealth and prosperity. The scenes at the girl show in episode 35, where the women’s bodies and their race are commodified, thus seem to function not as an antithesis to, but as a parody of, Charlie’s flirtations at the Tea House, demonstrating how otherness, be it racial or gendered, functions simultaneously as an object of desire and derision.

Considered alongside episode 11, where the white American woman was in a position of power in relation to the East Asian immigrants and able to commodify them, the PPIE episodes reveal the fluidity of the power dynamics in the Manga and the way in which these generate reified notions of race and gender. Yet the comic strip also points to the possibility of overcoming these notions through the recognition of their ground in concrete historical conditions. This promissory note can be detected in the final episode of the strip, where a doppelganger of the black woman from the PPIE appears in Henry’s painting in panel 11 (fig. 8). Here, she represents the culmination of his years of study and the “contribution to the art world back home” that Henry promised to make in the “Arrival” episode. Her image also embodies Henry’s understanding of the construction of stereotypes, acquired through his years of labor, and replaces the image of the Chinese waiter that marked the beginning of the narrative. In this final instance, the frame around the stereotype is closed and marks the distinction between representation and reality.

Kiyama, “Episode 52: Good Bye,” The Four Immigrants Manga, 132–33.
Fig 8. Kiyama, “Episode 52: Good Bye,” The Four Immigrants Manga, 132–33. © Estate of Yoshitaka Kiyama.

This moment sublates the opposing viewpoints presented in Episode 15—the artist’s disinterested formalism and Charlie’s myopic materialism—and expresses the dialectical relationship between high art and light art. In a 1936 letter to Benjamin responding to the second version of the essay “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” Adorno offers the following thoughts on the opposition of kitsch to the autonomous artwork:

Les extrèmes me touchent, as they do you—but only if the dialectic of the lowest has the same value as the dialectic of the highest, and not if the latter is simply left to decay. Both bear the stigmata of capitalism, both contain elements of change . . . Both are torn halves of an integral freedom, to which, however, they do not add up.[32]

The two halves do not function as two complementary sides of one whole since each already negatively reflects the other. Light art’s emancipatory potential is not reducible to the utopian opposition of mass culture to a purportedly “pure” bourgeois art, which achieves the illusion of formal autonomy at the price of its opacity to the masses. The commodity character of light art consists in the reproducibility of its technique, which it appropriates from high art and voids of its concrete historical content. The perpetual reproduction of emptied-out form, however, induces a negative space at the heart of light art that invites a renewed, critical interrogation of its content. Where the formal possibilities of high art are unlocked through an illumination of the reified nature of its content, the technical reproducibility of light art allows for a release of “pure” content—the historicity of the images and stereotypes that form the basic idiom of mass culture.

Kiyama’s artistic labor exemplifies the true emancipatory significance of light art by enacting the comic strip’s relation to the formal autonomy of high art. Henry’s character never abandons his efforts to master the techniques of Western art and, at the beginning of the final episode, he keeps Frank waiting, insisting on the autonomous quality of his work: “I wouldn’t put my brush down right now even for a king” (fig. 8). Even as his parrot mocks the “poor artist,” Henry suggests that his art is not commodifiable. Yet he also reveals the reproducibility of the form of high art through the repetitive process of practicing its techniques. Nevertheless, Henry’s work goes beyond a mere exercise in technique: the classic nude painting seen on his wall in panels 2, 4, and 5, which recalls his nude from Episode 15, is superseded by the painting of the black woman in the penultimate panel. Through its form, his art now engages with the identities that make up its historical context and thereby manifests the dialectic of form and content internal to light art. In this way, the comic strip throws into relief the significance of the productive technique of serious art. The “pure” content it reveals functions as the shadow of high modernism’s formal and technical expressivity.

The “Good Bye” episode mirrors the structure of the “Arrival” episode but foregoes its irony in the characters’ closing speeches, where they express their disappointments and future intentions not with naiveté but with a maturity that testifies to their having been genuinely transformed by their experiences. The opening episode is thus repeated but with a difference: the stereotypes that implicitly defined the characters at the beginning of the narrative and were only glimpsed in moments of formal self-reflexivity, are here explicitly owned by the strip and thereby transcended. In the vernacular language of modernity, history finds a voice and gives sight to two boys with bad eyes.


[1] Henry Kiyama, The Four Immigrants Manga: A Japanese Experience in San Francisco, 1904–1924, trans. Frederik L. Schodt (Berkeley, CA: Stone Bridge Press, 1999), 133. Henry, the character based on Kiyama, expresses this desire in the Manga’s opening and concluding episodes (figures 1 and 8). According to Kiyama’s translator, Frederik L. Schodt, the artist attended a nighttime life drawing class at the San Francisco Art Institute while also working a variety of menial jobs for a living. He was successful enough to win several awards and exhibit his work at the Palace of Fine Arts in 1920. Upon returning to the area of his birth in Japan, he gained a reputation “as a local, early master of Western-style art” (Schodt, “On the Trail of Henry Kiyama,” in The Four Immigrants Manga, 8–13, 9).

[2] Stewart Martin, “The Absolute Artwork Meets the Absolute Commodity,” Radical Philosophy 146 (2007): 15–25, 16.

[3] Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer, “The Culture Industry: Enlightenment as Mass Deception,” in Dialectic of Enlightenment, trans. John Cumming (London: Verso, 1997), 120–67, 135.

[4] As a result of the “clumsy transposition of art into the sphere of consumption” in modernity, Adorno and Horkheimer argue, an ideological division emerges between mass culture and a higher form of art that is purportedly free from the constraints of commodification and strives to adhere to “the ideal of pure expression” (“The Culure Industry,” Dialectic of Enlightenment, 135). In this way, the high modernist artwork can appear as autonomous only in contradistinction to the light art of the masses that it opposes.

[5] Bart Beaty, Comics versus Art (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2012), 12. Beaty limits his scope to “the shift in discourses about comics and art that has taken place since the modernist period” (13). The present article’s goal with respect to existing scholarship, exemplified by Beaty, is twofold: to supplement descriptive sociological accounts of comics’ changing cultural status with a critical theory of comics and to demonstrate the necessity of an account of the modernism of comics.

[6] See Miriam Hansen, “The Mass Production of the Senses: Classical Cinema as Vernacular Modernism,” Modernism/modernity 6, no. 2 (1999): 59–77. Jared Gardner considers the early comic strip as a neglected example of vernacular modernism in Projections: Comics and the History of Twenty-First Century Storytelling (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2012).

[7] An example of McCay’s influence on Kiyama can be found in “The Shoe Salesman”

episode of the Manga (Episode 19), which mimics the narrative arc and gag of a typical Little Nemo episode: it depicts one of the central characters, Frank, having a dream that turns him into a prosperous shoe salesman, grants him access to the frequently desired trappings of modernity—wealth, fancy clothes, a car—and takes him on a tour of San Francisco landmarks, only to be interrupted in the final panel by a falling vase.

[8] See Yuji Ichioka. The Issei: The World of the First Generation Immigrants, 1885–1924 (New York: Free Press, 1988), 7–10.

[9] Steve Fugita, “George Ushima,” in Distinguished Asian-Americans: A Biographical Dictionary, ed. Hyung-chan Kim et. al. (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1999), 316. Fugita writes that Shima became the first large-scale potato grower in the San Joaquin Delta and came to be known as “the Potato King” in 1913, by which time he had “28,000 acres of land in production.”

[10] Their resemblance to artist’s tools or writing implements when initially placed alongside Henry in panel 7 exemplifies the self-reflexivity of Kiyama’s depictions of artistic labor throughout the comic strip.

[11] Colleen Lye, America’s Asia: Racial Form and American Literature, 1893-1945 (Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2005), 17.

[12] For a definition of wage labor, see Karl Marx, “Wage Labour and Capital,” in The Marx-Engels Reader, ed. Robert C. Tucker (London: Norton, 1978), 203–17, 205. According to Marx’s critique of political economy, wage labor is the form of labor specific to capitalism. Marx characterizes wage labor as “free” labor because the worker under capitalism is able, in principle, to sell his or her labor power freely to whomever he or she chooses.

[13] The dropping of the “l” in “Charlie” is likely the result of the lack of differentiation between the sounds of “l” and “r” in Japanese, which uses one liquid consonant that ranges between the two, and thus constitutes a mimicking of the Japanese pronunciation of this commonly adopted Western name.

[14] See Homi Bhabha, “The Other Question: Homi K Bhabha Reconsiders The Stereotype and Colonial Discourse,” Screen 24, no. 6 (1983): 18–36.

[15] Jared Gardner explores the relationship between the stereotype and the comic strip form in his essay “Same Difference: Graphic Alterity in the Work of Gene Luen Yang, Adrian Tomine, and Derek Kirk Kim,” in Multicultural Comics from Zap to Blue Beetle, ed. Frederick Luis Aldama (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2010), 132–47. Gardner’s work, however, fails to acknowledge that the instability of the stereotype results from the historical specificity of the stereotypical images; he thereby implies a separability between an apparently fixed internal logic of the stereotype and the form(s) that it takes in art and culture. The present study argues for a dialectical understanding of the relationship between the stereotype and the comic strip form where the idioms that comprise the former and the aesthetic properties of the latter are mutually constitutive and grounded in the same historical conditions.

[16] Kiyama’s use of perspective varies throughout the Manga, alternating between and, in some episodes, combining a two-point or one-point perspective with oblique projection to render the space between different people or objects. He often depicts objects head on with no use of perspective other than a distance-induced diminution in size, thus precluding the creation of a fully three-dimensional space and disrupting the assimilation to Western artistic techniques.

[17] See Frederick Schodt, “On Translating Kiyama’s Book,” in The Four Immigrants Manga, 16–18, 17.

[18] Timon Screech. “The Meaning of Western Perspective in Edo Popular Culture,” Archives of Asian Art 47 (1994): 58–69, 58.

[19] Frederick L. Schodt, “On the Trail of Henry Kiyama,” in The Four Immigrants Manga, 8–13, 10.

[20] Christopher Bush. Ideographic Modernism: China, Writing, Media (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010), xxxi. While Bush focuses on the function of the ideograph in the works of largely canonical modernists, revealing the interdependence of artistic practices and socio-historical context, the present study shows how ideographic modernism, in its vernacular form, gives expression to the essential unity of and distinction between high art and mass culture.

[21] The linguistic combinations become even more complicated in translation, where Schodt converts almost all of the characters’ Japanese dialogue into English, capitalizes their broken English speech and renders it in hand-lettered style to convey the defamiliarizing perspective of foreigners exposed to the English language. He leaves the Chinese and Japanese written characters outside of speech bubbles in their original form, occasionally adding English translations in the gutter, thus contributing to the self-reflexive dimension of the work.

[22] Walter Benjamin, One-Way Street and Other Writings (London: Verso, 1979), 45.

[23] Jared Gardner, Projections: Comics and the History of Twenty-First Century Storytelling (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2012), 2.

[24]The Exposition Palaces,” Golden Gate, National Park Service.

[25] Laura Ackley, San Francisco’s Jewel City: the Panama-Pacific International Exposition of 1915 (Berkeley, CA: Heyday, 2016), viii.

[26] Examples of such measures include efforts to segregate Japanese schoolchildren in 1905 and proposed legislation to prevent Japanese residents from owning land, resulting in the Alien Land Acts of 1913 and 1920, which Kiyama references in Episode 49 of the Manga (126–27).

[27] Adorno and Horkheimer recognize “the flimsy structures of world fairs in their praise of technical progress and their built-in demand to be discarded after a short while like empty food cans” as both products and expressions of a culture industry that reproduces versions of the same cultural artifacts over again, thereby producing a “false identity of the general and the particular” (Dialectic of Englightenment, 120, 121). The uniformity of mass culture through the commodification of the artwork belies the emancipatory potential of a purely formalist, autonomous art.

[28] Exposition map is on the inside cover of Ackley’s San Francisco’s Jewel City: the Panama-Pacific International Exposition of 1915 (Berkeley, CA: Heyday, 2016).

[29] See Schodt, “Notes and Commentary,” in The Four Immigrants Manga,144.

[30] “Kuroto” is the Japanese word for prostitute, which also shares the root with “kuroi”, the word for the color black.

[31] Fred Ferguson. “Interesting Sights at Great Exposition,” Springfield [Massachusetts] Daily News, July 16, 1915, 24.

[32] Adorno to Benjamin, London, 18.3.1936, in Theodor Adorno and Walter Benjamin: The Complete Correspondence, 1928–1940, ed. Henry Loniz, trans. Nicholas Walker (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2001), 127–34, 130.