Massive: An Interview With Comics Historian Graham Kolbeins

We speak with one of the minds behind Fantagraphics' new gay manga compilation.

If there’s one area that is sorely lacking in the fields of comic history research, it’s an examination of comics geared towards the LGBT community. This is a wrong that Fantagraphics seems determined to right. In 2013, the Seattle-based publisher released the anthology No Straight Lines: Four Decades of Queer Comics. That volume was an overdue examination of the diversity of gay comics, rich with the talents of some of queer comics’ biggest names. The company has just issued a new book that continues to explore the dynamic world of LGBT comics…only in a decidedly, er bigger way. 

Massive: Gay Erotic Manga and the Men Who Make It is a riveting and titilating read that is geared towards the so-called “bear” subculture of men who like large, often hairy men.  The book views the history of such gay manga through the prism of the work of some of the genre’s most fascinating creators, including Jiraiya, Seizoh Ebisubashi, Inu Yoshi and Fumi Miyabi.

Massive is a colloboration between these artists and curators/editors Graham Kolbeins, Anne Ishii and Chip Kidd (the famed writer and graphic designer who provides an insightful introduction). The thick tome features biographical and contextual information on the various artists featured followed by a sample of their work. These stories graphically depict gay sex in candid ways. Some are lusty fantasies, others are oddly touching, but they all speak to the contemporary gay experience in an honest way.

We recently had a chance to speak to Graham Kolbeins about his work on Massive. Here’s what he had to say:

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Tell me a little bit about the origins of Massive.

My involvement in Massive began back in 2011. I had been waiting for years for an English-language publisher to put out translations of gay manga, but it seemed like it wasn’t going to happen any time soon. I decided to try and interview some of my favorite artists, and my friend from Giant Robot, Michelle Borok put me in touch with Anne Ishii who I’d actually met at one of Michelle’s bowling nights years before. Anne was interested in the subject matter and had been doing some translations of Gengoroh Tagame’s manga for Chip Kidd’s personal collection. The three of us got together and decided to make a pitch for two books: an anthology of Tagame’s work, which would become The Passion of Gengoroh Tagame, and a broader overview of the gay manga genre. Dan Nadel from the late, great PictureBox Books took a chance on this material and in September 2012, Anne and I visited Japan to meet the artists in Massive and collect the interviews that would provide the foundation for the book. 

When did you first discover Japanese erotic manga?

I first came across gay manga and artwork by Jiraiya and Gengoroh Tagame in 2003 when I was a high school student. I was big into the LiveJournal bear community, which was sort of a predecessor to the smorgasbord of bear porn and selfies you can find on Tumblr today. Being a teenager in a small town, I cherished the representations of sexy larger men that I could access online. When I first encountered Jiraiya’s gorgeous photorealistic G-men illustrations, I was hooked for life. 

How did Chip Kidd get involved with this project?

Chip has been a long time fan and collector of Gengoroh Tagame’s work. He was first introduced to the genre on a 2001 trip to Tokyo by his friend Donald Richie, who wrote brilliantly about Japanese cinema and culture throughout the latter half of the 20th century. Chip and Anne met while they were working together at the manga publisher Vertical, and he approached her about doing some translations for his personal use. 

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The diversity of pieces in this book is astonishing, what was the process of selecting which ones made it into the book? How many were left out? Is there enough material for a second volume?

We wanted to include a diverse array of artists working in different artistic and narrative styles. Most of the artists chose their own manga pieces based on what they thought would be a good short introduction to their work for an overseas audience. There is a near-endless supply of content from these artists and dozens of others working in the gay manga field, that could fill up not just one more volume but many more! I hope we can start getting some of the longer pieces published too, like the entirety of Tagame’s 600-page tome Do You Remember South Island P.O.W. Camp? or his three-volume Meiji Period historical epic, The Silver Flower

With works like Massive as well as Wuvable Oaf and Shirtlifter, as well as the Comic Book Bears podcast it seems that we are experiencing a real renaissance for larger men being showcased in comics. What are your thoughts on why indie creators of these types of bearcentric (for lack of a better term) are finally getting recognition?

Queer comics in general have really taken off in the past decade, and we’re seeing so many new and exciting voices emerge in all categories of gender and sexuality. Ed Luce and Steve MacIsaac have both made fantastic contributions to the bear comics cannon and there are so many other great artists out there making odes to the larger men. Christian Fernández Mirón has compied an annual compendium of some of the best in the genre at http://www.bears-illustrated.com/ I think it’s a combination of the Internet increasing access to this type of work and local comics communities that support queer artists. I’m always excited to see groups of queer comics creators supporting each other at events like TCAF in Toronto, CAKE in Chicago and Printed Matter’s L.A. and NY Art Book Fairs. 

How do you feel about mainstream LBGT characters like Marvel’s Northstar or Archie’s Kevin Keller?

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It’s great to see the mainstream comics publishers beginning to reflect the diversity of their own readership. I think with superhero comics in particular, queer undertones have been there since the beginning – it’s all in the spandex, the hidden identities, and fabulous capes. While it may not have always been a conscious appeal to queer audiences, I think our community has long appreciated the superhero genre and it’s nice to see the genre appreciating us back. And I grew up reading Archie Comics, so it makes me happy to see a gay character so thoroughly embraced by the Riverdale community.

You recently started a Massive book tour, what has the public reaction to the book been so far?

The reaction has been stupendous! Each event on the tour has been packed full of people excited to see this work in English. Some fans have been waiting a long time and other are just getting to know the world of gay manga, but I can feel a general sense of excitement that this work exists. People have asked really insightful, engaged questions during the Q&A and I feel like there’s so much momentum building behind the genre in the U.S. The future is looking bright for gay manga!

Thanks to Graham Kolbeins for his time and Jacquelene Cohen at Fantagraphics for arranging the interview.