Re-flipped: not simple

I’m digging into the Flipped archives again. This one came out just as Natsume Ono’s work was starting to be licensed in English. It focuses primarily on her first licensed work, which generated some mixed reaction, though I loved it.

I’ve given up on prognostication. Experience has demonstrated that I’m usually too optimistic, and looking back at my predictions makes me realize that they’re more in the line of affirmations than realistic expectations. I will indulge in one, though: by the end of 2010, a lot more people will be aware of the work of Natsume Ono than they were when the year began.

To be honest, I’d never heard her name at the beginning of 2009. My first glimpse of her work came through a random copy of Kodansha’s Morning 2, which is serializing Ono’s Coppers. I remember thinking that those pages didn’t look much like anything else in the magazine. It took me a while to connect the creator of Coppers with my next encounter with Ono.

That happened at Viz Media’s online IKKI anthology, which serializes chapters of Ono’s House of Five Leaves. It’s one of those series that on first glance leave you not quite sure what you just read, though in a very pleasant way. The opening chapters leave the doors of possibility wide open, and subsequent installments don’t so much shut them as fill in the details of those possibilities.

It’s about an out-of-work samurai, Akitsu, who becomes entangled with a gang of kidnappers. Akitsu doesn’t resemble the standard manga samurai in physicality or disposition, lithe and diffident instead of sturdy and aggressive. It’s easy to see why he’s unemployed, but it’s enticingly unclear why gangster Yaichi lures Akitsu into his circle. It could be that Akitsu is easy to manipulate and the last person you’d expect of ulterior motives, or it could be simple, unexpected fondness. Yaichi might merely like to have Akitsu around.

Ono seems entirely comfortable with leaving readers to guess where things might be headed in terms of event and even intent, though I always have the sense that things are moving in interesting directions. Her work seems both confident and restrained. It also seems just slightly askew of what one might expect when one considers demographics like seinen (comics for adult men), josei (for adult women) or yaoi (male-male romance, which Ono has created under the name “Basso”). So it makes sense that the magazines that have featured her work – Morning 2, Shogakukan’s IKKI, the late Penguin Shobou’s Comic SEED! – seem less designed to cater to a specific demographic than to simply publish an interesting variety of comics by accomplished creators.

The first Ono title to see print in translation, not simple from Viz, arrives this week, and the publisher has posted the first chapter online. Comics creator, editor and critic Shaenon K. Garrity has described the book as “scary good,” and I’m in complete agreement. I think it compares favorably to one of the most acclaimed books of 2009, David Small’s Stitches: A Memoir (W.W. Norton). Like Small’s autobiography, not simple explores the hideous consequences of parental cowardice and cruelty, and, like Stitches, it’s constructed and paced with admirable precision and craft. As was the case in Stitches, I’m reluctant to describe the plot in too much detail, as a great deal of pleasure is derived in the timing with which Ono reveals the underlying facts of her characters’ lives.

The book follows a young Australian man named Ian, barely more than a boy, really, as he searches for his older sister, the only bright point in his grim experience with family life. Along the way, he meets a writer, Jim, who’s taken with Ian’s story both for its inherent pathos and for its narrative possibilities – he wants to know how Ian’s story comes out at least partly because he wants to tell it. Ian’s life and Jim’s novel intersect and overlap, and the story-within-a-story elements aren’t always entirely successful, but Jim’s mixture of sympathy and self-interest give Ian’s tragedies a needed edge and the possibility of at least a little remove on the part of the reader. One of the recurring criticisms I saw for Stitches was that it was just so depressing, a quality compounded by the fact that the events it portrayed actually happened. In not simple, Ono is playing with the idea of tragedy as an entertainment beyond merely presenting a tragic series of events. It’s an intriguing extra element, even if it isn’t seamlessly applied.

Ono doesn’t engage in the kind of experimental illustration that’s sprinkled throughout Small’s work, but her drawings are striking, characterized with a kind of crude fragility that supports the tone and content of her story. Like everything else about not simple, its look is deceptively… well… simple. Fans of Bryan Lee O’Malley’s Lost at Sea (Oni Press) would feel very much at ease with a cartoonish style invested with emotional depth and urgency.

People who have sampled House of Five Leaves, which is scheduled for print release in April of this year, might be surprised that not simple was drawn by the same creator. The former has a lean elegance that’s really in contrast to the more stylized look of the latter. I’m fond of both styles for their individual virtues and for the fact that they both come from the same pen. It’s exciting to see that Ono’s versatility in terms of content and tone extends to her work as an illustrator.

There’s just so much to admire about Ono’s work – its variety, its uniqueness, the level of talent it suggests. I don’t think it’s unreasonable to hope that she becomes one of those creators whose popularity transcends the audience specifically interested in comics from Japan and those who are interested in well-made comics in general. Her work seems to have transcended any specific demographic in Japan, and I believe it will here.


Re-flipped: Tokyo Zombie

It doesn’t seem right to go through all of the current Manga Moveable Feast without addressing zombies, and it doesn’t seem right to address zombies without considering ironic zombies, so here’s an old Flipped column on a title that checks both off of the list.

I think Yusaku Hanakuma’s Tokyo Zombie (Last Gasp) has helped me crystallize my objections to zombie fiction in general.  Given the limitations of the genre, it very often seems like too much effort has gone into its various renderings.  Tokyo Zombie looks like it was dashed off during study hall, and that works in its favor.

The official tag for the style is heta uma, or “bad, but good.”  I might modify it to “bad, but appropriate,” to be honest.  That Hanakuma’s style of illustration suits the material doesn’t mean it’s aesthetically pleasing in any meaningful way or that a practiced knowledge of the fundaments of drawing seems to be peeking out through a conscious effort at crudeness.  Proportions are odd and shifting, and body language and composition are stiff.  To be honest, the living and the undead aren’t always immediately distinguishable from one another.

But really, the best a zombie story can be is crude, quick, and maybe a little subversive, and Tokyo Zombie is all of those.  The action begins on “Dark Fuji,” a mountain of garbage, studded with illegally dumped toxic waste and human remains.  Whatever the opposite of a primordial soup is reaches boiling point, and the undead begin shambling down from Dark Fuji to do what zombies do – very slowly overtake the living.

A small subculture of survivors build an enclosed area where the rich live on the labor of an oppressed class of slaves, and the balance is maintained by brutal enforcers.  Stripped of most of their comforts and diversions, the rich become extremely bored, and a brutal arena featuring slaves versus zombies springs up.  There isn’t much in the way of subtlety in the way Hanakuma portrays the class conflicts of post-zombie society, but there doesn’t need to be.  It’s just a backdrop for gross-out violence and a source of jokes about brutal things happening to generally terrible people.

Hanakuma’s greatest strength is probably pacing.  He rarely lets a sequence drag on longer than necessary, and he keeps the inventively gross gags coming.  If they’re imperfectly rendered, how much artistry does flesh-eating really require?  There’s plenty of gory event if not detail, and what would lovingly drawn innards really add to what seems intended to be a brisk, coarse outing?

(P.S. Tokyo Zombie was originally serialized in the alternative manga anthology, Ax.  In August of 2009, Top Shelf will publish a 400-page collection of stories from the decade-old magazine.  Kai-Ming Cha has an interview with the translated collection’s co-editor, Sean Michael Wilson, at Publishers Weekly.)

(P.P.S.  Last Gasp is also the publisher of one of the finest comics I’ve ever read, Fumiyo Kouno’s Town of Evening Calm, Country of Cherry Blossoms.  Aside from its publisher and creator’s nation of origin, it has absolutely nothing to do with Tokyo Zombie, but I like to mention it whenever I can, no matter how feeble the pretext.)


Re-flipped: GoGo Monster

Okay, I don’t know if this comic counts as horror in the strictest sense of the term, but it’s one of the first titles that came to mind when I considered this month’s Manga Moveable Feast. It’s one of my favorite spooky-ish comics, and yesterday was Taiyo Matsumoto’s birthday, so…

“Yeah, well…” a grade-schooler opines early in Taiyo Matsumoto’s GoGo Monster (Viz), “There’s a kid like that in every class, right?” He’s talking about Yuki, a classmate who claims to sense things no one else can, an invisible population of mischievous creatures and a new insurgence of more malevolent beings. And the classmate is right; if manga is to be believed, the schools of Japan are well stocked with young people who traffic in the eerie. None of them are quite like Yuki, though, probably because not many creators are quite like Matsumoto.

Matsumoto has an extraordinary talent for rendering kid logic, their concepts of loyalty and justice and the way they engage with the world around them. This knack was on vivid display in Tekkonkinkreet: Black and White (Viz), for which Matsumoto won an Eisner Award in 2008. Like that book, GoGo Monster features two temperamentally different boys cleaving together to face the inevitable.

Many supernaturally sensitive manga characters can be divided into two categories. They either use that sensitivity to protect the unaware, or they struggle to conceal their abilities for fear of ostracism. Some are driven by both motives, but Yuki answers to neither. He’s disconcertingly matter-of-fact about the things he perceives, and he’s genuinely immune to the ridicule of his peers. He’s an excellent student, but he’s a disruptive presence. Yuki doesn’t perceive his own abnormality, and he doesn’t feel any pressure to conform.

While Yuki has few allies in the student body or faculty, he does garner the sympathetic attention of a new kid at school, Makoto. Average in every respect, Makoto is less intrigued by Yuki’s beliefs than by his indifference to ridicule. Maybe he recognizes it as a kind of strength of character, or maybe some emerging empathy makes him realize Yuki is at risk. Makoto is engaged in all of the aspects of Yuki’s character, not just his oddity. Instead of limiting him to the role of sidekick, this engagement actually makes Makoto Yuki’s equal in terms of reader engagement, or at least it did with me.

Other benevolent figures in Yuki’s sphere include the school’s elderly groundskeeper, Ganz, who understandably takes the long view of things. While the teachers yearn to fix Yuki, Ganz is content to listen to the boy. Then there’s IQ, who is even more ostentatiously weird than Yuki. IQ, who’s in an older grade than Yuki and Makoto, wanders the school grounds with a box on his head with a single eyehole cut into it. It’s telling and slyly funny that this is less disconcerting to his peers and teachers than Yuki’s less obvious strangeness and bursts of temper. Like Ganz, IQ has an odd kind of faith in Yuki, though the source of that faith is oblique.

The most interesting thing about GoGo Monster, the thing that grounds it, is that it’s ultimately irrelevant whether or not the things Yuki perceives are real. It’s Yuki’s belief in their reality and the possible consequences of that belief that drive the drama. That belief is never in question; Yuki is absolutely sincere, as is Matsumoto.

Tekkonkinkreet was set in a dying fantastical city slowly being destroyed by crassness and consumerism. Treasure Town was a richly imagined, almost living place. In GoGo Monster, the school setting couldn’t be more prosaic, but it’s no less vivid. Matsumoto captures the rhythms of the place, the mundane snippets of conversation, the casual cruelty, and the bustle. Even without the meticulous visual detail Matsumoto lavishes on the place, you can practically smell the food from the cafeteria.

That fidelity makes it all the more effective when you start to see glimpses of it through Yuki’s enhanced perspective. Matsumoto is positively restrained in introducing the weirdness that Yuki sees infesting Asahi Elementary. You glimpse it from the corner of your eye at first, or blink and it disappears. The clearest sense of them comes from Yuki’s crude drawings, and even he admits that they aren’t literal renderings. “This is just a conceptual sketch,” he tells the closest thing he has to a friend. As the school year that constitutes the book’s timeline progresses, Matsumoto reveals more of what Yuki is sensing.

Beyond his marvelous illustrations and elliptical storytelling, the fascinating thing about Matsumoto’s work is his ability to make me root for undesirable outcomes. In Tekkonkinkreet, I found myself hoping that its protagonists would accept the futility of their fight for Treasure Town, that they would cut their losses. In GoGo Monster, I found myself siding with the forces of conformity. Admirable as Yuki’s sense of self is, and enviable as his immunity to social pressure may be, I still was persuaded by Matsumoto’s argument for a healthy, happy Yuki, even if it resulted in a less interesting, less special Yuki.

I should probably mention that GoGo Monster is a beautifully produced book. It’s magnificently colored hard cover comes sheathed in an equally handsome slipcase. The edges of the crisp, white pages are tinged red with a continuation of the cover image. It’s all very lovely, but the book would still be extraordinary even without those bells and whistles. Matsumoto has craft, intelligence, and heart, and he balances those qualities as well as almost any creator alive. In a fairly extraordinary year for challenging, artistically satisfying manga, it seems like a certainty that Matsumoto will garner a second Eisner nomination, perhaps even a second win.

Re-flipped: Kazuo Umezu

For this week’s blood-soaked Manga Moveable Feast, I thought I’d revisit some old Flipped columns that have a horrific bent.

With so many aspects of the manga industry apparently in question, there is one thing I can say without too much fear of contradiction:  it’s a good time to be a fan of horror comics from Japan.

CMX is offering the creepy-cute moralizing of Kanako Inuki’s Presents.  Dark Horse is serving fans of Shaun of the Dead-style self-aware chills with The Kurosagi Corpse Delivery Service, written by Eiji Otsuka and drawn by Housui Yamazaki.  Old-school angst and energetically rendered savagery take center stage in Hitoshi Iwaaki’s Parasyte from Del Rey.  In spite of some moments of uncertainty along the way, Tokyopop did a great public service by finishing the apocalyptic ten-volume run of Mochizuki Minetaro’s Dragon Head. Viz Media released new editions of Junji Ito’s Uzumaki and Gyo in its Signature imprint.

What really makes this a mini-golden age for horror devotees, and the Signature line a relative horn of plenty for such readers, is the quantity of Kazuo Umezu manga on offer.   Umezu’s tykes-in-trouble classic, The Drifting Classroom, recently wrapped up an 11-volume run, and Viz just released Cat Eyed Boy in two fat, prestige volumes.

The Drifting Classroom begins with an elementary school blowing sky high.  The community is devastated by the apparent deaths of hundreds of students and their teachers, not realizing that the victims should have been so lucky.  Instead of a quick and relatively merciful end, the school has been cast into a hellish, post-apocalyptic landscape filled with mysterious perils.  The grown-ups are less than useful, giving in to panic and madness.  Umezu dispatches them with ruthless efficiency, placing the focus on the kids and their attempts to survive external and internal threats.

I’ve rarely seen a comic with as much insanity per page.  Umezu’s pace is relentless as he tosses the dwindling student body from frying pan to fire and back again.  It’s like a child’s worst nightmares woven into one and infused with adrenaline.  Grown-ups are useless, and peers are even more pernicious than they suspected.

The brutality never becomes wearying, because Umezu has seemingly boundless imagination in finding new ways to render horrible things happening to children.  Some moments have slowly mounting terror, like a panicked stampede of kids charging at a handful of out-of-their-depth faculty.  Others pop out of nowhere with the kind of jarring effect that slasher film-makers only wish they could muster.

It’s incidental, but the series provides additional pleasure when you remind yourself that The Drifting Classroom was originally created for children, originally serialized in Shogakukan’s Shônen Sunday.  One shudders to think what Fredric Wertham would have made of manga.

After the hyperactive terror of The Drifting Classroom, Umezu’s Cat Eyed Boy seems almost serene.  Like a lot of horror manga, it’s episodic in its construction, following a half-demon protagonist as he’s drawn to scenes of horrible things happening to terrible people.

Actually, “protagonist” might be the wrong term.  Cat Eyed Boy has no vested interest in the misfortunes he witnesses.  Sometimes, he’s just an observer.  He can demonstrate a penchant for taunting humans, playing on their superstitions.  If he sometimes finds himself opposed to malevolent forces, it’s generally a matter of self-preservation.  He’s not admirable by any means, but he’s understandable.  If Cat Eyed Boy’s odd existence has taught him anything, it’s that people generally suck.

This is most clearly demonstrated in what might be described as his origin story, “The Tsunami Summoners.”  Rejected by both the human and demon sides of his family, Cat Eyed Boy is taken in by a lonely spinster in a seaside village.  The community doesn’t share his foster mother’s benevolence, and his childhood is characterized by alienation and hostility.  The Cat Eyed Boy becomes the scapegoat for the town’s misfortunes, blinding them to more insidious threats on the horizon.

“The Tsunami Summoners” is a wonderfully twisted morality play, easily my favorite entry in the first volume.  It delivers Umezu’s visual imagination, inventive plotting, and ambiguous morality.  The title character could easily be one of those prolific and slightly sickening types – hideous on the outside, but with a pure and childlike heart.  Umezu’s approach is much more interesting; the Cat Eyed Boy owns both his human and demonic heritage.  He can be hurt by human cruelty and fear, but the impish part of his nature earns at least a portion of it.

His foster mother, Mimi, is equally ambiguous to me.  She’s driven by loneliness as opposed to any specific affection for the Cat Eyed Boy; Mimi wants a child, any child.  Even the villagers aren’t entirely unreasonable in their fears; they come out on the wrong end of the moral equation, obviously, but the sliver of sympathy you feel for their fears adds extra spice to the story’s outcome.

If the Cat Eyed Boy is a bit on the adorable side, like a plush toy, Umezu doesn’t stint on disturbing character design.  “The Band of One Hundred Monsters” is a parade of the grotesque.  And ultimately, it’s the internal deformities, that are most disturbing – anger, jealousy, sadism, greed.  Umezu’s mastery comes from his ability to render both.


Good trash revisited

This week’s random question has me nostalgic for Go! Comi and hopeful that someone will pick up some of their orphan titles, so I dug up an old Flipped column from August of 2009 that outlined some of my personal favorites from their catalog. To atone for the rerun, I’ll open with the following image:

I can’t believe summer is almost over.  June and July are vague, blurry memories.  Fortunately, there are still a few weeks before Labor Day, so it’s not too late to recommend some good trash for beach reading.  And when it comes to slightly tawdry, highly readable shôjo manga, Go! Comi has a very solid track record.

One of the titles from the company’s 2001 launch, Takako Shigematsu’s eight-volume Tenshi Ja Nai!!, remains one of my favorite examples of mean-girl manga.  Shigematsu combines sleek illustrations with twisty storytelling to concoct memorable soap opera.

Tenshi (or “I’m No Angel!!”) is set in an elite all-girls school, always a promising setting for scheming drama.  It’s protagonist, Hikaru, would like to avoid drama entirely; a brief childhood career as a model made her the target of ruthless bullying from jealous classmates, and she’s tried to keep her head down ever since.  Unfortunately, the school’s registrar gives her a roommate that makes her low-profile strategy impossible.

A budding starlet is the worst possible pairing for Hikaru.  The shared spotlight and jealousy of the student body are bad enough, but this starlet has a secret.  The fetching Izumi is actually a guy, as ruthless and conniving in private as his public persona is sweet and demure.  Izumi needs Hikaru’s help to keep his secret, and he’s not averse to blackmail to secure Hikaru’s cooperation and silence.

With secret identities, schoolgirl rivalries, gender bending, and show-biz ambition, Tenshi is the kind of story that virtually writes itself.  Shigematsu keeps the twists coming and even infuses the story with a reasonable amount of romance, though she never lapses into sentimentality.  Given her spiky cast of schemers, it’s hard to see how she could.

Go! Comi has released two other titles by Shigematsu.  There’s a forgettable one-volume outing, King of the Lamp, about a genie who must help young girls find love.  It’s noteworthy mostly for Shigematsu’s acknowledgement that girls are entitled to have sexual desires and to act on them without punishment or guilt.  More in the sneaky, substantive vein of Tenshi is Shigematsu’s Ultimate Venus, which is currently in release.

It’s another swimming-with-sharks story, this time focusing on an orphan who learns that she’s heir to a corporate dynasty.  After her mother’s death, young Yuzu is shocked to meet her high-powered cougar of a grandmother who wants to groom Yuzu to take over the family business.  Yuzu relies on her mother’s homespun, occasionally hardcore wisdom to foil scheming competitors and keep her head above the blood-filled social waters. (Go! Comi only published five of the nine volumes of the series.)

I would be hopelessly remiss if I looked at Go! Comi’s good trash and ignored You Higuri, a prolific manga-ka who stylishly skates on the edge of good taste.  Like the gifted Fumi Yoshinaga, Higuri rarely seems to allow herself to be confined by the strictures of category.  Higuri may generally aim artistically lower than slice-of-life queen Yoshinaga, but her philosophy similarly seems to be that more is better.  A straightforward fantasy story can always benefit from guy-on-guy sexual tension, and a costume drama is always better with a healthy dose of smut.

Her English-language debut came in the form of Cantarella (Go! Comi), a fictional, gothic look at the scheming Borgia clan.  Given the rich volume of historically documented scandal and sleaze the Borgias offer, it hardly seems necessary for Higuri to gild the lily with demonic possession, but gild it she does.  Budding patriarch Cesare is doomed from birth by his ambitious father, who sells the tot’s soul to the devil to support his own ambitions.

A possessed prince can always use a good right-hand man, and Cesare’s comes in the form of hunky assassin Chiaro.  When your father is the Pope and your moral compass is a hired killer, you know your life is bound to be complicated.  So why not complicate it further by entering into a twisted love triangle with your kept murderer and your own sister, Lucrezia?  History tells us that, glory days aside, the Borgias didn’t end well, and it seems unlikely that Higuri’s version will fare any better, but it’s certain to be juicy. (Go! Comi only published ten of the twelve volumes of the series.)

Having come of age in the 1980s with television shows like Dynasty and Dallas, I’m a sucker for sagas about powerful families full of sociopaths, so Cantarella has a special place in my heart.   That said, Go! Comi has launched another Higuri series that I may like even better, as it is top-to-bottom insane.  It’s Crown, written by Shinji Wada and illustrated by Higuri.

Wada is one of those seemingly rare male manga-ka who work primarily in shôjo, though his works (like Delinquent Girl Detective) often seem to favor an action-adventure bent.  Wada and Higuri’s respective sensibilities seem to blend perfectly, creating a freakish, addictive fusion of hardboiled violence and secret-princess sparkle.  Here’s the plot:  a plucky orphan learns that she’s actually a lost princess of a wealthy island nation; she also learns that she has a brother, half of a pair of ruthless mercenaries who break out the big guns to protect her.  Some hearts are set aflutter even as others are blown, still beating, from the chests of rival soldiers of fortune by military-grade ordinance.

The princess crushes on the boys.  The boys may or may not be crushing on each other.  Schoolgirls squeal at trained killers.  Skyscrapers explode.  Bloodthirsty assassins fail in their task because the princess is just so darned nice.  In other words, Crown is a nutty, freewheeling mash-up of manga clichés drawn from whatever category strikes Wada and Higuri’s fancies. It’s delightful.

I should note that guilty pleasures aren’t the only things Go! Comi does well.  I’ve already written at length about Setona Mizushiro’s After School Nightmare, and the publisher has made some nice choices with sweeter, more sentimental shôjo.  Yuu Asami’s A.I. Revolution (five of seventeen volumes published) offers old-fashioned science fiction with a romantic bent, and Toriko Gin’s Song of the Hanging Sky (two of six volumes published) is a potent, beautifully drawn fable.


Revisiting Kinderbook

Alexander (Manga Widget) Hoffman mentioned in a comment that one of the obstacles to the release of Kan Takahama’s Awabi (Fanfare/Ponent Mon) is the relatively weak sales of Takahama’s Kinderbook. This is unfortunate, partly for the resulting delay of Awabi, but mostly because Kinderbook is a really, really good collection of short stories from a very intriguing creator.

I thought it would be a good reason to revisit my very old Flipped column on the title, which ran at Comic World News in December of 2005.

Take Kan Takahama’s Kinderbook, a sublime collection of short stories about love, sex, aging, connection, and loss. More specifically, look at the story that opens the volume, “Women Who Survive.”

In it, an elderly woman has decided to retire to the country. She’s handing over management of her art gallery to her son-in-law and is cheerfully contemplating a future of drawing, decline, and death. Blunt and crusty, the woman also possesses an understated generosity of spirit. She moves through her day meeting with one of the artists who exhibits at her gallery, a young student, and her daughter’s family. Each exchange is filled with casually revealing moments, drawing the reader further into the woman’s world and giving a sense of the magnitude of her decision.

Visually, the story has elegance, precision, and warmth. Takahama’s rendering of her central figure is both unflinching in its portrayal of the marks and lines of age and radiant in the happiness and humor that enliven the woman’s countenance. Snippets of overheard conversation provide backdrop and counterpoint, and the visual focus wanders, as if you’re seeing the world out of the corner of the old woman’s eye.

Then, just when the reader expects a gentle closure, Takahama overturns things with a blissful surprise. In spite of her careful plans for its remainder, life is not quite done with the protagonist. It’s tart, ironic, and heartwarming at the same time, and you can’t help but marvel at Takahama’s mastery of tone and bask in the pleasure of a manga-ka at the peak of her powers.

Then, if you’re like me, you read the biography in the back flap and learn that the exquisite “Women Who Survive” was Takahama’s debut story. Starting from that position of strength, you can’t help but wonder if Takahama can pull off that kind of gemlike storytelling again. She does, over and over, until you reach the end of Kinderbook and are left hungry for more.

Honestly, if a collection had only one story as good as “Women Who Survive,” it would be well worth the cost. But Kinderbook is filled with distinctly wonderful stories, from the ironic bite of the title story to the lyrical sensuality of “Red Candles, Futile Love,” to the gentle humor of “Minanogawa Blues.”

Rereading the book is always a pleasure, as it reminds you of the range of characters living inside of Takahama’s head. She has a particular facility with worldly but not yet mature young women, demonstrated in stories “Kinderbook: A Picture Story for Melancholic Girls” and “Highway, Motel, Skyline.” The latter features graduation day at a girls’ school, and the milestone generates some wonderfully frank, cynical conversation. These young women aren’t cheerfully imagining careers or romance; they’re focused on an earthier kind of freedom – the parties, the opportunity to ditch boyfriend baggage, a new environment full of the possibilities of the moment.

In a bleaker vein, there’s “Over There, Beautiful Binary Suns,” exploring a problematic, emotionally unbalanced sexual affair. Takahama is unsparing in just about every way in this piece, from the clumsy, almost embarrassingly intense seaside tryst to the melodramatic exchange that narrates it to the undeniable vein of ridicule and role play that inform the whole piece. She’s both distanced herself from the material and chosen to present it with uncommon frankness, and the results are awkward and amazing. I love stories that balance seemingly oppositional tonal elements, and this is a fine example.

All of these stories came from Seirindo’s legendary Garo magazine, which did a nice job of overturning my expectations of the material from that anthology. Those were really more biases and assumptions, to be honest, and having seen the range of material in Top Shelf’s AX collection reminded me that “experimental” or “independent” need not always mean “gritty” or “edgy.” Those terms can also refer to graceful works that still manage to be sharp.

I don’t really have any illusions about how much of a difference I can make in sales of a book that’s been out for over a decade, and I recognize the distribution difficulties that can make Fanfare’s books hard to find, but I hope you’ll reconsider Kinderbook if you haven’t already read it. And if you have written about it, please send me a link so I can add it to this post.

Backflipped: Paradise Kiss

The Manga Moveable Feast for Ai Yazawa’s Paradise Kiss is underway. As I sometimes like to do, I’m going to take a second look at a Flipped column I wrote at some point in 2005, I think. So heaven only knows how much freshening it’s going to require. Updates will appear bracketed in italic.


There’s been a dust-up on the comics internet over the past week or so. It started at The Engine, Warren Ellis’s forum, with a discussion of Tokyopop’s contracts for the creators of its Original English Language manga. What started as a conversation about creators’ rights has spun off far and wide into sometimes heated exchanges over creativity, independence, and risk. It’s charged with generational conflict, creative philosophy, big dreams, and bitter experience. [Man, remember when Ellis was the hot club owner of the nerd internet and all the kids would hang out there? Probably not, but this was the first big controversial deal I remember coming out of The Engine, and it got nasty. This was back when people cared about manga-ka being appropriately compensated before the current post-legal era. Also, I’m older than Warren Ellis, which is depressing, but what can you do? Still, nobody should be older than Warren Ellis except maybe Alan Moore.]

Throw in some sex and wry humor, and it would make a pretty terrific manga. Add some gorgeous art, and you’d have Ai Yazawa’s Paradise Kiss.

Nana, Yazawa’s current series, is getting lots of buzz lately. It’s a perennial best-seller in Japan, with a recently released live-action movie. It’s currently being serialized in Viz’s Shojo Beat, and I like what I’ve seen. But I’ve decided to go the tankoubon route, preferring to consume my manga in digest-sized chunks rather than monthly chapters. [This ended up being not entirely true, as I did intermittently pick up a copy of Shojo Beat every now and then, so I’m not really responsible for the demise of the magazine. I particularly renewed my devotion when Honey and Clover and Sand Chronicles launched. Why is it taking Viz so long to start a Shojo Beat web portal? Do they not think that teen-aged girls and middle-aged gay men like to sample comics online?]

So I’ll have to content myself with frequent readings of Paradise Kiss, which has a lot of things going for it. I can think of ten right off the top of my head:

1. The art. Paradise Kiss is glorious to look at, which is only apt with its high-fashion milieu. Yazawa’s character designs are terrific, richly detailed and endlessly expressive. Settings are vivid and rendered with care. While Yazawa employs some familiar shôjo techniques, her work doesn’t look like any other shôjo title on the shelves. There’s a much higher panel count than average, but pages still have the fluidity and elegance of composition that characterizes the best shôjo. At the same time, it has an edge to it that’s surprising. And while Yazawa clearly adores rendering all kinds of couture, her illustrations are never fashion-spread flat. She may revel in an eye-popping outfit, but she never forgets the person wearing it. [I think Yazawa may have improved slightly between Paradise Kiss and Nana, but she may just have hired a larger staff of assistants to take some of the load off.]

2. The plot. Stripped to its bones, the plot of Paradise Kiss sounds like magic-girl manga. An average schoolgirl is swept into a world of creation and illusion, surrounded by mysterious, exotic people, finding hidden strengths and romance along the way. In this case, though, it’s cranky, middling student Yukari discovering the transformative power of style and passion. The exotics are student designers at Yazawa School for the Arts, who want leggy Yukari to model for them in a competition. As Yukari spends more and more time with the designers of Paradise Kiss, she questions her priorities. Her world view expands, and she finds the courage to chart her own course in life. It’s really that simple, but Yazawa fleshes it out with poignant emotional detail. [There’s also the prince-bad boy dyad of love interests, which is very popular in some magic-girl stories. Will Yukari connect with the ostensibly ideal but possibly dull guy from her class, or will she make it work with the hot, conceited bisexual clothing designer? Oh, we all know the answer to that before Yazawa even tells us, don’t we?]

3. Yukari. Nicknamed Caroline by her new friends, Yukari isn’t always the most agreeable tour guide. She’s short-tempered, sarcastic, and given to hysterics. She makes bad choices and acts rashly. But she learns, taking responsibility for her actions and doing her best to stick to her decisions. Over the course of the manga’s five volumes, she goes from pretty kid to lovely person, and it’s a pleasure to watch it unfold.

4. Miwako. At first glance, the reader might be justified in cringing at the sight of wide-eyed, childlike Miwako and wince at her tendency to refer to herself in the third person. But before you can write her off as another cutesy kewpie doll, it becomes evident that there are all kinds of layers under the ribbons and curls. She’s got a heart of gold and a spine of steel, and her friendship with Yukari is genuinely touching. Her relationship with ill-tempered punk Arashi is equally surprising. Their connection is conflicted, but it’s very layered and mature. In spite of her doll-like appearance and demeanor, she carries a lot of the book’s emotional weight like a champ. [While I like Arashi and Miwako’s moments of conflicts and connection, I actually think I prefer the bits where George willfully triggers Arashi’s gay panic. I love seeing fictional gay guys’ egos get the better of them to the point that they actually believe someone of George’s impeccable standards would be attracted to them.]

5. Isabella. I was initially a bit annoyed by the suspicion that Isabella, the elegant transvestite, would stay too far in the background, looking lovely and composed and not doing much of anything. And while it’s true that she gets the least amount of time in the spotlight, well, somebody has to be the grown-up in this crowd. Isabella is the quiet, reassuring eye of a storm of self-reinvention, and it makes perfect sense. Isabella has already reinvented herself to her own satisfaction, so who better to nurture her works-in-progress friends?

6. Hiro. In many other shôjo stories, Hiro would be the… well… hero. He’s handsome, popular, studious, and kind. It’s a testament to the appealing weirdness of the Yazawa Arts crowd that Hiro is left spending most of his time on the margins, worrying over Yukari’s well-being and future. But there’s something compelling about his decency, and I found myself rooting for him every time he appeared. He isn’t the flashiest character, but he strikes a chord.

7. The faces. When characters cry in Paradise Kiss, their soulful eyes don’t glisten with aesthetically pleasing tears. They cry ugly, faces contorted with frustration and sorrow. When they laugh, you can hear it. A blush isn’t just a flattering flutter of shadow across the cheekbones. Yazawa’s characters feel big and show it, which brings readers even further into their emotional states.

8. The complexity. Those emotional states aren’t cut and dried. Yukari embarks on an ill-advised romance with suave, bisexual George, the creative force behind Paradise Kiss and owner of a set of designer emotional baggage. While a lot of shôjo romances make mileage out of those standby traumas – Does he love me? Does he even know I’m alive? – Paradise Kiss asks harder questions. Yukari is swept away by George’s charm even as she’s repelled by his arrogance. She doesn’t wonder if George loves her so much as if he loves her enough, and she isn’t proud of what she’s doing to herself to be with him. It’s not a question of “will-they/won’t-they”; it’s more “should they?” [By “complexity,” I also mean “sadness,” because things don’t end the way you might expect them to in a manga of this category. There’s real disappointment and pain, though everything ends up being for the best, which is a really rare argument for a shôjo manga-ka to make.]

9. The words. I wonder sometimes if I don’t give enough credit to the translators and adaptors who work in the manga industry. Part of it comes from my complete inability to read Japanese, so I’m reluctant to single out that part of the process when I can’t make any kind of informed comparison. But the group responsible for the English-language of Paradise Kiss has given readers a sharp, layered script. The characters have distinct voices. The comedy has punch, and the drama is rich with memorable turns of phrase.

10. Holes in the fourth wall. I’m usually a big fan of the fourth wall, and I can find coy meta references a little irritating. But Yazawa has a real facility for these moments, when her characters wink at the audience. They make for some delightful levity, and given the hyper-dramatic nature of her cast, they make a weird kind of sense. Instead of undermining the world of the manga, they contribute to its charm and even its coherence. (And if Yazawa didn’t indulge in them, I’d have been deprived of the exchange where Isabella tells George that he’s failing to live up to the manga hero standard.)

So if, like me, you’re waiting for the trade on Nana, you should really consider wiling away the weeks with Paradise Kiss. It’s an engrossing, unconventional shôjo.

[I sort of neglected George in this, didn’t I? One would conclude that I don’t like him, or that he ranks eleventh or lower. I don’t really dislike George, but he always felt more like a catalyst in terms of this particular story. To my thinking, this is because he’s the character with the clearest view of what his future will be like. He’s written the interviews and can hear the glowing reviews in his head. There are variables in this future, and I don’t think he’s biding his time with Yukari. I genuinely believe that he’s open to a future with her, but I also believe he recognizes the possibility that she won’t be a part of the future he imagines for himself. He feels for her, but she’s not one of the givens of his future. I think that’s a fascinating stance for a character to assume, but it doesn’t make him immediately likable, if that makes any sense.
[I’m sure there’s fan fiction that features George’s future romantic misfortunes, and there’s probably stacks of doujinshi that features a full range of possible boyfriends for him. I’d be willing to read them, especially if they believably portray him getting his heart broken.]

Art, commerce, and josei

If you haven’t already done so, please go read the excellent Komiksu: Marketing Art Manga roundtable over at The Hooded Utilitarian. As the week progressed, the manga under consideration was redefined as “awesome manga,” meaning stuff that falls out of the contemporary shônen-shôjo mainstream, so “art manga” ended up being only a portion of the comics under consideration, which is all to the good, in my opinion.

Two of the participants, Deb Aoki and Brigid Alverson, mentioned Mari Okazaki’s lovely office-lady comic, Suppli. It’s mainstream josei in Japan, but the category is still rather anemic in translation. After publishing three volumes, Tokyopop put the highly regarded but perhaps commercially shaky property on hiatus, but they’re resuming publication, and the (combined?) fourth (and fifth?) volume(s?) goes on sale in comic shops this week.

Since I love the book, I thought I’d re-run my Flipped column on Suppli, originally published at The Comics Reporter.

Update: In the comments, Derik (Madinkbeard) Badman points to his great, image-heavy look at the visuals of Suppli.


I like escapism in my comics. It’s fun to watch characters do amazing things in places I’m never likely to go, set in a vividly imagined future or carefully recaptured past. Sometimes, though, it’s just as pleasurable to settle in to a comic set in the here and now and get the sense that you could know the characters and live their lives.

That’s one of the qualities that’s so enjoyable about Mari Okazaki’s Suppli (Tokyopop). It’s about the uneasy balance between work and the rest of a person’s life, and Okazaki evokes that familiar tension with a lot of fidelity and detail.

Writers of contemporary fiction will at least know what their characters do for a living. It’s part of meeting the minimum hurdle of suspension of disbelief, of answering readers’ questions as to how these fictional people pay their bills and keep roofs over their heads. Many don’t go beyond that, though. Gainful employment informs everything about Suppli.

Minami Fujii, Okazaki’s 27-year-old protagonist, works in advertising. Her career is a lot of cubicle toil and drudgery spiked with infrequent moments of glamour and triumph. Okazaki takes the reader through the endless meetings, long hours, and petty frustrations that fill up Fujii’s average day. The young executive finds even more time to devote to her career when her longtime boyfriend dumps her.

Before you conclude that Okazaki is punishing Fujii for her professional dedication, she’d been waffling about ending the relationship herself. It was clearly in Woody Allen’s “dead shark” territory, and the end was inevitable, but nobody likes being beaten to the punch. Even if the relationship wasn’t inspiring, it was reliable, and its conclusion leaves a void. It also triggers a string of unpleasant realizations in Fujii.

Hard as she works, she senses that she hasn’t invested anything meaningfully personal in her work. She barely knows her co-workers, and she hasn’t really mapped out any kind of professional trajectory. While Fujii doesn’t settle on a specific destination (professional advancement, marriage, both, neither), she dedicates herself to work and to connecting to her colleagues. The development seems to be equal parts avoiding thinking about the break-up and a genuine desire to fully commit to work. It’s one of many examples of Okazaki giving her characters multiple, concurrent motivations, and she does so without judgment.

Fujii can look at an older woman co-worker with a mixture of admiration, pity, and fear for her own future. She can contemplate the romantic possibilities presented by her male co-workers without appearing calculating or flighty. She can invest herself fully in projects that go nowhere or let details derail a promising pitch. Even buying a purse can be a journey fraught with peril and indecision. In Okazaki’s world, there’s nothing wrong with ambivalence.

Okazaki has a lovely way of showing as well as telling. Panel composition and page layout almost function as a sort of mood ring, reflecting Fujii’s state of mind. Workplace sequences have a crowded angularity that communicates the frenzied demands of her day. Reflective moments have a more fluid quality, and a quietness that can relax into sensuality with the track of Fujii’s thoughts. The sexy moments (and Fujii does manage to have a sex life) combine all of those qualities, half hot, half awkward. Okazaki has a wide range of tools in her aesthetic kit, and she applies them all with style and a unifying sensibility.

Suppli conveys a specific woman’s life with both microscopic detail and emotional sweep. Fujii may feel like her life is out of balance, but Okazaki’s portrayal is keen and clear.

On the down side, it’s impossible to know when readers might see more of it. When Tokyopop experienced its drastic reversals last year, Suppli was one of the titles that wound up in scheduling limbo. Only three volumes are available in English, and there’s no indication of when (or if) the next will be released. That’s no reason to deprive yourselves of what is available, of course. As Okazaki argues so persuasively, uncertain outcomes are no reason not to try.


Everyone's headed To Terra…

Another round of the Manga Moveable Feast is underway, hosted by Kate (The Manga Critic) Dacey and examining To Terra… (Vertical), written and illustrated by Keiko Takemiya. I’m looking forward to seeing what people have to say about this book, which I think is very much in the “underappreciated gem” category. I’ll have my contribution ready on Wednesday, but in the meantime, I thought I’d repost a portion of an old Flipped column that looks at another Takemiya work, Andromeda Stories. The original column was posted at The Comics Reporter.

Andromeda Stories is a bit less layered, and its story is a bit more conventional. A peaceful society is infested with robotic creatures that ruthlessly remake it into an armed camp, devouring its natural resources in the process. A handful of escapees offer resistance and are joined by alien survivors of the robots’ previous invasions.

There’s considerable set-up in the first of the series’ three volumes. Takemiya lines up her pins with efficiency, but the operatic qualities seem muted as a result. There are lots of characters to introduce, sometimes twice. (To appreciate the full horror of the robot’s influence, Takemiya gives readers a sense of what the victims were like before and what was lost.) It’s heavy on plot, and it’s deftly delivered, but it lacks the moody sweep that To Terra… had from its first pages. Fortunately, that sweep kicks in with the second volume and builds through to the end.

One thing that particularly strikes me about Takemiya is her facility at showing fractures among people who share a purpose. In Andromeda Stories, those conflicts are personified by Prince Jimsa, raised in hiding and believed by many to be the world’s only hope against the robots. Interpretations of how his role will play out vary, and Jimsa is more focused on protecting his fragile, ambivalent mother than being any kind of savior. Given the number of genre elements that are woven in along the way — a secret twin, a group of extraterrestrial conspirators, a warrior woman from space, good robots, bad robots, a kindly whore and an even kindlier gladiator — it’s rather remarkable that Takemiya can juggle them all and still convey the story’s emotional core. She even finds room for comic relief.

Kirihito reprise

Vertical is releasing Osamu Tezuka’s Ode to Kirihito in two paperback volumes, so I thought I’d take the arrival to revisit my review of the book. This column was originally published on Nov. 6, 2006, at Comic World News. Any updated thoughts will be in italics.


What is it about Osamu Tezuka?

How is it that his works don’t seem to age? How can he embody so many graphic idioms, from four-panel pratfalls to grisly realism, and have them cohere into such an effective and singular style? And how can he execute a theme like “What does it mean to be human?”, so potentially earnest that typing it makes me cringe, and turn it into something sprawling and gripping?

Ultimately, I think it’s passion. There’s no arguing that manga wouldn’t be what it is today had it not been for his desire to elevate comics beyond an amusement for children into a medium that could offer something for every audience. But focusing on his impact as an industry figure, substantial as it is, can tend to obscure his accomplishments as a manga-ka.

Fortunately, there are plenty of examples of the vibrancy and range of his creations, from Astro Boy (Dark Horse) to Phoenix (Viz) to Buddha (Vertical). I think Vertical’s recent release of Ode to Kirihito offers the best evidence yet of Tezuka’s standing as “the God of Manga.” [Since Ode to Kirihito was originally released in English, Vertical has published MW, also recently re-released, Dororo, and Black Jack, each of which is excellent in distinct ways. Vertical has also announced the English-language release of Ayako.]

It’s Tezuka’s first effort in the gekiga category of comics for adults, summarized here by comics scholar Paul Gravett. Part medical thriller, it’s mostly a meditation on human weakness – cruelty, greed, racism, destructive ambition, hypocrisy. The disease that drives the action, Monmow, causes humans to physically degenerate into dog-like creatures, but Tezuka finds humanity’s moral degeneration much more alarming.

Tezuka’s protagonist, young and moral physician Kirihito Osanai, is searching for the disease’s origins under the guidance of politically ambitious Dr. Tatsugaura. Osanai’s supervisor believes Monmow is contagious, perhaps viral; he also believes his research will be a ticket to power and influence in the medical community. Osanai suspects Monmow has an environmental cause, and his forthright efforts to prove this put him in terrible danger.

They also lead him on a world tour of some of the worst human failings. It begins in the remote village of a Monmow patient, where Osanai contracts the disease himself. From there, it’s virtually impossible to succinctly describe what the good doctor endures in his quest for truth, vindication, and revenge. That’s partly because the book is packed with event, but it’s also due to a reluctance to spoil anything.

Osanai goes from peril to peril, tragedy to tragedy, fending off the impulse to succumb to despair with varying degrees of success. As he does so, colleague Dr. Urabe endures an equally dangerous journey, though it’s largely spiritual. Urabe faces external and internal corruption; his nobler impulses are often overwhelmed by an unexpected capacity for brutality.

[Urabe is] capable of compassion, as with a nun suffering from Monmow. He recognizes Tatsugaura’s myriad failures of character and suspects the lengths his superior will go to in service of his ambition. But he’s selfish and weak in big and small ways, and each forward step he makes toward morality and responsibility is matched or surpassed by a backwards one. He’s a fascinating character, even more than Osanai, because there’s no certainty. While Osanai isn’t exactly a plaster saint, he’s got a moral core. Urabe is unmoored.

[Ode to Kirihito is] a richly populated work, which should come as no surprise, given Tezuka’s profound humanism. He unflinchingly portrays the worst kind of human behavior, but he refrains from portraying anyone as entirely evil. As extreme as their actions may be, no character in Ode to Kirihito is a cardboard monster. There’s always a kernel of humanity, which makes the portrayal of their venality even more effective. [It has been argued to me that Tezuka is much more cynical than humanist, that his portrayals of the depths of human depravity indicate a lack of faith. I still think that Tezuka’s examination of the horrors people can commit doesn’t indicate condemnation so much as frank appraisal in the context of how people can persevere.]

There’s always some dissonance for me in Tezuka’s illustrations. Profoundly influenced by the animated films of Walt Disney (and by film in general), Tezuka’s art has cinematic energy and pacing, informed by a cartoonist’s imagination. Page layout is often imaginative and expressive, and passion is evident on every page. But Tezuka is also one of the progenitors of “big eyes and speed lines.” His repertory company of frankly adorable figures is playing out deadly serious drama, and the counterpoint can be startling. But ultimately it’s a happy, effective dissonance because of Tezuka’s passionate sincerity as a storyteller. [Over at The Comics Reporter, Tom Spurgeon provided a wonderful commentary on the things that Tezuka does so well.]

By all rights, the sheer weight of Tezuka’s reputation and his idiosyncrasies as a creator should make his work seem like museum pieces. But when reading his work, I almost never find myself viewing it through a “for its time” prism. In this case, it may be partly due to the fact that the failures of response to Monmow and the ostracism of its early victims that Tezuka portrays have an eerie prescience when one compares them to the beginnings of the AIDS crisis a decade after this story was published. The beautiful production by Vertical, particularly the sleek and stylish cover design by Chip Kidd, doesn’t hurt either. [I’m sure Vertical’s production values on the paperback versions will be equally exemplary.]

Ultimately, I think it all does come down to passion. Tezuka not only loved the potential of graphic storytelling, he clearly loved the act of it, and that’s so evident here. I may know what to expect from Tezuka in simple terms – the style, the worldview, the scope – but I’m constantly surprised by the way they manifest themselves.


You can view a lengthy preview of Ode to Kirihito at Vertical’s listing page.