The floods in Washington that made national news did not actually effect me. However, I learned that the last place I used to live- a duplex in a complex, off a relatively well-traveled road- was flooded. I ran into the neighbor I shared a wall with, she told me that water seeped through the walls and into the carpet, with the back door unable to be opened, and the front door a tricky proposition. This was weird to me: Huh, there's a disaster that I averted, seemingly narrowly, although I moved out five months before.
The other night I picked up the Chris Ware edited McSweeney's 13, and looked at the Gary Panter short story, "Nightmare Studio." He mentions, in talking about visiting Bruce Tibbetts' house in a dream, "As is common in dreams about departed friends, there is water damage in the house." I lived at that house with my best friend, and left those months ago because he moved back to Alaska. There were no dreams, just the mental imagery of the house turned ruined, that rung with this resonance.
It is this talk of Gary Panter and absent friends which I might as well use to lead off this talking about Tekkon Kinkreet, which is probably the best comic I read this year.
(Oh- 1-800-Mice has been canceled as of issue two, but there'll be a graphic novel in the fall of next year. I'm going to post this as a comment in my original review, but might as well say it here too.)
It's from Japan, which is really surprising to me. Japanese comics, generally, strike me as terrible, and this is a thing I've been trying to work out the whys and wherefores of. I like Japanese movies just fine. When I was talking about this online with Bill Randall, who lives outside Tokyo and is kind of an expert on these things, he pointed out that the big figures in Japanese cinema are heavily indebted to American cinema- Howards Hawks and John Ford are respected and emulated by the likes of Kurosawa, but manga has its own lineage. Obviously, it can't really be expected that I would be into the mainstream popular stuff, but even the alternative/underground Japanese comics, which have their own separate lineage, have problems. Shigeru Sugiura, who Dan Nadel of Picturebox referred to as "the Herriman of manga" because of the whole branch of comics weirdness that stems from him, looks clip-art stiff compared to the aliveness of a Krazy Kat strip. Everything that descends from him strikes me as equally stiff- Bill Randall also says that in most Japanese comics drawing culture, copying is taught, not figure drawing- I got the implication that figure drawing isn't a big part of the Japanese visual culture at all, which struck me as really weird. Also, a lot of the manga being published right now, the stuff that's doing gangbusters in Barnes And Noble, is "unflipped"- the image progression reads right to left, even though the words, translated and in English, read left to right- which strikes me as completely counterintuitive, although it's possible to learn how to do it. (Brian Chippendale's comics read back and forth, left-to-right and then right-to-left, so your eye stays focused on panel to panel movement and never goes up from the page.) One artist doesn't have the whole page flipped, but goes in digitally to move the panels to the alternate side of each other, which I find interesting from a composition perspective. I find the whole idea of flipping large sets of images interesting from a compositional perspective. But even though Akira is flipped to read left-to-right, I still think that comic's fucking unreadable and baffling for some reason- it just puts me off completely.
Somehow, this comic got through all those filters. It didn't a couple of years ago though, when it was published as Black And White in a series of three digests that I just read the first one of. It really didn't make any impression on me then. The new printing is bigger now, which makes the images breathe, and the story is all there in one chunk. But really, my response was so strong on this reread that the fact that I didn't like it the first time is near-baffling.
The drawings are the main thing. It has a weird balance of looking like it's drawn by a little kid and being completely solid- The perspectives are skewed, buildings bend, but it never becomes confusing that you're looking at a building, even as the panel has the buildings on the side, with the composition centered on a drawing of a moon with a face on it. It's all drawn at odd angles that avoid that clip-art feeling. There's all these retarded drawings- There's one of a car that I'm particularly obsessed with, the way it looks molded out of clay. It's a deliberate choice- No. 5, by the same artist, does not have kids for protagonists, and is a lot more solid, and somehow it goes back to the level of being not quite readable of almost every other Japanese comic I've read. Osamu Tezuka's Ode To Kirihito is pretty much the only other manga I could read, and that likewise is this weird cartooning tour de force of style-switching and casual avant-garde approaches. In Japan, seemingly, comics styles that are solid are only so because they've cooled to the point of congealing.
Gary Panter's comic drawn for the Japanese market, Cola Madnes, is influenced by Japanese underground comics, seemingly, in how sparse it is, and how the figures relate to each other spacially. His ratty line is what stops it from looking like clip art and brings it back to looking like the marks on paper that all of his work looks like. When I say that Tekkon Kinkreet carries with it some of Panter's power (Paper Rad call him Gary Panther for a reason), that isn't what I'm talking about. I'm talking about that basic level of sloppiness, combined with perfectly understandable drawings, that allow drawings to shift up their style and communicate feeling.
Feeling, it turns out, when reading it all together, is what this comic has in spades. It's about, on one level, male friendships, as this sort of thing that is able to stop the natural violence and craziness of the individuals. This is true about all relationships, but in this story, it's specifically about violence. When the characters get separated, it's more affecting to me here than in Goodbye, Chunky Rice due to the way that things go badly in terms of people's actual behavior as they fall apart, rather than just pine and feel lonesome. It's also more affecting to me because of the drawing. (Goodbye, Chunky Rice is still a good comic though, with its own strengths to the drawing.)
On another level, it's about gentrification. Which is what Brian Chippendale's Ninja was about, which I've already talked about in terms of its relation to Gary Panter.
On another level, it's a fight comic. One of the things I like about Japanese comics is the terminology. Things actually get called "fight comics." The word "manga" literally translates to "irresponsible pictures," which would be both a good name for a comic shop and an exploitation film production company. I don't like how Japanese comics are mostly just broken down by genre into demographics- one for boys, one for girls, one for men, one for women. (The stuff for boys and girls is what mostly is translated and popular. American women read the stuff for girls- I'm not sure what the stuff for women even is, as I'm under the impression that even the stuff featuring gay romance designed to appeal to a female readership is technically for girls. The stuff for men is really violent.) The really weird underground stuff doesn't get broken down, I don't think. It's kind of baffling to me. Anyway, one critic, responding to another critic who was asking "wait, are there Japanese comics for adults? I know there are American comics for adults, thanks New York Times!" brought up Tekkon Kinkreet. Another critic said "No, Tekkon Kinkreet is just a marginally more sophisticated version of these comics for little boys that are really popular. You should've mentioned these comics about the bombing of Hiroshima!" I jumped in to explain the whole Gary Panter not being Chris Ware thing. Tekkon Kinkreet might not read like literature, but it does read like really great comics, which is an argument that's foreign to a reviewing culture used to saying things like "a good graphic novel can be equivalent to a prose novel." Different mediums have different strengths. I get something different out of a Borges collection than I do a P.T. Anderson movie. (Has there ever been a short film as good as the best short stories? I'm pretty sure there hasn't been.) A main strength of Tekkon Kinkreet is how the violence is drawn: Movement is captured well, generally, and so is psychological intensity. From this, some of the drawing is kind of free-associative symbolism, in a way that couldn't be done in another medium. Towards the climax, fish are just drawn flying through the air, sort of as a visual-language leitmotif that doesn't really distract from any of the other elements. Wait, flipping through it again, maybe that doesn't happen. There are drawings of fish though, thrown in as symbols in their own panels, adding to the energy of a page as a single unit, though.
Somehow, over the course of reading it, I felt it all start to add up, the weight of one drawing after another. The way individual drawings worked, added up into the way entire pages worked as a piece of design, and then intuitively by force of the narrative just got piled into this even bigger shape, that after 614 pages of skewed perspective things start to look differently. My only complaint about the book is the use of this kind of distressed font which can also be found on the cover of the last Melt-Banana album. It is about as important here as it is on that record- You're not staring at the front cover when an album like that plays.