Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Graphic Lit: Fanfare/Ponent Mon

One of the more interesting manga subgenres to crop up in recent years is "nouvelle manga."

Founded by French cartoonist Frederic Boilet, nouvelle manga is an attempt to cross-pollinate the European and Japanese comic waters, drawing on both cultures' interest in telling slice-of-life stories.

Rather than rely on established genres like Westerns or science fiction, nouvelle manga's focus is on down-to-earth stories of everyday life, with a decided emphasis on realistic art.

Providing a well-rendered sense of time and place is of foremost importance to these practitioners, regardless of what side of the globe they live on.

No English publisher trumpets the nouvelle manga aesthetic better than Fanfare/Ponent Mon.

Its line of books provide the best -- indeed, in the U.S. the only -- glimpse into this movement. Its books can be tough to track down, but are well worth your time.

Here's a look at some of its more notable titles:

"Japan As Viewed by 17 Creators"
by various, 256 pages, $25.

If you can only afford to purchase one Fanfare book (and what a shame that would be), it should be this one.

As the title suggests, it's a collection of French and Japanese artists, both well-known and obscure, delivering their impressions of the land of the rising sun.

The Western artists tend to aim more toward autobiographical travelogues while the Eastern artists offer more impressionistic looks.

All, however, provide some of their best work. It's not just an insightful look at two different cultures; it's one of the best anthologies in recent years.

"The Building Opposite Vol. 1"
by Vanyda, 168 pages, $21.99.

This ongoing series looks at the occupants of a small, three-story apartment building: a single, pregnant mom, an older married couple, and a pair of young lovers.

At first the book seems to move at a glacial pace, but ever so slightly, Vanyda starts to delve deeper into the characters' lives, ultimately showing not only their differences, but also how their interactions with each other subtly shift their own lives.

"Yukiko's Spinach"
by Frederic Boilet, 144 pages, $13.99.

One of the seminal titles in the nouvelle manga movement, "Spinach" is Boilet's autobiographical account of a brief romance with a Japanese woman (Boilet lives in Japan).

Boilet keeps the focus on Yukiko using a first-person perspective and rarely shows himself. That could easily lead to severe critiques of colonialism and adopting a sexist "male gaze."

Boilet is too clever and romantic an artist for that however, and "Spinach" ends up being a smart, erotic and bittersweet chronicle of a doomed love affair.

"Doing Time"
by Kazuichi Hanawa, 240 pages, $19.99.

In 1995, Hanawa was sentenced to three years in prison for possession of firearms without a permit (a serious offense in Japan). "Doing Time" is an account of those years, though the presentation is quite different from anything you might expect.

There's no "Oz"-like tales of abuse here, just meticulous vignettes of prison life: what they eat, how they work, and how they pass the time.

Floor plans, diagrams and pages of meals (food is a particular obsession in jail) are presenting in painstaking fashion.

If anything, Hanawa seems to be arguing it's the monotony and mundane humiliations (prisoners, for example, have to ask permission to pick an eraser up off the floor) that slowly erode one's sense of self-worth.

It's not for nothing that the book's final image is of a group of fat, contented pigs in a small sty.

"The Times of Botchan, Vol. 1"
by Jiro Taniguchi and Natsuo Sekikawa, 152 pages, $19.99.

More than any of Fanfare's other books, "Botchan" is best enjoyed if you have a bit of knowledge about Japan, specifically the Meija-era, when the country attempted to join the modern world.

The book focuses on the writer Soeki Natsume, who tries to turn his ambivalent feelings about the country's Westernization into a novel. Meanwhile, his friends and students (several based on real people) bump up against other cultural shifts, like public displays of affection.

"Botchan" offers an intriguing look at a turbulent period in the country's history, with stunningly detailed art by Taniguchi.

But it's definitely a book where your enjoyment is in direct proportion to your familiarity with the subject matter.

Copyright The Patriot-News, 2007

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At 1:03 PM, Blogger John Jakala said...

Nice overview of Fanfare/Ponent Mon's titles, Chris. Japan was one of my favorite books from last year, and I've just started Doing Time and Times of Botchan and am enjoying both so far.


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