Thursday, August 14, 2008

Graphic Lit: Classic manga

Most of the manga on bookstore shelves these days consist of contemporary works, aimed at a contemporary audience.

What's been pushing my buttons lately, however, are the classic Japanese comics of yesteryear.

Here's a look at some of these time-honored comics from the East, recently translated and repackaged for an American market:

"Dororo Vol. 1 & 2" by Osamu Tezuka, Vertical, 300 and 288 pages, $13.95 each.

Many of Tezuka's stories sound unusual when summarized, and "Dororo" is no exception.

The plot concerns a wandering swordsman named Hyakkimaru who is trying to collect the 48 body parts stolen from him by demons when he was a baby (he relies on a mysterious sixth sense and artificial limbs -- many of which hide secret weapons -- to get around).

Paired with the plucky titular youth, he travels from village to village in Feudal Japan, encountering a number of creepy and increasingly bizarre monsters in a sort of "X-Files" meets "Seven Samurai" fashion.

Tezuka fudges over issues of exactly how Hyakkimaru is able to function, much less wield a sword, but the story is no less compelling or entertaining for all its leaps in logic. Cartoonists-in-training would do well to examine the way Tezuka establishes a setting, for example, or lays out a tense action sequence.

In short, "Dororo" is a rewarding read and one of my favorite books of the year so far. Look for the concluding Volume 3 to come out at the end of the month.

"Cat Eyed Boy Vol. 1 & 2" by Kazuo Umezu, Viz, $24.99 each.

Fifty bucks might seem like a steep price to pay for a bunch of oddball horror tales originally aimed at kids, but Umezu's work here has a propulsive, surreal power that is nigh impossible to shy away from.

The Cat Eyed Boy of the title serves both as Crypt-Keeper-like narrator and protagonist. A wandering trickster god of sorts, his travels constantly rub him against some rather gruesome and inventive demons determined to wreak havoc.

The series preys heavily on childhood fears, such as the notion that your parents may not have your best interests at heart (or may even become monsters when the lights go out).

Like "Dororo," "Boy" doesn't always make sense, but instead is infused with a nightmare logic that anyone who has had a bad night's sleep will recognize.

"Red Colored Elegy" by Seiichi Hayashi, Drawn and Quarterly, 240 pages, $24.95.

Inspired heavily by French "new wave" cinema, "Elegy" tells the melancholy story of Ichiro and Sachiko, two young lovers torn between what society and their families expect of them and their own personal hopes and dreams.

Hayashi borrows heavily from film and animation, loading the book with symbolism (i.e. moths flickering around a lamp).

He also keeps his backgrounds and figures as minimal as possible, all the better to portray the characters' dissolute and existential lifestyle.

While I found the star-crossed lovers a bit self-absorbed for my cynical, Western taste, I was in awe of Hayashi's stylistic choices. Ultimately, "Elegy" had me thinking about comics in ways that I hadn't before, and I treasure it for that.

Copyright The Patriot-News, 2008

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