Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Graphic Lit: Manga for adults

Glancing at the manga shelves in the local book store, it’s easy to assume that this art form caters exclusively to teens and kiddies.

That would be a mistaken assumption. While the popular stuff does set its sights on the under-18 crowd, there are plenty of high-quality manga available in English that adults can pick up and read with impunity.

For example:

“Me and the Devil Blues: The Unreal Life of Robert Johnson”
by Akira Hiramoto, Del Rey, 544 pages, $19.95.

About as far from a traditional biography as you can get, Hiramoto’s fictional account of the famous bluesman (who, legend states, sold his soul to the devil in order to be able to play guitar), is more of a phantasmagorical rumination on early 20th century America than anything else.

Thus, we see sharecropper-turned-musician “RJ” meeting up with legendary figures like Clyde Barrow, running into “dry” Southern towns where drinking liquor can get you killed, and literally growing an extra set of fingers on his hand.

Coming from a vastly different culture, Hiramoto’s outsider approach works against him at times (his early attempts at comedy play a little too close to minstrelsy), but his approach to the material is fascinating. He’s also a wonderful storyteller, and the musical and action sequences have a vibrant and compelling potency. You don’t have to be a blues aficionado to appreciate this.

“Disappearance Diary”
by Hideo Azuma, Fanfare/Ponent Mon, 200 pages, $22.99.

In 1989, the constant pressure of deadlines became too much for manga-ka Azuma, and he suffered a breakdown, running away from his home and family to live on the streets.

He eventually returned home, only to suffer another breakdown in 1992, this time abandoning his responsibilities to become a gas pipe-fitter. By 1998, his alcoholism became so bad that he was forced to check himself into a rehab clinic.

Azuma chronicles those experiences in “Disappearance Diary.” This is not a mordant, gloomy affair about a man confronting his darker nature, but rather one of the cheeriest stories about homelessness and despondency ever told.

Drawn in a cartoonish style, Azuma refuses to pay heed to despair, cracking jokes and looking on the bright side when possible.

Yet despite the book’s sunny disposition, there’s a melancholy dread at the center that’s impossible to ignore. It’s this constant “push-pull” between the facts of Azuma’s tale and the way he delineates it that makes “Diary” such an amazing book — certainly one of the best I’ve read this year.

by Yoshihiro Tatsumi, Drawn & Quarterly, 212 pages, $19.95.

This is the third and final volume of Tatsumi’s short stories that D&Q is collecting (though they plan to publish his autobiography at a later date). As with the previous books, these are largely bleak, dour tales of people on the fringes of society. The obsessed, poor, and utterly depressed make up Tatsumi’s world.

“Good-Bye” might well be the best of the three volumes, mainly because in many of the stories Tatsumi connects his characters’ sufferings to larger social and political events, namely the American occupation of Japan and deep poverty the country dealt with after World War II.

Copyright The Patriot-News, 2008

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At 5:00 PM, Anonymous xlpharmacy said...

I like the surreal quality of the story of The Unreal Life of Robert Johnson”and the artwork is great. Not a title for everyone, but I would still recommend it to anyone willing to try something new. One thing I did find kind of interesting was that even though it is an American story it was written for a Japanese audience and every now and again a Japanese hand movement will appear.


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