Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Worthwhile Monster Mash interlude: Takehiko Inoue is the Real Deal

Links: Check out this explanation of Geoff Grogan's process in creating the book Look Out!! Monsters.  I really want to read that one.

And there's some good stuff on this month's MySpace Dark Horse Presents, especially this short comic by Kate Beaton.  There's also a Goon story with art by Kristian Donaldson, a Wondermark strip, and an Achewood comic.  Nice.

Real, volume 3
By Takehiko Inoue

Three volumes into this series, Takehiko Inoue is still laying the groundwork, slowly introducing us to his characters and letting us get to know them.  The first volume was mostly about troublemaker Nomiya, while the second focused on Togawa, his past, and his continued coping with life in a wheelchair.  This time around, we get to spend time with Takahashi as he finally starts to come to terms with his injury and accept that he'll never walk again.  Inoue is fully fleshing out his cast, making them seem like real human beings, rather than two-dimensional plug-and-play sports manga stereotypes.  As with most anything Inoue does, it's amazing to watch him at work.

While Takahashi gets the main focus this time around, we still see some important developments with the other principals, including the results of an especially emotional game for Togawa's wheelchair basketball team.  He originally quit the team when he felt like he was the only one who cared whether they won or lost, with the others just happy to be playing at all when they were disabled.  But now that he's returned to the team, some of his fire seems to have spread to the others, and when one character disparages the idea of even putting forth the effort to win:

Another one who was struggling to keep up takes a stand against him, refusing to succumb to self-pity:

In a recognition that this is the important moment, Inoue doesn't even show us the end of the game; the results are offhandedly admitted in a bit of dialogue.  No, this is the real victory; Togawa's desire to do his best is finally spreading to the others.  Previously, he was pursuing this goal selfishly, but now he's working with the others and inspiring them to give it their all; it's a great moment.

As for Nomiya, he's still trying to get over the fact that he is responsible for the injury that put Natsumi in a wheelchair, and he travels to Nagano to see her.  He learns that she's managing as well as she can, learning to live with her disability and moving on with her life.  We see some foreshadowing for the rest of the volume in a scene in which Nomiya glimpses her doing some physical therapy:

I'm amazed by how well Inoue manages to present the grueling physical struggle that she is enduring there, from the expression on her face to the effort that it takes to accomplish such a seemingly simple task.  Incredible artwork, as always.

Nomiya's glimpse into Natsumi's life clarifies things for him as well; she is able to continue her life, but he's still stuck suffering regrets.  He wants to prove himself worthy of her, but he's never going to be able to do so if he keeps wallowing in the past.  He also needs to move on before he can ever even face her again.  Whether and how he'll be able to do so remains to be seen, but he's an enjoyable character to watch, so his struggles should make for some great reading.

But Nomiya and Togawa aren't the key figures in this volume; instead, we get an up-close and personal view of Takahashi as he continues to sink into depression about his lot in life.  Laid up in bed in the hospital, he can only feel sorry for himself and refuse to admit that the use of his legs is forever lost.  It's heartbreaking to see him deny his circumstances, even when presented with the evidence of his own useless appendages:

The beginning of his rehab is no better; when he learns that he's just going to be put on an incline table that raises him to an upright position, he gets angry:

But even that is too much for his body, and it's a crippling blow that really shows how far he has fallen.  And then, in what is obviously a choice that won't lead to much in the way of happiness or resolution, he insists on seeing the father that left him and his mother when he was young.  The man who shows up turns out to be nothing like the heroic figure that he remembers:

It's another crushing blow, and maybe one that will make things even worse.  Of course, the real last straw comes when Nomiya comes to apologize to Takahashi, and ends up bawling him out for feeling sorry for himself.  Along with some encouragement from a coach who once acted as a father figure for Takahashi, maybe this will finally get him to turn things around and stop giving up on himself.  But that will be for future volumes to depict.

The thing is, while this is hard to watch, it's a testament to Inoue's skill that we want to continue to do so.  Takahashi might not be the most likeable character, but he still feels like a real person, and we can't help but want him to succeed.  When he and Nomiya are reminiscing about the good old days when they played basketball together, it's heartbreaking, because they've both fallen so far from their dreams.  Somehow, they've come to feel like friends, and we just want them to be happy, even though that seems so impossible.  But that's what future volumes are for, and Inoue is eminently trustworthy when it comes to delivering on that promise.  I can't wait to see what he has in store.