Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Johnny Hiro: Maybe we do need another one

Elsewhere: I reviewed Agents of Atlas #8 over at Comics Bulletin.

News: I don't usually talk about press releases that I receive, but I did want to mention that Viz is officially launching sigikki.com, their online seinen manga magazine that has been running Daisuke Igarashi's Children of the Sea. That is, the launch date is July 23, and if you want to read all about the series that will be running, here's one place that has the whole press release. Out of all the titles, I'm probably most interested in Saturn Apartments, Tokyo Flow Chart, and maybe Bokurano: Ours. Also, Afterschool Charisma has a bizarre concept, I'll Give It My All...Tomorrow sounds like it could be something close to the salaryman manga that we've been wanting to see over on these shores, and House of Five Leaves might be a cool samurai manga. There's good potential here; I'm kind of excited.

Johnny Hiro
By Fred Chao



For my money, Fred Chao draws the best smiles in comics. Any fool can throw a toothy crescent on the front of a face-shaped oval, but when Chao does it, it really stands out, making his characters beam with joy and happiness. The minimalism of his approach probably adds to the effect; with dots for eyes, simple lines defining other facial features, and blacked-in shapes for hair, the big grins really stand out on characters' faces:



Of course, that in itself isn't really that big a deal, but another thing Chao does so well is craft his characters in a way that we really like them, enjoy spending time with them, and want them to be happy, so when they achieve that happiness, however fleeting it may be, we smile right along with them.

It also helps to be really funny, come up with exciting conflicts, fill pages with cool visuals, and make the read a fun experience that has readers enjoying the time spent with the characters and not wanting the book to end. And that's what Chao does, detailing the adventures of the titular protagonist as he simply tries to get by in New York City along with his girlfriend Mayumi. Over the course of the book, he has to face a rampaging monster, knife-wielding chefs, samurai businessmen invading the opera, angry fishmongers, and the city court system. Each chapter is great fun, but while events can get a bit fantastical, it's all still grounded in reality, as Johnny just wants to make enough money as a busboy/cook/waiter to support himself and Mayumi while not screwing things up more than he already has. The action is lots of fun, but we spend just as much time on mundanities like moving into a new apartment or getting ready to go out for a night on the town. And the surprising thing is, those parts are just as good as the bits of frenetic excitement, if not better, probably due to the cute interplay between Johnny and Mayumi. Mayumi is especially fun, sporting charmingly broken English and a silly sense of humor:



The action is tons of fun as well, due to Chao's excellently dynamic sense of movement. His cartoony characters move fluidly through urban environments that have a real sense of depth (while not seeming so rigidly defined as to stand out from the rest of the artwork), making things fun to watch:


And they usually culminate in huge moments of craziness, which never fails to bring a smile to the face. And speaking of smiles, Chao's use of humor is excellent, whether through a perfect sense of timing:


Or in the relation of funny anecdotes:


It's great fun all around. If there's anything to complain about, it would be the occasional overuse of third-person narrative captions, which at their best can provide illuminaiton on Johnny's inner emotional state while he's fleeing from crazed attackers, but sometimes drag things down with a bit too much wordiness.

But any minor complaints are quickly overridden by the next bit of greatness, coming in the form of a zany bit of action, a funny flashback, a perfectly executed layout (an overhead-view tour of Johnny and Mayumi's new apartment makes for a particularly bravura page), or a touching moment of human connection. There's something to enjoy on every page here, and I haven't even mentioned pleasures like Alton Brown occasionally interjecting to correct some bit of food trivia, the seemingly-random celebrity cameos (David Byrne! Gwen Stefani! Judge Judy!), or the wonderful sound effects.

Interestingly, the volume starts out with its most high-concept bit of fantasticality and slowly becomes more and more down to earth, choosing instead to focus on human concerns and developing the characters' relationships. And since Chao does this so well, the move away from action is barely even noticeable. That's some good storytelling right there, and luckily, even though it's not obvious, the back cover flap lists the title as "Johnny Hiro volume 1", meaning that hopefully we'll be able to read more in the future. That possibility is what can keep hope alive in the interim, right?