Thursday, December 9, 2010

A Drunken Dream: Been there, done that

Webcomics links:  This one isn't all that fresh, but Hans Rickheit's Ectopiary looks as delightfully weird and creepy as the rest of his work.

And for something more up-to-date, Kevin Church has begin yet another new webcomic: The Line, which is about people working at a restaurant, and appears to be in the same continuity as The Rack.  Should be enjoyable, methinks.


A Drunken Dream and Other Stories
By Moto Hagio



With Moto Hagio being so highly regarded in manga circles as an influential creator who helped develop the shojo genre of comics intended for girls, it's nice to finally have some of her work available in English.  Fantagraphics and editor Matt Thorn have ably stepped up to the plate here, compiling a career-spanning collection of Hagio's short stories, one which demonstrates her acumen with stunning visuals and deft characterization, and especially a nice grasp of human relationships.  It's like a quick class in what we've been missing out on for all these years.

The stories are presented in chronological order, stretching from 1971 to 2007, and it's fascinating to see the artist develop as the book progresses.  The early stories can be a bit rough, with somewhat clunky, obvious characterization but an obvious eagerness to take advantage of the storytelling techniques that the comics medium offers.  The first story, "Bianca", sees two young girl cousins form a brief relationship, with the narrator, remembering years later, relating how the eponymous girl would escape the pain of her parents' impending breakup by dancing in the forest.  It's pretty rote and melodramatic as a plot, but Hagio lends a real emotional, expressive beauty to Bianca's dancing, capturing swirling motion and graceful movement against a lovely natural background:



"Autumn Journey" is similarly dramatic, seeing a young man seek out a famous author named Meister Klein, supposedly as a fan, but actually for personal reasons, forming a brief connection with Klein's daughter, with the story building to an emotional crescendo as he leaves.  It's nothing revolutionary, but Hagio uses the same  techniques to bring an emotive feel to the art, with the flowers that Klien's daughter tends filling the panels and lines swirling about to evoke memories and emotional reactions much the same way speed lines convey motion:



"Girl on Porch with Puppy" is another simplistic story, a seeming attempt to capture the feel of a Ray Bradbury story, of whom Hagio is an avowed fan.  It's about a free-spirited young girl whose family and their friends all disapprove of her desire to frolic with her puppy, which seems to be a strange reaction at first but becomes an ominous, oppressive force as more and more people take part, with the background never being fully explained, allowing it to be taken either as an allegory or some sort of science fiction story in which nothing is as it seems.  The story is something of an exception in this volume, in that it is less focused on relationships and interpersonal connections, but it does take an interestingly fresh emotional, mood-focused approach to what could be a rote look at a sci-fi totalitarian society.

Things get a bit more complex in "Marie, Ten Years Later" and the title story, with the former being a poignant tale of missed chances and the unhappiness that petty jealousies can bring, and the latter a sci-fi experiment in past-lives romance and boys' love (albeit one that uses a bit of a cheat, with the "bottom" character being a hermaphrodite rather than a full-on male) that's mostly notable for its muted colors, with a red/pink tint adding a kind of eerie mood that reflects the ominous shadow of the nearby planet Jupiter.  These are decent enough, but they're only a hint of what Hagio would develop into, at least as the later stories indicate.



"Hanshin: Half-God" is where things get really good; it's an incredible story, full of psychological layers and fascinating ideas, following a pair of conjoined twins who seem unable to make their symbiotic existence work.  The narrator, Yudy, is the intelligent half of the pair, but also the ugly one; in contrast, her sister Yucy is beautiful, but mentally incapable.  Sure enough, the latter gets all the praise, even though she depends on her sister for survival, being unable to take care of herself in the slightest.  Yudy becomes resentful of her more attractive twin, angry that she gets the attention when her beauty is only on the surface.  And to make matters worse, it turns out that Yucy's dependence on her sister extends below the surface as well; doctors find that Yucy is leeching nutrients from Yudy, and if they aren't separated, they will both end up dying.  When the separation does occur, the twins switch places, with Yucy withering away and dying, and Yudy becoming beautiful and soon being physically indistinguishable from her sister, causing her to regret any negative feelings she once had and question her very identity.  It's a heartbreaking story, and a fascinating examination of the way women and girls are praised for their looks and not expected to be intelligent or take care of themselves, literally separating these two aspects of the female existence to demonstrate the false dichotomy.  When Yudy's beautiful and intelligent halves recombine, she is unable to process it, ending up being less than the sum of her parts and feeling broken and sorrowful for her resentment toward parts of herself.  That's the damage that society does with its schizophrenic insistence that both the surface and the depths are more important than the other, and Hagio captures this achingly beautifully.



She follows up that amazing bit of psychological complexity with "Iguana Girl", another fascinating examination of female relationships.  This highly symbolic story follows the life of Rika, a girl whose mother sees her as an iguana, finding her ugly, dumb, and clumsy.  While everyone else sees her as a normal girl, she grows up seeing herself as a subhuman lizard due to the emotional abuse heaped on her by her mother, who vastly prefers her second child, which she sees as a regular human girl.  It's hard to watch, a picture of the ugly way parents can treat the children who don't live up to their expectations for whatever reason.  As Rika grows up, she eventually learns to live with her perceived appearance, seeing other people as various animals that fit their personalities, and finding love with a man who she sees as a bull, one who can't be hurt by her reptilian coldness.  Up to this point, the story is a sad look at a difficult childhood, but the real message is revealed when Rika's mother dies, and at the funeral, her body suddenly appears to her daughter as an iguana, making Rika realize that the whole time, her mother was seeing her as just like herself, and heaping her self-hatred upon her daughter.  The symbolism suddenly comes into focus, revealing the story as a look at the ways parents can transfer their own issues their children without even meaning to.  It's a stunning work, one that brings tears to the eyes as Hagio manages to somehow make the goofy appearance of lizards in human clothing poignant and full of meaning.



Those two stories are definitely the high point of this volume, but there is still more to come, with the long-ish "Angel Mimic" seeming like a fairly rote, if well-told, bit of college romance between a student with emotional issues and her professor, until an ending revelation snaps everything into place, closing on a heartbreaking image of emotional outpouring.  "The Child Who Comes Home" is another weepie, with a mother acting as if her young son who died in an accident is still around, inadvertently making her older son feel less important to his family, the ghost of his younger brother still haunting him as he tries to live up to its impossible example.  It's a bit less melodramatic than some of the other stories, with less in the way of huge emotional outbursts, but its conflict works as a believable look at inter-family dynamics, and there are some wonderfully sad moments of storytelling.  Finally, "The Willow Tree" is a short, almost completely wordless story in which a girl with an umbrella standing under, yes, a willow tree watches a young boy pass by every day, seeing him grow up and form a family of his own, until his connection to the girl/tree is finally revealed.  It's slight but beautiful, as the tree and its surrounding area slowly change over time, the glimpses we see of the boy seeming like snapshots of a rich life that we only get a small peek into, which makes that ending revelation that much more moving.  It's lovely work all around.



That describes the entirety of this book, but there's so much more to what Hagio offers, and it's obvious to see how her rich characterization, deft plotting, and expressive artwork made a mark on the industry, her influence extending to much of what is now the shojo and josei genres of manga.  While much of her work remains to be revealed to Western audiences, this book makes for a wonderful primer on what she has accomplished throughout her career.  Hopefully it will be far from the extent of what we will get to experience.