January 29, 2011

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A Drunken Dream and Other Stories

Written by Moto Hagio
Illustrated by Moto Hagio
Fantagraphics

[Edited to add: Thank to Ed Sizemore for pointing out to me that Fantagraphics' copyright dates in this book are flawed. In an otherwise great presentation, copyright dates for book publication--instead of serialization--were used. I have no idea why. If anything, the original publication dates make these stories even more impressive. Corrections to my review have been made accordingly. -Rob]

I think it's a bit of odd role reversal that while Top Shelf is starting a new manga line with the most edgy material they could, Fantagraphics, which is no stranger to comics that border on the offensive, kicks off their new manga series with a collection of some of the prettiest (and sad) manga I've ever read.

There's nothing wrong with either approach, of course, and I think there's a place for both in the English market, but I have to admit, I'd have picked Fantagraphics as the place that landed Ax. Still, it's hard to argue with Moto Hagio as a beginning of a new manga line. This new series seems like it might do for manga in English what Fantagraphics is already doing for Peanuts, Krazy Kat, Steve Ditko, and others--make work that's usually found in lesser editions (if at all) into works of art in and of themselves by gracing them with strong packaging and production values.

I'm very excited about this prospect, because while I love my popular manga, as any frequent reader knows, I also want to see what else is out there, particularly comics that have historical value. They're not going to get a wide audience, but as the manga audience ages, there's a need to help them find things that a bit more akin to Linda Medley or Love and Rockets than, say, Naruto might be. If this first volume is any indication, we as readers are in for a treat.

Hagio is a manga pioneer, one of the first female cartoonist to show that shojo manga could be more than where male cartoonists went to slum while they waited for better gigs. Japan, unlike America, seems to have recognized that there was a market writing comics that did not exclude young woman, and shojo manga thrives today. (In fact, while there's still a set of definitions between girl's, boy's, men's, and women's comics--can you imagine comics written for women in America that have a wide distribution?--I'd wager that the lines are extremely blurred.) Her importance to the manga canon is part of why she was chosen as the first creator for this series.

I am not, however, a manga historian. I barely know the history of western comics, let alone those from the other side of the world. I just know that I wanted a chance to see what manga looked like when written before I was born, and Fantagraphics gave me that chance here in this collection. The results definitely leave me looking for more.

At first glance, the manga in this collection looks a lot like the shojo you see today. There are the usual fine lines, the emphasis on character over backdrop, and a drawing style that displays an almost painful beauty within the characters. That's all fairly standard stuff, but it's like reading old Jack Kirby--this is seeing it done for the very first time. No one was telling Hagio this is what shojo manga should look like. She was doing it on her own, side by side with other manga-kas, some remembered and some forgotten.

Now, like other pioneers, this work is not perfect. Some of the artistic tricks you see here will be done better by later artists. Hagio's crowd scenes are not drawn all that well, and her characters seem to move stiffly, especially by today's standards. Especially in the earlier stories, there's a need to stay within the bounds of more traditional cartooning. You can see designs that look closer to Tezuka than Yoshinaga, and the trademark exaggerations that come to mind when you think of manga are not present at all. I'm also used to far more expressive faces than you get here in these stories, where the characters seem like the have a far more limited range of emotions they're willing to share.

Despite these minor issues, however, the overall quality of the artwork is very good, especially when you consider that some of it is now 40 years old! There is an aching beauty in Hagio's linework that makes the stories all feel like something from a fairy tale, no matter how realistic the material. Even the most typical shojo story in the collection, about a young woman who feels that her life has reached it end because of romantic tragedy gets an air of unreality, which is fitting because of the main character's desire to have humanity gain wings like the angel. Not even a semi-horror story, where Siamese twins have a parasitical relationship, comes off as dark or gritty--Hagio's pen will not permit it.

These stories are pleasant to look at, even when they are dealing with the subject of death. It's a quality of draftsmanship that spills out across every page in A Drunken Dream, something that I don't think later artists can capture, despite being technically more sound than Hagio. An analogy for my superhero friends: Few would argue that Barry Kitson isn't technically superior to Ditko, but while I like both their versions of Spider-Man, Ditko managed to portray him a way that held the essence of the character in a way that Kitson cannot. That's the same feeling I got when reading Hagio. She is not the best shojo artist I've ever seen, but her work has a quality that sets it apart, simply by how she uses her art. It is both the building block upon which better artists have come along and is something that I don't think can be recaptured.

I am not, however, an expert or an artist, so take my ramblings here for whatever they're worth. I feel more strongly when I am discussing story rather than artwork, and the stories in A Drunken Dream are absolutely incredible. From the opening tale, Bianca, I was instantly hooked. An elderly artist talks about a painting inspired by a girl she only knew (and barely liked) for seven days. Yet in a few short pages, with a touch of fantasy and a dose of reality, we as the reader can completely believe that Bianca affected this artist's life and will until the day she dies. The dialog is perfect, the plot is tight, and the story is effective regardless of the reader.

That latter point, to me, is what makes any comic really sing. Sure, you can attract the usual suspects to your comic, but is there appeal for more than one type of reader? That's what separates a good storyteller (such as Tite Kubo) from a great storyteller (Rumiko Takahashi) in my opinion. Hagio sits firmly in the great storyteller group, based at least on the stories collected here.

If anything, the stories just get better from the solid opening of Bianca. Girl on Porch with Puppy could easily be a Twilight Zone episode, with a creepy sense of unreality undercut by the joyful expressions of the characters. Autumn Journey is ahead of its time for 1971, I think, dealing (as does Bianca, from 1970) with the idea of families torn apart in an age when the bonds of marriage started to mean more open splits instead of quiet affairs. Keep in mind this is a time period where in the United States, they were still debating it if was okay to have vampires in comics and a storyline *against drugs* was almost squelched. Talk about cultural differences!

Conversely, A Drunken Dream, the title story (rendered in muted colors), seems more appropriate to 1980, the date it was first published, than 1985, when it was collected in book form. The hopefulness of a fictional world where we live on other planets just smacks me as something that we realized by the 1980s was highly unlikely, but Hagio uses that hope to set up a tragedy that seems to care nothing for time. Far more grounded in reality is Marie, Ten Years Later, where a grouping of three friends is shattered for good. Despite being written three years before A Drunken Dream, the two stories could not be more different in tone. While both have a somber mood, Marie shows us that life is not a science fiction of endless hope. We make life decisions and sometimes they're the wrong ones. That's a feeling that definitely echoes throughout this collection, as I'll talk about shortly.

Not one to rest on her laurels, Hagio's later stories are also quite strong. Angel Mimic, which I referenced above, is most similar to what comes to mind at the notion of shojo manga, but Hagio puts her own spin on it by making the female protagonist extremely intelligent, able to believe in angels but also discuss theories of evolution with her typical shojo hero, a professor. Angel Mimic shows that there's no reason why tropes can't be used to good effect, another sign of a quality creator in my opinion. (I will warn you that the artwork this time absolutely SCREAMS 1980s, so don't be fooled by the copyright date inside the book. It's as much as product of the 1980s as Max Headroom.) Similarly, Iguana Girl involves elements of fairy tales into a domestic drama where a mother and daughter cannot connect to each other, despite a bond that should bind them. The common idea (mother versus daughter) gets a new twist in the hands of Hagio.

If there's one thing that surprised me about all of the stories in this book, it's the overall sense of sadness. Hagio's characters never seem to be happy. They're either regretting a decision, mourning a loss, or hoping life can be different. If they wish for something, that wish is delivered in the most cruel way possible, or in such a way as to undercut its value somehow. I really feel bad for her characters--they lead such terrible but lovely drawn lives! I don't know if this is a theme in Hagio's work or a result of a conscious decision of the editor, Matt Thorn. Either way, it makes for reading that is completely satisfying, but will leave you reaching for a tissue now and again, unless you have the hardest of hearts.

There are a metric ton of people who liked A Drunken Dream and Other Stories. I'm not even going to begin to pretend that my contribution here makes a lot of difference. This book made just about everyone's "best of" list in 2010, and definitely would have made mine had I read it a month ago instead of recently. It is not the best manga realized in 2010 (I think All My Darling Daughters is superior), but without work like Hagio's, there could be no Fumi Yoshinaga or Ai Yazawa. A book like this should be must reading for those who want to know how the shojo we know today came to be.

A Drunken Dream and Other Stories is not just for lovers of girl's manga, however. It's a book worthy to be read by anyone who likes good comics with a touch of fantasy and a touch of sadness. As with any book by a great creator, the appeal is almost universal, and should not be bound by the possibly dismissive label of being "for girls." To do so is insulting, both to the potential reader and to Hagio herself. Hopefully, this will be the start of getting Hagio's name on the same pillar as Tezuka, which is clearly where she belongs.

If by some chance you haven't read this manga yet, you owe it to yourself to find a copy right away. Don't be scared by the 1970s look of the art or the idea that these stories were originally written to a girl's market. This is one of those books that is not to be missed. It's destined to be a classic.