December 14, 2011

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Stargazing Dog

Written by Takashi Murakami
Illustrated by Takashi Murakami
NBM

A beat-up station wagon is found abandoned, with its occupant very dead and unidentifiable.  Nearby is the body of a dog.  What brought them to this place?  How did they die?  How do you reach such a lonely end?  Find out the truth behind the mystery in the hauntingly beautiful but sad narrative of Stargazing Dog.

I read all kinds of comics, as people who read this blog regularly know quite well.  I read funny comics, serious comics, action comics, and some that are just plain bizarre.  I can get very into a story, hanging on each volume as it comes out or I can feel quite passionately about the content of a book.  It's rare, however, for a comic to make me cry.

Stargazing Dog had me teary-eyed in public, as I read the book at a McDonald's over lunch.  This is not a book to be read if you are feeling emotionally fragile, as it is a tear-jerker almost from start to finish.  In fact, had the protagonist been more sympathetic, I don't know that I could have finished without bawling.  Only the idea that his problems stem from his actions early on in the narrative stopped a full on spectacle in a fast food joint.

In Stargazing Dog a young puppy is brought home to a family who has serious issues.  The puppy narrates the action in a manner that initially is a bit saccharine but is eventually key to the story working as well as it does. The father lives in his own world and seems to take little notice of what happens to his wife and son.  He does, however, show a great affection for the family dog.  Eventually, the tables are turned, as the uncaring husband finds himself without a wife, a job, or a life.  Left alone with just the dog and his memories, things slowly get worse and worse.  Not even traveling can change the life of the dog's owner, though, as he falls further and further off the grid.  By the time they reach an old camping site, it's time for the tears to form and prepare for the inevitable conclusion.

Like all of the best comics I read, Stargazing Dog has a strong story that forms a perfect arc from start to finish.  Everything in this comic follows the dramatic form, from beginning to climax to the anti-climax of the second story, where a young man tries to piece together the tragic life of the dog and owner.  Murakami doesn't try to drag the story out longer than it needs to be, and is perfectly happy with doing terrible things to his protagonists.  This is a perfect tragedy, where the hero of the story brings about his own fall, not unlike King Lear, my favorite of the Shakespeare tragedies.

I'm not trying to say Stargazing Dog is worthy of being in the same conversation as Lear, but I really like how this comic follows the formula of good drama without feeling like it was written in a paint by number form.  Murakami clearly understands dramatic structure and uses it to good effect.  The set pieces, such as the early scenes between the husband and wife build to her departure, using his own words against him.  The idea that a man who's been broken can be beaten down further and further just works so well for me, as we see him get ever more desperate while still trying to see the good in people.  All of this is filtered through the lens of the dog, who has a child's perception of the world, further highlighting the cruel nature of the world.

In fact, the only thing I'm not comfortable with in the whole book is the idea that the reader might be supposed to feel sorry for the dad.  The back cover copy implies this, but I did not get that at all from my reading.  The father brought everything on himself, and if the reader doesn't key into that idea, the whole thing falls apart to me, as it then becomes a maudlin tale of the poor male character who can't fit in a world where women are allowed to leave them and jobs are taken by others.  I'd hate for this comic to actually be about that (or intended to be about that) because it read so much better as arrogant indifference turned into a realization of just how fragile all our lives are.  I guess it can be either, depending on the reader, but still, I don't think the back of the book blurb is the right spin at all.  (Not that it would be the first time a book is marketed badly by back book blurb-ing.  See Karakuri Odette.)

For this edition, NBM has opted to flip the art and have the book read left to right.  It actually threw me a bit, because almost all of the manga I read these days are right to left.  Given NBM is primarily a publisher of Western comics, I think the choice makes sense.  This is a book that can be given to a non-manga reader without a single objection, showing them the quality of the genre and maybe getting them to overcome their objections to reading "the wrong way."  It does not hinder the story or the artwork, which works primarily in small, editable panels as opposed to more complex designs.  Murakami's style is also less stylized than most manga-ka, closely resembling the independent comics that a regular reader of NBM would be familiar with.  Stargazing Dog has just as much in common with, say, Rick Geary, as it does with Ai Yazawa.  This is a story that could easily be a Viz Signature book.

I'm really happy to see that we're getting more and more manga that is outside the typical boxes that came to dominate Tokyopop and Viz during the major manga boom. While I enjoy stories that are so shojo or shonen they scream it on every page, there is more to life than Mars, One Piece, and Fruits Basket.  Murakami is a skills artist, providing strong backgrounds on every page, details that help ground the story in its setting, and a very subtle changing of the characters over time, so that their mental desperation is matched by visual degradation.  It's a great combination that helps this become one of my favorite books from 2011.

If you were initially turned off the idea of Stargazing Dog because of the animal narrator, don't be.  It's an excellent tragedy told from the only perspective that would make it work, with great pacing, excellent linework, and an ending that should melt even the hardest of hearts.  It's a great gateway manga, packaged nice and at an affordable price point by NBM.  This book gets a high recommendation from me.  Just be sure you're nearby people you love when you read it.  Trust me.