No caps; no solutions; all future.


This the latest selection from the sparse VIZ Signature line of (sometimes) deluxe, (sometimes) idiosyncratic manga. It's a fat $17.99 softcover - 432 pages, slightly larger than average and decked out with those fancy French flaps that inevitably make themselves annoying for the first and last 30 pages of your reading experience, though they look so damn pretty. All of the original color sequences are preserved, except for one that, for some reason, isn't; you'll notice. The work was serialized in 2005 in the weekly seinin anthology Young Sunday by writer/artist Inio Asano (later of the well-regarded Nijigahara Holograph), with "Drawing Assistants" Yuichi Watanabe & Takashi Kondo.

That last bit's worth a digression. A 'drawing assistant' can be just about anything -- most likely a background renderer, digital effects specialist or part-time inker, although it can mean a full-blown co-penciller at times -- and it's rarely a job that's even acknowledged in a book's credits, but it's something that's often present in manga production, especially given the rigors of a weekly series. Someone call me out if I'm wrong here, but I sincerely doubt that, say, Takeshi Obata actually drew every last thing in (the weekly) Death Note; no offense intended as per the hard work Obata doubtlessly puts in every day, but it's helpful to remember that Japanese artists typically aren't possessed by a supernatural work ethic or some genetic proclivity toward funnybook ultra-production - some of them are just the beneficiaries of a system that's attuned to enhancing the speed of production.

It's nothing unique to Japan, no - many English-language comics have gotten themselves produced through some studio system or another since the beginning. Even today, a sole 'art by' attribution is no absolute guarantee that said artist isn't employing background assists or uncredited inks, or Photoshop help or whatnot. As such, we deal in necessary fictions when looking at or reviewing comics; we trust in the credits, secure in the canard that the party-as-signatory is accepting sole responsibility for his or her work. In that way, Assistant X's fuckery becomes (rhetorically and philosophically) the Artist's fuckery, as opposed to 'curse you Vince Colletta, serpent of Eden!!', which is the refrain an inker might attract for his individualism in the credits box.

But I wonder if the practice hasn't had a particularly deep impact on the character of weekly popular manga. It's no revelation that Japanese comics place a greater premium on visual quality than most North American pop comics; readers expect it, editors demand it. And inherent to that 'quality' is consistency, as well as palatability to the target audience's tastes, particularly concerning high-output comics, which are often of the highest profile. I presume concessions are often made, be they simplifications for the sake of getting it out, or getting one's own style into a basic enough state that Assistant X, Y or Z can pinch hit effectively when push comes to shove - and since today's Assistant X is eminently likely among options to become tomorrow's Mangaka A, it's little wonder that the differences between generationally similar artists working at the same demographic are often matters of subtlety, imperceptible to the new reader.

Granted, a seinin artist isn't quite so constrained; the older audience tends to be slightly more liberal about surface aesthetics, allowing for blunter variations in visual approach. There's typically a wider latitude granted for a story's subject matter, and the plot's progression is probably not so commanded by readership reactions as it often is in works aimed at younger audiences. Yet the strictures of speed and populist visual appeal remain, and by god they must chafe against long, personal stories, even as a lot of undeniable appeal must rise from those very burdens - a bunch of Japanese comics artists didn't simply get together and decide that crackling panel-to-panel flow and vivifying page layouts were the superior application of sequential principles, after all. A lot of the time it's just quicker to draw than every damned thing inside every little box.

I raise these concerns not just because it's awfully big of Asano to credit seemingly everyone in his studio (right down to Satoshi Yamada as... the gofer!), but because they sort of plug into the comic itself, getting its thematic motor running a little bit. More than anything else, solanin is about opening your pretty young eyes one year and discovering, to your dismay, that you're actually not particularly good at anything you love to do, or at least not talented or determined enough to make your way through the kind of life you want on your own terms. Slowly, you realize that life is mostly a struggle to maintain some sense of satisfaction and dignity amidst a thousand compromises; every joy is fleeting and every love is fragile, though happiness still exists in the cracks between boredom and concern.

Now, make no mistake: this is far and away the weakest comic I've read of Asano's, if also his most conventional, and almost certainly his most North-American-mainstream-palatable (it's also his first official English-language release). Expect none of the magical realism or eerie symbols that mark Asano's earlier and later books; this one's a full-bore post-collegiate navel-gazer, composed when the artist was 24 years old and very, very very very much a young artist's work, down to the bone. Buckle your seatbelt for similarly-aged characters narrating their conflicted inner states, at great length, often in wide panels left fortuitously blank or black (because speed is key), as they trudge down that long road toward 'adulthood,' however it ought to be defined.

The more-or-less protagonist is Meiko, a dissatisfied young adult burning away her days at a boring office job full of people she despises, then coming home to catch a glimpse of her layabout part-time illustrator boyfriend. Naruo was the first guy to get her belly fluttering back in freshman year, and suddenly it's over half a decade later and she's still not entirely convinced he's the match for her, being the type to snooze through shitty advertising campaigns while half-heartedly practicing twice a month with the ol' university rock band, featuring two additional character types: the luckless-in-love macho dude who's doomed to labor at his family's business; and the sixth-year undergrad manchild with an eminently sensible (if also dissatisfied) sales clerk girlfriend/surrogate mommy.

One day, Meiko decides to quit her job, which sets off all sorts of financial and interpersonal complications. The band decides to 'get serious,' immediately leading to qualms over artistic integrity. Relationships threaten to unravel, while old longings sprout back up. Song lyrics are most certainly displayed on the page. There's a big, melodramatic plot twist smack in the middle, the kind that demands a chapter-length flashback to ensure that the impossible poignancy of it all hits the reader square between the eyes, in the manner of the compressed air cannon from No Country for Old Men. If I tell you the book's title refers to a song composed by one of the main characters, an ode to fragmenting romance and/or youthful identity crises, is there any doubt that the very number will be performed come story's close, in concert, as a climactic eruption of emotional catharsis?

And it's not that you can't do anything interesting with the basic concept; as I've mentioned before, solanin's plot is extremely similar to that of Seiichi Hayashi's 1970-71 youth angst landmark Red Colored Elegy, which I suspect (having not yet read it) draws a lot of its power from Hayashi's ferocious-looking application of sequential/cinematographic traits for the purposes of splashing his characters' internal states across their society.

This comic, meanwhile, is one of those works that gestures futilely toward moody, disorganized realism (with characters musing such deep thoughts as "The way I see it, adults are made of 'who cares?'") while simultaneously leaning on melodramatic beats to keep itself moving; the result is melodrama, but dull. It's like Asano can't quite commit to telling his story apart from popular story mechanisms, but doesn't really want to dive into straight soap opera; his indecision mirrors his characters', but doesn't guide his work away from feeling assembled improperly from an instruction manual. Even some of the slice-of-life chapters wind up organized as uplifting little moral fables, horrid things - a vignette with an old man sending letters to his dead wife approaches the Naoki Urasawa standard for toxic bathos, only stripped of Urasawa's sparkling pace or propulsive storytelling longview.

Still, if I didn't already know Asano would be a better artist (and indeed was, as evidenced by his 2003-04 two-volume story suite What a Wonderful World!), I'd say there's some strong potential on display in this book. The visuals are often quite nice, if a bit heavy on some garish digital tinkering (I blame Vince Colletta!); Asano's character designs are especially funny and revealing on their own, with Meiko looking ingeniously pretty-but-not-that-pretty, and often wonderfully, subtly expressive.

There's also a nice dose of caricature to some of the minor personages, with a particularly awesome emphasis on shitty Japanese mustaches. The storytelling is smooth, and occasionally powerful; one great bit has a guy wiping out on his bike then rising up in palpable, wild pain mixed with the humor of disbelieving that by god, did that just happen?, and I've gotta admit the inevitable rawk 'n roll finale has some muscle behind it, not to mention a clever absence of the goddamned never-ending narration that every character in the book gets a crack at.

Moreover, Asano does succeed a little at the fractured narrative of anticipation, something that would absolutely rule Nijigahara Holograph. There's flashbacks in this work; nothing fancy or particularly challenging, but usually well-positioned to dole out information. And even here, Asano has a talent for undercutting his characters' stated motivations by showing them doing something else, be it in the future or the past. Small conversations secretly snowball into life-changing effects, only visible later in the book; characters prepare to do one thing, then suddenly back off, always second-guessing themselves. A conversation might begin to sound like a declaration of love, until it slips away from the characters' control and reduces them to bawling over everything they've lost in their lives. It's a pity that the whole book isn't strong enough to get these moments shining, but they are zones of verisimilitude that lend the work a certain, momentary virtue, like life has managed to shortly poke through life's compromises.

I don't doubt that these concerns hung on Asano himself. His 2008 Afterword reveals what will probably be obvious to most: that the comic came from his own insecurity over being a 'success' in manga, and his anxiousness over whether he could keep getting work out that was true to himself. The finale of his book is an odd one, lingering on momentary happiness while seeming to gently blame its characters for their own lack of drive. It seems ambiguous, but it's utterly sensible as a low moan from the speed corridor of weekly manga, where vigor is mandatory and concessions seem required for entry. I can't say I was all that fond of this comic, but it did rouse my sympathy for the ache behind it, a genuine one a bit poorly presented. I'm glad Asano kept at it, as I'm happy to know the future.