Further selections from the action comics scene of Mars, the traditional planet of war.


Ah, Yuichi Yokoyama; he may be on track to become the most-lauded art manga auteur in English-speaking lands, as far as that'll take you.

This is a new softcover PictureBox edition ($19.95, 208 pages) of a 2005 project, which I believe was initially published in France (as Voyage) before getting picked up by domestic patron Comic CUE for a Japanese release the following year. That probably says something about Yokoyama's hometown popularity, and maybe Japan's art manga scene as a whole. Maybe pastures are greener in North America - a lot of people around here really liked Yokoyama's prior book (New Engineering), at least one prominent source has already placed this new one among the best comics of the year, and PictureBox already has his most recent work (Garden) on its schedule for 2009.

I'm not surprised the praise is still coming. Travel may be a bit different from Yokoyama's last book -- perhaps just different enough to keep it fresh and singular in the minds of readers -- but it's working under just the same concept as New Engineering, a mission of theory that has guided all of Yokoyama's work as a mangaka. Put simply, the bowl of humanism is well and truly kicked, and only by inhaling works stripped of psychological representation into our cultural lungs can new ideas truly blossom and images maintain a sense of bottomless revelation, of active eternity. His praxis: Naruto.

All right, no. Not exactly, but sort of, in that Yokoyama's process for actually making comics scrubbed of the human element appears to involve supercharging virtually every element of the page with the sort of broiling, uncontainable energy I most commonly associate with shōnen manga, although certainly the artist's approach to design looks nothing like any boys' comics artist I can think of. Paul Karasik -- who provides a new Introduction to PictureBox's edition -- compares Yokoyama to Jack Kirby as investing characters with "an urgency that is often much greater than the action demands." I'd agree, but I'd expand that to even non-living items and machines, all of which throb and thunder through Yokoyama's world with exactly the same maniacal drive that powers his people - in this way, his world is truly flat.

Karasik also cites Bernard Krigstein as a fellow practitioner in chilly manipulations of time and space; I do think there's something to that, but mainly in the contrasts betrayed by process. At EC, Krigstein was often confronted with standardized page layouts -- lettering already included, so no funny business! -- which he then bisected and trisected, panel-by-panel, cracking and chiseling so as to control the flow of narrative action. Yokoyama, sitting one ocean and half a century away, has characterized his own approach as focusing on the development of key single images, then stretching a 'narrative' forward and backward in time as responses to the core; he is a painter by training, and deems his approach "serialized painting."

In this way, both artists seem to embody certain core attributes of their comics traditions. Krigstein is deliberate, taking apart the pieces of form he's been given to rearrange narratives, always thinking, always considering. Yokoyama is improvisatory, flying by the seat of his pants to concoct whatever seems to follow his core 'paintings,' no matter the direction, trusting that it'll register as some insightful narrative in the end.

That's not to say Krigstein never improvised, or that Yokoyama is thoughtless -- or even that a pre-Code genre artist and a 21st century art manga guy are totally representative of their own artistic cultures, which are fluid as cultures are -- but I do think these approaches are indicative of a somewhat fussier, thought-heavy approach to the 'art' of North American comics, in opposition to the dreamier, more freewheeling explorations of manga. I mean, I suspect there's a reason why so many 'alternative' manga artists sport scribbly 'brut' styles, all very immediate in spilling over the page. And while Yokoyama doesn't sport one of those styles, his work is entirely manga.

There is an easier way for a reader to grab hold of all this, by the way. Just imagine that all of Yokoyama's comics take place on Earth-Awesome, wherein everything is so fucking awesome. That doesn't mean awesome things are always occurring on Earth-Awesome, but that every occurrence is, by virtue of merely happening, infallibly awesome.

So, that brings us to the epic saga of Travel. I mentioned above that it's a tiny bit different than New Engineering, and by that I mean it's a wordless, full-length single work, instead of a collection of shorter works dotted with the odd word balloon. This benefits Yokoyama fairly well, in that he's able to stretch his routines as long as he'd like, joining them together like passages of music in a solid composition.

I'll try not to ruin the twists, but the book's plot concerns three men who buy train tickets and board a train, and then try to find good seats on the train. That's part one, which takes up 1/4 of the book. In part two, Our Heroes look at all of the things the train passes, while the reader's perspective occasionally darts outside for a wider view. Then they all get off the train at their stop. The end!

But naturally, it's the manner by which everything plays out that matters. Men in black and white and tan and striped hairdos stride through corridors with maximum purpose; doors whoosh and whip open with incredible force. A stray glance at a man's carrying case is paced so as to suggest the smuggling of nuclear secrets; any random meeting of eyes with some other passenger is granted all the tenseness of a crucial metting to change the world, until one man slowly reaches into his jacket to pull out... a book! Weird architectures loom and curl; personal attire bubbles and spatters in odd designs and angry textures. The simple act of light shining through the clouds and casting shadows on the train is enough to transform the entire world into another reality, and then someone lights up a cigarette and it's the greatest moment in all of human history. Until the next one!

As with New Engineering, Yokoyama's character art is funny and appealing, while his panel flow remains perched on the very edge of comprehensibility; I noticed that most of part 2 had its scenery flowing from left-to-right, while the book reads right-to-left, and I presume that's to force the reader into a tighter consideration of what they're seeing, although it also nags at the whole thing's readability, maybe intentionally. I get the feeling the book's visual ethos is summarized by its design (credited to Jessi Rymill), with a dust cover bearing images of Yokoyama's faces on its front and bodies on its back, removable to reveal a psychedelic pink and yellow and green and blue image of a train roaring right at you, although it's more the impression of a train than anything that might look like it works. Still, you know what's coming.

However, in case you ever do get confused, Yokoyama is kind enough to include a set of annotations in the back of the book, fittingly devoted to almost nothing other that dryly describing what's happening on any given page:

"18 > The passenger in the second panel is carrying a comb in his pocket."

"30-31 > There are copier paper, thermal fax paper, files, and other stationery goods and documents visible in the bag."

"79 > The passengers witness a lightning strike."

"110 > The man who was reading seems to have noticed that he is being watched, but just as he took notice, the train exited the tunnel and light hit the window."

This initially seems perverse, like the artist is deliberately trying to do exactly what everyone knows is mortal sin #1 in delivering a commentary. I couldn't help but feel it was all adding up to some odd breakdown or punchline ("148 > The men's images are hazy in the passing windows. Yesterday I threw my dog's bed at him in play and now he avoids me. In the third panel, you can hear grandma calling me to eat. No grandma, I am drawing trees.").

But it actually makes perfect sense for what Yokoyama is doing, allowing himself to act as a detatched human perspective on the matter, should the human reader desire such a thing. After all, reading Yokoyama describe his pages in prose allows us to process the information as our own images, redolent with the human bias. Yokoyama's comics are meant as something different, foreign in the only way he can truly be foreign to humanism, and as such there's no repetition at all.

I liked this book, as I did Yokoyama's last one. But I wonder if I'm getting something different out of it than many other readers (surely that'd make the artist happy!) - a lot of the reviews I've read focus on the humor of Yokoyama's scenes, the absurdity that hangs over all this crazy action performed by strange people, all the busyness adding and adding until you can't help but laugh. That is an element, but it's more of a laugh at the void to me.

There's always something deeply menacing about Yokoyama's art when I look at it; all of his activity feels so energetic that it's violent, like finding a seat on the train is a prolonged struggle, albeit one to be faced with stoicism. There are never beginnings or endings to his stories, only these compositions of frantic action, which I presume will continue long after the work has finished, just as it went on a long time before anything started, Yokoyama's key 'paintings' spreading out forever like an unchecked invader species upon a placid world.

And what about his concept; is he using the mechanisms of fighting adventure manga to indicate how these children's action comics are dehumanizing, how certain comics strip the human experience down to visual clichés and supplant meaningful connection with distraction unto violence? Might he be a (*gasp* *choke*) humanist in disguise?!

We may never know; the artist speaks in two ways in this book, prose and comics, and both are devoted solely to a simple daily procedure turned inside-out. It's got some hidden beauty, but its like a sparkling carcinogen, hovering around as it does its deadly work on your inside.