One to grow on.

*Being an incredible psychic mutant, I always know exactly what you (dear reader) are thinking at all times. For example, right now you’re musing, “Gee Mr. Jog, all of this manga stuff is ok, I guess, but what I’d really like to see is a website that provides English translations of assorted gag manga with coverage of extreme horror manga occasionally interspersed.”

Well you know what?

You are about to become a very happy person.

*And the gods of fortune truly smiled upon me this day, as my discovery of the above linked site coincided flawlessly with the arrival of -

Comics Underground Japan

(you know, just to be certain, let's just assume that all the links in the review below are NOT WORK SAFE, ok?)

Published by Blast Books in 1996, and consisting of stories written between 1983 and 1993, this is one of three major bookshelf-worthy anthologies of alternative manga to have been released in the last decade, sandwiched between Fantagraphics’ 1995 Sake Jock and Viz’s 2000 Secret Comics Japan. Trusted sources have assured me that the latter is a delight and an education, and I’m sure Fanta gave it the old college try, but I’m happy to say with first-hand certainty that Secret Comics Japan is 200+ pages of necessary purchase, a fine and vital collection, even if Blast made the bizarre design choice of printing the damn thing unflipped, yet with the covers designed to accommodate a left-to-right tome. Confusion quickly ensued, but just as rapidly subsided.

With a thirteen artist lineup, culled heavily from alumni of the much-lauded alternative manga anthology Garo, there’s bound to be a lot of stuff here you’ve never heard of (on a side note, don’t go thinking that ‘Garo alum’ necessarily equals ‘wild and offbeat’ - Ryoichi Ikegami of Crying Freeman and that ’70s Spider-Man manga also got his start there, by way of example). However, there’s also probably a few tidbits that will hook even the more mainstream manga/anime fan, stuff folks have maybe already heard of. I bet most of you know about Hideshi Hino, who’s seen about a zillion volumes of his work released in the US by now (two of them by Blast), had his art grace the cover of a Comics Journal Special (Vol. 5, that is), and enjoyed a lively filmmaking career that only once involved Charlie Sheen and the FBI starting up an international snuff ring investigation (I’m serious). He’s in here, doing his thing in a circus-based context. It’s ok, though there’s more interesting things inside.

Anime fans will also have a reason to search this book out, if only for Cat Noodle Soup, a short story by Chiyomi Hashiguchi, working under the penname ‘Nekojiru,’ with some help from her husband, latter-day gekiga stalwart Hajime Yamano. This story was later expanded into Tatsuo Sato’s 2001 anime short, Cat Soup, which has since garnered something of a cult following subsequent to its R1 dvd release. It’s a strange story, full of visual-thematic dissonance, as a poor little anthropomorphic kitty is taken away by Death, with only her younger brother able to see her spirit leaving. He tries to save her, but only manages to recover half of her astral form, which causes her physical body to awaken with severe brain damage. And yet - everyone’s pretty kitty face remains utterly joyful and perky at all times, no matter what. I’m not sure how successful a work it is; while ably cooking up a good mood of gentle children’s book sadness in its early pages, the story later ties itself up into an abruptly pat bow. But really, its key source of power lies outside of the physical and temporal space of the book; Nekojiro committed suicide in 1998, retroactively soaking the piece in melancholy for anyone who knows the background, which I believe provided the drive behind the creation of the anime adaptation. Unfortunately, Nekojiro is not the only artist in this anthology to have died by their own hand; Hanako Yamada, whose included two-page strips of frenzied urban female life could easily run in any of today’s alternative comics anthologies, also took her own life in the early ’90s (here’s an interesting essay on the two artists and their sad connection).

And the book’s tendency to allude ominously to the future does not even end there; today, Kazuichi Hanawa is probably best known to English-speaking readers as the author of the autobiographical Doing Time, an account of his three-year stay in Japanese prison on weapons possession charges. Meanwhile, years in the past, reference is made in the ‘About the Artists’ section in the back of Comics Underground Japan to a letter-writing campaign directed at police officials on Hanawa’s behalf, urging them to grant him clemency. Not too much came of it, from the looks of things. But at least the anthology preserves his excellent talent for historical grotesques, in a great little story about religious futility titled Mercy Flesh. Here’s another one of his shorts, just so you can get a good taste of his lush, humorous style (and speaking of taste - mmmmm, monkey brains!).

But enough beating around the bush; the real showstopper of this book is a gentleman by the name of Suehiro Maruo. Here is his official site. Here is a shrine to his work. Here is a collection of every cover of every book he has released. I’m giving you all this because Maruo is a truly unique talent, a man of almost breathtakingly vile vision, yet gifted with a truly luxurious visual acumen. His story is entitled Planet of the Jap, and it’s a veritable Red Cross bloodmobile explosion of sopping violence, arid humor, violent sex, rueful anti-US sentiment, self-loathing anti-Japanese sentiment, and vintage imperialist high kitsch.

Its plot liberally inspired by Phillip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle, Maruo’s story begins with incredible WWII military action (complete with English-language sound effects) rubbing up against phallic ordinance imagery; this time, though, it’s Japan that firebombs Chicago, leading into the atomic bombings of Los Angeles and San Francisco. The flag is raised, the occupation begins, atrocities are committed graphically, and the losers seem to have become the winners, until Maruo starts busting out some Japanese-specific images of sword-driven beheadings, history’s brutality seemingly repeating itself no matter who’s victorious. Then a soldier has an orgasm in his pants while watching the execution of General Douglas MacArthur, and we’re apparently whisked back to the ‘real’ world. “To all you who never saw the War! Don’t be fooled. Japan is by no means a defeated nation. Japan is still the strongest country in the world.” So concludes Maruo, narrating via caption over a glorious splash of a Victorian-era Japanese horseman, a plume in his hat and a pencil-thin mustache below his nose. It’s bananas, yes, but a truly effective indictment of militarism, and a genuine visual triumph.

Maruo has two books available in English: the Blast-published Mr. Arashi’s Amazing Freak Show, and a short story collection from Creation Books titled Ultra-Gash Inferno (one of Creation’s two manga releases - the other is the brilliantly-titled Beauty Labyrinth of Razors, by Jun Hayami). You also just might run into some stories online, all somewhat lesser works which are not for the faint of heart, or the weak of stomach. I’m warning you, some will be offended by this material, partially because Maruo seems so flippant in tone, and/or so loving in depiction. Maruo’s aesthetic is one of total revulsion, mixed with dark (and sometimes rather cheesy) humor, sex and blood all mixed up in an irrational stew. It’s compelling, I think.

And that’s not all! I haven’t even gotten into the excerpt of the book’s other big anti-imperialist piece, an excerpt from Takashi Nemoto’s Panteresque Future Sperm Brazil. Or Muddy Wehara’s aptly-titled Bigger and Better, told entirely in eight double-page splashes, with a gag manga-laden intermission in between. And there’s even more. But that’ll lay in wait for you. This is a great collection, extreme in content, but high in quality. Go search it out for an advanced manga curriculum.

(and goddamn is SAME HAT! SAME HAT!! a nice blog)