You know what takes forever to write about? Art Manga!!

"Watch out if your big-hit-manga-artist-aspiring child starts pledging his allegiance to 'Art.' Remember, Art is the spiritual cancer of adolescence. Art will first start by eating away at your child's brain; then, gradually, he will do anything for the sake of art, destroying his social life. The day he ruins the rest of his family is the day he becomes an artist.

"In order to prevent this, you must make sure you communicate with him openly every day. The entire family should get up early, turn towards Mount Fuji and chant 'Effort, Friendship, Victory.'"

- from the manga industry satire Even A Monkey Can Draw Manga, by Koji Aihara & Kentaro Takekuma

New Engineering

This little product of Glorious Nippon is flying well under the radar. How far? It was one of few imminent manga releases to warrant no mention at all in Jason Thompson's recent Manga: The Complete Guide. That won't be the last time it slips away, so let me try and hold it steady for a few minutes.

New Engineering, the creation of one Yuichi Yokoyama, is PictureBox Inc.'s first foray into full-blown manga publishing, after recently devoting half of The Ganzfeld 5: Japanada! (which was published in association with Ginkgo Press, mind you) to Japanese comics and graphic artists, Yokoyama among them.

It won't be their last dip either - they've got a Takashi Nemoto collection coming up, as well as two more books by Yokoyama, the lattermost of which will be hitting US shores almost as soon as it's done. Both artists previously appeared in front of English-language readers via Fantagraphics' ill-fated 2005 international comics anthology Bête Noire, and Nemoto was part of the excellent 1996 Blast Books anthology Comics Underground Japan, but it'll be mostly unfamiliar stuff for a lot of readers, and a sort of uncharted territory for devoted manga publishing in North America.

I picked the book up at SPX last week; I do believe it was a show debut. Naturally, it's not out from Diamond yet, although you can order it here. It's 232 b&w pages, oversized-for-manga at 8" x 10.5", and priced at $19.95. And take note, otaku of the authentic experience - the book is unflipped, and the sound effects are translated via footnotes at the bottom of every page. This is the sort of manga that'll benefit greatly from as little mucking with the art as possible.

And as for that art, and this comic... well, it's easier to have you click here first. Not only does Chris Lanier give you a dandy overview of much of this material (which Éditions Matière has released over two volumes, Travaux Publics and Combats, for the European market), but there's some nice art samples, and you really want to look at those. Go find a copy of The Comics Journal #263 (Oct/Nov 2004) too, since the always-valuable Bill Randall has a fine overview of Yokoyama's work tucked away in there. Plus more pictures.

Pictures are helpful, since it's very difficult to convey the experience of reading this book. Both Sol LeWitt and Tadashi Kawamata are mentioned as sources of appreciation or inspiration for Yokoyama, but they're not doing comics, and these are comics. There is nothing else quite like it readily available to English-language readers.

It's fundamentally a collection of short comics, culled from places like 'underground' manga anthologies such as Ax (a splinter publication from the famed Garo), or the annual art/design bonanza Comic Cue, the publisher of which (East Press) first released the package to Japan in 2004. Notice how I didn't use the words "short stories." That's because Yokoyama's comics aren't so much 'stories' as extended actions. An entire 22-page piece might be devoted entirely to weird machines rumbling around or soaring above, dropping rocks and gluing down trees and unrolling astroturf, nary a word spoken until a mighty mountain is built.

Another 19-page epic might be devoted to a parade of men undergoing brutally violent, mechanistic, ritualistic beautifying treatments, razor-sharp sound effects slicing across nearly every panel as attire is thrashed onto every stoic man: a bird costume, a cloak of saran wrap and a paper bag with a hole torn for the face, a striped shirt and fine slacks with a water-filled glass cube for the head, a parka of lottery balls, a jumpsuit of paper money, an entire automobile frame balanced atop a shirt of braided grass. The piece does not end. It stops.

And then there's the fights. A fleeing swordsman slices his way through several bookcases, ripped pages fluttering toward the fore and becoming panels-within-panels, adopting the formal properties of the page itself, but with overtly iconic character in contrast to the action spectacle off to the sides. A whole town battles gunmen in ladder trucks, pages nearly incoherent with thrusting diagonal lines and flipping bodies and sound effects of all styles, English included. Lines of dialogue include "We can't get it. It's your turn." and "Let's escape!" and "Now we are leaving." The comics end when the fights do, nothing left to say once the action's over.

This is the entire book, from its longest segments to its one-page studies of a man paying for a drink in the most manga-dramatic visual style one could hope for. And yes, keeping in mind the diversity in Japanese comics that tends to escape English-only eyes, these stretches of activity are very much manga, exploiting an exceedingly self-aware visual schema informed by a thousand lancing, clench-fisted shōnen bonanzas. It's Naruto's library of symbols, stripped of warmth and purpose, and turned into something... else.

Luckily for context junkies like myself, PictureBox has provided a total localization of the Japanese original, including all supplementary material, and even added something extra of its own: a two-page interview with Yokoyama (conducted by PictureBox head Dan Nadel), that delves a bit into his philosophy. Put simply, Yokoyama views manga creation not as crafting a story but isolating a single key image -- a painting ,as he puts it -- which is then "serialized" by building new panels forward and backward. His objective is to present these occasions as they might be viewed by an inanimate object, without any psychological representation at all. This is to avoid any trace of humanism, as Yokoyama puts it, which he sees as impotent to affect any truly new ideas.

In other words, his goal is to move beyond 'craft' or "the human trace," in order to grasp a lasting and universal impact that might give rise to an appreciation, many cultures away or hundreds of years into the future, that could continually stimulate fresh discoveries. He bluntly states that his work is not entertainment. Hope you didn't laugh at the fellow wearing bubbles!

Well, maybe that's okay. Yokoyama's art may be deliberately packed with icy approximations of comics movement and sound effects so straight and jutting that they transform every page into diabolically aware design vessels (indeed, many the one-pagers were apparently sold as posters), but he does retain a certain sense of humor, what with the absurd uniforms of his lego man characters, mouths almost always open in alarm. There's an Acme Novelty Library-style paper cut-out fun page, which effectively presses the flat, design unit nature of his characters and machines into the realm of parody.

The straight-from-Japan bonus features get pretty eccentric, with a lengthy commentary for one story dedicated solely to describing what's happening in nearly every panel. Annotations are provided for every segment, including one where Yokoyama admits that his visuals don't work and proceeds to tell us what's supposed to be happening. Another sees him dubbing a one-page effort an adaptation of The Blair Witch Project. The relevant comic concludes with a bird-faced man being dragged into a boulder's trap door by a man-gorilla with a glass bowl on its head. Fuck, that movie was too dark to see any of the good stuff.

But I can't say you'll laugh too much. Up and down and across go the furious motions of Yokoyama's figures. Sometimes he appears to be shooting for some mild social satire with his pieces - maybe the humanistic impulse of such proved crippling, but seeing a group of people labor over an artificial lake, only to build a means of looking around from the shallow bottom of it, strikes me as banal. He's better when he presses his concerns all the way through a 'story,' like seven solid pages of a media superstar being adored to smothering by fans.

I like the fights the best, though - truly these are battles without honor & humanity! Shapes and objects flung and beaten, violence and the beauty of movement thrown around like pages in a tornado. Are we all just automatons in this world? Set on paths and plugged into our environments, our every motion as predestined toward a short-sighted conclusion as the leap from one panel to the next, as striking as our poses might be? Is this the Japan of Yokoyama, building over and over to odd or negligible effect, the march of progress as melodramatic a drive to nowhere as the pomp of getting dressed in the 21st century?

Ah, you see... intent isn't everything in the world, but I might be guilty of seeing a non-humanist work (to borrow the artist's use of the word) in humanist terms. I expect Yokoyama would argue that this is not the sort of work that argues through storytelling. It argues that storytelling itself, at least in the personable, emotive form, is exhausted, and instead presents a selection of being, as bolstered by the scaffolding of the comics form. Yet I still think that his "new information" is that we are people in boxes, and still in boxes as we walk, since the frame is the context of our world. Is that how the lamp or the lightswitch might see it?