Thursday, August 17, 2006

Hansel & Gretel
by Junko Mizuno

Very rarely have I encountered a book as bizarre as Hansel & Gretel, produced by a cartoonist as willfully eccentric as Junko Mizuno. As someone with, admittedly, a layman's appreciation of Japanese comics and culture, there is something unmistakably alien about Mizuno's approach to constructing a story that sets it significantly apart even from the most iconoclastic western creators, folks like Mat Brinkmann, Ron Rége, Jr. or Anders Nilsen. There's a reason why Mizuno's work has gained such critical traction in America: she is one of those rare cartoonists whose work seems, in the eyes of her audience, to remake the act of reading comics.

I have to wonder how much of my reaction to the work is based on my unfamiliarity with certain segments of manga culture. The manga I'm most familiar with would probably be considered fairly traditional by aficionados, the type of work that most clearly resonates to familiar western aesthetic prerogatives -- Lone Wolf & Cub and Tekuza and Akira*. There's an old saw (whose actual provenance I am unaware) about how the dominant manga style evolved from a Japanese interpretation of Walt Disney's big-eyed animation work -- a familiar source being translated through an unfamiliar culture to become something different, an amalgam of two distinct aesthetics. In this way we can examine the history of certain art forms as an extended game of telephone, with every new audience producing an imperfect translation of the source material in such a way as to graft their own preoccupations onto their interpretation of the original object. French filmmakers influenced by early American auteurs and postwar B-movies create the Nouvelle Vague and export it back to us as an entirely novel and unfamiliar phenomenon.

But Mizuno represents an appreciable advancement from the original template. It seems -- and this is merely a theory which could easily be proven wrong by someone who knows better -- that the work in question is the product of a cartooning culture that has grown into its own at a significant remove from its original influences. The game of telephone that began decades ago with the influence of American cartooning on Japanese illustrators has returned, and the signal has bounced back and forth among Japanese interpreters for so long that the end result is, from an American perspective, a hideous mutant.

That's hardly a moral judgment -- some of my best friends are hideous mutants. But the fact remains that this is potently alien work. The notion of "cuteness" as it is fetishized in Japan has advanced to such a logical extreme that even the most fiercely disturbing notions can be successfully rendered in high faux-Sanrio dudgeon. The juxtaposition of frightening ideas communicated with unbearable cuteness is obviously intended to have a bracing effect on the reader. I was particularly taken with the notion of the giant talking pig who casually eviscerates himself for the sustenance of local villagers, only to be magically regenerated. It doesn't seem like an eternal purgatory in the context of the story, but the image is enough to make anyone seriously consider vegetarianism.

But aside from the symbolism at work here, which is complex enough to warrant its own examination, the way Mizuno tells a story is the most striking aspect of the work. The whole concept of mise en scene (to use a potentially contentious term from the world of film criticism) as it has evolved over the last hundred years is totally demolished. The page is not subdivided, as in the west, into discrete geographical units which represent separate ideas existing in an established continuity. These units of territory -- what we would call panels, but panel borders need not necessarily apply -- allow the cartoonist to establish an imaginary mental landscape in which the action in a narrative is placed in a cohesive whole. Even a relatively adventurous cartoonist like Kevin Huizenga or Ron Rége, Jr. still follows these basic rules. You have to get pretty far afield from even the most unorthodox cartoonists before you get to artists with a total disregard for the "rules" of mental geography that undergird most cartooning. Even someone as far out in leftfield as Anders Nilsen is still aware of the connection between what his readers see on the page and how they construct a narrative between seemingly disparate elements against a contiguous background context -- in fact, some of his most experimental work is almost entirely dependent on the reader's complicity in building imaginary context in their mind.

All of which could be taken as a fancy way of saying that Mizuno doesn't like drawing backgrounds. It does not appear as if she does, but that is neither here nor there. The most apt way of describing Mizuno's narrative would seem to be that she does not envision her stories in any sort of context whatsoever, merely as a continuously unfolding present tense. The overriding ideal is one of fantasy run rampant, of actions dictated merely by thought and executed without effort. It's a frictionless universe where thoughts can become reality, and the very notion of reality is hopelessly elastic. Therefore the actions of the characters on the page, as well as the pages themselves, are translations of pure emotion interpreted as color and shape. Mizuno's universe is nothing more than swathes of pastel with random design motifs interspersed throughout.

The character designs are the real focal point of Mizuno's storytelling. Her characters fill the panels, often so large as to become obscured, only partially visible at abstruse angles. Rather than seeming to be in literal motion, the characters are presented in static tableau. All the normal signifiers of intangibility in cartoon form are rendered as concrete realities -- aromas, speed lines, thoughts themselves assume literal character. It's all quite vertiginous for the unprepared reader. The alacrity with which Mizuno flouts and contradicts the "rules" of comic storytelling make her work seem impossibly dense, a lattice of symbols and shapes to be painstakingly deciphered. There's something familiar but just not quite right, like a document translated into another language and then retranslated into its original language. Her use of color is vital to the effect. Whereas someone like Ron Rége, Jr. can can achieve a similar effect in terms of a flat field of vision with universally thin lines that mask depth of perception, Mizuno relies on vivid pastels to create an imposingly flat canvas. All the normal rules of contrasting and complementary colors have been thrown out the window. Every element of the narrative is very self-consciously preoccupied with being a flat object in static two-dimensional space -- not an element in a continual narrative, but in no ways a series of static images a la Prince Valiant. The result is something entirely new, a way of comics that substitutes a preoccupation with objective observation with entirely subjective perception. The dense thicket of baroque iconography that forms the basis of her storytelling requires an active complicity on the part of the reader. Subtracting the signifiers of conventional narrative, deconstructing the way a reader perceives a narrative, is one of the most fundamental ways a cartoonist can challenge their reader -- Mizuno defies expectations by presenting a narrative shorn of anything but the most malleable and unreliable context.

Reading The Comics Journal's interview with Mizuno in preparation for this review was a disconcerting experience. Her work is in some respects sharply primitive, but in many other ways she betrays an extremely sophisticated understanding of the rules she systematically subverts at every turn. Unfortunately, almost none of this understanding comes across in her interview. There's only so much you can read into the transcript of a brief interview conducted by telephone, conducted by a person who didn't even write the interview questions** . . . but still, Mizuno's resolute refusal to engage the interviewer in any significant explication of her work is interesting. Perhaps we're spoiled, accustomed as we are to opinionated and in many cases grossly autodidactic creators with no shortage of ideas about the medium. Hell, when even the guy who writes New Avengers grounds his work in a thoroughly formalist understanding of contemporary foreign film, we've definitely got a surplus of smartypantses.

But Mizuno's reluctance raises another distinct possibility -- the notion that instead of intending her work as a canny commentary on formal convention, she is working with a more or less uncritical interpolation of established norms, and the bizarre nature of her work simply comes as second nature. Her uncritical acceptance of the rather repulsive marketing culture of "cute" merchandising spawned by the Japanese and heartily adopted by America is telling in this regard. Could it be that she honestly doesn't know just how weird this stuff reads to Americans? Is this the product of a manga culture so far removed from our own that the alien storytelling techniques go unmentioned by the practitioners? Is there a whole world of artists working in Mizuno's school in which this style could somehow be considered de rigeur? The very idea boggles the mind.

My musings on manga are, at the end of the day, just that: musings, uninformed and quite possibly fundamentally unsound. But I can say with little fear of contradiction, based on a comparatively firm understanding of the underlying mechanics of conventional comic storytelling, that Mizuno is one of the most unique storytellers currently being published in the United States. It bears further scrutiny from anyone interested in the further edges of contemporary comics.

*Is Akira considered passe? I never see it mentioned anymore. I still quite like it.

**Having conducted a fair amount of interviews myself I speak from some small experience . . . some subjects just don't care to look that deeply into their own work, but as a general rule people whose work betrays significant understand of formal mechanics can expound on these properties, whereas artists who work within ascribed generic guidelines tend to be less introspective. Could Mizuno be be one of the former who acts like one of the latter? If I ever had the chance to ask Mat Brinkmann about the underlying anxiety and mythic structure of his work, would he respond with a hearty "duuuude, it's all about Iron Fuckin' Maiden!"

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