Monday, June 21, 2010

Book Group!

Ode to Kirihito
by Osamu Tezuka

Part 2

One of the reasons the second part of our discussion has come so late is that, while finishing the book, I realized that it would be an almost impossible book to sum up in only a few paragraphs. Even just a few paragraphs devoted to spurring discussion or providing a brief outline of ideas - I don't know where to begin.

The plain fact is that I've started and stopped a dozen different reviews for the second half of Ode to Kirihito as I've sat here, and I can't even begin to sum up the whole of what i just experienced. Is it reductive simply to say that it's a masterpiece? Does it reflect poorly on me if I free admit I am bested by the experience of reading this book? I can't speak for anyone but myself, but one thing I've noticed about reading literature on a semi-professional and academic basis for an extended period of time is that is instills within you strong feeling of contempt for literature. That sounds awful, but if you've ever spent any time trolling the review archives at Robert Christgau's website you probably know the sensation I'm describing even if you've never before bothered to articulate it, exactly. There's this feeling you get after you've started reading books or listening to music less as an avocation than a vocation where you start to secretly detest the thought of sitting down to crack the envelope or tear the plastic on your next purchase. You know you've got to think of something, anything interesting to actually say about whatever the hell it is you've got in your hands, and after a while it just seems so redundant. No matter how much you love minimal German techno, your feelings for the genre will be sorely tested the fiftieth tim you've had to conjure up 600+ words about the latest fascinating platter spun from the fine folks at Kompakt. You begin to think that Christgau has the right idea: none but the most spectacular CDs deserve more than fifty words, tops, and most probably only deserve two.

So you develop a congenital squint like a hypothetical gunslinger into a technicolor sun, and every time I new book steps into the middle of the street you've got its number, you've seen its kind before, you know just what to do and how to deal with it. Art is a known quantity, surprise is a forgotten word plucked from a foreign dictionary, you see your book and even if there's a part of you that keeps thinking to yourself "shouldn't I be enjoying this?" - well, you can't help it that even the best reminds you of something else that was better. But you keep plugging away because even after you've grown to hate the thing you love, it still beats digging ditches (even if you know you'd make a lot more money digging ditches).

But the problem with being a gunslinger is that even the fastest gun knows there's always somebody faster, and even the faster gun knows that he won't stay young forever. Sometimes you're just a picosecond to slow on the draw and you take a hot one right in the gut. I feel like that after reading Ode to Kirihito: the book is far better than my meager descriptive abilities. It may actually be one of the best comics I've ever read: is it an abdication of my critical responsibilities to heap these kind of empty plaudits on a forty year old magnum opus whose critical pedigree certainly needs no bolster from the likes of me? The series was originally serialized from April 1966 to May of 1967 - for context, that's a couple months after the first appearance of the Silver Surfer in Fantastic Four #48, a full year before the publication of Zap #1. Why do these random dates matter? I dunno - perhaps because, for someone whose knowledge of manga tops out at the level of "general familiarity," the idea that this book started serialization before the Beatles had released Revolver is pretty much the definition of a "mind fuck."

If I can be forgiven a possibly specious comparison, reading Ode to Kirihito reminded me of nothing so much as reading a really strong run from the middle third of Cerebus. Dave Sim is a cartoonist whose work bears a great deal of resemblance to Tezuka's (even if I'm almost certain that Sim couldn't have encountered his work until long after Cerebus was under way, if even then): for starters, the both have no compunction about making their characters as silly and cartoony as possible, even in the midst of deathly-serious goings-on. Part of how they pull this off is through the conscious juxtaposition of crazy caricature and incredibly detailed backgrounds. You feel at every moment as if you are in the presence of a living and breathing world, a world of sweeping vistas and painstakingly detailed scenery - from the high arid plains of Afghanistan to the slums of rural Japan. There's something really bracing and positively electrifying about this technique, placing at times even crude caricatures and elastic, cartoony movement against photorealistic scenery and architecture. It's not a technique you see a lot in Western comics, although admittedly it has cropped up more since the late 90s when manga really made its presence known in mainstream comics.

If I can be allowed to generalize for a moment, there's a really strong tendency in the West to keep every element of the storytelling mise-en-scène perfectly balanced - you use the same type of lines and the same type of shapes for all the elements of your composition. Hergé's wholeness of style seems positively inhuman in some respects: a perfect control over every line and every element of the design. The lines used to illustrate the curves of cloth over Tintin's limbs were the same lines used to draw a banister or automobile. This is style: every line a cartoonist draws, on some level, looks like every other line they draw, and this consistency of effect is what gives an artist distinction. Tezuka, however, isn't afraid to employ multiple styles to create multiple different effects within the context of a single work. I don't know anything about the division of labor at Tezuka's studio, but the result is nevertheless striking in its uniformity of tone and style. The really amazing part is how that singular style could encompass so many different types of narrative and employ so many different types of narrative tricks. Tezuka's eye for minimal caricature at times seems Hirschfeld-eque in its economy (I would be extremely surprised if Tezuka hadn't seen Hirschfeld's work at some point), but within the space of a page he can switch gears and render an exquisitely detailed cross-hatched portrait of the same character. I offer the Sim comparison because I think Sim is the closest touchstone to that kind of polyglot technique as we have in the West. It enables Tezuka to pull off so much with such narrative economy that, even at 800-odd pages, the book seems positively packed.

Also, Tezuka shares with Sim an occasionally haphazard but never uninteresting willingness to throw ideas at his story, even when the narrative threatens to buckle under the weight of so much conceptual and thematic heft. And it must be noted that both mens' attitude towards women is problematic as well. But as it is I've already written more than my allotment for this sitting and not even scratched the surface, so I think I'll post once more on Ode before moving on to our next selection. I'll aim for this Wednesday for our last discussion on this book, and announce the pick for next week's discussion at that time as well.

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