Wednesday, July 23, 2008

by Lars Martinson

I quite liked Lars Martinson's Tonoharu. It's about Japan, but not necessarily the Japan we're accustomed to seeing in western comics, or as seen in Japanese comics through western eyes. There's no romance or exoticized eroticism or anything that even comes close to approaching that kind of staged cultural rapprochement -- just one American guy adrift in a land of strangers and strange customs, with nary a ninja otaku or hyperactive moe girl to be seen.

Perhaps the most appealing thing is that despite the fact that it isn't a memoir or even directly autobiographical (although probably, from what I gather, maybe a little bit of a roman a clef), it feels honest. The voice is disenchanted and maybe just a little bit xenophobic at times, and as unattractive as that seems the clear-eyed illustration of an extremely dysfunctional travel experience is more than a little fascinating, in much the same way as a car wreck. The story begins with his reflections, looking back at his own nascent hopefulness from the beginning of his trip, and contrasting that with the banal reality of having to live in a country where you can barely understand a word anyone else is saying. I read somewhere I long time ago -- long enough that I can't even begin to remember where -- that whenever you move to a foreign country, there are always stages of acclimation: first, enthusiasm over the novelty of an exotic land, then homesickness, followed closely by disillusionment at the fact that whatever alien land the traveler has found himself in hasn't gotten any less alien, and in fact, has become moreso with every halting attempt on the traveler's part to actually understand the culture. Eventually, or so the theory goes, the traveler comes to a final, lasting acclimation that accompanies a greater rapprochement.

I don't think the protagonist of Tonoharu is ever going to reach that last stage. He's pretty much a loser, as presented in the book, either unable or unwilling to really extend himself into the surrounding cultural landscape. It doesn't help that he can't learn the language, and it also doesn't help that the customary Japanese reticence makes all social interaction seem compulsively alienating. There's something to be said for cultural conciliation, but for the vast majority of the world that kind of intricate appreciation for otherness is probably not so easy. Take anyone and pluck them from their daily lives and into an unfamiliar country on the other side of the world where even the toilets work differently, and chances are unless they had the equanimity of a saint, the transplantation would fail, or at least cause a great deal of necessary friction.

The protagonist, Daniel Wells, doesn't come off particularly well in the book, but it's about more than just him. Admittedly, if the book was solely about his misanthropic adventures, it might get repetitive. But it's not: there's a bigger plot at work here. There's a disconnect between what Daniel tells the reader in the prologue and what we actually see unfold in the story: Daniel is not merely a pretty pathetic traveler, but an extremely unreliable narrator as well. There's enough dissonance there to qualify as actual suspense, if it weren't for the fact that the story unfolds in such a leisurely manner as to preclude suspense. Rather -- and I didn't mean that as a complaint -- Martinson's narrative sense keeps the book rolling at such an amiable, even clip, despite the rather abrasive subject manner, that you barely notice being sucked along page by page. Or at least I didn't, and consequently I found that I had read the book in one quick sitting. Pretty neat trick.

But that's also something of a problem. Although I really did like Tonoharu, and I don't want to seem like I'm qualifying that statement, I do have to add a qualifier by way of saying that the book's format does it few favors. A smallish hardcover, 116 pages for $20, and this is only the first part of a story that will last four volumes? I understand it's an unusual time in the comics industry, and the transition from a serialized model to a primarily graphic-novel publishing model is still causing growing pains across the boards -- but a book like this definitely suffers. If it had been serialized in comic-form beforehand, that would have probably been better. As it is, for $20 the reader gets what is essentially the first chapter of a much longer story - and it's not a particularly thick chapter, either. $2 less will get you the new Acme Novelty Library, and that'll probably keep you occupied for a lot longer than the present volume. And it's not even about comparing the book's quality, really: it's about finding the right format for the right story, and this is a very good story by a talented cartoonist that is almost certain to wither on the vine in the present. It's not ideal to be forced into a discussion of monetary value when discussing such an aesthetically appealing book, but that's the world in which we live.

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