Moto Hagio – Fantagraphics – 2010 – 1 volume

This really, really knocked my socks off. I like the trend of producing high-quality short story collections in English for well-established, but unlikely to be licensed otherwise artists, and Drawn & Quarterly’s numerous gekiga collections are varying degrees of fantastic. But none of them left me quite as stunned as this.

I’ve read Hagio before. Everything published in English, in fact, and I made an attempt on Heart of Thomas. I know she’s good, but really… these stories are just all sorts of wonderful. The collection starts strong, but it moves chronologically, and I found the later ones to be more touching than the early.

To get this out of the way first: A big part of what makes these stories so successful (other than the fact that they’re well-constructed and absolutely pitch-perfect emotionally) is Hagio’s artwork. It is delicate and detailed, with linework used masterfully, and yet, it is also minimalist in a way as well. It becomes more solid as the years go on, but she never loses her very distinct style. Her character designs are good, and very distinct from one another, which is a problem that even the best shoujo artist often fall victim to when the style is minimalist. Hagio’s faces in particular are very striking, which is something she shares with Keiko Takemiya. To me, they almost look empty, and that often leaves the emotional state of the characters open to several interpretations. It’s interesting. Her delicate linework also makes for beautiful depictions of nature, which is best here in “Bianca.”

“A Drunken Dream” is in color… I lack a description of this coloring technique, but sometimes you’ll see older series that are colored mostly with one color. “A Drunken Dream” is very red. The story itself reminded me a lot of A, A’, but that book lacked the stunning painting of Jupiter that this story contained. Amazing stuff.

In the collection, I teared up a little at “Hanshin,” “The Child Who Comes Home,” and “Willow Tree.” “Willow Tree” is mostly wordless and pictoral, and more sentimental than it is complex, but the way the pictures tell the mysterious story, revealed at the very end, is very lovely, and it’s hard not to tear up at all the unspoken conflict throughout. I read it through several times just to look. “Hanshin” has appeared in English before, but it’s just as good now as it was the first time I read it. It’s extremely complex, and I will honestly fail at any description I can give for that story. It is about a pair of conjoined twins, one of whom is beautiful but lacks any sort of mental capacity, and the other who is shriveled, but very intelligent and in charge of keeping the other twin in line. She constantly fantasizes about being separated from her beautiful sister, unable to do anything herself and yet the one that everyone looks at. And she gets her chance, with complications, of course. There’s two different parts at the end that made me tear up. It’s my favorite in the collection, and I can see why it was chosen as a representation of Hagio’s work in The Comics Journal.

I really liked “The Child Who Comes Home,” which had me tearing up even more than “Hanshin.” It deals with the death of a young boy and the way his family deals with it. It’s unclear at first that the boy is dead, or if the one having problems dealing with the death is his mother or brother. But the story goes on to be about the brother, and it had me guessing at the brother’s feelings until an outburst at the very end. Bittersweet, and I’m a sucker for stories that deal with death and grief in the family. And really, I don’t think I’ve ever seen a manga short story that dealt with grief so effectively. If my memory is right, I think the closest would probably be one of the stories in Short Program, by Mitsuru Adachi.

Also notable was “Iguana Girl,” which unfortunately had me thinking of a Hideshi Hino short story where a woman gives birth to a lizard throughout. But the story itself is interesting, about a woman who can’t stand the sight of her daughter and sees her as a lizard. She abuses the girl, and the little girl grows up with low self-esteem and sees herself as a lizard. It is drawn with the main character as a lizard in a world full of regular humans, but the only ones who see her as a lizard are the girl and her mother. Ultimately, the themes are about self-perception, parent-child relationships, and maybe a little bit about the effects of abuse, but it stands out for being one of the lighter stories in the collection, even with such heavy thematic content. Or maybe I only thought it was lighter because I couldn’t get the Hino short story out of my head.

The book is also beautiful. It’s got some of the most amazing design used throughout, with lovely typography on the chapter title pages and well-chosen color illustrations for the front and rear pieces. The Comics Journal articles on the Magnificent 49ers and the interview with Hagio are reproduced in the back. The cover is amazing, and I loved the way the front and endpapers were handled. The only thing I didn’t like was the lettering used in the comics themselves. I really didn’t like it. I’ll just leave it at that.

I was really looking forward to this collection, ever since it was announced in the spring, and nothing about it disappointed me. It seems like a book that would be easily accessible to any comic fan, and I hope Fantagraphics does well with it, because I am absolutely DYING, now more than ever, to see some of Hagio’s longer work in English.