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Nanjing proves its worth by exploring history

Also reviewed: Agent 9, Inuyashiki, and The Time Garden

Ethan Young's Nanjing
Ethan Young's Nanjing

In the past few years more creators and publishers have seen the relatively untapped potential of comics when it comes to historical storytelling, be it the lighthearted if piercing style of Kate Beaton’s Hark! A Vagrant or more serious and studious works like Gene Luen Yang’s remarkable Boxers & Saints. This is nothing new, of course—Maus and Persepolis are two well-known older examplesbut the last decade in particular has seen a boom in history told through comics, and the medium has grown stronger for it.

Young’s wrap-around cover sets the tone for the book perfectly.

It would be easy to lump Nanjing: The Burning City (Dark Horse) with Boxers & Saints. But the latter was an exploration of what most history books call the Boxer Rebellion, which spanned the turn of the last century, while the former tells the story of the Second Sino-Japanese War, often overshadowed by the rest of World War II. There are certainly similarities between the two books, given that the events they discuss are irrevocably tied, but writer and artist Ethan Young has a very different style that sets this book apart in the best ways. One of the chief challenges Young faces is that, as he works in grayscale and many of the characters on the page are wearing uniforms, it can be difficult to distinguish between them easily. But Young has a strong grasp on how to amplify realistic facial features to make them more distinct, and the sketchbook page in the back show off that process beautifully. Nanjing is lush with detail, every inch of most panels filled with characters and context. It’s also darker in both tone and appearance than Boxers & Saints: Yang has a cartoonish style with pops of color, whereas Young’s work features large swaths of heavy black, nearly oppressive hatching, and detailed, realistic backgrounds. It makes events feel tight and frantic, perfect for a fast-paced story with immensely high risks. There are panels that feel like carefully constructed camera shots, with interesting angles and intense close ups that only heighten the danger the characters find them in. Here, and with some interesting lettering for sound effects, Young is stepping up his game, relying on the familiar panel layouts he used in his excellent webcomic Tails but pushing himself in other ways to tell a fascinating and important story.

Here’s where Nanjing outstrips a lot of other historical comics. Through his art and the storytelling choices he’s made, Young draws readers into a deeply intimate comic that’s a microcosm for much broader violence. The main characters are sympathetic not only as people but also in the situation they find themselves in. References to “safety zones” and desperate attempts to keep innocent people safe feel particularly heavy with recent headlines about refugees, and while the book may be about Nanjing in particular, Young’s skill transcends the story into something much larger. It’s certainly not an easy read, but that’s to be expected for a depiction of an event that’s been chronicled elsewhere as The Rape Of Nanking. The book provides enough cultural and historical context to not only further amplify the tension but also educate readers, and does so without feeling reproachful or sententious. It is a retelling of truths often forgotten, and that’s not only worth applauding—it’s important to share. Nanjing: The Burning City deserves a spot alongside not only historical comics, but wartime prose and non-fiction as well. It’s not often that an author can so skillfully evoke powerful emotion while telling a complex and long-forgotten story and this book is a excellent, necessary addition to the genre. [Caitlin Rosberg]

Katie Skelly’s Agent 9 (self-published) is chiastic. The comic, a collection of erotic shorts that had previously appeared on Slutist.com, opens and closes on pages that mirror each other, with the titular Agent 9 posing for a fashion shoot. Agent 9 is not the same on both pages, though, and she has, in the course of the story, been transformed by a cavernous creature that recalls the sex machines of Roger Vadim’s Barbarella.

Sex plays a considerable role in the story of Agent 9, and her episodes function largely as a vehicle for Skelly to render erotic images—masturbation is a recurrent occurrence in the brief comic. However, Skelly never portrays sex or sexuality as simply a physical act. There is a sensuality to her images, but there is also a transcendent spirituality. Masturbation isn’t something Agent 9 does simply to do it; she does it to fulfill some other need—to dominate, to excite something in others, and, in one instance, to transform herself into someone else entirely. There is very little narrative in Agent 9, and Skelly focuses more on these little moments of sexual playfulness, and she shapes the atmosphere of the work around them. Her bubbly, rounded lettering feels dynamic and elusive—there is a raw, quivering movement to it, a vitality—and her linework balances a cartoonish aesthetic with a deep sensuality.

Blending the elongated limbs of Guido Crepax and bulbous bodies of Guy Peellaert, Skelly’s aesthetic is singularly her own. However, there is utility in her style, and her comics don’t simply look good. She uses her paradoxical aesthetic—both heavily cartooned and broadly erotic—to affect her audience precisely how she wants to. Her characters look at one another with almond-shaped eyes, with pupils dilated to look like saucers, and their lips curl seductively. Her characters have the same kind of cool as Jean-Luc Godard characters, and they make you forget that you don’t know anything about them. Skelly frames her work like a spread in Vogue (Agent 9 is even printed at the size of most fashion magazines), and she does this with her composition, with her layouts, and with the way she poses her characters. She also achieves this affect with her jarring, candy-coated colors, which recall the flat opacities of mid-century Franco-Belgian comics like Tintin and Jodelle; she uses these colors to cultivate a mood, to approximate psychedelic vibrations of energy, and to lend her figures a convincing weight. The color is also used to emphasize beats and moments, to communicate intonations and emotions, something she prioritizes over articulable or narrative information.

There are things that matter in Skelly comics, and there are things that don’t. Even a cursory glance at Agent 9 by the most casual reader will reveal that the things that matter are energy, emotion, and feeling—everything else is irrelevant. [Shea Hennum]

Although Seven Samurai (1954) is more famous, this reviewer has long been of the opinion that Akira Kurosawa’s greatest film is actually 1952’s Ikiru (literally, “to live”). The plot is straightforward, and on the surface appears incredibly depressing: A mid-level bureaucrat, played by the indefatigable Takashi Shimura, is diagnosed with incurable stomach cancer, and is told he has less than a year to live. Ignored by his family and dismissed at work, he eventually finds the courage to live his final days with meaning, dedicating his remaining time to shepherding the construction of a small playground on the site of a mosquito-infested cesspool. It’s a gorgeous tribute to Orson Welles that in some ways even surpasses the master’s own work with depth of field manipulation and cinematic mise-en-scéne.

This is also, up to a point, the plot of Hiroya Oku’s new series Inuyashiki (Kodansha, translated by Stephen Paul). Ichiru Inuyashiki is a very worn 58 years old, hard working, honest, his back prematurely bent from a lifetime of deference. His family thinks he’s a doormat, and his only real friend is Hanako, his faithful Shiba Inu. He reacts to his diagnosis in much the same way as Shimura’s character in Ikiru­—eventually choosing to hide it from his disrespecting family. There’s even a sequence with Inuyashiki sitting in an empty swing during twilight and singing “Gondola No Uta,” a direct homage to the exact same scene in Kurosawa’s film.

Ikiru (1954), by Kurosawa
Inuyashiki (2013), by Oku

But then the story takes an unexpected turn. While walking in the park late at night, Inuyashiki is pulverized by what appears to be a falling meteor. He wakes up in the morning, thinking he merely passed out. But over the course of the next day it becomes clear that something else has happened: his original body is gone, annihilated in an unknown accident, and in its place he has become an indestructible cyborg with an alien weapons system of unknown power. This revelation comes almost as much of a shock as the cancer diagnosis, but the volume ends with Inuyashiki edging toward a purpose, stopping a gang of street punks from murdering a vagrant in the park, and subsequently using his new computer brain to out them to the world at large.

Oku’s previous serial, Gantz, ran from 2000 to 2013 and sold millions of copies. On first blush Inuyashiki might seem to be worlds apart from that series signature hyperviolence, sexuality, and gonzo philosophy (although, it must be noted, violence is surely just around the corner). But it’s not as far a stretch as one might think. Gantz matured quite a bit over the course of its 13-year run, dropping the overwhelming T&A of the early chapters almost entirely in favor of romantic subplots and existential angst. (There is also an odd, fourth-wall breaking sequence in Inuyashiki where a minor character is revealed to be a serious fan of Gantz and defends its content in-story.) Additionally, the seemingly flip treatment of violence in the first half of the series was lessoned in the second half as the story changed tone and became a meditation on humanism, horror, and faith. That’s more or less where Inuyashiki picks up: not a single person dies in the first volume (well, except for the title character, technically); instead, we’re given a compelling character study of a most unexceptional man suddenly thrust into the most unusual of circumstances. [Tim O’Neil]

Paging Dr. Cronenberg

Long considered cheap ways of keeping children occupied, coloring books are rapidly growing in popularity as stress-relieving products for adults. Intricately drawn coloring books like Daria Song’s The Time Garden (Watson-Guptill) offer an experience that is both meditative and creatively stimulating, and completing one of Song’s richly detailed illustrations requires considerable commitment from the reader. The density of the detail may be intimidating, but coloring these images is a rewarding activity for those with the patience and focus for it.

There is a narrative to The Time Garden involving a little girl opening a magical clock that takes her on a dreamlike adventure (that may just be a dream), but it’s just a few paragraphs at the beginning and end. The illustrations are the central focus, and coloring Song’s work reveals just how painstaking her linework is. Depending on how specific the coloring is, it can take a few hours to fill in one of Song’s two-page spreads, but that process is one that pulls the reader deeper into the magical world Song is creating. The finer details of Song’s art shine through once the reader starts applying color, and it’s fun to see how the illustrations change depending on the palette choices and how color is applied.

Repetition is part of the meditative aspect of The Time Garden, but it can be tiresome when certain images and patterns are reused throughout the book. Some spreads feature one visual on the left page and a zoomed-in picture of that same image on the right, and it’s tedious to spend time on one half and then spend more time on the other half that is basically the same, just bigger. Those repeated images establish visual motifs and help the pacing of the story, but they also pose a problem because of the book’s interactive nature.

Adding color brings vitality to these illustrations, but they’re still very striking in black and white because of Song’s a talent for dramatic composition. Most of the images are on a flat plane, but the moments where Song toys with depth and perspective are the most visually exciting, like a close-up shot of the heroine floating through a sea of paper lanterns or an especially time-consuming spread of the girl standing at a street corner in front of a café. That latter illustration incorporates landscape drawing, graphic patterns, and comic-strip imagery into a naturalistic urban environment, creating a magical, multi-layered visual that begs for color, even if it’s a process that will take quite some time. [Oliver Sava]