Author: booksyo

KIJIN GAHOU BY SHINTARO KAGO

We hadn’t even finished our first drinks. This is what I do now. I invite strangers back to my place. She invited herself, in fact. She thinks I have a cat. But the cat is dead. She doesn’t seem to notice. I guess she isn’t here for the cat. I’m wishing I had drank more, so I could feign impotence. She notices the books. It’s difficult not to notice the books. ‘Wow, you have a lot of books,’ she says. She wants me to show her the one I spoke about on the way home, which, I now realise, I mentioned in an effort to put her off. The disgusting one. She’s not unattractive, but I have done this too many times to find meaning in it. I’ll cover her in my scent, in my DNA, and then she’ll leave and never return. I collect these women now, in the same way I collected all those books, without ever really enjoying it. I’m surrounded on all sides by shaky towers. One day I’ll die under a book avalanche. ‘You must love reading,’ she says. I want to tell her I hate it. This, I think, with an imaginary sweeping gesture that encompasses her too, is not about love.

“Met her at my younger brother’s family barbecue. I punched a hole in her cheek with an iron spit. My cum was leaking out of it. Amusing.”

The disgusting book is Kijin Gahou, a collection of one-shots, or standalone short pieces, by mangaka Shintari Kago. I don’t know who put it together. Does it exist because the author wanted it to or was it fan-made? I can’t imagine that any publisher saw it as an opportunity to make money. Or not a lot of money, anyway. There’s something so unsettling about parts of the collection – and one story in particular, which I will discuss in detail later – that the healthy, immediate response would be to suppress it, to hide it, to look away. But, then, the world isn’t a healthy place. So maybe this is the book we need right now, maybe it’s the book we deserve. Certainly, I feel as though I have reached a [low] point in my life where it is one of the few books that has any significance for me, that says something meaningful about how I see and experience the world.

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On the surface, ‘collecting’ is what ties together many of the stories. In fact, the opener is actually called The Collector. It features a girl who is so in love with a boy that she wants to keep and catalogue everything he comes into contact with. It’s one of the strongest entries in Kijin Gahou, for the way that it unfolds with a satisfying, gruesome logic. If the girl wants the pencil that the boy touches, simply because he touched it, then it seems to naturally follow that she would want the skin of the people he touches too. I’m starting to realise that this is something of a Kago trademark, which is to say that he takes fairly banal or commonplace situations or phenomena and draws them out to an absurd, but still logical conclusion. While The Collector is, of course, about the act of collecting things, the author’s real focus is on the psychology behind it. The obsession and madness, I mean; and the strange – to me – desire to own something that once belonged, or was touched, by someone notable, often someone you admire. I have never understand how an object can become significant purely by virtue of having passed through the hands of another human being, but then I have always been unsentimental.

The most distressing, the most notorious, and the best, story is Suck It. Immediately after finishing Suck It I did not want to think about, discuss, or write about it. It affected me that profoundly. Yet even while I was reading it I knew that it had an incredible power, and that it was important in some way, even though I simultaneously hated it for what it was doing to me. It is concerned with a man who wants to photograph women giving him oral sex. For the most part, all that we see are the photographs themselves, with a short comment by the photographer. At first, the pictures are fairly standard, but they quickly increase in extremity and depravity. One way in which Suck It is so disturbing is that it makes you feel complicit, or made me, and perhaps most men who read it, feel that way. Having a dick, and having taken many a photograph and video of this sort myself, I could not help but put myself, my dick, in the situations I was observing. It was, in a sense, my dick that was being sucked; and that is the genius of Kago’s choice, of presenting us with the photographs, rather than a traditional narrative.

Suck It has many notable, and disconcerting, things to say about male sexual psychology. One gets the sense that the man is more interested in the image than he is in the blowjobs themselves, that he is, in other words, more concerned about his project than his pleasure; or, perhaps more accurately, it is the case that working on the project increases his pleasure. It is the desire to try something new, to get a different kind of picture, that appears to motivate him. ‘If you get down to it,’ he comments early on, ‘all faces look pretty similar’; and he then endeavours to make then look as different as possible. I have had many discussions over the years with men who want to fuck a range of women, simply to be able to say they have done it. Like a fat girl, for example, or someone of a race or nationality other than their own. It is a sort of competition with oneself, a kind of cataloguing of the opposite sex. The pleasure gained from these experiences is not from the acts themselves, or not primarily, it is in the accomplishment of a goal, in ticking a box. Maybe it is the case that women do this too; I’m certain that some do, at least; but it doesn’t seem to be as prevalent and toxic.

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I’ve read a lot of ero guro, both in terms of conventional literature and manga, and it is undeniable that much of it verges on, or just is, misogynistic; and, if one glanced at his work, one could accuse Kago of it too. Indeed, almost every story in Kijin Gahou involves sexual, or sexualised, violence against women. There are, for example, images of breasts being cut off, and women sucking dick while having holes drilled in their head, to name but two of many. However, the further I progressed through the book the more convinced I became of the author’s warmth and empathy towards women. In fact, he seems to focus on issues affecting women far more often than those affecting men, such as abortion in Fetus Collection. The young woman at the centre of the story is ‘filled with inertia.’ She has regular unprotected sex, she says, ‘to please and to avoid seeming unappreciative.’ The sad image accompanying this statement is of her vagina, with semen dribbling pathetically out of it. She then states that ‘the value of my existence is defined by the sexual desire of men.’ In any context I would find this thrilling, this subtle fuck you to all the guys who sulk and bitch if a woman won’t accept their cum, but in male-authored ero guro it strikes me as almost unprecedented.

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PANORAMA OF HELL BY HIDESHI HINO

I could feel the needle enter my vein; painless, but cold and invasive, like running your tongue along chilled glass. It had taken me an hour to work myself up to it, to convince myself to go through with it, to allow this woman to take my blood. Yet I felt as though it wasn’t only mine she was taking, but every drop I had ever seen spilled. As she filled her little containers, my head was similarly filled with memories and moments. I saw myself as a child, dispassionately watching the red pool form in my brother’s cupped hands. I saw a trail, from the gates of my school, where some kid’s nose must have been broken, to the house where he apparently lived; following it in my mind like breadcrumbs. I saw a mother grab the hair of a boy her son was fighting, pushing his head down to allow her son to kick him in the face; the boy’s pink spittle dribbling onto the concrete. For almost half of my life I lived under a dull red sun which bathed the world in crimson light. So much violence and madness, I thought it would never stop.

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When I began to show a serious interest in manga I anticipated that I would turn up a lot of what I will inelegantly call ‘extremely weird shit.’ Yet it hasn’t really been the case, and hours of searching dedicated message boards and websites has been largely fruitless also. There is horror, plenty of it, and some is very impressive, such as Junji Ito’s Uzumaki, but that’s not really what I had been hoping for. The Ero Guro, or Erotic Grotesque, genre promised to satisfy my inclinations, but, aside from Shintaro Kago and Suehiro Maruo, I haven’t come across much of that either. Recently, however, I discovered Hideshi Hino’s Panarama of Hell. With my limited knowledge, I would place it somewhere between the Ero Guro and horror manga that I have read so far. Unlike Ito, I don’t believe that it was Hino’s intention, or not the primary one, to scare his audience, although there are supernatural elements to the events outlined within his work. On the other hand, it is grotesque, but without an emphasis on the erotic. Moreover, the style – which is actually my least favourite part about it – is not what I would want, nor expect, from Ero Guro either, being cute, almost charming, in a Tim Burton kind of way, which negatively impacts upon the intensity of the narrative.

The plot, what little of it there is, centres on a painter who may or may not live in hell. The man talks openly to the audience, explaining that he creates ‘hell paintings’ and that he is currently at work on his biggest and most important project, ‘The Panorama of Hell’, which will be a ‘breakthrough in technique’ and will depict ‘the end.’ He then spends the majority of the rest of the book exhibiting and detailing these hell paintings, including The Guillotine, The Bottomless River of Hell and so on. It is through the paintings that one gets a sense of his personality, situation, and past. I said recently, to the unfortunate few whose ears I have, that the book reminds me most of Maldoror. There is a similar theatricality to the central characters’ misdeeds and personas; they both revel in their evilness, in gore and pain. For example, the painter declares that ‘the sight of fresh corpses broiling is remarkable.’ This sort of thing clearly amuses and excites him, in the same way that Maldoror enjoys slicing up children. Indeed, he actually paints using blood, which he describes as the most beautiful thing in the world; and Hino’s most unpleasant images involve the man vomiting up blood and cutting and bleeding himself.

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Yet, the further you progress through the book, the more his statement that ‘the overpowering odour of blood always surrounds me’ takes on a more subtle, deeper, even moving significance. I stated previously that it is through his paintings that one comes to know the man, but it is when he tells the stories of his family – his grandfather, father and brother specifically – that most is revealed. All three of these men were brutal and violent, all damaged and destructive. Big drinkers, they beat their wives, their acquaintances and their children. In this way, Panorama of Hell is a portrait of how the sins of each generation can be passed on, about cycles of violence, and how your upbringing can harm and mould you. It’s particularly interesting how the other men are strong and overpowering but the painter is weak and, well, morbid. He is still disgusting, no doubt, but strangely sympathetic at times. He says at one stage that ‘I’ve seen images of hell since I was in my mother’s womb,’ and is born holding blood clots in each hand, and this resonated with me, affected me emotionally, perhaps more than it ought to have.

TEKKONKINKREET BY TAIYO MATSUMOTO

Look who just walked in, my friend said. I tried not to look. This is why I don’t drink around here anymore, I thought to myself. My friend nudged me. Do you remember that guy? Of course I did. It was impossible to forget. My friend walked over to the bar and introduced himself. Are you him?, I heard him say. I might be, the old man replied with a sly grin. I thought my friend was going to buy him a drink, but thankfully he didn’t. The story goes that the police had been trying to put him away for years and eventually they did it. They got him for what must have been fifteen-to-twenty, and now he was out. I don’t know what they pinned on him, and I don’t want to know. Once, or so legend says, he was summoned to take part in a retaliatory raid on a local pub full of rival gang members. His one instruction was not to stab anyone. Beat them up badly, yes, but don’t stab. You got that? Sure, man, sure. Of course, he didn’t listen. As the members of the rival gang fled the pub he stuck a knife in the first three he saw.

You’re not having another? No, I said, eyeing the dregs of my drink. My friend had returned to our table and now I wanted to leave, to flee with the same kind of urgency I felt when I was boy. Only then it was a whole city, a whole life I wanted to escape, and this time it was just a sad old man and a sad old pub and a sad old situation. Are you alright? It was a joke. I almost smiled. No one ever asked you that back then. Are you ok? Can you handle this? Do you need any help? I didn’t look like a tough kid. And I wasn’t; not physically, at least; but I was desperate and crazy, and that is sometimes worse. The city did that to you; or our small, wretched part of it, anyway. Do you remember when we were kids?, my friend said, with a kind of smug complacency. He had allowed nostalgia to transform his memories into an heroic narrative, one worth reminiscing over, but I hadn’t. The pain, the blood, the fear, the heavy, sour smell of hopelessness in the air. Yeah, I remember.

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Yeah, I remember, although sometimes it takes a scene like that to bring it all back. Or a book, maybe. Sometimes it’s a book, and that’s even more unexpected. A book like Tekkonkinkreet, which is the story of orphaned brothers, one called Black and one called White, and a place called Treasure Town. Matsumoto’s style is crude, although detailed, with imprecise lines and perspective. There is a shakiness to it, a sense of chaos; and this suits the narrative, the personalities and lifestyles of the characters, and the setting. Treasure Town is, we’re told, a pit; it is the rundown playground of delinquent children, yakuza, drunkards, and stray animals. It is often said of cities within novels that they act as characters themselves, which strikes me as a meaningless phrase, but Treasure Town is certainly important to the people who inhabit it. They talk about it frequently; they are prepared to fight, and die, for it. Yet the place is changing. The adults are particularly sensitive to this, because they are old enough to remember how it once was. New gangsters are muscling in; old alliances are crumbling and fresh, but less stable, ones are being formed; and the landscape is being redeveloped.

One of Tekkonkinkreet‘s most interesting, and surprisingly moving, subplots involves yakuza members Suzuki [The Rat] and his protégé Kimura. Suzuki is weary of the game, in an ironically amused kind of way, and is planning retirement. He’s one of the guys – almost everyone in the manga is male; I recall only one female character – who most often speaks of changing times and of the relationship between a man and his city. One gets the sense that he feels left behind, that he intuits that he is no longer fit for purpose. Kimura is younger but equally at odds with the way that his world, the world of crime, is evolving. His girlfriend is pregnant and that makes him reevaluate his life and his priorities, but more than that it is the brutal approach of his new boss, Serpent, that disconcerts him. There is a scene, for example, in which he is presented with a gun and he behaves as though it is the first time he has ever seen one. Throughout his dealings with Serpent he counsels against excessive violence; he is always tentative, always seems uncomfortable and on edge. Matsumoto brilliantly weaves together all of these ideas when Kimura is ordered to kill Suzuki; and, as The Rat advises his friend on how to carry it out, and how to get away with it, I found a small lump forming in my throat.

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However, as previously suggested, the main characters are the two boys, Black and White. I’m not sure of their ages, but White behaves as though he is the younger brother. Certainly, he’s a simple-minded, happy-go-lucky kid. He often sings nonsense songs and talks in a kind of infant-like gibberish. His appearance also mirrors his mental and emotional state, what with the permanently snotty nose, missing front teeth, and the cute animal head hat. It is said that he is vulnerable, and Black takes care of him like a father; he ties his shoes, dresses him and makes sure he brushes his teeth. As his name implies, he is the [more] innocent half of the partnership. In one scene, for example, he plants an apple seed in a parking lot, so that he can grow a tree and have his own apples; although this can also be viewed a comment on the city as well as a symbol of hope. Yet, it would not to true to say that White is totally innocent, for he participates in and enjoys violence, even, at one stage, setting fire to a man [albeit he is an assassin who is, in that moment, intent on killing Black].

Black is, of course, the opposite of White. He is cunning and tough and street smart. Again, his appearance is telling, with the dark top, goggles, and the scar over his eye. Yet, while the boys are engaging enough as individuals, in their differences, it is what they mean to each other that gives them depth. I’ve already noted how Black looks after White, but it works the other way around too, albeit in a more subtle, indirect way. Throughout the book, Black is described as evil, abnormal, bloodthirsty; in fact, he is considered such a threat to White’s well-being that the police take him away to a kind of safe-house. However, Black needs White; he needs to have someone to care about. He needs White in order to feel something, in order to not lose the last remaining human elements of his personality. At one point, the boys’ grandfather perceptively says to Black that it is not he who is protecting White, but White who protects him. White himself says of the two of them that they each have the screws that the other is missing; and in doing so shows himself to be not all that simple-minded after all.

RED COLORED ELEGY BY SEIICHI HAYASHI

Recently I read Mr. Arashi’s Amazing Freak Show by Suehiro Maruo. I wanted to put together a review, but I could not. I don’t know how to write about manga. I do not know how to write about anything anymore. Ever since returning from Tokyo I have felt changed. I have thought about recording my experiences. A kind of travelogue. Since no one knows about Chihiro and the love hotel I could make something of that, perhaps. I feel changed. You could blame the seizure. Or the typhoon or the earthquake. The world is trying to kill me, it is clear. I met Chihiro at 4am outside Shibuya station, by the Hachikō statue, which is where all young lovers meet. I had expected her to be a man. I had expected to be murdered. How many beautiful young women offer to pay for a hotel in order to sleep with a stranger? Recently I read books by Suehiro Maruo and Katsuhiro Otomo. I enjoyed them both, but I could not write about either. I cannot. Tokyo was trying to kill me, it is clear; and yet I long to return.

It could be that what I am experiencing is an extreme form of Stockholm Syndrome. I only force myself to write this now because I wonder if it is the last time. The very last. Not one but one. Not the bluff. My eyes lose focus. I’m sick. My head is sick. Something happened out there, something entered into me and I have brought it home. Tokyo was trying to kill me, of that there is no doubt. The world is trying to kill me, and for the first time I feel as though it is succeeding. Last week I read Travel by Yuichi Yokoyama. I bought it in Mandarake Shibuya. It was a lucky find. That day, I could not move further than a few hundred yards from my hotel. I was too ill, too weak. I was constantly on the verge of collapse. I felt as though I was trapped in a giant pinball machine. I did not write about Travel. I did not make notes, even.

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In Shinjuku a middle-aged man in a shirt and tie offered me a blowjob while I stood outside the Robot Restaurant and listened to their song. It was 4:30pm. I politely declined. Akari commented on my politeness. How politely you decline the blowjob, she laughed. No, thank you. No, I don’t want a handjob either. Young girls inside. I questioned his sales technique. You don’t offer the blowjob first, I explained to Akari. If someone doesn’t want that they certainly won’t be enticed by a handjob, I said. My head feels as though it is immersed in warm water. I am ashamed of myself for allowing Chihiro to pay for the hotel. I had plenty of money but I wanted to see if she would go through with it. It was the first and only time we met. Her friend, she said, had drank too much and passed out and had to be taken to the hospital. That is why she was still out at 4am. She did go through with it; although there was going to be no love, she said, only sleep. I asked why, in that case, she needed me. To hold, she said; but of course it didn’t work out that way.

Yesterday I finished reading Red Colored Elegy by Seiichi Hayashi, and this is my attempt to write about it. I didn’t know that it was an earthquake. Not at first. My mobile phone vibrated, beeped and spoke to me in Japanese. On the screen was displayed an emergency warning. The word emergency was the only word that I could understand. Red Colored Elegy is a love story. There are two people, Ichiro and Sachiko, a man and a woman, and they are in love. When I looked up everyone had stopped; everyone was motionless, staring at their phone or staring into the distance. They looked confused, or concerned. A voice came over some kind of PA system. I do not speak or read Japanese. I thought the world was ending. Someone has launched a nuclear weapon, I thought, and the world is coming to an end. I am dying here in Tokyo, at the Shibuya crossing. It was midnight, four hours before I met Chihiro. I had been out drinking, but not enough to be hospitalised. I am dying here, and I am not in love.

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Ichiro is an artist who wants to draw comics. A man can’t live off paintings, we’re told. There is something in this, I’m sure, about Japanese culture, or Tokyo culture, at the time; some reference to the emergence of manga as a way for artists to express themselves. But not too much is made of it. Ichiro draws, doodles or whatever, but it could have been anything, any activity. When the typhoon hit I was in Ebisu with Akari. The old men outside the traditional restaurant jeered and whooped when I kissed her. I dropped my umbrella and my jacket on the street as I put my hands around her hips. The old men are watching us, she said. I am not in love. I picked up my umbrella and my jacket and we walked for a while. I could not walk for more than a few hundred yards. I am not in love, although I am constantly on the verge of love. As we left the hotel I offered to buy Chihiro a coffee. It was the first and only time I saw her in daylight.

Ichiro and Sachiko move in together. Ichiro draws, or doodles or whatever. Sachiko works. Yet most of the panels show the couple squabbling, rolling around on the floor, playing with each other, smoking, fucking. It is the most realistic, and therefore the most moving, representation of the banalities of love that I have read. This, I thought, as I turned the pages, is love. This is what I don’t have. I bought Chihiro a coffee, when perhaps what she really wanted was to leave. The typhoon ripped through Ebisu. I was scared. I am dying, and I am not in love. Akari and I kissed outside the restaurant, my umbrella and jacket in a heap by my feet. I am not in love. This is my attempt to write about Red Colored Elegy. It is a failure. Tokyo has changed me. Something entered into me out there, and it will not leave. In Harajuku I had a seizure. My head felt as though it had been immersed in warm water. I fell against a wire fence and shook. I fell further down. I slouched towards the concrete street. I am dying here, of course, on the floor, without love. I tried to ask for help, but no one heard.

IGUANA GIRL BY MOTO HAGIO

One of my earliest memories is sitting with my mother while she passed judgement on my brother and I. “Girls will love you,” she said to my brother, “because you’re beautiful.” He had, at that time, long curly blonde hair; and I now imagine that she caressed it as she spoke to him. “You!” she turned to me. “Girls will like you because you’re cheeky.” I don’t think my mother intended to hurt me, or even that her aim was to criticise me, but I was old enough to read between the lines. I felt clearly who she favoured, and who she found the most appealing. But, more than that, she was, I realised, so sure of her opinion that she was able to speak with such authority for other people, for the rest of the world, who would, I now knew, never like me for my appearance. For a period following this incident I would stare at myself in mirrors, at my large eyes and plump lips, which never before had struck me as unattractive, and become ever more disheartened, because my brother did not look this way. My mother had defined beauty for me, and it belonged to only one little boy in the world.

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Moto Hagio is considered to be the the most notable, and influential, creator of shōjo manga, which is to say manga that is aimed at a teenage female audience. While shōjo manga is not restricted to any particular subject matter, or genre, it generally features more prominent female characters, is more introspective, and more focussed on emotions and issues affecting young women, than traditional manga. Iguana Girl, which was first published in 1991, is the story of Rika, whose mother believes her to be an iguana and therefore ugly. This may sound something like a manga version of The Ugly Duckling or that awful Mask film, but the reality is something more moving and complex. Iguana Girl isn’t about being unconventional looking or different [or certainly not in terms of appearance]; it is not about the beauty within, or anything so glib. For Rika is not considered ugly by all, or even most; only her mother sees her that way. Indeed, her father calls her beautiful and boys find her attractive. There are, moreover, moments in the text when one is allowed glimpses of Rika as human, in other words as she appears to everyone except her mother, and she is, even in cartoon form, obviously a pretty girl.

Yet, while Rika is not ugly, she is often awkward and clumsy. For example, in one scene she runs to show her mother a bug in a box and accidentally lets it out to fly in her face. She is also, and more significantly, not stereotypically ‘girly.’ She is, with her interest in baseball and her ‘good throw,’ what we might call a tomboy, although that is a phrase that I dislike. In fact, one character says of her that she should have been born a boy. In this way, Iguana Girl engages with some of the issues surrounding gender roles and identity. What does it mean to be a girl? Or a boy? What is a boy activity? How should a girl behave? Certainly, Rika’s mother has firm ideas about such things. She considers grace and reserve – which her iguana daughter lacks – to be feminine qualities. When she has a second child, Mami, she is pleased that she now has a daughter with whom she can bake [suggesting she couldn’t with Rika]. Mami, we’re told, also looks good in a dress, while Rika does not.        iguana-girl-d20fe387-d4c9-408f-9d6c-392ac441ac1-resize-750 (1).gif

However, one gets the impression that Rika’s awkwardness is not natural; it is her mother who makes her so by repeatedly criticising and abusing her. Likewise, if she is tomboyish, one might argue that it is because she has been raised to believe that she is unsuited to traditionally feminine activities. There are a series of panels in which Rika applies make up to herself, and the mother is angry when she finds out; so it is not that the girl has no interest in such things, simply that she has been convinced that they are shameful, and that she is made ever more monstrous or ridiculous by them. Rika isn’t born thinking that she is ugly, either; she learns her self-loathing about her looks. Iguana Girl is, therefore, as much about how one’s upbringing affects you, about parent and child relationships and dynamics, about nature versus nurture, as anything else. While Rika gives the manga its title, the most important character is, in fact, her mother. It is her disappointment in not getting the kind of child she always wanted that drives the action; it is her expectations that are not met. She cannot love Rika for what she is, because she does not see her as a person in her own right; she is, instead, a breathing, bumbling, broken dream.

WATCHMEN BY ALAN MOORE

My father is worried about Devil-dog. He has been out of intensive care, and a coma, for two days. Devil-dog! he shouts and points from the chair by his hospital bed. I’m not sure if he is pointing at me, but it appears so. Before his illness, I barely knew him; I hardly ever thought about him. It is only in this vulnerable state that his existence has become a thing, a fact, for me. Devil-dog, he shouts, and I think that he may be pointing at one of the tattoos on my arm. Or at least I hope so. Before his illness, my father was almost invisible to me; but now that he is on my mind, now that I see him at last, I realise how difficult his life has likely been. A man so meek and undemanding, so out of place and out of time, that the world – our world – must have been bewildering to him. Not once have I seen him do anything wrong; but then I never saw him do anything at all until now. It seems as though he had to lose his mind in order to impose himself, to speak up. Devil-dog! he shouts again, his frail arm extended and scanning the room; and suddenly I’m convinced that he’s passing judgement; on me, on all of us.

“Looked at sky through smoke heavy with human fat and God was not there. The cold, suffocating dark goes on forever and we are alone. Live our lives, lacking anything better to do. Devise reason later. Born from oblivion; bear children, hell-bound as ourselves, go into oblivion. There is nothing else.”

When I began to take a serious interest in graphic novels I knew that one day I would have to read Watchmen. Although I was not, to be honest, excited about the prospect. Despite its lofty reputation – a reputation that makes the book difficult to ignore or bypass – the little I knew about it didn’t appeal to me. I picked it up, therefore, with a feeling of, not dread, but mild irritation, as though I was performing a duty. Yet it took no more than the first frame to dispel my misgivings. Dog carcass in alley this morning, tire tread on burst stomach, begins Rorschach’s diary; and I knew immediately that the writing – the narration, in this case – was superior to any I had come across previously within this genre; it is superior, in fact, to most conventional novels, and frequently verges on the poetic. Often when reading something of this sort there is a begrudging acceptance that the prose parts will be average, at best; and that this is a necessary trade-off for the interesting visuals. That a book could be as impressive in both areas was incredibly exciting. Indeed, it made graphic novels look like the future of literature, rather than a fun diversion.

Everything that I thought a novel of this sort could achieve Watchmen does it; it does more, in fact. Throughout, there are extracts from a character’s autobiography, newspaper articles, letters, an academic journal; there are quotes from Nietzsche and the Bible; and so on. These are not new tricks, of course; one will find similar in Berlin Alexanderplatz, and such like, but certainly I wasn’t expecting to come away from Watchmen referencing the touchstones of Modernism. Moreover, the prose pieces, or essays, are of the highest calibre. The story of Joe Mermon, for example, really touched me. He was, we’re told, a collector of erotic novelties, who one day put on a pair of false plastic tits to get a cheap laugh. However, he finds out that his wife has been cheating on him; and when he tells his colleagues they go into hysterics because he had forgotten to remove the breasts. The writer, and former masked avenger, Hollis Mason, concludes: ‘and although I have never worn a set of false bosoms in my life, I’ve stood there dressed in something just as strange, with tears in my eyes while people died laughing.’

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Usually, I will complete a graphic novel in a day, no matter how many pages it contains, but Watchmen took me over a week to read. This is because it is so dense, so sophisticated and detailed. One gets the impression that Moore [and Gibbons, the illustrator] threw everything at it, gave it everything, and remarkably almost* all of it works. One of my favourite aspects of the book is how multiple stories are told simultaneously, in a cinematic fashion. In Black Hole by Charles Burns, if someone is having a flashback the frame is wavy, which is a simple, almost childlike, technique. Here, however, you are made to work; it is only by following the story, being fully engaged in the story, that one is able to distinguish present day from memory. Moreover, and most impressively of all, there are times when two stories are told within the same frame[s]. For example, there is a scene in which a couple are having sex, which is a significant plot development, while on the TV there is a news broadcast, followed by an acrobatic performance, both of which provide information about other plot points. Not only that, but the TV could be said to commentate ironically upon the sex: ‘one smooth, seamless flow of motion’ is how the acrobatic performance is described, while the couple’s endeavours are fumbling, awkward.

Moore also clearly put a lot of work into developing his characters. We learn their back stories, their fears, their hopes, their motivations, etc; they are, without exception, rounded, believable and, in most cases, relatable. This, one imagines, was intended as a kind of comment upon the genre itself, as a deliberate bucking of a trend. Prior to Watchmen, almost all masked avengers, or superheroes, were flat; necessarily so, you might argue. They were not ordinary people, they were special. One was meant to look up to them as superior beings, both physically and morally. Flawless, they dealt in absolutes: absolute goodness, absolute justice, and so on. They were essentially Gods. Well, Moore’s ‘heroes’ are not at all God-like, except the brilliant Dr. Manhattan. Take Rorschach, who is mentally and emotionally unstable. The Comedian, on the other hand, is not only morally dubious in a Batman-like manner, but, in killing an innocent woman and attempting to rape a colleague, actually behaves in such a way as to make him the book’s biggest villain.

The Comedian is particularly interesting because he is a man of the times or, more accurately, a man who moved with the times, who saw and understood where humanity was heading. One of the book’s major themes is social change, away from old ways of behaving and being towards new, and less innocent, ways. At the beginning of the book all of the avengers, except Rorschach, have retired. It was a forced retirement, but the impression is given that they were no longer needed, that they were, in fact, no longer capable. Crime had changed, the world had changed; and not, one is led to believe, for the better. Indeed, Watchmen, like Bolano’s 2666, is a kind of literary death rattle; it’s humanity’s last rites in book form. In short, we are fucked; and there is little that we can do about it. We are circling the bowl of the toilet. It might take one last flush, but the end, for us, is at hand. Moore sees it, Bolano saw it, and my father sees it too. Devil-dog! he shouts repeatedly from the chair by his hospital bed, his eyes intensely focussed and his frail arm outstretched.

 

*there was a point in the book, about a third of the way into it, when I began to wonder how Moore was going to draw all the strands of his narrative together in a satisfying manner. And the truth is that he doesn’t. In the final stretch, the plot becomes corny and silly.

BLACK HOLE BY CHARLES BURNS

What do I remember about that period of my life? It was intense, you know. I was intense. Thing is, I was never a little boy; I skipped childhood and went straight to the awkward, brooding teenage years. I was a teenager at six or seven, if you know what I mean. So those feelings weren’t new to me; but yeah I guess they were kind of heightened around that time, at like seventeen or something; all the negativity about myself and the world. The drugs didn’t help, and the girls made it even worse. I discovered girls late, I guess. Like I really had to discover them; they weren’t always there, you know. I didn’t take drugs to feel good or have a nice time. I took them because…shit, who knows. Because I didn’t understand myself, I guess, and so couldn’t accept myself. But I don’t really want to talk about any of that; about me, I mean; this isn’t about me, for once.

So who then? Not Tom. I can hardly even picture him now, which is probably something he’d approve of. He’s lost to my memory like he was lost to the world. But the others are there, crowding my brain like a prison. I’d go to the same club every week and every week I’d make new friends. Friends that weren’t really friends, you know. Or maybe were more my friends than anyone else I’ve ever known. People you fucked in the toilets; people you bought drugs from; people you gave drugs to; people you fought with, like physically, but still said hi to later that night; people who stumbled into your life, often for mere moments, but who somehow left an impression on you greater than those you now see every day. Gareth, for example, who was gay as fuck but couldn’t admit it to himself; and so he drank all the time. And Sherry, who I gave a Love is All badge to and then never saw again. Beautiful Sherry who thought she was just a ‘typical ugly Asian girl in England.’ And Rick, and Mark, and Ally and Jemma; and so many more. Every one of them struggling with something, some terrible thing inside that beat so hard against the surface of their skins that it contorted their faces and their bodies. I’d have given them all a badge if I could.

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I guess I’m trying to say something about Black Hole; about how this comic book moved me; about the associations, you know. But it didn’t start off that way; moving me, I mean. At first I was kind of irritated by it. The way the characters speak to each other, for example. It reads like the dialogue from a crappy teen tv drama, like Dawson’s Creek or something. Like one guy says I love you and the girl says ‘don’t say that unless you mean it.’ Shit like that. Then there are the vaginas. Not real vaginas, but the suggestion of vaginas. It’s not at all subtle. The title, don’t forget. And also the open belly of the frog, and the wound on the girl’s foot and on her back, and so on. Like, I get it; I immediately got it. Horny teenagers; hormones; that feeling of sex being everywhere, all around you. Vaginas, dude. I should probably mention the bug too; the disease that the characters pass to each other and that causes the mutations; well, that’s an STI. So, anyway, initially I was a bit pissed about all that stuff; it struck me as unsophisticated, if you know what I mean.

But soon enough the whole vagina thing sort of faded into the background. And, yeah, the dialogue was still corny in places but I started thinking that maybe it’s intentional, you know; like maybe Burns was going for that. I’ve seen it written that he was aiming for a B-movie type feel or something; and the artwork backs that up, with it being black and white and blocky, and so on. I mean, as an allegory I still think the book kind of sucks, B-movie or not. I don’t like allegories much. Animal Farm and all that. Like how the mutants are the unpopular, ostracised kids, you know. Kids who wear the wrong clothes and laugh too loud at the wrong things, or something like that. Or maybe you could say the mutants are like society’s cast offs; the drug addicts, the homeless, the alcoholics; the ones who really fell off; the ones who really got lost. I don’t know, I guess that pretence stuff just makes me cringe too. Like it wants to dupe you – the reader – into thinking you’re smart because you figured all this out, when actually it’s so obvious and in-your-face that a bonehead child couldn’t miss it.        burns_c_blackhole4.jpgI’m sure it seems like I’m being super hard on the book. Like I’m not finding much to say that’s positive. But I am coming to that. I just don’t know how to structure something like this; a review, I mean. I want to say only nice things, but I keep getting sidetracked. Of all the allegorical stuff I guess I most appreciated how Burns worked in the body horror theme. Like obviously a lot of adolescents feel that way; like they hate their bodies, are disgusted or embarrassed by their bodies. So, for example, Chris, who’s a girl, goes swimming; and she’s got the bug and she doesn’t know it yet, or doesn’t know that it’s showing; and all her friends or whatever see the open wound on her back and snigger and gossip about it. Or that other girl, who has webbed hands and wears gloves; that girl worries that her boyfriend is disgusted and embarrassed by her hands. And because of all that, I couldn’t help thinking of the girls who I’ve known who wouldn’t let me see them naked; all those girls who thought their sex was gross, you know. Vaginas again, dude. Associations.

Yet, ultimately, what really got to me was something else. I felt like after a while Burns got as sick of the allegory as I did. At some point I realised that he had just kind of let it go; like he stopped trying to find clever ways to say stuff and decided to just say it; like he stopped trying to hit you over the head with the Gen X thing; and Black Hole then became emotional, warm, sympathetic and all that. It became sincere, I guess is what I’m trying to say; and that really woke up Sherry and Mark and Rick, and the rest. Like how Chris loses her way when she loses her guy. Just that; that one moment, that one incident, and she goes down and finds it tough to get back up. I’ve seen it happen, you know. People who can’t cope with the rough and tumble of life; maybe forever, maybe for only a period of time. Chris drops out and becomes pathetic. I’ve seen it happen. That she has the bug or is a mutant or whatever doesn’t matter. Or Eliza. I don’t know, I think Eliza got to me the most. Drugged up and zoned out and all. When she fucks that kid with the sideburns she says something about how nice it is to fuck someone you like for a change. And my heart nearly broke. Her tail is neither here nor there. I’d have given her a badge if I could.