This article was originally published at Comics Bulletin on September 29, 2016.
Every week in a new installment of “Leading Questions”, the young, lantern jawed Publisher of Comics Bulletin Mark Stack will ask Co-Managing Editor Chase Magnett a question he must answer. However, Mark doesn’t plan on taking it easy on Chase. He’ll be setting him up with questions that are anything but fair and balanced to see how this once overconfident comics critic can make a cogent case for what another one obviously wants to hear.
So without any further ado…
What’s the last book that made you want to burn the rest of your comics collection after reading it?
It is incredibly convenient that I’m sitting at my newly organized and cleaned desk right now because the answer to that question is sitting directly in my line of sight. All I have here is a glass wine, Spider-Man coaster (featuring uncredited John Romita artwork), lamp, some textbooks, and the third Goodnight Punpun. If you’re not sure what I’m getting at, the only thing these textbooks make me want to light on fire is my own head.
I wrote about Goodnight Punpun for our esteemed manga editor, J.A. Micheline, just over a month ago. If you didn’t give that analysis of the first volume a read, I highly recommend checking it out. It’s easily one of my favorite things I’ve written all year. That comes largely from my unmitigated admiration for the work. I’m reticent to rank this in a list of what I’ve read this year or the past few because sticking a number on the comic diminishes its impact somewhat.
Inio Asano is one of the most consistently stunning creators working in the comics medium today, and I’ve been drawn to his work since first discovering it in the pages of Nijigahara Holograph. From Solanin to A Girl on the Shoreto What A Wonderful World, every comic he has translated to English I’ve sought out. But even within the context of this fantastic bibliography, Goodnight Punpun leaps out to me as being something truly special, even less than halfway to completion in English.
It’s a haunting story of childhood and adolescent angst that grows far beyond the realm of these specific periods of life. The loneliness, fear, and inability to connect that Punpun and those around him confront are universal. Asano examines the nature of co-existence and the pursuit of happiness in a life that is only slightly exaggerated. What is most striking about the comic is how Asano puts the form to use though. His construction of Punpun’s family as absurd, bird-like drawings surrounded by hyper-realistic characters and backgrounds is fascinating. There are a variety of other visual devices and “tricks” at play, but this is the most notable one that allows readers to be absorbed in the life of this one young man.
I could go on for hours about all of the reasons I love Goodnight Punpun, but I already have and in a far better edited format. Seriously, here’s the link again. If you’re interested in comics, stories about the loneliness of the human condition, or a story capable of inducing both laughter and tears in just a few pages, this is the book for you. So I’ll leave that at that. But there is one thing I want to examine a bit more about your question…
You didn’t just say the last book I loved in this question; you said the last book that made me want to light the rest of my comics on first after reading it. That’s some very strong phrasing. You’ve seen my library and know that sort of action might be comparable to Mrs. O’Leary’s cow kicking over a lantern. It’s obviously hyperbole, but represents a very real reaction and one that you don’t come across too often.
While you might not always jump immediately to fire, there is an urge when setting down a comic that’s not just great, but one that hits you in a very special way to walk away from everything else. It’s the acknowledgement that nothing else could fit inside your head or heart in that moment, so you might as well toss it all out. You question how anything else could intrude on the experience you’re having in that moment. That’s a precious moment.
I think that when you have this sort of reaction to a comic (or any piece of art) it represents two things. First of all, it’s a testament to craft. No matter how enjoyable you might find some of the films featured in Mystery Science Theater 3000, loving something ironically comes with an inherent understanding that it is to be compared to other things. It relies on the context of better quality and that undermines its ability to consume you for even a brief moment. To have something make you want to ignore everything else, it has to be executed superbly.
Note that the word is superbly, not perfectly. Claiming something as perfect is begging for trouble. However, pointing to the refinement and precision in a superb piece is a much easier hill to climb (and die upon, if necessary). While there are criticisms of Asano and Goodnight Punpun, there’s no contesting that his artwork is masterful, that he is pushing the boundaries of manga, and that his stories touch upon deep, meaningful themes. It is a comic that can fill your head because it is filled with the work and thought of a true craftsman and artist.
The second thing is a bit more elusive, it’s a deep down connection between art and audience. That’s the sort of thing you can’t argue or convince someone else of; it’s entirely personal. While I adore something like Mr. Hyde inLeague of Extraordinary Gentlemen, you might just see him as interesting. We can discuss how he is drawn, what he represents, and how he relates to the themes of the comic. But I can’t make you feel about that one character like I do.
While I can pass you Goodnight Punpun and confidently say it’s a great comic that you will appreciate, I cannot tell you that you’ll love it like I do or even necessarily love it at all. The ways I connect to this comic are unique to me. How I see myself or my world in the characters is based on my own experiences. Beyond that there’s an even more difficult to describe element of taste that’s shaped by decades of experiences both in and out of comics. The whys and wherefores of my response to Goodnight Punpun may be mysterious to even me. When I began laughing uncontrollably at my local comic shop upon reading about Punpun’s first wet dream, that came from a place deeper than my mind, it came from my gut.
So here’s what I’m planning to do when I send this to you for edits. I’m going to pick up this glass of wine andGoodnight Punpun, and head to my couch. There’s a good chance that in the next hour I’ll laugh, cry, and occasionally holler at my fiancée about a particular moment that’s hitting me in a peculiar way. When I’m done with it, I’ll head towards bed and stay up far too late thinking about it. That’s because it’s a comic that is far too poignant to me to even consider glancing in my library again after reading it. For its own blend of reasons, it’s a perfect comic to me and demands my undivided attention.
Placed in anyone else’s hands, it might just be considered good or great. Yet it’s the sort of art that makes me remember why I spend so much of my life talking about art. It causes me to reflect on the craft within its pages and on my own life. If I was feeling particularly pretentious, I’d go so far as to say that it ploughs and harrows my soul, preparing me for death. And while I might want to recommend it for those reasons, there’s a better take away to be had.
If you’re interested enough in comics to have read all of this rambling so far, you’ve undoubtedly found a few comics like this. When you come across another one, be sure to hear that voice in your head telling you to burn everything else. Get off of the internet, ditch your reading stack, and let that comic settle. Enjoy the moments of reading that book and as much time as you can afterward simply absorbing it. That comic and that time are precious.