It is always interesting when an artist chooses a particular set of limitations and experiments to see what can be done within such constraints. Anywhere But Here, a collection of comics by Tori Miki, follows a couple of simple rules: Each one-page strip consists of nine panels arranged in a 3×3 format, and the strips are completely silent—that is, no dialogue or sound effects are used. From there, the sky’s the limit. The abstract comedy Miki employs left me shaking my head in confusion at just what the joke was on many occasions, but that is actually a key part of the book’s charm. If you thought some of the comic strips in the New Yorker were tough to figure out, just wait until you experience Tori Miki’s work here.
The book’s introduction, penned by essayist and translator Nozomi Ohmori, likens Anywhere But Here to haiku, and I couldn’t agree more. Like Miki’s comics, haiku poetry is strict in its underlying structure, but allows its creators an abundance of freedom to move around within its parameters. In addition, both haiku and Anywhere But Here present small slices in time that suggest more complicated and involved settings and scenarios but leave it up to the reader to add in what’s missing. In other words, what seems minimal on the surface is infinitely deep and complex upon closer examination.
The initial sense of simplicity is heightened by Tori Miki’s art style. With a limited color palate and a heavy usage of blank, white space, the illustrations further cement the haiku-like nature of Anywhere But Here by leaving it up to readers to fill in the remainder of the world. That’s not to suggest Miki’s charismatic drawings are without detail, but rather they paint only enough of the scene necessary to carry the humor. Miki’s choices in what to depict and what to leave out are brilliant, and his comedic timing comes through perfectly in the way he spaces out the gags throughout the nine panels. He’s also not afraid to break the fourth wall with characters that display a sense of awareness that they exist in a comic strip, which only adds to the surrealism of the collection.
The only real problem with Anywhere But Here is that often the punchlines are not easy to grasp. One might assume this is due to cultural differences Western readers may not be familiar with, but I’m very sure Japanese audiences are just as befuddled as anyone else. Each comic strip is a standalone affair, being almost like separate realities contained in one little package. A single protagonist is the unifying factor throughout, and he acts as the deadpan straight man to the insanity happening all around him. In one sequence we find him sitting at an office desk going about business as usual until suddenly his body starts contorting and his parts become rearranged. The next couple of panels cut to a shot of the earth, a rainforest, and finally a witch doctor manipulating a doll in the shape of the poor, misshapen man. And that’s one of the most straightforward comics in Anywhere But Here!
Kids and teens will be drawn to Anywhere But Here because of its adorable artwork, but it’s doubtful they’ll stick around once they hit a wall with the comedy—something that will likely happen very quickly. Heck, the same thing may happen to some adults as well. But even though Tori Miki obviously marches to his own drummer, his work is fascinating and delightful, and it is worth the effort necessary to decipher and unravel the humor he wraps up in absurdity. Just like haiku, Anywhere But Here offers snippets of a larger whole, and it is up to the reader to supplement what’s missing, so those who aren’t up to a cerebral challenge should look elsewhere. The strips are simultaneously witty and outlandish, but they are never dull, and the collection will satisfy audiences hungry for something far out of the ordinary.