Renting a place can be a pain, but when you live in a city like New York, it’s probably your only option. You can’t change the paint scheme, you’re surrounded on all sides by neighbors, and your security deposit never gets returned. Particularly when some Godzilla wannabe tears open your bedroom wall and kidnaps your girlfriend.
This is the opening chapter of Fred Chao’s Johnny Hiro, a charming slice-of-life story that also has its fair share of celebrity cameos, ninja sushi chefs, IT samurai, and the cast of Night Court. It’s a wonderful mix of silly and serious, examining the real-life problems of Johnny and Mayumi, a couple struggling to keep their apartment, their jobs, and their relationship intact.
Johnny is a busboy aspiring to become a sushi chef. He just wants to make enough money to get by without worrying about crippling debt, an issue to which many of us can certainly relate. The trouble is, bizarre things keep happening to him. Like a prehistoric monster tearing down his bedroom wall, bent on revenge against his girlfriend’s family. Try explaining that to your landlord. Or murderous ronin-businessmen trying to take out an old friend while attending a $20 matinee at the Metropolitan Opera. Life just keeps throwing Johnny curveballs and he knows he can’t avoid them forever.
I first picked up Johnny Hiro on the recommendation of my local comic book gal (shout out to Fantasium Comics in Federal Way, WA — The store owner, Paula, has been exceptional when it comes to recommending books for my library’s collection.) and really enjoyed it. I had fallen hard for Bryan Lee O’Malley’s Scott Pilgrim and this comic is done in a similar vein, though less over-the-top. While being chock full of surreal action, Johnny also struggles with very real debt, and Fred Chao uses that to explore issues of self-worth as well as finding (and keeping) happiness. The end of the story doesn’t take place with an epic fight for Mayumi’s love, but rather in a courtroom, dealing with the repercussions of the busted wall. There’s no solid resolution, which does make the book feel a bit incomplete, but isn’t that life?
Chao’s drawing style is sketchy and loose, conveying the fast-paced action as Johnny is chased around the city. His characters are a little generic-looking, which poses a problem for a book that has so many celebrity cameos — I often relied on the dialogue to tell me who was whom. That being said, Alton Brown’s numerous appearances are hilarious and a great send-up of Good Eats. Chao knows his dialogue and is spot-on with the chef, as well as with the cast of Night Court. What Chao manages to strongly capture with his art is New York City. The city itself is such a strong presence that it becomes a character. It makes and breaks people, presenting dead-end alleys, crowded buildings, and sprawling streets.
Readers looking for an ethnically diverse main character will find that, while Johnny is “Half Asian, All Hero” (great subtitle!), his ethnicity is not the focus of the story. We see some cultural bias with Mayumi and I would have liked to see her featured more prominently. However, both characters are compelling and fans of surreal slice-of-life stories sprinkled with pop-culture references will enjoy Johnny Hiro.
by Fred Chao
AdHouse Books, 2009