Allen Say is the rightfully acclaimed illustrator and author of a number of beautiful children’s books, many of which focus on Japanese stories or cross-cultural issues. One of my childhood favorites was a book called How My Parents Learned To Eat, written by Ina Friedman and illustrated by Say, about a young American sailor falling in love with a Japanese woman, both of them struggling to learn to use each other’s utensils of choice. His tender tone and detailed, precise illustrations belie a deep well of affection for humanity in all its forms and across cultural boundaries, and his work has helped to foster that affection in his readers.
With his recent entry into autobiography, lovers of Say’s work and new acolytes alike have a chance to find out how he developed such a keen sense of cultural complexities and such an observant artistic eye. This story began with Drawing From Memory, a fantastic examination of his childhood in Japan, with a troubled mother, an estranged father, and a burning desire to express himself through the artistic medium. In this first volume, Say managed to apprentice himself to manga master Noro Shinpei at the age of 13, and began to hone his talent. Say’s family life was a bit strange, and his childhood was unique, to say the least. His choice to reflect on his journey to art through art blurs the lines between mediums, drawing from the conventions of both picture books and graphic novels, and touching down at other points along that spectrum.
Say continues his story in The Inker’s Shadow, recounting his equally unorthodox teenage years in the USA. He moves to Southern California with his father, but is soon left at a military academy, where Say lingers somewhere between grunt-work employee and student, even though the student population is mostly comprised of wayward kids at least three years his junior. Through necessity as well as, perhaps, his true vocation, Say seeks solace elsewhere, taking art classes, making friends and trying to learn about the world beyond his bunk. Eventually, through a series of events, some fortunate and others unpleasant (it’s not as though post-war California was a great place to be a Japanese teenager), Say leaves the academy, rents a room in a small town, and secures a spot at an arts high school, where he finds friends and teachers who encourage him in his artistic pursuits. Perhaps the most touching part of this book is his tribute to his teachers and mentors, which show how much one person can change the course of your life just by encouraging you to be who you are. His high school teachers clearly share a place in his heart with his manga mentor Shinpei.
As Say brings mediums other than cartooning into his wheelhouse within the story, those methods are reflected in the book—with photographs, photorealistic art, and the occasional cameo by his manga alter-ego introduced in book one. Say reminds us of how an artist’s life and talent builds on itself beautifully, using a format lingering somewhere between picture book and graphic novel to relate his experiences. It’s almost like his personal scrapbook, cut and pasted together to capture the moments that mattered most to him.
Since The Inker’s Shadow only covers Say’s teenage years, there is an incompleteness about it—it is simply an intermediate moment in his artistic development. It’s a necessary one, of course, but Drawing From Memory felt so foundational in a way that The Inker’s Shadow can’t on its own. It seems almost certain that Say will continue this series of memoirs on to his adulthood, where he worked seriously in photography before finding his singular voice in illustrated work for young people. The Inker’s Shadow is an important, but incomplete part of the puzzle that is Allen Say, and I can’t wait for it to take it’s place nestled into the greater arc of his life’s story.
The Inker’s Shadow by Allen Say ISBN: 9780545437769 Scholastic Press, 2015 Publisher Age Rating: 10-14 years
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.
Johnny Hiro by Fred Chao ISBN: 9781935233022 AdHouse Books, 2009
The first volume introduces us to the darkly handsome Dee and the endearing Ryo. Intrigued by his new partner’s shy manner and modesty, the out-as-bisexual Dee immediately starts needling Ryo about his sexuality and, in the tradition of wacky romances, enjoys creating situations where Ryo must go along with gratuitous displays of public affection. (Those bad guys are looking for our witness? Well then, we’ll just make out in the street to distract them and all will be saved…) Ryo, understandably flabbergasted, protests, but he can’t help but be softened by Dee’s inherent good nature. As they work through cases involving renegade tweens, the amusingly attitude-filled Bikky and pretty pickpocket Carol, Dee begins to realize that what started out as teasing means more to him than just a way to mess with Ryo’s head. The first volume also introduces us to more comic relief– J.J., a lovelorn sharpshooter (and how many times do those two things go together?) who hopelessly pursues an uninterested Dee. As Ryo takes in the wayward Bikky and draws Dee more and more into his life, Dee begins to hope that, just maybe, Ryo protests his advances a little too much.
On a side note, the racial distinctiveness in this series is inconsistently represented– Bikky (half-African-American and half-Caucasian) looks barely different from Ryo (half-Japanese and half-Caucasian) who also looks essentially the same as Dee (Caucasian). Side characters are given more distinct visual cues of ethnicity including dreadlocks and darker skintones– the reasons behind the presence or lack of such visual representations are puzzling, but not intended to be stereotypical or offensive.
Fake Volume 1 ISBN: 9781591823261 By Sanami Matoh Tokyopop 2003