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
Melanie is far from your ordinary eight-year-old. Sure, she does ordinary things like going to school and riding her scooter. But she’s also secretly Jetcat, the costumed super-powered protector of the city of Oddville. And boy, does Oddville need protecting. From mad scientists to gargantuan monkeys to diabolical mosquitoes bent on world domination, it seems like Oddville sits perpetually on the brink of destruction. But Jetcat is ever vigilant with her catch phrase (“Time to fly like a jet…and fight like a cat!”) and her superpowers to conquer all the challenges the bad guys can throw at her.
If Jetcat looks familiar to you, that’s because she’s been around since 1994 when she first appeared in the The Stranger, a weekly alternative paper based in Seattle. Since that time Jetcat and all the various characters of Oddville have appeared in numerous newspaper strips and collections, most notably the Eisner and Kurtzman nominated book The Land of Nod.
Originally published as a weekly full-color serial in the Toronto Star’s “Brand New Planet” section, Welcome to Oddville is an imaginatively funny, kid-friendly collection of wacky adventures all told in a short newspaper strip-style. Many of the stories finish in a page and those that do go on a little longer end within three pages, making it both fun to read straight through or to just pick up during odd moments.
The stories whiz by, bringing with them an almost endless supply of eccentric characters both good and evil. As it turns out, Jetcat’s greatest foe is not any of the dozens of super-powered villains that constantly threaten Oddville. Jetcat’s greatest challenge becomes Avery Ilk, Melanie’s new trouble-making stepbrother. Avery constantly plays mean pranks around town and blames Jetcat for inspiring him, ultimately causing Jetcat to be banned from the city.
Kids will find themselves immediately grabbed by the eye-popping art. The simplified but energetic character designs and radioactive colors recall popular cartoon series like The Powerpuff Girls as well as Stephens’s own successful cartoon series (Tutenstein and The Secret Saturdays). But it’s the stories, with a childlike imagination and spot-on comedic timing rivaling Watterson’s Calvin and Hobbes, that will keep kids reading. Just when you think Stephens couldn’t possibly have any more nutty ideas he charges in with a group of revolutionary apples or a floating green head of Boris Karloff, never giving even the most stubborn reader time to get bored.
Like all great cartoonists Stephens manages to work in enough layers to entertain adults as well as kids. Whether it’s background material like the fake advertisements sprinkled throughout the book, the wry, purposeful nostalgia or the subtle sense of design that holds many nods to Herriman’s Krazy Kat and Ignatz, there’s a lot here to entertain everyone from kids to casual readers to the biggest comics fans.
Welcome to…Oddville! by Jay Stephens ISBN: 978-193523308 Adhouse Books, 2011
Southpaw is a left-handed boxer who also happens to be a tiger. Unfortunately, his crooked robot manager arranges for Southpaw to lose matches so that he can win bets on the tiger’s opponents. But Southpaw can’t stand for such underhanded dealings for long! When a fight with adversary RoboLobo doesn’t go the way the tiger’s manager expects, Southpaw is forced to strike out for home on his own, with the police and a number of angry robots on his tail. The tiger manages to deal successfully with both hobos and his family until a robot bent on reparation for the loss of RoboLobo confronts him in a diner.
This book was printed in orange and white, and is published in the author’s trademark one-panel-per page format. Scott Morse’s pen and ink drawings are simple and unornamented, creating a feeling of simplicity throughout the book that complements the main character, a silent tiger. This is a good book for teens– the violence in it is all against robots and tigers, and the mechanical violence doesn’t look like violence, but instead like disassembling a lego sculpture. While not a necessary book for library collections, it is a fun one– the boxing, tigers, and robots will all have great appeal for teen boys.
Southpaw by Scott Morse ISBN: 0972179445 AdHouse Books, 2003