This might not be the best Yuichi Yokoyama comic, but it's definitely the most Yuichi Yokoyama comic. For my money, the enigmatic mangaka is the contemporary cartoonist whose work carries the highest sum total of uniqueness and quality - the guy out there right now who there's the least amount of stuff as weird as, and the least amount of stuff as good as. Even given that distinction though, Plaza sits in rarefied air. It's a book that challenges you to read it all through in one go, one whose every new panel throws another hard left jab out at your eye and dares you to assimilate its information into the story you've been reading. Yokoyama is many things, but accessible has never been one of them, and this is his least accessible book. It's also the hardest to buy - no American edition, no importer, and almost sold out in Japan - but I bought one, so I'm gonna talk about it anyway.
In many ways, Plaza is a return to first principles for Yokoyama. I interviewed the painter-turned-cartoonist some years ago, and he explained his entry into the medium thusly: "Consecutive scenes of cartoons allowed me to put more frequency and detailed "information" and "time" in cartoons than one painting." Yokoyama's work has as much to do with cubism as it does with conventional comics, endeavoring to plane pregnant moments apart and display them in wafer-thin slices, using sequenced imagery to examine space and motion and processes of change. Since that interview his books have become slightly more traditional, mounting ersatz set pieces featuring "characters" whose vagueness earns them those scare quotes - dude ain't turning into Stan Lee anytime soon. Still, while remaining experimental, more recent Yokoyama comics like Iceland and World Map Room (his best if you ask me) aren't just "experimental comics", but "graphic novels" with an investment in the use of narrative and its many devices. Plaza, by contrast, is an experimental comic to the core, most akin to Yokoyama's debut book New Engineering, which focused a glowering eye on bizarre public works projects with laser intensity.
"I would like to draw a war for 1000-2000 pages. From the beginning, only scenes of fighting, and the end, the last page, after 1000 pages, they’re still fighting," Yokoyama famously stated in a Comics Comics interview. That was long enough ago that we can probably put it with Big Numbers and Frank Quitely's "completely stream of consciousness comic" on the Greatest Comics Ever That'll Never Exist list, but Plaza feels distinctly like a shadow version of that unmade work. Not that his books ever cut from scene to scene for dramatic effect, but this is definitely the Yokoyama comic that feels the most uninterrupted: the ethos of dissecting time and movement using sequential panels taken further than ever before. In many ways it's the most violent comic Yokoyama has made, but its violence is inchoate, failing to find a target or produce much visible effect. In a sense this book is about a war without casualties. Plaza depicts the waging of a propaganda war, and one has to imagine its creator was pleased with its effect.
The plots of all Yokoyama's books, such as they are, can be stated in a few short sentences (a task the author has occasionally taken upon himself in his tersely hilarious afterwords). This one's the shortest of all: a massive public performance takes place on stage before an audience. Period, end. The book is the show, the show's the book - they're all each other consist of. Dialogue and characters do not feature, their places taken up by the endlessly whirring, eye-popping mechanics of Rube Goldberg-on-acid contraptions. Made up of animatronics, acrobatics, pyrotechnics, and more unclassifiable displays, the book's entertainment spools past us in a parade that feels endless, each bizarre object or construction getting at most three panels to exhibit a quick process of change - a reveal, a transformation, an explosion - before being replaced by something equally outre. Objects open onto others like Russian dolls, strange dance steps and synchronized athletic maneuvers are quickly performed, and props change shape before being replaced with new ones. If the action of the comics form is a machine, Plaza is like one of the doomsday devices that Jack Kirby would devote full pages to, bristling with dials and vents and gauges. Everything we see on these pages is always in motion, constantly followed up by something else just as dynamic.
Whether the show we watch is marching in formation past a fixed viewpoint or being zoomed past by a moving one is never clear (my personal bet is a moving walkway), but the invisible "proscenium arch" overhanging early, vaudeville-inspired comics is a constant presence. They couldn't be more graphically dissimilar, but if I were to compare Plaza to anybody else's comics it'd be Winsor McCay. A sense of massive scale, often within the framing of a great public event, runs through both as lifeblood. (I'm particularly reminded of a Little Sammy Sneeze page that shows the capitalist glory of a well-appointed sundry store being knocked into disarray.) People forget Yokoyama started as a painter, probably because his painting monograph is long out of print, but the fine artist's ability to evoke a truly engrossing visual world with a single image has never left his work. Plaza's phonebook trim size and panoramic frames allow the grand scale Yokoyama is working with to shine through: giant prefab animals or trees pop open to reveal tiny performers or shower their equally tiny audience in minuscule dollar bills or soccer balls.
The markmaking is what allows any of this to work. Every panel in this book is utterly anarchic, overlaid with as much visual noise as a comic can muster. Speed lines, razor lattices of sound effects, Roman lettering, sparkles and starbursts and screen tones all vie for the reader's attention, complex compositions providing a jungle of information for the eye to hack through in order to reach the content beneath them. Yet read this comic does, thanks to Yokoyama's pinpoint control of line weight. His ability to go from thick to thin along mathematically precise lines of perspective situates every panel of this book in easily recognizable 3D space. Giant objects are obviously giant objects, not ones closer to us than they appear. When items pop out at us we can tell that's what they're doing. This sounds basic, but it's something plenty of cartoonists never master, especially without switching angles between frames, which Yokoyama never does here. And the marks are beautiful, as painterly a collection of lines as their creator's ever put to paper, a feast for the eyes as nothing more than trails of ink laid down at different widths and lengths, full of texture and occasionally sliced up with wite-out. The mechanically controlled linework of early Yokoyama comics has been fading away for a few books now, but in Plaza it's gone entirely - there are fucking ink splatters on some pages, inconceivable from the artist of Travel. These marks are full of expression, beaten down onto the pages by a human hand and painstakingly reproduced as such by 888 Books' fine printing job.
One always wonders about the motivations behind said human hand when reading Yokoyama. Anything as unusual as his work invites speculation on the contents of its creator's head, this one maybe most of all. I don't think all art is propaganda, but all entertainment definitely is, and that's what Plaza is depicting. If this book has a deeper theme, it's one of entertainment media being used as a weapon against the masses. Characters in Yokoyama are almost constantly in some level of peril, probably for the simple reason that dynamic situations contain more danger than placid ones, but this is his first work to feel brutal toward the people it depicts. It doesn't take long before the food and toys raining down on the bizarre performance's huge audience are replaced by live fireworks displays and jets of flame from tank turrets. The constantly side-scrolling structure of the comic, of course, whips us past the afflicted before we can evaluate any damage. By the end the relationship of audience to performers feels very much like war indeed. Perhaps the masses' agony or ecstasy doesn't matter to whoever's pulling the strings of the exhaustingly complex puppet show we watch, just as long as they're screaming.
If World Map Room, named in reference to Mussolini, carried a whiff of the fascistic, Plaza provides a larger serving. In one disturbing early sequence a squadron of sig-heiling entertainers shower the audience with fruit, which they throw back at the image of a face in a giant book. A giant German army helmet strolls past in the background of a later panel, and the loaded right-wing conspiracy theory term "black helicopter" unspools in elegant English script at one point. There's so much of every kind of visual input in this book that I'm tempted to dismiss these as happenstance, but the arc of the content Yokoyama is delivering all but begs one to consider these particular tidbits' deeper meaning. If far-right politics prioritize a circumscribed aesthetics over individuals' health, are all Yokoyama's comics zones of fascism? Or... is Yokoyama... trolling??
It's possible that the author's usual annotative postscript clears things up, but in this Japanese-language edition it's as inaccessible to me as any objective meaning the rest of Plaza might hold. So I flip through the pages again, looking for answers but feeling my determination eroding as the magnificent, overwhelming visual displays come alive in front of me once more. This book feels like a beautiful map of unfamiliar territory written in a foreign language - flummoxing to be sure, but an artifact to be prized nonetheless. It is what it is. If you're into Yokoyama you know comics that make too much sense are overrated anyhow.