This is the very first page of Yuichi Yokoyama's Color Engineering, one of my two favorite comics of 2011 right now, and something in which I recognize the contextual hazard of even bringing up - it's co-published by one of this site's editors, and translated by one of its columnists. Yet at the same time I feel as all-caps an ART COMIC as this can use all the discussion it can get, particularly in that it registers as a potentially intimidating departure for a much-heralded artist. Yokoyama is one of the premier conceptual stylists in Japanese comics, his early works dedicated to observation of human/mechanistic behavior as if translated by Martians trying to draw something like One Piece - all cool, steady eccentricity in capturing the jerking motion of engineering or transport, scrubbed clean of humanistic connotation or psychological representation yet coiled tense with more energy than it can stand.
Color Engineering is both bigger and wilder, yet somehow serene; I'm tempted to call it Yokoyama's The Tree of Life, and not just because the image above represents a Big Bang, erupting over the next four pages as a barrage of colors trapped between two monolithic (as in 2001) steel walls. "This image is not necessarily one from the vantage point of human vision," the author explains in an Explanation section toward the back, tipping us off again that the perspective adopted by his comics is artificial, a picture simulation often extrapolated from singular key images and worked frontwards and back into improvised sequential narratives. Yet here the introduction of color has a powerful effect on Yokoyama's renditions, causing them to waver in and out of narrative focus.
This is a double-page spread, as are many sequential images of the book; some of them even stretch into foldout pages. But the image here is also bisected, with the top tier's establishing panel rendered in heavy paints while the lower tier transmits the artist's typically crisp lines into digital hues, some of them frankly difficult to read. In recognition of such total visual unity, all of the book's dialogue is left in Japanese and subtitled way at the bottoms of pages, though since you can't read it here I'll tell you it's mostly cold observations about what the characters are seeing. "Here there is no house, only a fence." "Maybe it will be built later." "No, I don't think so."
It's perhaps not immediately interesting that Yokoyama's own Explanation in the back of the book adopts exactly the same tone as his characters' running commentary, yet it quickly becomes fascinating that now, unlike in any of his prior works, Yokoyama is essentially serving the same function as his characters, gazing at several pages which any reader will swear are abstract images and detailing exactly what you are looking at in explicitly representational terms. But then - what's the representation?
A repeating device in Color Engineering is Yokoyama's use of photographic panels, which, as you can see above, sometimes serve to solidify what we're seeing from lush watercolor-like images to actual images of water. Yet sometimes the photographs Yokoyama's characters see are simply drawn in a different manner from the characters, as if we're not really seeing what they're 'seeing' through the visual POV, but getting the sensation of a shift in texture, or even emotion. More than anything, the visual aspect of this book is fluttering, flickering - like the tactility of color has sickened Yokoyama's steady b&w eye with humanity, and so instead of the artist's people and environments seeming to pulse with activity we find ourselves pulsing in a state that's not quite so much empathy as synesthesia, like we're reading fleeting impressions and psychic feedback. It used to a Martian perspective, but now it's something like being God.
Fittingly then, Yokoyama pulls us back, further and further away. "I went to a wonderful place," is the book's first spoken line. "Please tell me about it," is the second. "First, look at this," is the third, and so we have no time for reflection, only procession. There's something immensely sad about that, something that moved me in a way I find difficult to put into words. Likewise, I can recite the technical rationale behind how impressed I was by Yokoyama suddenly repeating entire sequences from earlier in the book as perfectly organized double-page spreads, one per scene, but that doesn't get to the heart of it. I think it's that I've always felt that Yokoyama's stories go on forever, like he can keep building their chains of activity, or exploration, of rushing rushing, without ever finding an endpoint. This is acknowledged, then, in Color Engineering, as all of its vignettes coalesce into spreads, and Yokoyama lays out his Explanation, and then the comic continues after the story credits, leading outward to the final boundary of the book: a final page that's identical to the front cover and similar to the back cover in composition, all of them showing the same thing.
People marching in. A button being pushed. People staring out.
Eh, I doubted Yokoyama was some monotheist anyway. And if the engineering in his fiction world seems never-ending, perhaps it's then for the purpose of ending fiction, and looking into many new things on your side of the screen.
PLEASE NOTE: What follows is not a series of capsule reviews but an annotated selection of items listed by Diamond Comic Distributors for release to comic book retailers in North America on the particular Wednesday, or, in the event of a holiday or occurrence necessitating the close of UPS in a manner that would impact deliveries, Thursday, identified in the column title above. Not every listed item will necessarily arrive at every comic book retailer, in that some items may be delayed and ordered quantities will vary. I have in all likelihood not read any of the comics listed below, in that they are not yet released as of the writing of this column, nor will I necessarily read or purchase every item identified; THIS WEEK IN COMICS! reflects only what I find to be potentially interesting.
The Drops of God Vol. 1: Very much a different kind of manga than Yokoyama's, one of those arch-mainstream things-for-reading-on-the-train you inevitably hear about for years before someone (Vertical, in this case) picks it up for English-language release - it's a wine-tasting comic that affects Japanese and Korean wine sales, with quite a similar setup to the Viz-published cooking comic Oishinbo from a while back. Another distant, talented son labors under the shadow of his connoisseur father while trying to complete an exceedingly open-ended gastronomical challenge, though here it's the parent's death that pits a biological child against an adopted brother in a contest to identify 13 mystery wines, with a grape-stained estate at stake. The point, of course, is all the helpful wine facts you'll learn, and if it's really anything like Oishinbo I'll expect to be charmed by a distinctly open-minded attitude toward elitism, with characters gladly latching on to potentially obnoxious outpourings of know-how for sake of getting there themselves someday to do it their way. Written by "Tadashi Agi" (a joint pen name for siblings Shin & Yuko Kibayashi) with art by Shu Okimoto. There's 30 volumes out in Japan, and the series is still ongoing, though Vertical's 344-page packaging appears to collect more than just the first Japanese volume's content; $14.95.
The Manara Library Vol. 1 (of 9): Indian Summer and Other Stories: Ok, honestly, anyone who's really likely to shell out sixty bucks for this thing can probably identify the artist from the half-hidden kissing female form alone -- so characteristic are his delineations of slight curves under thin fabric and gossamer hair tickling warm vinyl skin -- and heaven knows they don't need this written out, but still, this 208-page kickoff volume to an expansive 8 3/8" x 10 7/8" hardcover reprint series from Dark Horse actually offers two under-available Eurocomics talents for its deluxe price, since Corto Maltese creator Hugo Pratt collaborated with Manara for 1983's Indian Summer, a saga of 17th century repression and struggle between American natives and Puritan settlers, and one of only two scenarios Pratt provided for another artist (1991's El Gaucho, also with Manara, is set for vol. 2 of this series). Manara's 1982 western The Paper Man is also included, and while both albums have been available before, the new translations are now by Mr. Kim Thompson, in keeping with the conflict of interest theme I've got going this week. Foreword by Frank Miller. Samples; $59.99.
pood #4: The latest issue of an interesting 16-page, 17" x 22" newspaper-format comics anthology edited by Geoff Grogan, Kevin Mutch and Alex Raider, with color and b&w features by the likes of Jim Rugg, Tom Neely, Ed Piskor, Nick Abadzis, Joe Staton, Tobias Tak and others, mostly limited to one page at a time. From Big If Comics; $4.50.
Spaceman #1 (of 9): A new Vertigo project from the 100 Bullets team of Brian Azzarello & Eduardo Risso, and a rather sardonic noir piece if the preview in last July's Strange Adventures was any indication. A body-modified hulk of a man built for interstellar travel and stuck in a shit job in a ruined city is after a kidnapped child. I don't know how much of the earlier story will be in this issue, but it's been given a low debut price anyway; $1.00.
Blade of the Immortal Vol. 24: Massacre: I am 100% sure 13 Assassins hasn't yet reached Milwaukie, Oregon, 'cause that's the only damn reason this shit isn't subtitled "TOTAL MASSACRE," fidelity be damned. Traduttori, traditori! Still, spirits are never slow to rise when Hiroaki Samura is drawing feudal warriors slashing each other to ribbons, and I bet that happens here. Preview; $19.99.
Chi's Sweet Home Vol. 7: CAT MANGA. Having drank the wine, play with a manga about pets from Kanata Konami and Vertical, now just one volume away from this ongoing series' position in Japan; $13.95.
Yotsuba&! Vol. 10: TOTAL MASSACRE. Ha ha, no, really this amazingly durable, highly popular Kiyohiko Azuma series about an inquisitive and (mostly) effervescent little girl and her day-to-day adventures will be the pick of the week for a pretty huge number of comics readers, and for good reason - it's a sunny, well-made bit of easygoing entertainment craftsmanship with likable characters and a good sense of humor. I look forward to it myself; $11.99.
The Smurfs Vol. 8: The Smurf Apprentice: I also look forward to seeing how far these Smurfs reprints from NBM/Papercutz get, since we're already up to '71 and rapidly gaining on one of my favorites, Schtroumpf Vert et Vert Schtroumpf, a parody of linguistic conflicts in Belgium with an ending oddly similar to that of Watchmen. However, this is an entirely different comic about a wannabe alchemist Smurf tampering in God's domain; $5.99 ($10.99 in hardcover).
DC Comics Presents: The Jack Kirby Omnibus Sampler #1: This is mystifying to me, but maybe of interest to some of you - unless I'm totally mistaken, DC is releasing a 96-page excerpt from a 304-page Kirby shorts collection released about three months ago, at a considerably lower price. I don't know what to make of it, but look out for stuff from House of Secrets, House of Mystery, Tales of the Unexpected, My Greatest Adventure and Adventure Comics (and be aware that Genesis West has a new edition of Jack Kirby's Galactic Bounty Hunters this week too); $7.99.
Tank Girl: Carioca #1 (of 3): A long-brewing selection from writer/co-creator Alan Martin's multi-publisher Tank Girl menu (this one's from Titan), anticipated for new color art by 2000 AD veteran Mick McMahon. I recall this being talked up as a six-issue series at one point, but it looks like three 52-page issues now. Samples; $5.99.
Stitched #1: I'm Out of It Sign #121,772,583 - I had no idea Garth Ennis directed a movie. A fifteen-minute short, yes -- with Lady Death progenitor Brian Pulido among the producers! -- but still a viable entry in the canon of movies-by-comics-notables, from your Frank Millers and Enki Bilals to Mike Allred's Astroesque and Gilbert Hernandez's completely wonderful The Naked Cosmos. This is the first chapter of an Avatar comic book version of a feature-length iteration of Ennis' concept, focused on American military personnel lost in Afghanistan and troubled by awful raggedy things. Art by Mike Wolfer, who will begin scripting the series after the Ennis material runs its course; $3.99.
Captain Swing and the Electrical Pirates of Cindery Island #4 (of 4): Also from Avatar comes the conclusion to this prose/comics fusion from writer Warren Ellis and former Eros Comix artist Raulo Cáceres; $3.99.
Secret Avengers #18: And also in Ellis this week is more from an ongoing Marvel series, with the very fine David Aja drawing ("with" Raul Allen). Preview; $3.99.
Wolverine and the X-Men #1: Although if I'm pointing out artist movements in big ticket superhero comics, I should also draw attention to this newest Chris Bachalo endeavor, one of two relaunches this week from writer Jason Aaron (the other is The Incredible Hulk #1, with an art team fronted by Marc Silvestri). Preview; $3.99.
Marvel Adventures Spider-Man #19: This is one of Marvel's kid-friendly-by-design series, noteworthy today for the corporate-owned superhero writing debut of Journal contributor Sean T. Collins. Should this go in the conflict of interest section? Eh, they'll tell me at my arraignment. Art by Pere Pérez, with a second story by J.M. DeMatteis & Clayton Henry. Preview; $2.99.
Will Eisner: Conversations: Finally, your book-on-comics of the week, a softcover edition of another University Press of Mississippi collection of interviews with a comics notable, here ranging in date from 1965 through 2004, as selected by M. Thomas Inge. It's 224 pages; $25.00.
CONFLICT OF INTEREST RESERVOIR: My other favorite comic of 2011 so far is Jim Woodring's Congress of the Animals, though I confess a lot of the effect it had on me (elation) was due to having lived with the mechanics and boundaries of Woodring's wordless storytelling for so long that deviations from it proved meaningful - as luck would have it, new hardcover and softcover editions of The Frank Book are out this week to catch you up on most of the major stuff; $34.99 ($45.00 in hardcover). Elsewhere in ambulating creature-things, Walt Disney's Mickey Mouse Vol. 2: Trapped on Treasure Island offers more from Floyd Gottfredson and his hungry team of pre-Imagineers; $29.99. And while it's still not on Diamond's list, keep an eye out for Kevin Huizenga's Ganges #4, which I understand has floated into a store or two, maybe; $7.95.