When you read a lot of Japanese comics aimed at adult men, you come to accept that part of the reason these books exist is for stress relief. Many seinen manga operate pretty much on the level of cable television shows, offering the reader a periodic dose of uncomplicated escapism, including glimpses into faraway places. But this brand of simulated travel doesn't just take you to safe and pretty locales; after all, if you've got money you can do that for real. I'm thinking of something more like Mad Bull 34 by Kazuo Koike & Noriyoshi Inoue, which presents Ed Koch's NYC as a paradisiacal inferno of uninhibited sex and violence. Everybody has guns!! It's fun to ride along in the armored car of media, be it imported self-mythologizing in the form of U.S. films and television, or local fare pitched on the level of tourism.
Heaven's Door Extra Works, a new English edition of a 2016 Japanese collection of short psychedelic/altered-perception comics from the '80s and '90s by Keiichi Koike–itself an expansion of a 2003 JP collection, hence the "Extra Works"–opens on a related satiric note. One side of a color foldout at the front of the book depicts a tourist posing in a restricted area of a holy site, utterly oblivious to the anger he has stoked in the locals.
The other side is more complicated. When the image is completed folded, you see tourists delighting in an enormous statue of the Egyptian god Ra. The portal to the statue is actually a cutout, so that you are only seeing small portion of the image underneath:
Folded out completely, you see Ra as not an object of aloof adoration and exotic novelty, but as a shadowed observer to the local people, who are subject to the everyday troubles of motor vehicle accidents, unseen by visitors who have built a monumental mystic fiction out of their culture. Katsuhiro Ōtomo is another manga artist who's done some work along these lines: his 1981 short "The Watermelon Messiah" depicts a gigantic interstellar melon dropping onto a post-apocalyptic Earth and bringing ostensible sustenance but also a sort of religious terror to humans. In an even more sinister vein, Ōtomo's and animator Atsuko Fukushima's opening sequence to the 1987 anime anthology Robot Carnival sees a titanic clattering machine (shaped like the film's title) bringing a technologically advanced entertainment spectacle to a small village, utterly destroying the place in the process.
But while Ōtomo is explicitly addressing ideas of literal and cultural colonialism–see also, inevitably, Akira–Koike is exploring the tension between the pain and grime of lived reality, and the enormity of the spiritual world. This is the shared theme of the stories in Heaven's Door, which is promoted on the back cover as "A drug in paper form!" but actually communicates a melancholic longing for something greater than sobriety.
It's difficult not to think of Ōtomo when reading this book; he was enormously important to manga artists who came up in the 1970s, but Koike–who debuted in '76, three years after Ōtomo–adopts so similar an approach to the drawing of some figures, particularly the squat bodies and round heads on younger characters, that some of his panels can pass for Ōtomo's actual work. But on the whole there are noticeable differences. Koike is better read as part of a wave of '70s artists, with Ōtomo and Jirō Taniguchi, who gladly incorporated elements of European and American comics into their visual approach; Koike employs a variety of hatching and stippling techniques that especially recall the Moebius of The Airtight Garage (contra Taniguchi's emphasis on smooth contour lines in his Moebius collaboration, 1997's Icaro), and perhaps looks back at the U.S. underground lineage, if maybe from second-hand sources a la the Métal hurlant generation.
One is also sorely tempted to compare Koike to Ōtomo's protégé, the cartoonist and filmmaker Satoshi Kon, who debuted in the '80s and died quite young. Kon was also fascinated with altered perceptions, especially in his film work, but his is a more intellectual, referential, 'nerdy' approach - his films are often riffs on older movie genres and popular types, while his Paranoia Agent television series is acidly satiric against a broad spread of social ills. Koike, at least in these stories, is both narrower and broader in scope: he insists on emphasizing the subjective individual perspective as a noble, romantic quest.
Anyway, back to the sensational NYC of the manga imagination. Drug laws are as strict in Japan as gun laws, and Heaven's Door duly plunks us down in a Manhattan club where all the drugs are served. The story is "Lazarus Franco's 4 A.M." (1985), in which a Japanese traveler becomes entangled in the life of a Brazilian fugitive, Lazarus, who is in dire need of a buddy to smash some rare Amazonian Deathweed that can lead a criminal to paradise or trap their soul in the "ring of time" - the traveler survives, but Lazarus is duly reborn, apparently to experience the same story over and over, forever smoking in search of a freedom he cannot reach.
The earlier stories in the book are mostly dark like this. "Knockin' on Heaven's Door" (1984) follows a noir detective through a shifting landscape; it is eventually revealed that he is only experiencing a virtual reality experiment, but his mind will not decouple from the virtual world after he is unstrapped from his chair, and he jumps out a window to his death, believing it to be the door to his home. "3000 Leagues in Search of Mother" (1985)–named after a famous Isao Takahata television anime–follows a pair of young people through a surreal landscape of sloshing waves, cities shaped like mushroom clouds, and crackling electrical interference. The children are looking for their parents, and overcome various trials - they vow never to forget one another. But suddenly the boy snaps back to reality. He is a robot, and his 'mother' is his owner, and the strange world and all the love he felt for the girl was just a side-effect of a malfunction in his computer brain. Like that bootleg final Calvin and Hobbes strip where Calvin goes on ADHD meds and Hobbes blinks out of existence, the boy is cured of his fancies; out on the street he fails to recognize a robot who resembles the girl, whose 'father' is taking her to be repaired as well.
All of these earlier comics are powered by the conflict between the ordered, waking world and a grand human interior - the technocratic and legalistic rule of society against the romantic imagination of the individual. The trip inside is always temporary, and order generally reasserts itself, with a notable early exception:
My fellow old-timers will recall this one. "Landed" marked Koike's U.S. comics debut, in Marvel's Epic Illustrated #26 (Oct. 1984). Gallantly accompanied by chapter one of "The Last Galactus Story" by John Byrne & Terry Austin and a Cerebus short from Dave Sim & Gerhard, Koike presented an eight-page battery of tight panel layouts - frames leaping between nations and decades without warning, images cracking and multiplying as an astronaut dies in outer space. His soul seems to invisibly inhabit the gutters between the panels as items in each frame explode without warning, tracking the soundless cry of the man toward his infant son, who will be the vessel of his memory - his reincarnation.
The longer stories that follow in Heaven's Door, from the 1990s, become much more sentimental. "Looper" (1992) tells of a small boy who is bullied at school; he warps into a zone beyond the speed of time with the aid of a special turtle, where he learns to appreciate precious things and have confidence in himself. "Airway" (1996) has a man on an airplane suffering visions of various times and locations, not unlike in "Landed" - but now there is quite a lot of philosophical give-and-take between him and a mysterious figure that turns out to be a family man whose life he is about to save by donating brain tissue; their journey is one of the soul, and to stop the trip, to finally reach satisfaction, is to return to the domestic unit with renewed spirit. Quite a change from the Amazonian Deathweed (which is all I had to smoke in the '90s).
Realistically, this shift in tone may simply evidence a change of editor, or the expectations of venue - while several of Koike's '80s pieces ran in Comic Sukora (i.e. "Scholar"), a spinoff of a men's magazine, his longer '90s works ran in 'quality' manga publications like Comic Tom (the home of Tezuka's Buddha) and Comic Beam, where Koike irregularly serializes his current project, Ultra Heaven (which, like all of Koike's work outside of this book, is not in English). I don't think this subject matter is aloof to Koike. "Except peyote," he remarked to his English publisher, "I have tried almost everything: hashish, heroin, cocaine, acid, magic mushrooms..." I think as you get older, you feel this need to believe that all of your experiences are adding up to something: that they are informing you. That life isn't just chaos, through which we stumble as the same being; that we would be different people if we had not made the choices we did, and that what we see informs us in a profound way. There is a religiosity to the later stories in Heaven's Door, an assurance that we are guided toward something truly better.
Which begs the question: despite all that, does Koike see himself as the tourist up top?
The best stuff in Heaven's Door is "Kenbo's Diary" (1994), a collection of odd and formalistic gag comics drawn in a completely different style than usual. Here, the occasionally mannered nature of Koike's drawing–which stiffens as the years pass so that his characters' faces become smooth and hard like ceramic dolls–is a bonus to the overwrought shenanigans that little Takekura witnesses at school and home. Through humor, Koike addresses the banal difficulty of living in the world as an over-observant person: the page above appears to be two separate gag strips, but black horizontal lines connect the images so that we realize the brain-falling-out slapstick on the right is complimented by the teacher's POV on the left, which follows him into Heaven itself. Takekura is not so lucky. Stretching with his classmates at the morning assembly, he imagines that everybody else is an illusion and that he is standing alone in the recess yard. Soon all the kids are staring at him. "I should stop having such strange thoughts," he thinks, as discipline softly asserts itself. Serving bromides via drama, and saving the pain for humor - my god, this is a book for right now. Some experiences are universal.