From Little Nemo in Slumberland to The Sandman, depictions of dreams have earned a much higher pedigree in comics than they have elsewhere. In cinema or prose fiction, a dream sequence is commonly considered a narrative cop-out, but comics afford a greater latitude to texture for its own sake. Perhaps this is because the medium is uniquely situated to convey both subsequence and simultaneity. A comics page, which can either be read deliberately for immersion, or looked at and shrugged off in an instant, captures the subjective flow of time within a dream while leaving space for the objective flow of time outside sleep’s parameters. No one I can think of has doubled down on the weird flow of time in quite the formal way that Tomohiro Tsugawa does in the short story collection Mermaid Town, which adapts the dream journal format into comics while adding enough additional narrative structure to keep things intelligible.
The pages prize a moment-to-moment storytelling, mapping the movement of our main character and his shifting attention through space. Explanatory narration is located in captions that hang in spaces overlapping multiple panels, grouping two or three images into a set of thoughts. The eye is guided forward, but the mind lags behind to glue the processing of one image onto the revelation of what occurs next, mirroring how in a dream one’s thought process of burgeoning understanding authors what follows. Causality isn’t settled until a reason is thought up.
This sense of storytelling, patching the holes in narrative logic with a putty of redirection, enhances the work in another way, suggesting an editing process. For dream comics, the nine stories in Mermaid Town have a surprising amount of narrative structure. Sudden transformations, commonplace within dreams, here feel foreshadowed, rather than the result of sudden interjection. Stories may end abruptly, at a moment of climax rather than following a denouement, but upon conclusion they hang together as the result of sets of thoughts and feelings being worked through.
While the plots revolve around classic dream subject matter, such as being pursued by monsters, or gentle idylls of urban exploration, they are sculpted definitively into stories, either by the author’s unconscious mind in the moment, or at the drawing board upon waking. All the immediate thrills of action comics are provided. We get tales rife with conflict, adventure, and violence. Romance is hinted at, but never develops. (The narration makes reference to an unseen wife.) Notes from the author, expressing self-awareness that his dreams are often silly and immature, lend an endearing quality to the stories' lack of consequence.
The book works because Tsugawa’s drawing is so transparent in its construction, so immediately sketched that the rendering of something becomes one with the thought of it. The art appears to be drawn in pencil, and besides the gutters between panels, black areas are never filled in solidly. Our main character is never drawn with eyes. His head is a shape that usually has a mouth, but the character design is defined by hair and its hatched texture. Beads of sweat fulfill the purpose of expression and lend a sense of tactile sensation to what would otherwise be a disembodied perspective. When eyes appear on others, it takes on a certain significance. One brief moment, capturing an instant of eye contact made with a woman passing by, goes completely unremarked upon by the narration. Such restraint illustrates how a moment insignificant in the scheme of a story can still impress itself as memorable. That such a small thing has a power beyond the need to even be noted speaks in its own way to why a dream comic can be worthwhile, how much pleasure can be found in something that slips away so easily.