If Yuichi Yokoyama isn't the best cartoonist currently working, he's on the list. I can't think of anyone else who combines such an iconic drawing style with such clarity of storytelling, or such ingenious use of the comics form with such forward-looking themes, or such an experimental edge with such bone-simple approachability. I see Yokoyama's influence everywhere in today's artsier comics, and I believe that in time he'll be seen as one of this period's leading practitioners of the form. Such being the case, any new offering of his work is a delight. Outdoors, newly translated for Breakdown Press by Ryan Holmberg, is a minor work, collating three shorter pieces made for the Japanese website Ecologue in 2009. But minor work from Yokoyama measures up favorably to the major work of most other names you can throw out there. Outdoors provides no shortage of mind-expanding pleasure while filling a gap in its creator's back catalog and allowing for a fuller understanding of his art's essential concerns.
Presented sans titles as "1", "2", and "3", the triptych of stories focuses in on individual aspects of Yokoyama's style, providing magnified views of his creativity that help clarify just what makes him so special. The first piece is a restatement of Yokoyama's contemporaneous graphic novel Travel in miniature. Where that book concerned the incremental progress of a train and its riders through a series of landscapes, endlessly inventing novel ways of capturing motion and natural phenomena, Outdoors compresses its treatment of the same subjects into comic-book length, depicting the hyperspeed flight of a rocket-powered drone through flowery fields and forests before terminating with a crash into the bottom of a river. If Travel, as many said at the time of its release, was Kirbyesque, this work calls to mind Rob Liefeld, grabbing a signature aspect of that book and amplifying it to steroidal proportions. The story has as much raw energy to it as anything Yokoyama's drawn, but it gains complexity by depicting not just the drone's journey, but the video feed it sends back to its operator, and that individual's deft maneuvering of his unmanned craft. A lovely, surprisingly naturalistic selection of animal drawings gives the piece another point of interest, but it's probably the least interesting thing in this book.
This could be because it's the only Yokoyama story I've seen that features high technology which has become not just commonplace, but obsolete in our own world. In the story's denouement, the drone's pilot pulls a long film strip printed with images of his vessel's journey from a machine rather than just bringing up the video on his phone. (In the brief interview with Holmberg that concludes this book, Yokoyama claims not to own a computer and to use only a flip phone, so perhaps what we have here is simply art imitating life.) It's a clear presaging of an idea that received much fuller treatment in Yokoyama's 2011 graphic novel Garden, making this story a neat link between its artist's two early-career highlights.
The second story in Outdoors also calls back to Travel. To my mind, the most remarkable sequence in a book full of them was Travel's scene of a brief rain shower forming, pouring down, and drying up with the sun's return. When I think of the beauty that Yokoyama is capable of conjuring with his sharp linework and meticulously tracked sequencing, it's this passage that comes most readily to mind. Outdoors' middle story takes up the theme of depicting rainfall and splashes it across 60 glorious pages, as four of Yokoyama's masked (or maybe just alien-headed) characters are caught in a downpour during a nature walk and hunker down in four different ingeniously designed modular dwellings to wait out and observe the storm. The power of Yokoyama's imagination invests what in almost any other hands would be boring stuff indeed with a genuine sense of wonder. Cloud patterns form and change and the sound raindrops make on the different materials of each character's tiny house is explored. Yokoyama excels himself here with his various depictions of water, perhaps the most difficult feature of the natural world to make good drawings of. Pin-thin lines blow in torrents from the heavens, washing down metal and plastic walls in processions of sensuous curves and descending in rivulets from awnings, splashing in great plosions to run into the forest floor. Raindrops become a decorative patterning element, retreating in perfect order along lines of perspective which are themselves distorted just a bit when viewed through sheets of water.
Yokoyama's incrementally told stories usually feel as though they're being ladled out in strictly regimented portions according to a complex recipe. This one, by contrast, feels like its creator started drawing and simply couldn't bring himself to stop. It's nice to see Yokoyama leave narrative momentum by the wayside for a moment and put on a pure exhibition of graphic skill; it's even nicer to see him do it with a subject he has such facility for, one that gives him such a wealth of material. In its fascinated exploration of the visual qualities of a single subject, this is by far the most painterly comic Yokoyama has made.
Outdoors concludes with its shortest and most narratively complex piece, one which foreshadows Yokoyama's relatively recent (but then somewhat far off) pivot to gekiga, manga's version of "grim and gritty" comics. In his interview with Holmberg, Yokoyama states that he doesn't think he sees Outdoors as being gekiga, saying instead that "it's in the lineage of Travel." Be that as it may, it's impossible to read this story as anything but a step toward the "tense atmosphere starring cold-blooded men" that the artist treats of in his gekiga books World Map Room and Iceland.
If anything, it reads like a hard-boiled Western: three men descend a steep hillside to a riverbank, where they start a fire and chop wood. One, in checks and a cowboy hat, erects a lean-to over his modest blanket roll. Just as the reader blinks and shakes their head at the impression that they're reading red-meat genre comics by Yuichi Yokoyama, the second member of the band squeezes what appears to be a quick-drying liquid tarpaulin from a tube of toothpaste to create his shelter for the night. The third unrolls a heavy duty sleeping bag inside an open-ended tent. As the men boil water in a vessel that appears to conduct fluid into it rather than needing to be filled, a rustling comes from the nearby bushes. The third man brandishes a sleek handgun and empties his clip as a herd of antelopes bursts from the underbrush, knocking the carefully staged campsite helter skelter. The bullets hit nothing but air. It's a truly intoxicating fragment, one that it's hard not to wish Yokoyama had stuck with and expanded upon; more rugged and human by far than any of his contemporaneous work, and possessed of a strange warmth that the frosty gekiga books it hints at lack. It feels a lot like the hinge on which Yokoyama's choice of subject matter pivoted, a valuable and heretofore missing piece in his career narrative and also a terrific read.
Across all three of its stories, Outdoors has a theme that can be broadly stated and tracked down without much difficulty: that of man versus nature. But this isn't Hemingway - the "versus" according to Yokoyama indicates not a moment in time or a flashpoint of conflict so much as a constantly evolving process of mutual accommodation. It's a theme that flows through all of Yokoyama's works, the two forces constantly negotiating, never triumphing. Machines re-terraform natural landscapes or erect massive edifices within them, but just as often nature bends humanity to its will, reclaiming those edifices or imposing extreme privation. Men shoot at wild game but miss, or pilot rockets to a watery grave. But sometimes they, like the artist, call a momentary truce. They simply contemplate awhile, before bringing back a string of pictures.