It's hard to claim that Tatsuki Fujimoto is anything other than the mainstream mangaka of the moment. Chainsaw Man wasn't his first longform series—that title belongs to the eight-volume Fire Punch—but it certainly placed the author on the threshold of stardom. As a result, it's easy to forget what came before it. Tatsuki Fujimoto Before Chainsaw Man: 17-21 collects four of the 30-year old Fujimoto's earliest short comics, composed between the ages of 17 and 21 - as if to remind us of the necessity of artistic evolution, and to dispel any notions that Fujimoto was an overnight success. A second collection, 22-26, is slated for an English-language release in April.
The book opens on the chronologically earliest of Fujimoto's professionally-published comics (although it was not actually published until after Fire Punch established his name). "A Couple Clucking Chickens Were Still Kickin' in the Schoolyard" finds much of humankind eaten by shapeshifting aliens, although a pair of humans have survived by disguising themselves as chickens. The twist—that one of the 'humans' is an alien in disguise grown protective from considering the ethics of consuming other living creatures—is well-told, although its lead-up is clunky; the teenage Fujimoto can't help but telegraph his ideas to the reader rather than allow them to grow organically. His art, too, is still at its bare-bones stage: his grasp on environments is perfectly fine (though seemingly reliant on reference materials), but his panel compositions are too restless, shifting angles with no discernible logic. His rendering of anatomy at this point is awkward; the aliens in particular are inconsistently realized, betraying a lack of decisiveness on the author's part on what he wants them to be, or how they belong in the world that serves as their backdrop.
In the second story, "Sasaki Stopped a Bullet", a high school student who has a crush on his teacher confronts an armed madman who breaks into the classroom and demands that the teacher have sex with him, explaining that he was once her classmate, and her rejection of his advances ruined his life. Sasaki, protective of his teacher-beloved, is shocked by the thought of her having sex—he sees her as a goddess capable of wonders and miracles, and doesn't want her to be sullied—and lunges at the gunman, who shoots at Sasaki; the title of the story tells you what happens next. It's unclear if Sasaki stops the bullet himself, or if his teacher is, in fact, a deity, but through this miracle and a series of improvised motivational lies, Sasaki saves the day and lives to fulfil his long-term goal of becoming an astronaut. On an artistic level, the progress between these first two stories is rather striking; Fujimoto's character work is far more confident and realized than in "Chickens", achieving the same loud pathos that he'd aimed for and missed initially. Unfortunately, this progress is in service of a rather fundamentally misogynistic premise, a faux-worship that ends up dehumanizing the person whose humanity is supposed to be underscored.
Continuing that reflection on the emotional intensity of adolescence is "Love is Blind", probably the best-written piece in the book, in which a teenage boy struggles to confess his love for a schoolmate. The whole engine for the story is one of sudden comedic escalation: the boy is always about to tell the girl how he really feels when something happens, tearing him between external realities and internal convictions, though what really holds him back is his own anxiety. It's here that the youthful headiness of the story works in Fujimoto's favor, reflecting the mess of the protagonist's emotional state. His lack of visual polish underscores the perception of teenage emotions as equal in scope to literal interstellar crises—the story's final escalation shows an alien attempting to invade an destroy Earth only to back down when witnessing the declaration of love, ending on a cutaway reminiscent of Akira Toriyama's short stories—in ways that a more mannered craftsman might fail to express. Between this story and "Sasaki", it's evident that Fujimoto is preoccupied with the idea of intense emotion's capacity to defy concrete reality, and here he almost makes a compelling case. But his depiction of emotion (particularly romantic affection) as a bridge between two people buckles under a singularly teenaged self-centeredness - in limiting himself to the the interiority of his protagonist, the boy, Fujimoto has absolutely nothing with which to distinguish the girl beyond "she's great because she's his love interest." In both stories this self-centeredness is celebrated by way of sheer accident, justifying and resolving the plot simply because the young author, true to the stereotypes of age, does not appear to know any other way.
Closing the collection is "Shikaku", wherein a notorious hitwoman whose ruthlessness is at odds with her enhanced senses of sympathy and guilt is hired by a vampire whose only wish is to die. By this point (circa 2014, two years out from Fire Punch), Fujimoto's art is fully-formed, and it's thoroughly fun to look at; it's clean and refined in its propulsion, reflecting its shōnen visual context without being imprisoned by it. But, once again, the romantic twist leaves something of an odd taste: Shikaku falls in love with her client, leading him to feel excitement for the first time in centuries; when she is cornered and shot down by police, he turns her into a vampire, and they marry. Finally, they both find their peace as he stays the same and she… becomes a ditzy housewife. I suppose "happily ever after" can be boiled down by a loving domesticity, but in Fujimoto's world it's presented as an Archie Bunker-like punchline.
The book's very format presents a challenge in critical engagement. The purity and lack of presumption of this sort of "developmental archiving"—packaged to say both "these are good comics worth collecting" and also "look at your favorite artist find his footing"—forces one to contend with the paradoxical existence of artistic failings as selling points. "It's good [as a product] because it's bad [as a story]" (or, if not bad, "not as good as it could be," at least) is arguably the most dissatisfactory of critical positions. It made me wonder about its function - obviously, 17-21 is geared toward preexisting fans of Fujimoto (the title makes that clearer than day), which tends to preclude the unfamiliar reader. Is it therefore possible for such a book to be enjoyed on its own merits? It appears to want to be appreciated more than enjoyed; Fujimoto himself is unsentimental about the way these stories might be perceived or criticized, claiming in a backmatter essay that he initially opposed the collection's release because he was "too lazy" to work on a new cover, write story notes, etc. Throughout, he expresses only a certain rose-tinted nostalgia for the experience of making these stories at certain points of his life, rather than any great affection for the stories themselves. This attitude, I'm compelled to say, only carries the book so far.
17-21 showcases an author too big for his own skin, his skill outpaced by his energy. It's a show of confidence, telling the reader to consider this moment knowing that there will soon be balance: a time when the author's skill will match his energy and lead to a fiery impact. But this promise begs an unfair comparison, as the book both desires and refuses to be considered on its own terms. It is true, objectively and demonstrably, that progress is gradual and evolution comes in steps, but this collection is proof of an even deeper truth: given the certainty of future progress, the process that must precede it becomes even more grating.