This is too much of an event to ignore: Fantagraphics, Seattle’s eclectic and prolific comics publisher, which has revived everything from Popeye to Peanuts in archival editions, has just published its first volume of manga—the comics that may be Japan’s most popular and influential art form. Trouble is, just as Woody Allen can’t understand mime, I usually don’t get manga. The big Keane eyes and blandly androgynous, racially indeterminate features of the youthful characters (and nearly all the characters are youthful) creep me out before I even start reading.
Worse yet, this is shojo manga, comics for tween and teen girls, a demographic I fit like a walrus fits a fashion show. But these aren’t just any girl comics: A Drunken Dream and Other Stories ($24.99 from Fantagraphics Books) is a four-decade anthology of graphic short stories by Moto Hagio, the "founding mother" and premiere creator of shojo manga, who, the promo suggests, has raised an insipid pop genre to a serious art form.
Does Hagio’s work justify the hype? Her visual storytelling and graphic invention, by turns fluid, crisp, and stately, certainly do. The earlier stories in A Drunken Dream, from the 1970s and ‘80s, are the ones most bound in little-princess conventions; their sensitive, spontaneous young heroines are crushed by the cold, callous adult and teenaged worlds. The long title tale is a too-twee sci-fi romance. But the 1991 "Iguana Girl" is a heartbreaking fable of maternal rejection: a love-starved girl looks normal to everyone except herself and her mother, who see a hideous iguana. Another tale finds a trenchant ghoulish metaphor for sibling rivalry and symbiosis: conjoined twins, one an adored, beautiful simpleton literally sucking the life out of her withered, intelligent sister. These two and Moto’s other later stories do indeed raise manga to literature.
And their refreshingly hideous protagonists don’t even have Keane eyes.
A Drunken Dream and Other Stories is the first volume in an anticipated manga series from Fantagraphics. After a start like this, I can’t wait to see more.