Comics Are Trying to Break Your Heart #34 by Drew Barth
A Shorter Piece
Many of the works discussed in this blog over the past months have been long-running series or graphic novels. And all of those have been great. There’s an expansiveness to many of those works. In a way, many of these series act like literary novels in this regard. But as a result, few comics emphasize shorter stories. Not just series of less than ten issues, but stories that aren’t even a full issue. This focus on shorter pieces is something that is seen much more often in many manga as the result of a great number of manga magazines publishing weekly. Because of this, there’s almost always overlooked collections of short manga.
One criminally overlooked title is Moto Hagio’s A Drunken Dream and Other Stories. Only recently released through Fantagraphics Books (although, alas, now out of print again), this collection maintains a continual sense of compassion and wonder throughout. Hagio herself as a creator is known for her work that would become foundational for shojo as a manga genre both in its content and style. To read through “The Willow Tree” or “Iguana Girl” is to reach deep into shojo manga’s DNA. But what these stories here do as well is show off just how effective of a short story author Hagio has been. Her characters feel inherently human from panel one, and we can see that defined arc of who they can become by the end of the piece, most notable in “Iguana Girl,” which pulls from legends of an iguana falling in love and asking a sorcerer to turn her into a woman. The story follows that woman’s daughter and the struggles of believing herself to be an iguana from birth.
Other pieces like “The Willow Tree” or “Girl on Porch with Puppy” showcase an astute understanding of how an ending of a short piece that maintains an innocence can be fraught with tragedy. Hagio creates these short pieces with an almost effortless perfection in line and panel while maintaining pitch- perfect stories.
On the other end of the content spectrum is the creator Junji Ito. Legendary for many of his longer series likeGyo,Uzumaki, and Tomei, many of those works typically include a variety of his shorter stories as well, most notably the legendary “The Enigma of Amigara Fault.”
Most recently, however, Ito adapted Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein to much acclaim and included in that volume a larger variety of his short stories as well. Ito is known as a contemporary master of horror. From “Amigara Fault” to “The Neck Specter,” Ito’s short pieces deal heavily with the surreal and horrific that exists around us. With simple things like holes in a mountain and a house’s support beam or more bizarre premises like finding a man’s head with a six foot long neck, there’s a continual escalation of horror throughout. The art itself offers gruesome levels of detail incorporated combined with the uncanny. A fish with legs may not be the scariest idea, but with the right kind of shading and shadows, it’s up there.
And then we have a work like Ken Niimura’s Henshin, a collection of short stories centered on the idea of change. What makes this collection unique is that it is a short story collection published by Image, a publisher known mostly for its monthly series. But that only speaks for the quality of the work itself. Much of the work is centered around the daily minutia of life in contemporary Japan, but typically with a small twist. A reunion between niece and uncle turns into an interview for becoming a hitman; a family enjoys a picnic when an old man asks them about suicide; a man saves the world with farts. And every single story is punctuated by this Niimura’s art that is deceptively simple in its line work but complemented by panel composition that stands up with some of the best manga of the twenty-first century. But it is Niimura’s commitment to the shorter form that lets these stories shine as delightful morsels of manga that is tough to find in many longer works.
There are avenues for shorter pieces of graphic narratives in America—many literary magazines now include short graphic works, and there are still a couple comic compilation books released seasonally, even Best American Non-Required Reading has a couple graphic narratives annually. But overall, many of those are few and far between. Western comic culture prioritizes the monthly issues or the graphic novel every couple years, not the persistence of the weekly manga magazines. One of the only consistent places to find shorter comic stories in the west is typically through the different annual series for superhero comics, but then those are limited to a specific cast of characters and worlds.
Why don’t western comics really have those avenues for shorter pieces? Series like Islandused to showcase new talent and shorter pieces, but that ended up canceled after fifteen issues. And there are still magazines like 2000 AD and Heavy Metal, but their visibility in mainstream comics isn’t as prevalent as it had been in the previous decades. To maintain a more healthy comics scene, we need these outlets for small shots of creativity—for pieces that aren’t going to be massive series or graphic novels, but short pieces that allow readers to discover something new in the medium.
Get excited. Read something short.
Drew Barth (Episode 331) is a writer residing in Winter Park, FL. He received his MFA from the University of Central Florida. Right now, he’s worrying about his cat.