1.12.2012

Reinterpreting 1979 Japanese Sci-Fi Comics

SF Supplementary File #2A & #2B (Self-Published by Ryan Cecil Smith): If Jack Kirby had been born in Japan and decided to start making mini-comics instead of working at Marvel and then defecting to DC, it might have looked something like this.

Smith explains that he is redrawing by hand a 1979 Matsumoto Leiji comic called Queen Emeraldas. Those not familiar with Leiji’s work will probably recall the operatic “Space Battleship Yamato” (known as “Star Blazers” in the US) as some of his most widely known work. If your tastes swing toward this type of music and you too thought the only good thing about Tron: Legacy was the musical score, then you might also recall his involvement in the production of a couple of Daft Punk music videos. Queen Emeraldas certainly seems to live up to Leiji’s hallmarks, filled with brooding males, determined females, the hint of mysterious powers, and a fascination with retro technology. The most overt example of this type of anachronistic technology is the Queen Emeraldas vessel itself, which is actually a sailing ship strapped to the underside of a zeppelin-like rocketship hurtling through the cosmos. The aesthetic dichotomy, paired with the logic dichotomy, is just grand.

It’s almost instantly proven that SF Supplementary File transcends its sequential art origins to enter the realm of Fine Art. The sub-categories of Modern Art and Contemporary Art rely on a definition that, in part, includes the re-appropriation of found imagery, juxtaposition with new elements, and from that re-contextualization, the derivation of additional meaning being squeezed out. Oh, it sounds so clinical when I put it like that. It shouldn’t. The book crackles and sizzles with life, pounding the reader with fresh energy despite its dated aesthetic references. It feels like an exercise in Silver Age American Comics, with 4-color 1960’s print-making on that woody pulpy paper. But, it’s many things. It also feels a touch European. It feels like the type of avant-garde work that Travis Charest should have been doing instead of shlocking out that WildCats stuff at WildStorm 10 years ago. It also understandably has an obvious manga aesthetic. It actually reminded me of some old 1950’s Yoshihiro Tatsumi genre work, specifically Black Blizzard, in terms of the layouts and subdued coloring choices which assault the senses so pleasurably. Perhaps Leiji’s anime work shines through as well, because there’s definitely a cinematic quality to the experience. It’s so easy to imagine these sequences as animated shorts with origins in your ethereal dreams.

The construction of the book is flawless in the way it achieves its intended goal. Smith has taken so much care to create rich texture and depth of emotion on every page. He’s clearly thinking through every minute detail; even the staples binding the pages together are painted red. The paper stock seems to simulate the viscous texture of Japanese rice paper. This is part of the reason why I’ll just never be sold on digital comics. In order to appreciate this work, you have to experience it in a tactile sense. You have to run your fingers across the page and feel the paper, you have to tilt the pages into the light to see how they vaguely glimmer, you have to catch the miniscule dips and valleys that run across the body of the page’s relatively rough hewn stock. It’s an experience that pixels laying lifeless on a screen could never adequately emulate.

In #2A, which sees Queen Emeraldas destroy Planet T-Rex and the evil black-blooded bandit Deathskull, it’s interesting that only one color is used per page on the interior. That color is predominantly one shade of blue. As the story progresses into #2B and Emeraldas and her companion “Boundless Ocean-Boy” reckon with that act and their transpiring fate, the colors increase and change as their emotions escalate. We still see only one color per page, but the color choices now swing from blues, to purples, to blacks. Leiji, and Smith’s reinterpretation of his work, are so masterful at world-building that the universe undeniably extends beyond the panel borders. It’s not a guess or speculation on my part, I can prove it by showing you pages where the panels are cropped so that partial figures and dialogue boxes trail off the page, getting closure only from our imagination, such as an early scene with “Boundless Ocean-Boy.” There’s one minor typo in issue #2A, in which Queen Emeraldas’ name is spelled “Emereldas,” but otherwise the writing and the use of themes is as flawless as the wondrous aesthetic.

I think Smith aptly uses the sub-title “Storytelling of the Future,” because as Queen Emeraldas narrates, it becomes clear that there’s such a preoccupation with this vessel that carries them through the stars. The writers came out of a generation that was promised their “Jetpack Future,” when burgeoning reliance on technology essentially permeated society. The idea of this limitless future is captured in expansive full page spreads and sprawling double page spreads. This sense of wonder about the limitless future reminded me of one of the themes in Naoki Urasawa’s epic 20th Century Boys, and I wonder if Leiji was also working from a state of mind informed by post-WWII reconstructionism in Japan, part of a generation that desperately wanted to be in control of their own destiny. Smith weaves what I assume is a translation(?) to include commentary on class warfare, with the inclusion of the “Space File ID Card” that creates a caste system in this future. As “Boundless Ocean-Boy” (foreshadowing if I’ve ever seen it) and his true identity of “Boy Zero” are revealed, it’s clear that his main goal is simply freedom, to determine his own fate as he’s dropped on a mysterious planet and into peril.

Aside from the confluence of aesthetics at play, what I appreciate the most about the work is that it functions with clear intent and unambiguous proportions. The Queen says “...but when you start a fight in space… you have to finish it.” It’s this type of full commitment to an endeavor that I love. It’s reflected in the energy of the project, a return to comics with no creative indecision. The results are like nothing I’ve ever seen. It’s a transcendent experience that makes me fall in love with comics all over again. Grade A+.

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