Thursday, August 19, 2010

Felipe Smith redefines manga

Or at least is attempting to with his new manga series Peepo Choo, the first volume of which is out now from Vertical. It's a fantastic series, and so compelling I wrote this review for the website as soon as I finished reading it. Apologies for the cross-posting, but I wanted to bring it to the attention of more readers, especially after reading this great interview with Smith by Deb Aoki from

I will say this about Felipe Smith--he is not for the faint of heart. His work is ribald, a brusque, fierce, unrelenting satire that attacks everyone and everything in its path. Nevertheless, he is awesome, and I think his goal--creating a global manga--gets closer to that mark than anything ever has.

I get the sense that, if he couldn’t draw, Felipe Smith would like to make a living repeatedly punching people in the face, pausing only long enough to make sure they got the joke. Fortunately for us, he can draw—he draws like a damn demon, that one. His art is an assault, seemingly stripped of all subtlety. It is full-bore satire, and he wields it like a machete.

Ostensibly Peepo Choo has a plot: Assassin owns a comic book store in Chicago as a cover, and takes his sex-obsessed, comics-hating employee and an otaku-to-the-extreme customer with him to Japan as cover for a job killing a young yakuza. But, really, that plot doesn’t do justice to this over-the-top satire of East-meets-West, West-meets-East, Japan as seen (and fantasized about) in the US, and the US as seen (and fantasized about) in Japan.

Like the best satires, everyone is skewered: American comics culture, American anime and manga fandom, male porn obsession, Japanese obsession with cute, with American pop culture, with gangsters as symbols of power—I could go on and on. The book’s chock full of so much funny, brutal, venomous lampooning of the absurdity of our collective obsessions it’s hard to describe any one piece.

A lot has been made of the fact that Felipe Smith is an American cartoonist who has successfully bridged the gap between “manga-influenced” and “manga-ka,” which, if my parsing of that makes it sound like an enormous leap, then I’m not going far enough. That is a Herculean feat, to be sure. I remember being astounded at Paul Pope’s crushing stories of pages and volumes of work never published while he was under contract with a Japanese publisher in the '90s. I think Smith succeeds where Pope failed for two reasons—first, his art is powerfully influenced by manga, and manga now is in no small part influenced by the west. I mean, open a page of Peepo Choo and hold it next to a page from Natsume Ono’s not simple from Viz. Which one is the manga-inspired cartoonist and which one the western-inspired manga-ka? Not to pick on Paul Pope, but THB, and everything before his journey down the manga rabbit hole, is much more influenced by South American and European cartoonists, mostly Hugo Pratt, than any Japanese work. Felipe Smith has already absorbed the rhythms, the lines, and the sensibilities of manga—it’s part of his art’s DNA.

But more so than this, I think Smith succeeds for a second, more visceral and relevant reason. He doesn’t give a damn what anybody thinks about his work. He’s been doing his own thing from the get-go, and he doesn’t need your approval, or the Kodansha editor’s, or the readers of Morning Two, where this was first published. Sure, he needs your money, and the approval of Kodansha if they're going to publish it, but, let’s face it, he’s not about to change a line, or a character, or a word or phrase to suit anyone but his own artistic and satirical sensibilities. Why does this lead to success? Well there's not a hesitant line, beat, character, or anything in the whole volume. It's all strong stuff, and the better for its over-the-top tone.

Don’t get me wrong, this isn’t “merely” satire. Smith does care about one thing—his story and his characters. Especially his characters. He loves them even as he lampoons them. Maybe more than other cartoonists and writers because they live in a world that mocks them, and yet you can see Smith’s hand as he guides his characters, like fate, through the story, protecting the innocent even as their (mis)perceptions of their world are assaulted and torn down. There’s refuge for the forlorn and lost in this tale—but delicious will be the moment that everyone gets what coming to them! Especially that damn “Peepo Choo” character—iconic representation of everything vile about Pikachu and everything it represents. Or doesn’t, really. After all, Japan doesn’t come wrapped in a Pokemon ball, and Hollywood hasn’t been able to fit all of America in a glock. At least, so far.

Finally, it's important to note: Felipe Smith walks the line between satire of the culture of sex (read: porn) and extreme violence as closely as possible. That’s right, he’s also mocking you, the discerning comics/manga reader who insists that these things are for "mature adults" now. There’s no pulling that off with this book: that cover should tell you everything you need to know about whether or not it’s a good idea to read this on the subway, at a restaurant, in front of your mother, wife, children, grandpa, etc. Or, to put it another way, when my bookstore co-worker saw this and found out I had ordered it, she said in a whisper to another employee: “it comes wrapped in plastic. Like porn!” Like I said at the beginning, Felipe Smith wants to punch us all in the face. Repeatedly, until we start laughing.

*Note: I did not have the cahones to post the cover of the first volume here, so you'll have to settle for the second volume's cover. It's due out this fall.

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