FIGHT! FIGHT! FIGHT!
The manga of Yuichi Yokoyama
Superhero comics have been killed several times now, but genres are more resilient than the murdered superheroes who are, in the obligations of resurrection, continually and contractually sloughing grave dirt from their capes. And because they can be killed over and over again, they can be killed in a variety of ways.
Though they haven’t had any mausoleums as good as The Wild Bunch or Altman’s spin on The Long Goodbye, superhero comics have attracted their share of killers. Alan Moore, in Marvelman, killed superhero comics as extension of theology; his Watchmen killed the genre as morality play and soap opera (there are probably a half dozen other obituaries tucked in there besides). Frank Miller, without really meaning to, killed superhero comics once as fascist daydream and once as libertarian wet dream — using a sclerotic Batman both times. Dan Clowes, in “The Death Ray,” killed it as imaginative compensation for loner adolescence, a Columbine sublimated to colored tights and magical weapons.
All of these killings — attempts to push the genre to apotheosis, to nudge it into an apocalyptic self-awareness, to have the last word — are really killing the superhero genre at the margins of what it does. Morality and mythology are trappings that serve to dignify something far more basic: the delight one can take from the spectacle of athletic figures harming one another. Superhero comics — even more than wrestling — are a comprehensive catalog of bodily mastery and bodily injury. The Japanese manga artist Yuichi Yokoyama, in his book Combats (or Fights), gets at superhero comics right at the root of their pleasures. He kills the superhero genre as kinetics.
Combats, available in French translation from Editions Matiere (the dialogue is sparse enough that English readers can suss most of the particulars even without a French-English dictionary), presents a series of battles. The fights start abruptly. There’s the jolt of in media res, like a slap in the face, as if the expository set-up had been lopped from the book with a cleaver. The story “Appartement Temoin” begins typically: panel one shows a close-up on the faces of two weird-looking people, staring out at the reader. Panel two: The two smack open a door. Panel three: A group of people on the other side of the door leap up from the table where they’d been sitting, looks of anger or alarm on their faces. The remaining 28 pages depict the fight between the people at the door and the people inside the apartment. The two intruders become the de facto “good guys” just because they end up beating everyone else. But there’s no motive, no lesson, no psychology — just physicality. The small bits of dialogue inserted into the action are functional clichés: “Send reinforcements immediately!” “Let go of me!” It’s essentially sound effects with rudimentary grammar.
What makes all this interesting and funny is that Yokoyama transposes the bluster of superhero combat to strange and absurd locales. The 28 pages of combat take place within a single apartment, and most of the weapons are of domestic provenance. Dishes, watermelons from the fruit compartment of a refrigerator and potted plants are all hurled with lethal force. A sword is parried with a spatula. In another story, “Livres,” the fight takes place in a library, and the hero’s main weapons are the books at hand. But none of these mundane objects are treated mundanely. They’re caught up in a nexus of violent foreshortening, scoring the air with vivid motion lines, emanating jagged sound effects on impact (most of these are in Japanese, but a few are rendered in idiosyncratic English — in one story, an explosion erupts under the legend “DOOR”). No matter what the object, there is a total commitment to its efficacy as weaponry.
I’ve probably overstated the connection this has with superheroes, at least in terms of the author’s intentions; for an American reader, it’s not only the action, but the strange costumes the characters wear, that immediately bring superheroes to mind. One character looks like a moving brick wall. Another one is wearing a small aquarium on his head. Yet another looks like he’s covered entirely in bubble-wrap; the costumes are universally ridiculous and the characters birthed from an imponderable rendezvous of Mysterio and Ro-Man. But in manga, hyperbolic motion isn’t constrained to superhero books, or even samurai and other adventure genres — I’ve seen excerpts of manga that treat sushi preparation and mah jongg with the same kind of hysteria.
The way Yokoyama deploys this hysteria, in the environments he prepares for it, the process of destruction begins to look more like a process of examination. When, in “Appartement Temoin,” one character yanks a faucet out of the sink in order to clobber someone with it, it seems as much demonstration of plumbing as of fighting prowess. The fight that takes place in the library is a visual essay on the physical construction of books. Any fictional work will try to build its reality out of a constructed sense of internal consistency, of one thing leading to the next. You can get away even with the thoroughly impossible if there is one plausible element attended to with absolute fidelity. In “Livres,” the chain of plausibility is ridiculously material in the multiple ways a book will react when cut apart (the ‘hero’ of “Livres” is using the books against sword-wielding enemies, whose blades make perfect incisions clean through the hurled volumes).
If the spine is sliced away, the cover and individual pages will detach and scatter. If a book is cut at the midpoint of the cover, from top to bottom, while still in its dust jacket, the half of the jacket without the spine will spill a sheaf of disconnected pages. If a corner of a book is cut away at the spine at a 45-degree angle, when the book opens, every page spread will have a triangle cut out of the middle. The variety becomes methodical, almost scientific — these are, in the most literal sense, cutaway diagrams. In fact, many of the books that come apart in “Livres” are books of diagrams: blueprints of floor plans, charts of evolutionary progress, maps of the globe webbed with latitude and longitude lines, geometric figures of mathematical formulae. A series of botanical illustrations of flowers rhymes off of an image of actual cut flowers that were separated from their stems at the beginning of the story, before the “hero” reached the library. The “real” flowers and the botanical illustrations all belong to the same flat subdivided space, where display and dissection are indistinguishable, where the act of labeling implies both the organization and scattering of constituent parts. The comic panels themselves, many of them set at skewed or slashing angles, become another kind of dissection, framing the scattered pages of the exploded books. The fighting figures and the floating illustrations in the books have the same visual weight, so the pages of the books act as panels within panels, space interpenetrating space (in fact, in one panel, a “villain” is about to get smacked with an open comic book, and the pages spread before him depict another fight). The air becomes a blizzard of information — and a fracturing and folding of space along kaleidoscopic fault lines.
As implied, the fact that the fights are blatantly ridiculous doesn’t keep them from being visually exciting. And that’s probably the biggest joke of all. Let me approach a small detail that thrilled me. In “Appartement Temoin,” a bad guy swings a sword at the “hero” (it’s not just an ordinary sword, either — it’s so long that four henchmen have to lug in the scabbard). The sword, sprung from the scabbard, cuts laterally toward the hero, who ducks behind a table. The sword slices through the table and the chairs assembled around it. The top of the table is skinned off in an even layer — as if being prepared for a microscope slide. The heads of all the chairs are tumbling off — and here is the detail I’ve been working towards — while a ring of detached tablecloth, running around the perimeter of the cut in a perfect band, is floating towards the floor.
The action is exquisitely frozen here. There’s something arresting about the contradiction of rapidity and stillness. A detail that would be impossible to scan in real time is laid open for leisurely examination.
That detail calls to my mind the ultimate example of “frozen action” in American comics — the climactic sequence of “Master Race,” a hokey (if serious-minded) twist-ending story that the artist, Bernard Krigstein, turned into a toolbox of formalist tricks. At the end of the story (first published in 1955), a former death-camp commandant falls under the wheels of a New York subway train. First there is a string of four narrow panels, extending the moment where he slips into a slowed-down agony of unrecoverable error. In four inter-cut panels, he tumbles from the subway platform to the tracks — the first and third panel of the sequence zooms in on the approaching wheels, the second and fourth follow the commandant’s descent. The panel in this sequence that transfixes me is the fourth one, the one showing the moment before impact — he has just touched the rails, and in the narrow space of the panel, we can see the steel wheels, inches from his head and arm, that will presently cut him to ribbons. Krigstein resolves the tension of those falling panels brilliantly, showing the view from the platform as the train rushes past, representing the passengers as multiple images of themselves, stuttering through the unified space of the single comic panel. Where the repetition of the fall had been staccato, a sequence of pieces of frozen time, here the repetition becomes a kind of flow. The held breath of the fall gets released in the forward motion. But still, my eye goes back to that moment at the wheel, with its contradiction of abrupt violence and static means. The action is at once completely inevitable and eternally forestalled.
This accounts for, I think, the effectiveness of ‘bullet time’ in The Matrix — perhaps the first movie to successfully embrace comic book kinetics as its reason for being. Outside of those sequences, the stylized poses of the characters, before and after violent action, seemed stenciled from the most dynamic pages of Jack Kirby or Walt Simonson or Miller. But the use of “bullet time” itself, while thrillingly cinematic, might actually have been the most thorough approximation of comic book “space” — slowing down the time-based medium of cinema to the carefully delineated amber of a two-dimensional page. In real life, violent action outpaces a person’s ability to grasp it; we tend to experience violence as an aftermath. It’s only in comics — and in “bullet-time,” as a perfection of slow motion — that the violence is prolonged enough to be inhabited as an aesthetic experience. We can be aware of the precise trajectory that connects fist to jaw — and every wrinkle in the sleeve of the shirt of the striker besides. (This is the sort of thing, incidentally, that will succeed where all the other killers of superhero comics have failed — the computer’s appropriation of cinematic space as an essentially two-dimensional-construct. The comic-book page is no longer a privileged place where the law of gravity and the principles of physics do not apply — its advantage as a haven for the impossible has been fatally eroded.)
Another of Yokoyama’s books available from Editions Matiere, Travaux Publics (Public Works), is to architecture what Combats is to the superhero fight. Its four stories show the construction of strange monuments and spaces. They describe huge mobilizations of resources for apparently useless ends. One “public work” is a fluorescent-lit room, set into a boulder, positioned in front of an absolutely straight (and also artificially constructed) canal. Another is a glass room, outfitted with chairs and a floor of Astroturf, set under the surface of a man-made lake. These constructions are not only absurd in themselves, the methods of construction are entirely impractical. The third “public work” is an artificial mountain, assembled from boulders that are dropped from airplanes, then coated with glue flowing from a single hose.
Again, it’s stupidly American for me to bring this back to superheroes, but I can’t help seeing the public works as a distant relative to what might be called “superhero architecture.” A random but pertinent example can be taken from an old issue of Strange Tales I pulled from a back-issue bin while assembling notes for this article. Published in 1967, issue #157 has a “Nick Fury, agent of S.H.I.E.L.D.” story written and drawn by Jim Steranko. On one page, Fury incapacitates another dozen henchmen with as much effort as an ordinary schlub might expend on a night of bowling. What is this room? Why is that stairway there — What does it lead to? Why isn’t there at least a railing for the stairs — unless, of course, its actual function is to provide a platform from which to send henchmen hurling dramatically into space? Where is Fury leaping from? That yellow object at bottom left might have been a launching pad, but if Fury is indeed leaping downward, he’s at a completely precarious angle to the floor. It almost looks as though the wall going up behind the staircase is a floor — at any rate it’s impossible to tell exactly where the henchmen at the bottom of the page were standing, since they’re all caught in the throes of violent levitation. There’s no pretense of physical causality or even coherency here — the architecture exists as a purely sculptural element, a design that creates a vortex of contorted space: spatial dynamism for its own sake. It’s a senseless but exciting drawing. (It also explains why HYDRA, the employer of all these dancerly tumbling henchmen, never had any success with world domination — they contracted M.C. Escher as their interior decorator. You can imagine that half the time they were rushing to the torpedo room, they ended up in the lavatory.)
Yokoyama uses off-panel space with a droll brilliance — machines that cut rock or drill into the earth appear from the edges of the panels, needing no plausible leverage or further apparatus to do their work. The mysterious engine that runs these tools is the invisible will of the artist; the drill bits and jackhammers are really extensions of Yokoyama’s pen. The people in these stories have far less presence than the machines — they come at the end of the narratives to make the finishing touches and voice their approval. By the fourth and last “public work,” Yokoyama has moved into a realm of such abstraction that the human element isn’t even present as midwife or observer, a necessary someone that could give the benediction of admiration. We just see triangular slabs of material sweeping through the landscape, being drawn together perhaps by magnetic pull, to form the mouth of a fountain that flows out into the grooves the triangles have cut into the earth. It’s as if nature were an artificial force; or if artifice were able to acquire a force and self-sufficiency that would make it resemble a process of nature.
In Combats and Travaux Publics Yokoyama has battled his way through furniture, through books, through the vast catalogs of images of the outside world, through heroism and villainy, through landscape, through ingenuity, through beauty. Even through athletics and hydraulics. At the end of that effort, after the dust has cleared, you take a breath and think: How strange the world, the monuments, the fights we’ve chosen. How strange the choices that preceded us, that have left things this way. And how alluring and exciting that in art, at least — as Yokoyama shows us — we can choose differently.