North American comics

From time to time, I’ll see a fan of North American comics express an interest in manga but not know where to start. It’s a tricky situation. There are more and more titles to choose from every week, and there are no guarantees of transferability of affection between, say,Scott Pilgrim (Oni) and Love Roma (Del Rey).

And there’s an unpredictability factor at work, too. Who would suspect that a dedicated fan of mainstream super-hero comics would find their entrée into manga via shojo? Or that an art-comix devotee would be crazy for Naruto(Viz)? But it happens.

It’s a perilous prospect, and I usually approach it with reluctance. But sometimes you just have to throw caution to the wind and make ridiculous blanket statements, because it’s my opinion that, if you like comics at all, you’ll probably like Iou Kuroda’s Sexy Voice and Robo (Viz).

It’s a very difficult book to categorize. Perhaps recognizing the crossover potential, Viz has given it the North American graphic novel treatment, publishing it in magazine size and compiling both Japanese volumes into one package. It’s unflipped, but its proportions would let it rest comfortably between collections of Black Hole(Pantheon) and Demo (AiT-PlanetLar).

Sexy Voice and Robo was originally serialized in Ikki, an alternative manga monthly. It’s about a middle-school girl, but it isn’t shojo. She has adventures and solves crimes, but it isn’t quite shonen, either. It features sex, violence, and crime, but it can’t quite be pegged as seinen or josei. It’s all of them and none of them, a mystery, comedy, tragedy, coming-of-age story, and precise character study all at once, and it’s wonderful.

Nico, the protagonist, is a 14-year-old with a part-time job as a paid plant on a telephone dating line. Her role is to keep lonely men on the line, offering a tantalizing variety of conversational partners while her marks run up their charges. She isn’t driven by greed or spite, though. She wants to be a spy or a fortune-teller, and the scam offers valuable experience in figuring out what makes individuals tick. Nico prides herself on her ability to tell a lot about people from their voices, and people fascinate her.

An elderly mobster sees her in action and enlists her in a variety of projects. People come to him for favors (finding a kidnapped child, checking up on a wayward son, investigating a shaky investment), and he sees the potential usefulness of Nico’s skills. It sounds unsavory, but it isn’t. The old man is able to compartmentalize his life (“Even good men can be bad guys,” he notes), and his jobs for Nico tend towards the benevolent. (He’s got other agents to collect protection money and the like.)

Despite her youth, Nico has a very well-defined sense of self and her own gift for compartmentalization. She engages in phone sex for pay, but she views it with clinical, bemused detachment. She plunges into the seedier corners of Tokyo culture, but she’s convinced her instincts and skills will allow her to emerge physically and emotionally unscathed. Nico is manipulative in a way that’s both very childlike and surprisingly mature. She’s convinced of the rightness of her aims, and she’ll engage in dishonesty if she believes the benefits will outweigh the costs.

Her go-to pawn is Iichiro Sudo, an oblivious twenty-something dating-line customer who can always be called upon for a ride or a rescue. Nico nicknames him Robo for his passion for robot collectibles, and he has guilelessness and optimism that serve her very well. She dangles the prospect of romance (not with her, inventing a series of older friends instead) to get her way, but she’s protective of him at the same time. She pities Robo for his haplessness, but she likes him for his innocence, even as she capitalizes on it. It’s a dynamic that could seem cruel if readers weren’t so firmly on Nico’s side.

Kuroda has crafted a marvel of a character in Nico. She’s fearless, funny, self-possessed, and smart. The delight she takes in her discoveries about human nature is infectious, and it softens the seedier elements of those discoveries. She may be one of the best manga protagonists I’ve ever encountered, fascinating if not wholly sympathetic, endearing but with an unexpected edge.

The episodic nature of the stories lets Kuroda wander where he will. Some chapters are told in breakneck comedy style, with Nico barreling through the streets of Tokyo to achieve her varied aims. Others are almost lyrical, gently examining the pitfalls of emotion, identity, and connection. None of them resolve neatly, but each is satisfying in its own way.

My favorite is probably “Touch Blue Sky,” a potent mixture of everyday pleasures and unexpected twists. It provides a cross-section of Nico’s various qualities – her youth, her perceptiveness, her gentle cynicism. It’s one of the more leisurely pieces, with Kuroda lingering over simple pleasures like getting a haircut in the open air, but it’s layered with the themes that run through the series. It also highlight’s Kuroda’s ability to introduce supporting characters very effectively in a few simple strokes.

Kuroda’s illustrations are wonderful, with a thick but fluid line that’s reminiscent of Jessica Abel and a love of faces like Steve Leiber’s. Kuroda’s vision of Tokyo is breathtaking and varied, from chilly towers to crowded neighborhoods and bucolic parks. It’s a very organic rendering that runs from precise and detailed to expressionistic. Place and mood intersect seamlessly.

But the undisputed highlight of the visuals is Kuroda’s rendering of Nico. Character designs are uniformly excellent, but no one in the book’s sprawling cast looks quite as real as Nico. Kuroda explores her expressive face, showing it in mingling states of bemusement, determination, and distress, drawing the reader right into her substantial inner life. He never forgets her youth, but he layers it with so many other elements. It’s a stunning piece of work.

Sexy Voice and Robo is a marvelous comic. Kuroda’s singular vision and craft transcend conventional ideas of genre and storytelling. It’s one of the best graphic novels I’ve read all year, and you really should try it, even if you don’t think you like manga.