Pop Culture Gadabout
Saturday, May 15, 2010
      ( 5/15/2010 07:44:00 AM ) Bill S.  

“IT’S KIND OF PATHETIC TO KEEP READING MANGA FOREVER.” Back in my wasted youth -- not long after I got out of college with a very unhelpful master’s degree in English -- I spend some time as the sole employee/manager of a small used book store. We didn’t have a ton of customers, and the bulk of folk who walked in were either looking for westerns or Harlequin Romances, but it was still a great place for a book fiend like myself. The pay sucked, of course, but I got a lot of reading and writing time in.

When I first heard of Seimu Yoshizaki’s manga series, Kingyo Used Books (Viz Signature), I knew I had to latch onto a copy. A series celebrating the simple joys of holding an old print book in your hand, of rediscovering great books, sounded like just the thing. One look at the cover -- bright and leggy bookstore manager Natsuki perched on a ladder before ceiling high bookshelves -- and I was instantly charmed.

The paperbacks for sale at out title shop turn out to be more specialized than the long gone little Book Worm in Bloomington, Illinois, was. Entirely devoted to manga collections, the stock in Kingyo reflects the broad history of Japanese comics. Each chapter in the series’ first volume, then, is devoted to different customers and their individual manga loves. This can range from a twenty-something urban professional recollecting his schoolboy faves to an obsessed fan of a fifties detective series who dresses like his hero. In one chapter, a struggling young art student happens on the shop and is overwhelmed by the vision of abundant creativity within it. “All of these countless volumes,” she thinks, “compared to that, I’m just a single insignificant person.”

If some of these chapters work more as vignettes than as fully realized short stories, the cumulative effect is more successful. Writer/artist Yoshizaki is considering the effect that well-made comic art can have on the reader. While the bulk of the series considered in the first volume naturally turn out to be Japanese produced, she also has space to consider foreign comics -- as in a chapter devoted to a Japanese visitor to France who discovers the beauty of Jean Giraud’s magnificent western Blueberry. “What do you know,” he says as he pages through an album of La Piste des Sioux. “Here, there. It’s all the same. We’re all humans on the same planet.”

Through it all, Natuski functions as a listener/observer to each customer’s moments of discovery; in the first volume, at least, we don’t get much sense of her as a character, though we are provided glimpses of her pint-sized grandfather (who owns the shop) and Shiba-San, who hangs in the back of the shop and functions “kind of like the store’s troll.” As Natsuki explains, “He’s got a neurosis about people saying bad stuff about manga.” Shiba-San also has a thing for Natsuki that he’s unable to openly express, which, if nothing else, serves to show that socially inept geeky fanboys aren’t just restricted to the U.S. of A.

If the themes within Kingyo prove anything but deep (Art can change your life! The love of a good story can bind us together! Don’t toss your old comic books!), the artist presents it all with an openhearted love for her chosen mode of storytelling that should appeal to seasoned manga readers and newcomers alike. For the latter, the first volume includes an appendix providing a little bit of the history and context for many of the series discussed in the book. Reading it, I was reminded that I’ve yet to sample Akira Toriyama’s popular children’s series, Dr. Slump, and wish that Mitushiro Kawashima’s detective series Billy Puck were available. (The images that we see have a real Tintin vibe to ‘em.) Yoshizaki’s art is welcoming, and her characters are visually appealing: cute without slipping over into cutesy.

Only point I’d note -- as the onetime sole employee of the Book Worm -- is that we’re never shown Natsuki dusting Kingyo’s shelves. One thing I’ll carry to this day from my time in the biz: used books get very dusty. Say what you will about the power of old books to take us away, when you embark on the trip, don't forget to bring a handkerchief.

(First published on Blogcritics.)


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Pop cultural criticism - plus the occasional egocentric socio/political commentary by Bill Sherman (popculturegadabout AT yahoo.com).

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