Saturday, January 25, 2014

Book-A-Day 2014 #25: Johhny Hiro: The Skills to Pay the Bills by Fred Chao

Every generation has its slackers, from the flappers to the hippies to the burn-outs of my high school years. We forget this as we get older, and the slackers that are our age either grow up and get real jobs, or stop being so photogenic in their aimless slackerness. But there's nothing special about the current generation: they're just young and new and pretty, and so they slot into the same cliched stories that were told about their grandparents and great-grandparents.

Johnny Hiro is not really a slacker; he's working hard at a job he likes, but he's young and poor and living in a cheap sublet in Brooklyn. Of course, maybe those are the real hallmarks of the "slacker" -- being young and not being burdened with the car and house and mortgage and kids that those ten and twenty years older have. In his first set of collected adventures, Half Asian, All Hero (originally published as a comics series in 2007-2008, collected by AdHouse in 2009 and re-issued in a new package by Tor in 2012, and reviewed by yours truly along the way), Johnny was more obviously a slacker, and more clearly in the mode of Scott Pilgrim, a diffident young man in a world filled with action and thrills and girls who were much smarter and more together than he thought he could ever be.

The second collection of Hiro's adventures came out this past fall: The Skills to Pay the Bills. And the stories here -- I can't see that they were serialized anywhere before this publication, though the first story was at least long-gestating, since it references the 2005 Peter Jackson King Kong movie as if it were timely -- find Hiro less diffident, more centered and together, and his world more detailed, with short character-focused stories in between the giant gorillas and epic chases over the finest fish for sushi. In fact, Hiro is called "John" more often than not in this book, a sure sign of growing seriousness.

But there's still room for frivolity: that giant ape on the cover is the main antagonist of the first story...though that story is really about John's feelings for his ex-girlfriend from college, and what that means for him and his live-in "sexy girlfriend," Mayumi. Pay the Bills continues in that seriocomic vein, mixing those short character stories with longer pieces that extend and deepen Hiro's world, explaining the epic sushi-chef feud between his books, Mr. Masago, and the sneaky Shinto Pete over the course of several stories. Coolio, I'm sad to say, makes no appearances here, and the ape is the only megafauna in sight: most of the stories here, even is exaggerated and slapstick and wacky, are about people with human motivations and dreams and wishes.

There's nothing wrong with that: we all grow up and change, even after we thought we were already adults. And John Hiro is still a great character having interesting adventures. I still hope that, next time out, Mayumi gets a little more to do than just being the smart, grounded "sexy girlfriend" that's been her lot for the first two books. But that's an entirely different issue: The Skills to Pay the Bills sees Johnny Hiro growing up, taking on more responsibility, and grappling with the purpose of his life. It's all good stuff, and with any luck we'll keep seeing more of Hiro for many years to come.

Book-A-Day 2014 Introduction and Index

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