Tuesday, December 14, 2021

Asadora!, Vol. 1 by Naoki Urasawa

Manga have different paces than Western comics. The traditional take is that they're slower, but that's not always true - manga, in my experience, tend to start slower, and tend to have more pages available for any given story, but they can run at a breakneck pace once you're deep enough into the story and everything is set up.

So I try not to use the same criteria for manga as for superhero comics (or this-bad-thing-happened autobio stories, or YA dramas, or any of the other semi-discrete genres of American comics). Of course that begs the question: what criteria do I use for manga? Do I have enough knowledge of manga, and of specific manga-ka, to do that well?

Probably not. Let me stick a pin in that up top here. My reading in manga has been scattered and random, especially recently: I haven't read most of the big famous series (except Naruto, which I got through most of) and my interests tend to the quirky independent artists on that side of the world just as much as on this one.

And, for right now: I've read the first volume of Naoki Urasawa's Pluto twice, several years apart, and the second volume once, and I think a batch of Pineapple Army back in the '80s in the first manga boom. But that's about it.

Well, and now the first volume of Asadora!, which I gather is his still-current project. This first volume was published in Japan in 2019 (following serialization somewhere, I assume, but the book doesn't say so) and this English translation (by John Werry) came out at the beginning of this year. Five volumes have been published so far, and it doesn't seem to be done.

My sense is that it's going to be episodic: the story will cover several periods in one woman's life. My guess is that each of those episodes will be about a crisis, or an at least local apocalypse.

The evidence for that: the opening pages of this book show a city in flames, with the usual people fleeing in terror. Over that scene is the tonally distinct gigantic caption "This is the story of a nameless girl...and the fearless, graceful life she led...from the postwar years...to the present day." (Which sounds like a weird Jackie O biopic, or maybe an arch Givenchy ad.) And the second storyline seems to mostly be set during the 1964 Tokyo Olympics.

This book, though, is set in 1959, when a typhoon hit Nagoya. The girl on the cover is Asa - just Asa, in the book; I have no idea if "Asadora" is a longer version of her name here, something she will take up later, a diminutive, or something else - and she's twelve, the forgotten sibling in a big family of nine. (Nine as of shortly into the this book: her mother is in labor as the action starts.)

She is a spunky girl, of the type known throughout all kinds of fiction around the world: loud and pushy but lovable about it, honest and straightforward and entirely devoted to doing the right thing.

And the story is almost entirely about her: first she talks with a boy about her age, who is being groomed by his obnoxious family to compete as a runner in the aforementioned Olympics, and then Asa is mildly kidnapped for identity-confusion reasons. But most of the book is about her teaming up with the erstwhile kidnapper to help people in the aftermath of that typhoon, in ways that I expect will resonate and extend into those further episodes. (Airplanes. I'm expecting airplanes will be important to all of Asadora! Also, there is some kind of bull-horned Godzilla-sized thing that we will eventually see more clearly. Those are my predictions.)

As is often the case with manga first volumes, this is mostly set-up. Even this episode is not done yet, and there's a big cliffhanger at the end. We know Asa will live to "the present day" and have other adventures, but we wonder how SFnal this will get - so far it's just hints, but they're hints about something pretty darn gigantic and destructive.

So what we have is the character work and Urasawa's crisp art - which work well together; he defines characters well through their facial expressions and their body language. Urasawa's art is less "manga" than the image some readers may have: you do have to read Asadora! "backwards," but other than that, the panel-to-panel transitions and drawing conventions aren't obtrusive and should be easy to follow for Western readers.

Again, this is all beginning. But it's an interesting, promising beginning.

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