Wayward (Volume 1): String Theory by Jim Zub (writer) and Steve Cummings (art)
Wayward: String Theory is the first collection of yet another great new Image title. Jim Zub tells the coming-of-age story of a teenaged girl, Rori Lane, travelling to Japan for the first time to stay with her Japanese mother, now divorced from Rori’s Irish father. The story behind the divorce is not explained in this volume, but evidently Rori’s had a rough time: Her psychological struggles manifest in physical self-harm; however, so far, this problem is touched on only lightly. In fact, other than a few brief encounters with Rori’s mysterious mother, Rori’s personal life is hardly developed.
The focus of this story is on yokai, a word used to describe the wide variety of spirits and monsters that make up the rich spiritual folklore of Japan. In fact, though this comic is drawn in the western style, in terms of content, it is in the Japanese tradition of yokai manga, a genre of manga created by the writer, manga artist, former soldier, and cultural anthropologist Shigeru Mizuki (see below). Because so many western comics borrow the superficial look of manga without employing their themes, content, or artistic story-telling techniques beyond mere surface appearance, it’s refreshing to see an American comic avoid these superficial imitations and instead reveal substantial influence in terms of genre. So, if you want to read a western comic that is truly influenced by manga, Wayward is the one to read.
Still, I was a little wary of an American comic taking place in Japan; if I want to read manga, I generally prefer to read manga written in Japan and not read a Japanese-influenced western comic. Western Comics with a Japanese background usually bother me because they are trying to borrow a little mystique without having any real thematic reason for doing so.
My fears were allayed in two ways. First, they were anticipated and addressed in the introduction to the collection written by Zack Davisson, an authority I’m willing to listen to since he is the translator of one of the best manga works of all time: Shigeru Mizuki’s Showa: A History of Japan, a monumental work that’s over 2,000 pages long. Given that Mizuki created the yokai manga genre and is a specialist in spirit folklore throughout the world, I am happy to find out that a translator familiar with Mizuki was pleased by Wayward. Davisson writes that Wayward “got Japan right,” even using correctly kanji in all the background panels, added visual details that were possible since artist Steve Cummings lives in Yokohama, Japan (apparently the kanji add some Easter eggs for those who can read kanji!)
My fears also were allayed by the story itself: The story is about real yokai one might learn about growing up in Japan. Jim Zub did not just invent a bunch of monsters and spirits and call them yokai. He has done his research and employed a wide variety of yokai that a western reader will encounter in other yokai manga. A highlight of this comic is that Jim Zub asked Zack Davisson to write short essays on many of the yokai that are included in Wayward. All of these essays are included in this first volume collecting the first five issues of the series (and selling for a reasonable price of $9.99).
I’ve managed to avoid talking about the plot because there’s not much to say that won’t spoil it. I’ll give the briefest of hints: Rori Lane, upon arriving in Japan, discovers she has a few strange magical abilities, one of which is to draw to her others with magical abilities. So very quickly in the story, Rori collects around her a group of three more teenagers, each of whom has mystical powers. And they, in following Rori, are drawn to the yokai, most of which seem extremely dangerous. All these encounters between magic-wielding teenagers and angry yokai are fast-paced and visually exciting.
The visual story-telling is the real highlight of this book, and I give that part of the comic a full five stars. The story itself seems a bit rushed with characters underdeveloped so far, perhaps another influence of some types of manga written for teens. We are thrown into the action fast, and it doesn’t really slow down. If it does slow down in future issues, I think I’d be willing to give the story higher marks. I want to get to know a little more about Rori, or any of the characters. This first volume mainly is filled with action and builds mysteries and suspense without revealing any answers.
Even though I want a little more from this story, Wayward is such a unique western comic that I recommend it more than I might otherwise based solely on the dialogue and plot. Wayward uses the best artistic storytelling of American comics combined with manga-influenced content. This combination is refreshing after seeing too many manga-looking American comics with American content. So, if you want to read a unique, beautiful comic that takes place in Japan, Wayward is the title for you. If, in addition, you love beautiful art and coming-of-age stories with magic-wielding teeangers, then I don’t see how you can pass this title up.
An American comic set in modern Japan inspired by manga and yokai folklore. Sounds intriguing. And since the artist lives in Yokohama, I’m sure he gets the details right. Believe it or not, I haven’t read a single manga in the 16 years I’ve lived in Japan (my Japanese reading is restricted to equity research and financial news), but now I’m a bit tempted.
Great essay, Brad! I, too, would be worried about the idea of borrowing the mystique, and I’m glad both you and Image addressed that with this story. It does sound like the storyteller gets it right.
Stuart, I hope you’ll check out at least one mature work by Tezuka, the God of Manga, before you leave Japan. Most of us in the west only know of Astro Boy and perhaps a few of his other work for kids. But he developed his art for mature audiences with very mature themes. He is Will Eisner, Stan Lee, and Alan Moore all wrapped up in one. He had more influence than all of them combined! And he had an impact on animation in Japan the way Disney did in the U.S. It’s impossible for me to overstate his impact.
The other two mature authors I’d recommend are:
Shigeru Mizuki (mentioned in the above review)
They all write gekiga, which is the term for mature (but not erotic-type mature) manga aimed at adults. Gekiga is the serious literature of manga. It makes me sad that so many people don’t know about it and are scared off by the popular manga by kids, thinking all manga is like that. It’s the same in the U.S. in that most people here may like the Marvel movies but they are convinced that comics are just stupid kids books. They have no idea that Sandman and tons of other books (even superhero comics) are written for intelligent adults.
Fallen Words by Tatsumi is a beautiful autobiography, and it’s been made into a wonderful work of animation. That would be a quick way to get a feel for more mature manga. In that book, I think he goes to meet Tezuka, too. If I’m remembering correctly, Tatsumi helped encourage Tezuka to write more mature manga.
Mizuki is an anthropologist who studies spiritual folklore all over the world, and he has a much-praised biography of his childhood and how he came to learn about this folklore in Japan from an old woman who took care of him. This biographical manga is called NonNonBa. It’s one of my favorite works of manga.
Mizuki lost an arm in World War II, and he has a manga memoir about his war experiences: Onward Towards Our Noble Deaths.
Mizuki has also written a long manga history of the Showa period in Japan (it’s issued in four long volumes in the U.S.)
Finally, I highly recommend the work he is most famous for: Kitaro, which is aimed at adults and kids. The tales he tells are mysterious Japanese ghost stories with a GOOD yokai named Kitaro who saves humans from BAD yokai. Mizuki created the character Kitaro as a teaching device: As an anthropologist, he wanted a way to teach Japanese readers about their great spiritual folklore. He didn’t want it forgotten. And he succeeded. Kitaro has been put into anime and is considered the most famous manga character that manga fans in the U.S. don’t know about! Each volume is a collection of short stories in which Kitaro encounters another yokai. In the books translated into English there is an endnote on every yokai introduced in the stories!
I’m sure that’s what Wayward is imitating since they use yokai and include essays in the back on each yokai mentioned.
So, looking over what I’ve written (too much as usual) here’s my recommendation for the shortest way to get an introduction to the best of manga: watch the movie Fallen Words based on Tatsumi’s memoir, read Mizuki’s NonNonBa (there are yokai in it), and read Apollo’s Song by Tezuka. That’s my 8-hour introduction to manga (2 hrs for the movie, 2 hrs for NonNonBa, and 4 hrs for Apollo’s Song).
Thanks for all the detailed ideas for exploring the world of manga. It it strange that I have never really tried to explore this world that is right outside my doorstep. I’ve know about Tezuka and Apollo’s Song, and I’ve been to Mizuki Shigeru’s hometown (Sakai-minato, Tottori Prefecture) many times to catch the ferry back when I liked on Oki Island. The whole town if filled with little Kitaro character statues. I’ll try to make time for your recommendations at some point!