guttergeek the discontinuous review of graphic narrative

January 2008

Yuichi Yokoyama, New Engineering
(PictureBox Inc., 2007). $19.95, paperback.

by Ryan Tokola

I normally like to take art on its own terms. You know, the whole ‘death of the author’ thing. Artists often seem to be the worst people to talk about their own stuff. Have you listened to a commentary track on a DVD lately? Was it helpful? No, it wasn’t. I also don’t really care what other people say about art, especially before I’m done experiencing it for the first time. I try to avoid reviews of things I haven’t seen yet because I have a weak mind and I’ll be hopelessly biased. You, dear reader, may at this very moment be asking yourself, “Does this guy realize that he’s writing a review of a book which I have not yet read, thus permanently coloring my perception of the book when I eventually read it? Is this not exactly the sort of thing he, himself, avoids?” The answer is yes. Yes I do, and yes it is. I am comfortable with this for two reasons. First, I’m beginning to rethink my ideas about isolating art from the commentary of other people, and second, any right-minded person, even without having read this, would agree with me anyway. New Engineering is simply, irrefutably, fantastic.

New Engineering is a collection of short comics by Yuichi Yokoyama. They are weird. I know, weird manga is no big shock. There is a long, fine tradition of Japanese cultural products that Western audiences find strange; but seriously folks, these are freaking weird. First, the people are drawn all funny. Like many iconic characters in cartooning they’re made with simple lines, but these look…strange. I want to say that they are drawn with childish hand and eye, but it’s all too carefully considered for that. Basically, the way people are drawn is not the way people see people. There is an architectural coldness to everything, too, so it looks like an alien drafter was assigned to illustrate this book about humans. Next, there’s not much plot. These comics are not about telling traditional stories. Some of the comics are fight scenes completely devoid of context. Others show improbable structures being elaborately built with mysterious machinery for unknown purposes. Also, this alien drafter doesn’t seem to distinguish sound from vision. Sound effects, drawn in Japanese characters, are plastered all over nearly every panel, to the point that the sounds and images form a cohesive visual unit. The overall effect is confusing, especially to an uncultured American such as myself. Fortunately, there is help.

This edition of New Engineering, which was prepared for English-speaking audiences, contains elements that are presumably absent from the original, individual publication of each of these comics. There is an interview with Yokoyama, short discussions of each of the comics, a panel-by-panel dissection of one comic, and, at the bottom of every page, an English translation of the sound effects. This is where I get back to my hang-ups about people talking about the art I’m looking at. When reading the book for the first time I tried, briefly, to ignore everything but the comics themselves. I didn’t want to taint my viewing with distractions and preconceptions. However, before too long I was sneaking peeks at Yokoyama’s descriptions and the sound effects translations. I eventually realized that I had started reading too narrowly: the artwork is the entire book, and it’s okay to flip around a bit. The interview with the author actually helped my reading. Or at least made it much more interesting. He says, “I am really striving to communicate something new…that can be viewed several hundred years after its production by people of other civilizations, and people from any place on earth, and still be enjoyed for the new discoveries it offers.” His comics are not, in his words, humanistic. He is consciously trying to make comics that address ideas outside the realm of humans and their experiences. They are exceptionally, overwhelmingly, impersonal. They are also superbly interesting.

I don’t think Yokoyama is giving us the whole story, though. He claims that he is trying to convey new information, but he is not very concerned with communicating these ideas clearly. At times he seems to be deliberately toying with the reader. He knows that his comics are difficult. He begins his discussion of “Garden of Battlefield”: “This piece is difficult to understand, because I drew a story, which should be told over several pages, into four panels.” It is, indeed, often hard to figure out exactly what is happening. The panel-by-panel discussion of “New Engineering 3” raises serious questions about the authority of the comic. His description of panel 13 is strange: “The view from the ground at this time is thought to be something like this” and the description of panel 81 is downright bizarre: “A marker that works on any surface is revealed. It looks to be blackish.” How can somebody (especially the author) know that this marker writes on anything, but not know the color? You can see it. It’s just black. There’s some cognitive dissonance in the sound effects, also. The characters are mostly expressionless, and you get the feeling that during the fight scenes the only sounds would be things breaking and maybe a little grunting. However, it is very common (mostly in the fight scenes, but sometimes in the construction scenes) for the panels to be overflowing with the “Sound of people screaming.” Who is screaming? I have no idea. There is a real tension between what we “hear” and what we see, what we know and what is speculation, what we can understand and what we must accept as incomprehensible. Yokoyama seems to be very concerned with the act of reading a comic, how we understand it, and what we accept as fact.

By the way, all this is a good thing. New Engineering may not be as immediately entertaining as Naruto, but it’s doing some real work. Good work. The kind of work you wish you could get paid for. The book is not a simple collection of stories. It’s careful documentation of Yokoyama’s explorations. The sound effects translations, the notes, and the interviews are essentially footnotes and annotations to the work. Reading New Engineering is conducting research. It’s academic cartooning without the scholarship. Yokoyama’s labor is vigilantly expanding the comics medium. I’m not sure what, exactly, he is communicating to the people of other civilizations, but it’s great watching him talk.