Previously I’ve talked about my thoughts on OEL manga and a great book that transcends the stereotypes and becomes great on its own merits, King of RPGs. This time, I will talk about an American artist who was so good that his work was actually published in Japan, Felipe Smith.
If you can get past any preconceived prejudices that manga has to be “by a Japanese author” and “published in Japan” then Vertical Inc. has just published your favorite new book!
Peepo Choo is a three volume series being released by Vertical throughout 2010. The basic premise follows as such: Meet Milton, a self proclaimed Otaku who loves anything and everything about Japan; especially the anime series Peepo Choo (say it slowly and it is quite clear what Felipe Smith is parodying). Milton “works” in a comics and manga shop which is run and operated by Gill, a psychopathic mass murderer who has recently been released from jail.
Meet Takeshi Morimoto, the cruelest, sickest Yakuza gangster I can think of in recent memory. He is the Japanese version of Gill, just a lot smaller and sadistic in his mannerisms. Meet Reiko, a smoking hot 17-year-old model who is rougher around the edges than a rusted razor blade. What do all of these characters have to do with each other? They inhabit and fill the world of Peepo Choo with exquisite color and depth despite the horrific circumstances of which they intertwine.
The plot gets moving when Gill is hired to kill someone in Japan. He decides to hold a “Win a Trip to Japan” contest at the comics shop to create an alibi. Milton “wins” the contest with a little help from Jody, the anti-nerd, super sex obsessed clerk of the comic store who simply hopes that Milton’s “knowledge” of Japan can help him get laid.
Much of this volume is spent introducing the characters and presenting the world and all its idiosyncrasies. While many series do this in the first volume, Peepo Choo never threatens to become boring. With hyper-stylized sex and gloriously gratuitous violence we are ushered into a world in which we are simultaneously interested and enthralled with as well as completely terrified of! The opening pages, presented in expertly rendered color, introduce Gill as he rampages and completely decimates a small gang in the projects of Chicago. There are no sly tricks of the “camera” to suggest the violence; it is laid out for the entire world to see. The level of violence is something I am more familiar with in American graphic novels, such as the work of Frank Miller and Garth Ennis. The same thing goes for the sex; the book never reaches the level of pornography but is quite frank in how it depicts sex.
The thing about the sex and violence that I found interesting was that, while in great excess, never seems forced or unwanted. These scenes always enhance the narrative to allow the reader a better understanding of the characters involved. One of my biggest gripes is unnecessary scenes that do not move the plot forward or give character development, they just exist as fan service.
As an anime and manga fan I found it quite easy to relate to both the main character, Milton, and the author. For many years the anime/manga fandom was presented with the idea of “Cool Japan”. Almost everyone at some point builds high expectations for Japan based off of the entertainment we consume. Milton goes so far as to detest his life in America because he must act a certain way which is completely contrary to who he feels he is as a person. Milton feels that he should have been born in Japan.
The ways in which Felipe Smith develops the story makes me feel as if he once thought like Milton. Once he got his wish and visited Japan the realities hit, and I am sure they hit hard. Peepo Choo is more a chronicle of disillusionment and the journey to find our place in life more than it is about the story it presents. Certain scenes, such as Milton performing the Peepo Choo dance in Japan as a greeting, are so realistic in their depictions because the characters have so much depth that we, the readers, know exactly how they think and how they feel.
The gritty world of Japan, the false promises of anime like Peepo Choo (super cute and cuddly with a glowing display of happiness and universal peace in Japan), and the realistic depictions of characters of different creed and disposition really make you realize that what we see as the world in our backyard, is the world. The grass is never greener and maybe you really are better off right where you are.
There are still some mysteries to be revealed which has me begging for the rest of the series’ immediate release; but with Volume 1, Peepo Choo gives us something that we can revisit and dig through to find more subtleties in Smith’s art and message. Plus, it is one hell of a ride that action, violence, drama, and comedy junkies can return to again and again. The simple entertainment value is one that is not often matched. Many series require you to become a fan to enjoy repeated visits; Peepo Choo makes you a fan immediately. Even if you don’t become a fan there is something compelling and dark that urges you to revisit multiple times.
Note to the wise: Peepo Choo is rated 18+ and is shrink wrapped. This is wholly justified but then again, kids aren’t the ones who will pick this up. Peepo Choo is a bonafide cross over hit with Americans of all classifications. American comic fans should be sure to pick this up because is it not just manga, but it is manga that sympathizes and show the reasons why Comic fans hate manga. This is American art with Japanese storytelling conventions melded to a consumable art that can cross boundaries and introduce members of both fandoms to what lies on the other side.
Felipe Smith has created a masterpiece that I see sitting on the shelves next to The Watchmen and Preacher as well as a Kazuo Koike series and Monster.
Thanks to Ed Chavez of Vertical Inc. for providing this review copy.