Saturday, March 29, 2014
31 Days of Short Reviews #29: Shigeru Sugiura
Last of the Mohicans, the first (and unfortunately last) book in the "10 Cent Manga" series from the now-defunct PictureBox, is not only an intriguing comic but a fantastic work of scholarship. Editor Ryan Holmberg not only translated this very odd adaptation by popular cartoonist Shigeru Sugiura of the novel by James Fenimore Cooper, he wrote a long essay on the context of the book in terms of Sugiura's career and manga in general. This was actually a comeback book for Sugiura in 1973 after he had done a more cartoony and silly adaptation in 1953. Reading the book before reading the explanatory essay, I was struck by the way that Sugiura dizzyingly switched between bigfoot cartooning, typical wide-eyed manga tropes and naturalistically-depicted characters and lush backgrounds. Sometimes he did this all in the same panel, as he drew quickly-paced and humorous action sequences drizzled with pure comic relief and gritty violence. The mix of Eastern and Western drawing styles is obvious even to a reader such as myself who isn't an expert on the artist or the manga scene at that time.
Holmberg goes into great detail with an incredible wealth of artistic evidence, just how and from where Sugiura drew his inspiration. He looked at a lot of Alex Toth, Jesse Marsh, and Fred Ray Western-genre comics, whose work couldn't have been more different from the traditional manga style. From Toth he adapted the ways bodies moved in space and certain other structural qualities. From Ray he took a lot of action sequences. From Marsh he took the lush backgrounds. He mashed all of this up with his own popular "funny" style (as opposed to the more straight-ahead drawings of Osamu Tezuka), leading to a perfectly composed and visually discordant and anarchic final product that may have relied too much on racial caricatures, but applied those grotesque distortions to whites as well as Native Americans. From Sugiura's perspective, everything was open for that kind of depiction, just as he depicted several of the Native American heroes and villains in a heroic style. Seeing heroic characters side-by-side with wacky caricatures, all in the same cause of trying to kill each other was wonderfully disorienting, an effect that was entirely intentional on Sugiura's part. It was all a part of the way that Japan absorbed American culture and then created something new, weird and wonderful as a result. Hopefully, another smart published will continue the series, because I've never seen the precise appeal of particular manga artists explicated in such a clear and entertaining fashion.