It seems like mash-ups of genres are the hot new genre. If I was forced to recommend just one from the growing throng of comic-book examples, it would probably be Fred Chao’s Johnny Hiro (AdHouse Books). It makes imaginative use of its source material without a trace of hipper-than-thou cynicism, features endearing and sympathetic characters, and is genuinely funny in its own right.
Johnny and his girlfriend Mayumi are much like any other young urban couple navigating life in the Outer Boroughs. They work too hard, wish they had a better apartment, and struggle to make time for each other in the face of competing demands. Since those competing demands include giant monsters on the rampage and gangs of vengeful sushi chefs, their struggles are a bit heightened.
Not too much, though. There’s something charmingly everyday about the craziness Johnny and Maiyumi encounter, and that’s because the couple is so functional. They love and trust each other, and they make choices based on that connection. Chao helps put the lie to the argument that happy couples make for boring stories.
That’s partly due to the care Chao takes in portraying the mundane aspects of their lives. For every scene of improbable and exciting derring-do, there’s something equally recognizable and poignant. In the second issue, Maiyumi settles into the couple’s new sublet as Johnny tries to snag a lobster for the highly-strung chef of restaurant where he busses tables. The antic and the down-to-earth sequences are equally effective and mutually supportive in the narrative as a whole.
Chao’s illustrations execute this balance perfectly. It’s great fun watching a giant ape peek into the window of Maiyumi’s office or watching Johnny scramble up a fire escape as cleavers fly. It’s also delightful to see the way Chao invests something as familiar as an apartment walk-through with wit and warmth. (I could probably read an entire comic about Maiyumi introducing herself to the cats that come with their new one-bedroom.)
Things never stray too far into the realm of meta-commentary, even with potentially jarring celebrity cameos. I was pleasantly surprised that a first-issue drop-in from New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg didn’t derail things entirely. A second-issue visit from Vogue food editor Jeffrey Steingarten is even more organic and effective, though that might owe to my fondness for Iron Chef America.
The highest compliment I can pay to Johnny Hiro is that it reminds me very favorably of Avenue Q, that snarky-sweet Broadway riff on Sesame Street that deserved every Tony Award it won (and more besides). While Chao’s approach is gentler, he strikes quite the same balance between pop-culture fluency and genuine feeling.
(This review is based on complimentary copies provided by the publisher.)