One of my favorite stories by David Sedaris describes an adolescent trip to a summer camp in Greece he took with his sister. There’s the hope that the journey will lead to reinvention and that the anxious, twisted geek he is will give way to someone sophisticated and comfortable in his skin. While his sister accomplishes this without apparent effort or consequence, Sedaris becomes more intensely himself. It’s a funny, poignant look at the tyranny of expectations.
Lars Martinson’s Tōnoharu (Pliant Press and Top Shelf) covers similar territory in graphic fashion. Daniel Wells has begun a year as a teaching assistant at a junior high school in rural Japan, and he has clear visions of what the outcomes will be… “Fluency in Japanese, adoring students and colleagues, a revolutionized curriculum…” It doesn’t work out that way, and no reasonable person could expect it would, but Daniel’s optimism is understandable. Who doesn’t harbor fantasies about the possibility of change in a new setting?
But even if Daniel was a different kind of person, more outgoing or visionary, the village of Tōnoharu isn’t fertile ground for adventure or transformation. It’s an average community, and its residents are courteous, but they have their own lives and needs. This leaves Daniel with the responsibility of adapting, and he’s not very good at that. Martinson is conscientious about keeping the onus on his protagonist; Daniel could embrace the experience and engage the people around him if he chose to do so.
At the same time, I like Daniel and can understand his perspective. He has just enough ambition to embark on this kind of adventure, but he doesn’t have to tools to take full advantage of it. Maybe I’m revealing too much about myself, but I never found his awkwardness that extreme; I found it funny, sure, but not out of scale.
Visually speaking, Martinson uses a fairly rigid grid pattern of panels that ends up looking like a well-organized photo album. It’s a good choice for this kind of material. He keeps his character designs loose and simple and their settings richly detailed and textured. I like that counterpoint a lot, and I always appreciate a strong sense of place in a comic.
One thing I did find odd about Tōnoharu was the overall packaging, which struck me as a little too handsome. The content here is the first part of a longer story. Engaging as it is page by page, it’s necessarily incomplete and doesn’t really take shape as an individual entertainment. The book’s hardcover treatment implies something complete to me; I might have chosen to release the individual chapters in a simpler format and saved the high-end production for an eventual collection. But really, excessive packaging is barely even a flaw, just a bit of contradicted expectations.
Martinson has delivered a fine first chapter to an engrossing, character-driven story. I’m looking forward to the next installment.