I’m not quite sure where I got my predisposition against autobiographical comics, as I’ve enjoyed most of the ones I’ve read. But somewhere in my brain lurks the suspicion that the ones I haven’t read are littered with self-aggrandizing self-indulgence and cartoonists turning an unreturned text message into tragedy.
If I’m that anxious about autobiographical comics created by people who don’t really have that much to complain about, imagine my reluctance to dive into Hideo Azuma’s Disappearance Diary, due from Fanfare/Ponent Mon in the late summer of this year. It’s a detailed account of the manga-ka’s bouts with homelessness, abandonment of all responsibility, and alcoholism. Would this be a warts-and-all confessional where the reader is invited to admire how much character the warts actually give an otherwise undistinguished countenance?
Surprisingly, Disappearance Diary is one of the most cheerful portrayals of dispossession and substance abuse you’re ever likely to encounter. Azuma focuses on three periods in his life. In the first, he abandons a family and successful career and becomes homeless, collecting partially smoked cigarettes off the sidewalk and food from the trash. In the second, he abandons family and career again to become a pipe fitter for a gas company. In the third, he’s committed to a psychiatric hospital for treatment of his profound, life-threatening alcoholism.
It seems inconceivable that the mere facts of the book aren’t enough to render Azuma utterly unsympathetic. I think it’s the fact that Azuma never tries to justify his actions; he just portrays them. The book is very much a diary, skirting the shape of dramatic arcs in favor of an anecdotal approach. Azuma figures out how to build a stove out of trash. He deals with irritating co-workers at the gas company. He draws quick sketches of the other oddballs in the alcoholics’ ward.
The book’s absence of narrative arc works very much in its favor. I think that any attempt on Azuma’s part to cast his disappearances as some kind of protagonist’s journey would have failed to some degree, probably disastrously. In portraying them via a series of off-handed observations, Azuma has largely spared the reader (or at least this one) the chore of judging his behavior. Since he never apologizes, there’s no onus to forgive. The reader just travels along with him through experiences that are mundane, unexpected, and distressing.
I never quite reached the point of chuckling, “Oh, Azuma, you scamp,” but I found myself coming uncomfortably close. Part of this is undoubtedly due to his crisp cartooning and cherubic character designs. It has the aesthetic qualities of a charmingly conceived comic strip, along with some of the same rhythms. Chapters are short and focused in comic-strip (and diary) fashion, and the book bustles along from event to observation.
For as much of a prig as I can be about the behavior and morality of fictional characters, I found myself unexpectedly complicit with the Azuma portrayed in Disappearance Diary. I certainly can’t support the choices that yielded these experiences, but I got quite a bit of reading pleasure out of watching Azuma chronicle them. Perhaps he viewed his failures as such a given that it would have been redundant to dwell on them. Perhaps he really isn’t contrite in the least.
Whatever the rationale behind it, the decision yielded an immensely readable comic. The counterpoint between style and content is absorbing enough on its own, and Azuma’s blunt-but-coy choices never fail to engage.
(This review is based on a complimentary copy provided by the publisher, with special thanks to Deb Aoki at About.Com.)