For me, the cake of Fred Chao’s Johnny Hiro (AdHouse Books) is the relationship between the titular protagonist and his fetching girlfriend, Mayumi. As a bonus, Chao slathers plenty of icing on the cake.
Johnny and Mayumi are young, in love, and living in New York City. That means they work too hard, live in a kind of crappy apartment, and never seem to have enough money at the end of the month. But they have each other and all of the affection, support and loyalty one could hope for; they also have cats. Those things go a long way to compensate for the overworked, underpaid grind.
They also have distractions. Johnny is sort of a mayhem magnet. Simple errands can thrust him into the thick of a swarm of knife-wielding kitchen ninjas. A night at the opera can end at sword-point, surrounded by laid-off IT guys who’ve taken up the way of the samurai to avenge their failed dot-com. Peaceful slumber can be disturbed by a hauntingly familiar, dauntingly large lizard that’s eye-level with their walk-up.
Other similarities to Spider-Man aside – he’s got the beautiful girlfriend, the Manhattan setting, and the struggling 20-something thing down – Johnny isn’t exceptional or adventuresome. He’s tenacious, though, and he’s developed a resigned acceptance to the nuttiness. (He’s a little more prone to being starstruck, though, as evidenced by the eclectic celebrity cameos Chao throws into the mix.) I’m crazy about Mayumi; as Chao draws her, she’s lovely in the way real people are lovely as opposed to more conventional comic-book arm candy.
So basically, what we’re dealing with here is a loving, functional couple dealing with the occasional outburst of genre mash-up, based on whatever Chao pulls out of the pop-culture junk drawer. The results are generally terrifically entertaining, and I don’t think there are nearly enough loving, functional couples at the center of popular entertainments. It doesn’t always work perfectly; some of Chao’s pet pop culture isn’t always mine, and some of the celebrity cameos end up feeling a little strained. Overall, though, it’s crisp, warm-hearted, smart entertainment.
The book runs on affection – Johnny and Mayumi’s affection for each other, Chao’s affection for New York, and Chao’s affection for the sci-fi and fantasy tropes he folds into his stories. I’m still surprised (and disappointed) that this book didn’t survive in pamphlet form, but I’m thrilled that Chao and AdHouse provided a handsome collection of the published and unpublished issues of what was supposed to be a six-issue series.
(I periodically nominate something I’ve read for the Young Adult Library Services Association’s Great Graphic Novels for Teens list, and I did that with Johnny Hiro. Anyone can nominate a title here, provided they aren’t nominating their own work or something published by their employer.)