From the stack: Yôkaiden vol. 2

“I’ll never understand you optimists,” mutters sentient paper lantern Lumi in the second volume of Nina Matsumoto’s Yôkaiden (Del Rey). “Sure you will!” beams protagonist Hamachi. I think that’s a great joke, sunny and a little sneaky, and it captures just what I like so much about this book.

Hamachi and Lumi are making their way through the dimension of yôkai, spirit creatures that range from mischievous to menacing. Hamachi is searching for a water demon he believes murdered his grandmother, and Lumi is along for the ride. This time around, Hamachi turns to a ninetails, a venerable fox demon, for information and, as you might expect, the ninetails wants a little something in return. Three somethings, in fact.

Simple soul Hamachi takes Christina, the 999-year-old yôkai, at face value, and why wouldn’t he? She’s prosperous, huge, warmly maternal, and only sly around the edges. Lumi’s certain she has a hidden agenda, and of course she does. Yôkaiden doesn’t run on surprising twists but on witty embellishments of familiar material. You can always be reasonably certain that Hamachi’s sunny disposition and cup-half-full approach will see him through, but you don’t know exactly how. That’s the charm.

Well, that’s part of the charm. There are also the fresh variations on classic yôkai, the nervy insertion of urban legends of more recent vintage, excerpts from Inukai Mizuki’s “Field Guide to Yôkai,” sharp dialogue, and vivid characters, human and otherwise. There are references aplenty, both in the text and the art.

Matsumoto seems to be having particular fun with yôkai hunter Zaigô, who has followed Hamachi to the yôkai dimension to bring the boy safely home. A couple of steps behind Hamachi, Zaigô has his own misadventures, and Matsumoto frames him in endearingly familiar ways, calling to mind books like Lone Wolf and Cub to Vagabond. Those are just flashes, of course, and the bulk of the book bears Matsumoto’s quirky visual style – energetic, endearing, and just the right degree of gruesome.

It’s always nice to see a creator with a real facility for wit, and Matsumoto’s manifests itself in words and pictures. There are plenty of comics about yôkai, and many of them are very good. Bright, breezy Yôkaiden is right up there with the best of them.

(This review is based on a complimentary copy provided by the publisher.)

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