From the stack: A Drunken Dream and Other Stories

September 2, 2010

A Drunken Dream and Other Stories, the Fantagraphics collection of short stories from across Moto Hagio’s career, is one of those books that spoils you. It’s so lovingly conceived and beautifully produced, and the material it contains is so strong that it’s hard not to envision who might be next to receive this generous treatment. Hagio, one of the founders of modern shôjo manga and great contemporary manga in general, certainly deserves as much of a gracious spotlight as publishers are able to provide.

We all knew this already based on work like They Were 11 and A, A Prime and the loving profile and the interview by Matt Thorn in that great issue of The Comics Journal. Thorn is back to select and translate the stories here, and really, every great manga-ka should have as devoted and talented an admirer. A Drunken Dream and Other Stories is obviously a labor of love.

It’s also vibrant reading. When you consider vintage material, there’s always the awkward question of whether this material is being republished for archival completion or because it’s as good today as it was when it was first published. Prevailing market conditions may not be especially friendly to a virtue-based publishing strategy, but Fantagraphics is just the type to at least partially ignore those conditions for the sake of the canon. Fortunately, Hagio’s work passes both tests, historical significance and timeless excellence.

The oldest work here, “Bianca,” is potent and alive. It’s about a brief, intense relationship between two young girls, and Hagio hits all the right notes. Visually, it tracks closest with what might come to mind when one thinks of “classic shôjo,” and it has a fascinating psychological directness that balances the glowing sweetness of the illustrations.

From there, it’s fascinating to watch Hagio set aside visual delicacy for a style that matches her unflinching commitment to emotional detail. Take “Hanshin: Half-God,” a tale of conjoined twins. One is beautiful but virtually unable to function, with her bright, starved, ugly sister literally doing all of the heavy lifting. The amount of punch Hagio derives from the scenario is just staggering. Her grasp of an emotional triangle in “Marié, Ten Years Later” is almost as assured. She captures the wistful sadness of a trio of friends forced apart by jealousy and individual need.

All of these stories aren’t created equal, obviously, though they all make sense in curatorial context. Having now read Hagio’s more grounded stories, I find (maybe blasphemously) that I have a little less patience for her tales that are tinged to some degree with science fiction. The centerpiece, “A Drunken Dream,” is lovely and accomplished, but the fantasy elements feel like a distraction in light of how much she can do without the extra trappings. It’s not that she’s clumsy in their execution, but the more naturalistic stories are just so piercing. Who needs jumpsuits and telepathy when you’ve got such a complex emotional core?

Of course, a little weirdness can be tremendously advantageous, as in the gorgeous, lengthy “Iguana Girl.” In it, a smart, sensitive girl builds a satisfying adult life in spite of her mother’s neurotic cruelty. The mother sees the girl as a repulsive lizard, and the girl’s self-image agrees with the mother’s. Hagio’s rendering of the iguana girl is kind of cruelly accurate, but she finds ways to tinge the reptilian expression with sadness and regret. Even with the scaly flourishes, Hagio gets to the heart of ways a parent’s opinion can shape a child.

I could find something to say about every story here, but I’d rather you just read them. You could even read the introduction by Trina Robbins if you absolutely must, but it doesn’t tell you anything Hagio doesn’t show in her stories. (“Make sure to have tissues on hand!” Sigh.) And after you’ve read them, I wonder if you’d agree with me that there should be more collections of this nature – short, representative works that introduce a creator over time. (And I’d love to see a companion volume of Hagio’s boys’ love stories. I have to suspect that one is in the works, as it seems bizarre for it to have so little presence here when that’s one of the reasons Hagio is a living legend.) I know that they probably aren’t easy to assemble, what with rival publishers and shifting creative fates, but I think it’s an amazingly persuasive way to sell a talent and perhaps open up demand for their longer works.

And since I’ve ended up with a clean, extra copy of the book, I’d like to give it away. So I’ll do one of my slapdash contests. Email me at DavidPWelsh at Yahoo dot Com and name a creator who you’d like to see get the “Drunken Dream” treatment with a brief argument in their favor, and I’ll pick a winner to receive my spare copy. Deadline will be Sunday, Sept. 5, at midnight.