Friday, March 13, 2009

Vertigo Pop! Tokyo

Japan, a cold, rainy Friday night in March. I'm thinking tumultuous thoughts of mortality and art. I spent all day giving out White Day choco a day early in a "one for you/two for me" ratio and now I'm crashing hard from the sugar rush, a headache forming on the left side of my skull. Rain and sugar and romance go together, but when you have the wrong two out of three, you have little or no use for any of them.

Instead, what you need, what I need and what I've pre-ordered from is the trade paperback Vertigo Pop! Tokyo Days and Bangkok Nights, collecting two Vertigo minseries about Americans in trouble in Asian countries. Pre-ordered the Titan Books version, because it's due on my birthday.

Both stories were written by Jonathan Vankin, but the only one I'm really interested in is the one set in Tokyo, the one with art by Seth Fisher. This one I read years ago before I ever set foot in Japan, when my mind was still filled with William Gibson electric nightscapes of neon and Harajuku girls bedecked colorfully, antic in mismatched stripes and dots and checks that somehow flowed from visual dissonance into harmony, willed that way by some fashion fusion that must be equal parts nurture and nature in the poptastic scenes of big big Toyko, because it's unequaled elsewhere, though many try. Although nowadays, I'm not so sure it even exists here anymore. Certainly not in the way it continues its shadow-life in the minds of American otaku.

Oh, I've been to Tokyo and seen it by day and night, had a naked Venezuelan stripper-- obviously a few years past her prime-- in my lap in a club run by Nigerian gangsters in association with the yakuza.

She kept grabbing my groin and shouting, "Anaconda!" and I paid the equivalent of twenty bucks to dirty dance with her and a similarly unclad associate on the tiny stage.

My friend and I had about an hour and a half to drink up as much as we could, and speed matters in such situations. I have no idea how many beers we tossed down before I got to that point where kissing a Kabuki-cho stripper seemed like a good idea. It was a memorable night that ended with a visit to the steamy bathroom of a capsule hotel where a salaryman clad in a white yukata lay face down puking his sushi and sho-chu into the millimeter or so of lukewarm water that collected on the tiled floor, while his embarrassed coworkers kept a close watch for signs of choking.

I've been to live shows where people thrashed me so hard I left leaning on an umbrella like a cane, the pain in my back aging me prematurely into a Methusalean wreck on the train platform.
Watched distant lights blinking across the Tokyo skyline. Made a tiny snowman in a Shibuya suburb for a friend. Been threatened with violence by a thug twice my size because he didn't like that I was snapping photos on Takeshita-dori in Harajuku. But my experiences are shallow and subjective. I'm more of an observer and less of a participant, and I can't claim any special knowledge. Others have gone deeper. Others understand the vibrant Tokyo tribes, whereas I remain a dilettante there.

My daily life in Japan is more suburban, white collar and timid middle class, consists mostly of bored housewives studying English just to have something different to do, kids looking at me with dubious expressions as if they think I'm conning them when I tell them the "a" sounds like an "e," the Yamaha plant, the Brazilian teens hanging out down at the station, the laughing graphic design students walking under umbrellas, the taxi driver taking a smoke break in a concrete playground near a polluted river running through a concrete riverbed.

It's not really that exotic, unless you'd consider a Des Moines where you can only understand every fifth word exotic.

But I do know Seth Fisher's art makes me feel like I'm walking the Tokyo streets again, where I cadge a little bit of the energy I first felt coming back from and afternoon spent sipping coffee and snacking on cake in a genteel department store dessert shop, then marveling at the homeless people sleeping against the tennis court fence outside the Ghibli Museum in Mitaka and finding the streets outside Shinjuku station just exploding with humanity. My nerves came alive and I was hooked. His is the only stuff I've seen that has that feel, outside of actual Japanese comics where the backgrounds are frequently screentoned photographs. In this story, Fisher gives you the dense architecture of Ikebukuro and the pedestrian overpass plus the bridge over the Yamanote Line in Harajuku with exacting detail, fine-lined work that is a marvel to behold. I really wish I could've met this guy.

None of my adventures equal the light-hearted insanity of the Tokyo story. The closest I came was when I dated a too-young fashion student briefly and she destroyed me, just absolutely laid me to waste and left me sobbing in Hotel Kent in Shinjuku, my black plastic hipster eyeglasses missing a lens. But I've never been chased by yakuza, never had to strip a kimono off a Harajuku fashionista to cover my girlfriend's nakedness. Would that I had; then I might be creating pop art about it instead of just reading other people's versions. Tokyo's fictional version of its namesake megalopolis is an exaggerated, wish-fulfillment dream of a Tokyo Wonderland... but thanks to Seth Fisher, it has the look, almost the scent of the real thing.

The energy it took to produce some of these densely rendered pages must have been close to incandescent. I can't wait to read it again and see it through Fisher's eyes.

Now that I've been here. I also pre-ordered the Fantagraphics Blazing Combat collection, because the Onion A/V Club notwithstanding, Archie Goodwin was never an "old hack." Hell, he never even got to be old; he was only 60 when he died. Like Seth Fisher, he left us too soon.

Happy birthday to me. Oh my aching head. On a weird night.

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