Baby Boom and the “Comics of Attraction”


Friday, July 9, 2010

Ryan Holmberg wrote this excellent piece about Yokoyama’s recent work (I’d be remiss not to mention that while we iron out how best to bring Baby Boom to these shores, PBox is offering a new limited edition book that contains work in that vein, BABYBOOMFINAL), and kindly offered it to Comics Comics.

Ryan, take it away:

If you put the first three Yokoyama Yuichi books together, you have a composite image of the development of a landscape for leisure tourism in Japan, and a playfully dystopian view of its ramifications. In New Engineering, there is the construction of various sorts of landforms and public works projects mainly for recreational use. In Travel, three men ride in one of the icons of Japan as technological and administrative master of space and timetables – the high-speed Bullet Train – consuming landscape from the comfort of their padded seats en route to a seaside getaway. In Garden, a phalanx of men pass through a modern sculpture park-cum-obstacle course – reminiscent of that television show Takeshi’s Castle – playing recklessly with its objects, leading ultimately to the park’s destruction. The association made on the Transatlantis blog between Yokoyama’s structures and Isamu Noguchi’s posthumously finished Moerenuma Park in Sapporo, likewise with man-made mini-mountains and cuboid “play sculptures” for climbing, I think is spot on. In general, I think it useful to think about Yokoyama’s reworking of modernist avant-garde forms (like Futurism) and fantasy architecture (like Boullee’s “Cenotaph to Newton”) through this lens of recreational play, and by extension tourism, considering also the recurring motifs of the sightseer and photographer, especially in a work like Garden, its trespassers the perfect image of the thoughtless tourist group, their activities linked, at the end, directly with the destruction of the consumed landscape, which blows apart in an apocalyptic hurricane. In these and other examples, you have various facets of modernism – mass mobilization, advanced military, surveillance, and transportation technologies, visionary architecture, geometric abstraction, the Futurist obsession with speed and sensation – retooled for a leisure economy, something that has particular resonance in Japan, following the collapse of the Bubble Era and its attempts to physically reshape the archipelago for a first class “leisure society” of parks, art, and resorts.

I like this work enough to be writing what will probably amount to a small pamphlet on Yokoyama and related Japanese artists in photography and architecture. But I can also see how his is a project potentially without end, potentially without development, and therefore soon monotonous. In an interview posted on Comics Comics in June 2009, Yokoyama closes saying that he wants to do a 1000-plus page book depicting war. I hope he doesn’t. I am sure it would be impressive, with many novelties and curiosities, but what is another tome of Yokoyama-type drawing depicting men jumping around, projectiles flying, and repeating machinic sound effects? With Outdoor – which came out in 2009 and can be read online in its original webcomic format for Ecologue – I really felt that Yokoyama was working on auto. I had hoped the inventor would find a way to reinvent himself.

So, it was with some relief that I read Yokoyama’s newest book, Baby Boom, first serialized in the magazine Webdesigning between 2008-09, and published as a book near the end of 2009. It contains many of the classic Yokoyama themes and graphic motifs, but approaches them in a novel way.

With a Yokoyama comic, one is at first caught up in its nets of intersecting lines and layered sound effects. Eventually, you get used to it, and are able to read through the story with fair ease, but at first the diverting force of abstraction is quite strong. Maybe this is why Outdoor is a bore: there is no pleasure in looking; you’ve seen the art before, you’ve learned its codes, and you’ve come to understand what sorts of subject matter it’s good for. In contrast, Baby Boom is multi-color, done with magic markers. Most of the episodes in the book (39 of them including the front and back covers, ranging from one to eighteen pages) are composed of two colors, rarely just one, sometimes three or four. For the most part, the colors are used to separate figures from ground, sound effects from one or the either, important details or objects from all of the above, and so on. It is a simple but effective technique, giving the best episodes a pulsating push-pull or flicker effect – embodied thematically in one depicting dancing under disco lights – that would be ruined either by adding more colors or using color in a painterly manner. The most manic chapter is titled “Catch,” which for eight pages has a father and son throwing a baseball back and forth, at first carefully in the air, then some tricky grounders, before the kid sails the ball over dad’s head and into a stream. As the game gets more and more intense (and sloppy), the red-blue of the beginning develops into a purple-aquamarine red-olive kaleidoscope.

The technique comes out of Yokoyama’s own working process. I don’t know if he always did things this way, but at least for Outdoor, he sketched things out in color marker on standard copy paper, cut apart the panels and reassembled them as he saw fit, places them on a light box, and then traces them in black ink. This I know from seeing a show of his underdrawings in Tokyo in January 2009. According to the interview at the end of Baby Boom, he had begun the work in his usual monochrome, intending to do it in rough marker versus his signature pseudo-mechanical precision. The idea is not altogether surprising. In those late afternoon sun segments of Travel, with the light casting sharp and quickly changing shadows upon the passengers (pp. 32-35, 84-88), one could sense a desire for expressionistic facture in the heart of the geometer. But apparently, Yokoyama’s editors for Baby Boom complained that the product looked lazy and illegible, leading instead to the solution of color separation, where markers look like a virtue. If you take the time to read Outdoor, you will see that sloppiness was definitely on the horizon: corners are poorly joined, lines extend too far, black areas are incompletely filled in. Travel is so good because it’s so perfect, and even when you do catch things like tapering brush lines or outlines beyond their borders, they function as little giveaways of handicraft in a world of seeming mechanical perfection. So, considering the growing loss of quality control in Yokoyama’s work, I think it wise a different aesthetic was taken up, one in which speed and looseness add to the work rather than take away from it.

The other novelty of Baby Boom is its anthropocentrism. The other works have humans – or at least humanoids, as they are all fairly cold, with the quality of full humanity in neither their movements, nor their speech, nor their look, nor their motivations, acting as much as automatons as free men. In interviews, Yokoyama has spoken of “the stink of humans” – and given the overbearing presence of melodrama and bodily humor in most manga, Yokoyama’s rejection of human psychology, emotions, and bodily sensation has been a breath of fresh air. Baby Boom, however, is super warm, like an incubator. Indeed, he refers to one of the protagonists as a “chick,” though it looks like a small sphere of lint with eyes, limbs, and a flattened beak. As inspiration, he mentions “Anpanman” and “The Adventures of Hamtaro,” but I think also of Q-Taro, the white waddling ghost by Fujiko Fujio, their precursor to Doraemon. At any rate, this “chick” has a chaperon, the sphere-plus-cone-faced man that appears here and there in the earlier works. These two are the central characters of Baby Boom, which in many of its episodes depicts typical activities – feeding, playing catch together, fishing together, cleaning house together, going to an amusement park together – of a wholesome father and son relationship (I am assuming male gender here, since there are no signs of women anywhere in Yokoyama’s comics). When I first picked the book up, I thought Yokoyama must recently have had a kid, the change from his earlier works so stark, and the depiction of parent-child relations so happy and sentimental. But the appended interview says instead that he became interested in the movements of kids after contact with them through a friend that teaches at a kindergarten. He also talks, here and elsewhere, about how the tourists in Garden are like kids, going where they please, doing what they please, innocently but ruinously. He compares New Engineering to kids at the beach making sandcastles, making the sounds of “GWEEN” [machinery moving] and “DOKAAN” [crashing] while they build and destroy. Given the image of Japan throughout Yokoyama’s work – a land of giant structures for play – I think I might title my pamphlet-in-progress Kindergarten.

On the other hand, what I fear Baby Boom augurs is Yokoyama’s full-on entry into the “cute” merchandising industries, especially considering how much attention he gives to appeal of cuteness in the interview. I was surprised and dismayed to see at his show in Tokyo in 2009 a selection of plush toys based on his characters. Why does so much Japanese creativity have to go into feeding an infantile consumer economy? In a powerfully gratuitous gesture, the outside obi of the book offers the following lines from Nietzsche’s Zarathustra: “Innocence is the child, and forgetfulness, a new beginning.” I’d like to see that emblazoned on a plush toy. Baby Boom is hardly the image of a new super-humanity. If anything, it is testament to how much childhood is fetishized in Japan, how much human relations are understood as beneficent paternalism, and how much the hyperconsumerism and over-building of Japan is seen as weird and wacky rather than as serious social, political, and ecological issues. Bliss is the adult child, and forgetfulness, how to stay that way. This is what I don’t like about Yokoyama.

On another note, one thing that I have been interested in is the relationship of Yokoyama’s work to fantasies of the book as a totalizing representational medium. This is clearest in Garden, with its images of a Borgesian library, with endless numbers of picture encyclopedia, and on its roof a giant map. I think of Travel in this way, as a kind of narrative picture encyclopedia of all the possible happenings during the single, confined topic of the speeding train ride. If you look at “Book” in New Engineering, you will also see that a number of the flying folios are encyclopedic in nature. From the perspective of this imaginary library, Baby Boom can be seen as a kind of compendium, containing in highly condensed form a number of the sorts of themes treated singularly and at length in Travel. Two pages on dam building, sixteen on “Housecleaning,” two on “Cooking,” six on fishing, seven on using a “Hula Hoop,” one on “Origami,” two on “School,” two on “Field Trip,” and so on. If it is physically and economically not possible for Yokoyama to create full-scale, 200-page works on all of these topics, then he can create sketch digests of each, and this is what Baby Boom offers.

To me, there is often something early-cinema about Yokoyama’s manga, in that they recall motifs and sensibilities of cinema as it came into being and first began to circulate. It is different from the sentimental references one finds to lantern slides, zoopraxiscopes, and early animation in Chris Ware. In thinking about how to rework the medium of comics, Yokoyama like Ware ends up rethinking the medium through its “sister” arts, but there is nothing archival and nostalgic about the references as is so obviously the case with the collector-creator Ware, so invested in melancholy and loss. For his recent exhibition at the Kawasaki City Museum, Yokoyama summed up his practice with the tellingly reductive: “I draw time,” and I think many of the intermedial references in his work – from picture books and encyclopedias in “Book,” to figures of the filmstrip and projector in Travel, to the photographer in Travel and Garden, to the encyclopedias and maps of Garden, and so on – are essentially fantasies that compensate for the fact that comics, as a medium of still sequential images, simply cannot capture duration fully, let alone reproduce it. Until now, there had been something brazen about these references in Yokoyama’s work, filled with the enthusiasm of the recent convert (remember that Yokoyama began as a painter) who thinks that his new faith can do anything, transcend its own limits, outstrip other media on their own home turf. I think the mega-landforms of New Engineering and the apocalypse that ends Garden are signs that all of this occurs under the banner of Icarian hubris: the artist knows that he is attempting the impossible and there will be a fall.

It was in Baby Boom that I feel, for the first time, melancholy welling up in his work, precisely at the points where a fully “cinematic” or “encyclopedic” manga would “breakdown,” for example, in the representation of continuous movement, or a complete archive of things-to-do. I first felt this in what is probably one of the otherwise least memorable of episodes in Baby Boom, titled “Vending Machine.” The father and son walk up to a vending machine, insert money, push a button, receive their canned soft drink, share it, finish it off, and dispose of it in a recycling container. The sentimentality stems in part from the preciousness of parent and child sharing everyday life. But there is also something about this episode, and other ones as well, that reminds me of the early motion pictures of the Lumiere brothers, where what was on display was often something very banal, of mild or no interest if seen in real life (workers exiting the factory, a boat leaving harbor, a train arriving into station), together forming a catalogue of everyday activities and non-events, the sole attraction of which was there presentation as cinematic events. This was, to use a popular term from film studies, “a cinema of attractions” versus a later cinema that depended on plot and charismatic characters to enthrall audiences.

Portions of Baby Boom might be seen as a “comics of attractions,” where what the reader enjoys most of all is the representation of daily life through the comics medium, and not daily life itself. And doesn’t the graphic effect of Baby Boom add to the atmosphere? – pulsating between basic colors, all the more so in the quasi-stroboscopic “Disco” where light as much as motion is the subject, an amp’d-up version of the warming flicker that pervades the whole book, which we are meant to sit back and read with almost Victorian delight, like born-again children, before a medium that has also regressed, stripped of narrative and presented simply as a system for representing motion unfolding in time – a primitive form that modern comics historically never assumed, even in the highly chronographic examples of Willette or Steinlen, swabbed in narrative from the go. In this, I think Baby Boom points to an important feature about contemporary comics and the sociology of its authors and readers, and that is that, above all else, it is the medium itself that is appealing, so much that we are oftentimes ready to embrace narratives no matter how banal, juvenile, or dumb, as long as it is a comic.

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17 Responses to “Baby Boom and the “Comics of Attraction””
  1. Matt Seneca says:

    It’s interesting to look at the way an artist’s work has transformed before we actually get to see the transformation happen in the books themselves. I suppose I can see a little sentimentality in that “soda-drinking” page, but to me it still feels of a part with Yokoyama’s anti-humanism. It looks like a post-human reflection on human sentimentality, or maybe a deeply sentimental moment for a post-human culture. I don’t really mind a move toward sentiment in Yokoyama’s work as long as it comes with an aesthetic evolution, and Baby Boom certainly appears to. And just to throw this out there, for me a large part of the attraction of Yokoyama’s previous books was their straightforward attempt to deal with banal narrative, to transcend it using the comics form. Like, Travel is not an inherently interesting story (at least I didn’t think so), but Yokoyama’s comic-ing of it makes it worth the time.

    Any word on an American release for Garden?

  2. Marc D says:

    Wow, excellent article- thanks for this Dan and Ryan.

    I for one am excited about Yokoyama’s shift into the world of “cute”. I like the comparison to the Lumiere Brothers and agree with Matt that its a continuation of Yokoyama’s anti-humanism. Somehow looking at these banal activities through non-sentimental eyes makes them all the more precious.

  3. Lastworthy says:

    “but what is another tome of Yokoyama-type drawing depicting men jumping around, projectiles flying, and repeating machinic sound effects? ”

    I think Baby Boom, not to mention his direct response to questions about the war concept in the interview cited, confirms that despite his departure from standard …everything…conventions his visuals are in service to his ideas. I think at this point it’s more helpful to think of Yokoyama’s style in a more modular, project-to-project way than the linear evolution most comic artists go through. 

    I’m totally on board with the rest of the article though, particularly the “This is what I don’t like about Yokoyama.” paragraph. 

  4. I totally love Yokoyama so thank you for this article! I think his comics are all about ‘time,’ and move in a very unique way, and I’m glad he expresses ‘time’ in comic-form. It’s definitely exciting to see new types of comics from him, too, and him getting more basic and inspired by early, simpler manga layouts. I also had a similar reaction with “Outdoor,” because it does seem to have the same rules, logic, and themes of his other comics.
    In his character designs, I see inspiration from live-action shows, like Power Rangers and Godzilla. It’s interesting to know he’s inspired by super-cute animated hamsters.
    Maybe its worrisome that contemporary artists are getting cuter, but it makes sense to me. I wonder if Japan’s love for figurines comes from the Shinto religion and its belief that every object has a spirit, so perhaps it’s not just ‘infantilization’ but an appreciation of little figurative objects. Everyone seems to be making figurines these days, anyway, all sorts of mangaka have weird toys. I bought some Yokoyama stickers when I was in Japan…and they’re Kawaii!!

  5. eli jungle says:

    i’m reading a tone of gradual disappointment here, from the voice of a (previously?) devout yokoyama fan. or at least a smart writer who sees a falling off, and wants to parse the change in the work to the degree it deserves.

    totally, it all seems interesting work, despite any ‘transitions’. i don’t doubt that yokoyama will keep working, keep being published, keep being awesome. i’m loving his daily images on the new ‘site. but in an attempt to follow the train of ideas laid down in this post, what comes next? is there a cartoonist that picks up the slack that yokoyama leaves behind? on a formal level, on a philosophic level, anything.

    people don’t talk about Y.Y. enough in America, and if they do, it’s in a realm of respect towards polished surface mired with reading-difficulty, without the proper cultural context, or proper devotion to the work. not that anyone needs to ‘solve’ the problems that an artist might be working through but him or herself.

    but this article seems to lay some problems down. i’d like to read the writer’s prospective solution in contemporary comics, music, art. but maybe that’s asking too much though.

  6. Matt Seneca says:

    …annnd nevermind, I just found the Amazon listing for Garden in November. 328 pages, yes!!

  7. Ng Suat Tong says:

    Very nice article! Hope to see more in the same vein on other subjects.

  8. J. Overby says:

    “Why does so much Japanese creativity have to go into feeding an infantile consumer economy?”

    Do you think there’s much more to Yokoyama than beautifully stylized food, characters, buildings, etc?   There’s a dry formalism going on that makes for “perfect” stories, but is there any depth beyond the ruthless purity?  I think the comics look beautiful, but I’m not sure there’s much more to it than that.  Or if there is, “reading” the narrative doesn’t contribute to our understanding of it.  

    There a human quality, though, to him discussing his crackpot theories in interviews that’s always really exciting to me.

  9. essej sunamcm says:

    “is there any depth beyond the ruthless purity? I think the comics look beautiful, but I’m not sure there’s much more to it than that. Or if there is, “reading” the narrative doesn’t contribute to our understanding of it.”

    isn’t the experience of reading the only way for us to get to the depths of his work? i feel a great kinship with the way he describes actions with such cold lines. there’s a warmth in the movement that occurs while reading. i would count that change in temperature as part of my ‘understanding’ of it.

  10. Ryan Holmberg says:

    “I wonder if Japan’s love for figurines comes from the Shinto religion and its belief that every object has a spirit, so perhaps it’s not just ‘infantilization’ but an appreciation of little figurative objects.”

    While I agree that there is a kind of “animism” in people’s relationship to figurines and “characters,” I think it needs to be seen in the right context.

    I am surprised that some people still harbor these quasi-Orientalist notions about modern and contemporary Japanese culture and Japanese people as rooted in a native system of animistic nature worship. Never mind that Buddhism, Confucianism, and Western liberalism have had a greater impact on Japan, or that Shinto itself, at least since the nineteenth century, has often had strong nationalistic if not jingoistic overtones. All that’s beside the point.

    More importantly, Japan is first and foremost an advanced consumer capitalist society. “Cute characters” are commodities within this system. It’s commodity fetishism gone wild, and given the fact that in many cases the maker is male and the figurine is female, clearly there’s a kind of Pygmalion fantasy at work, and considering also that the buyers are often male, they clearly serve as fetishes in the sexual sense also for the consumer.

    Now, Yokoyama’s plush toys don’t fit in this specific paradigm, which applies more to anime and its subcultures. With his merchandising I think Yokoyama is just trying to make a buck – but he is able to do so because there is an adult market in Japan for plush toys and figurines, which provide pseudo-companions for socially atomized individuals whose main relationship to the outside world is mediated by commodity consumption. Of course, there’s also collectors who like having another piece of Yokoyama’s world, but their acquisitiveness is no less an expression of the extent to which one’s relationship to culture is defined by physical ownership and private consumption.

    Anyway, that’s my rough take on the situation, and why I don’t think we can take “kawaii,” or Yokoyama’s turn to it in his comics or through merchandise, as an innocent thing. And perhaps, the sentimentality I sense developing in Yokoyama’s recent work stems from this context – a fetishization of the commodity, endowing it with pseudo-animistic qualities, or construing it as a human social other – rather than from any humanistic turn.

  11. J. Overby says:

    I follow that. Panter’s Jimbo doll or Clowes’s Enid, while beatifully packaged objects, are not interesting to me in the same way their comics are. And maybe in Japan, it’s that kind of thing in overdrive. My point was that, with the specific example of Yokoyama, the information the comics are giving you is very similar to what the toys give you, i.e, a fetishization of objecthood and visual stylization. The superflat surface is what matters. I would contrast that with Clowes or Panter, obviously, whose comics explore depth. Neither is an inherently better mode, but Yokoyama is exciting because he has a novel approach that differs greatly from the nineties alt-comix content worship.

    Is it a purer impulse that causes someone to make comics and not toys?

  12. chris lanier says:

    Good article, though the closing swipe against an audience that will “embrace narratives no matter how banal, juvenile, or dumb, as long as it is a comic” seems very wrongheaded. Is there really an audience out there that would be excited to grab a comic about tying your shoes, just because comics are an enticing medium, somehow? Yokoyama’s comics don’t take up banality out of any sort of laziness. In fact, part of what’s interesting about that vending machine page is that it takes an activity that is very unmemorable in the context of most people’s daily lives, and makes it a concrete object for contemplation.

    Things that are “banal” (“quotidian” might be a less perjorative way of putting it) are not de facto things that are uninteresting — they’re just things that we mentally edit out of the narrative of what our lives “really” constitute. Given how much accumulated weight those mentally invisible activities can have — our collective eating and shitting and driving and so on — “banal” is not necessarily equivalent to inconsequential.

    Which is not to say the interest of Yokoyama’s “banality” is purely polemical or ecological. There is also the bracing effect of turning an anthropological eye on our taken-for-granted day-to-day activities. There’s always a big gap between what our lives look like from the inside and what they look like from the outside, and Yokoyama mines that tension in really fascinating ways. Comics is a useful medium for that approach, combining a bias for visual exteriority with the reader’s mastery of a kind of diagrammatic time.

    It’s not that comics are alluring or nifty, it’s that they’re an interesting perceptual (or representational) tool.

  13. Ryan Holmberg says:

    I’ll take that criticism, to an extent. You’re right: quotidian is the more objective and, in Yokoyama’s case, apt term. You’re also right that the closing line might be overly harsh, but I do think that form goes a long way in comics, more so than in other media, and in many cases if their content were cast in any other medium (prose, film, painting), many comics would be appraised very differently. So, yes, I do think a shoe-tying comic would do well if its form is compelling, because comics are an interesting medium of representation, but also I think because comics in themselves have cachet. It’s like modern still-life painting: why does anyone care about Cezanne? because he had something interesting to say about apples? or because he had something to say about color, shape, and paint? Look at the success of the Abstract Comics anthology. It’s because it’s abstraction IN COMICS that makes it interesting.

    I guess my question back is: to what end does one focus on the quotidian? Simply, so that we become more sensitive to the everydayness of everyday life, and thereby our daily experiences become more enriched? So that we enjoy that soda pop all the more? Yes, the quotidian shapes us, and it’s the bulk of our hours, and to shift focus to the everyday versus the exceptional event does mark a “potentially” important move towards scrutiny of life in a more rounded way. But only potentially. I don’t think Yokoyama has come through with offering or enabling any insight into everyday life, phenomenologically, socially, emotionally, or otherwise. It’s all a bit too distant and passing for any of that. And also, is the quotidian really such an unseen sphere of daily life in contemporary culture? “Eating, shitting, driving”: there’s books, films, television programs, and most of all advertising focusing intensely on almost all facets of our daily life, telling me how to do it differently, how to do it better, how to buy things to enhance it, et cetera. So I’m not so sure Yokoyama’s “Vending Machine” opens up perception of everyday life, anymore than say a Coke advertisement, pulling on our heartstrings – share a Coke with your son! – appealing to our thirst and sweet-tooth – aah! – and with a slight, PR-friendly admonishment at the end to “Please Recycle.” For it to do what you’re suggesting, I think it has to take things a little further in SOME direction other than a formal one.

  14. matt h. says:

    an interesting discussion all around.

    ryan, i wonder if you (or anyone else) had a chance to see the babyboomfinal book, and if so, if you had any thoughts on how it relates to baby boom? i had a chance to page through it just a while ago and it’s a pretty interesting (literal) deconstruction of the sort of cute “iconography” of the characters, cutting them up and reassembling them, and turning the “chick” face into some sort of…i don’t know…mantra-ish thing, repeated into forever.

    or that’s the impression i gathered from my brief viewing of it.

    • Ryan Holmberg says:

      I haven’t seen Babyboomfinal. I was going to pick up a copy next trip to Japan. I’ll look at it with your comments in mind. Your description reminds me of the short comic “Dress-Up” in New Engineering. In that comic at least, certainly parts are being assembled, deassembled, and reassembled, but I would hesitate to use your term “deconstruction” because that word is so loaded with instant critical cachet. I imagine someone would want to think about this in terms of the “database” model Azuma Hiroki introduces in his Otaku book. But I think pre-digital examples are also relevant, like all the toy dolls (from paper cut-outs to Mr Potato Head) that allow you to mix and match. Also, iterations seem to me just a standard part of design process.

  15. […] Yokoyama reports that this shirt is being printed. Where? When? Now you are asking questions a camera phone cannot answer. However, there is a fine essay by Ryan Holmberg on some recent Yokoyama work over at our “critical organ” Comics Comics. […]

  16. […] Ryan Holmberg on the works of Yokoyama Yuichi […]

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