I’m blogging my way through Fantagraphics’ Moto Hagio collection, “A Drunken Dream.” You can read the whole series of posts here.
“Angel Mimic” is, alas, much better constructed. There’s foreshadowing, thematic development, a final shock reveal — in short, all the elements of a traditional plot. As for what that plot is… Joe McCulloch over at Comics Comics has a good summary.
while a double-barreled blast of soap opera sees a suicidal girl hauled off death’s doorstep by a rough but handsome man who *gasp* turns out to be her new biology professor, resulting in detailed, evolution-themed educational segments (not unlike the learning bits in Golgo 13 or a Kazuo Koike manga) inevitably lashed to Our Heroine’s Dark Secret. “I wonder if humans will evolve into angels?” she muses, probably gauging the reader’s appetite for comics of this tone.
Joe’s a kinder man than I, so he doesn’t quite come out and say it, but — yeah, this is godawful. In her better stories, the fact that Hagio’s characters never for a second seem real gives her world an eerie air of unreality, like they’re pasteboard props erected to conceal an abyss. Here, though, more of the cracks are filled in, and Tsugiko ends up seeming less like a mask concealing wells of emotion and more like a hollow doll being pushed by rote towards the inevitable epiphany. There’s initial tension with the man who saves her — he wanders back into her life — they are thrown together by circumstance — they happen to meet her ex — they separate — they come back together — the secret is revealed — happy ending.
That secret (and hey, I’m going to spoil this crappy story now, so be alerted)….
is that Tsugiko has had an abortion. Her reiterated wish that humans could evolve into angels with wings is, as her biology professor/lover keenly observes, actually a displaced grief for her baby, who she hopes has gone to heaven.
It’s hard not to be moved by Tsugiko’s look of shock and grief, the eyes delicately and liquidly rendered in the oval face as the background blurs out. The revelation, and Tsugiko’s reaction to it, is supposed to show us that she has depths. Unfortunately, though, it shows us the opposite. Her one (endlessly repeated, hopelessly trite, but still) bit of fancy, the one piece of furniture in her mental life, is shown not to be in her mental life at all, but in her womb. The doll is opened up, and what’s inside is just some clichéd tragedy and a maternal instinct. No wonder she needs a biology professor to understand her; all she is is her biology. He helpfully points this out, and in gratitude she throws herself into his arms, pretending to be an angel which, as we’ve just been told, means that she pretends to be his child.
The point isn’t that women shouldn’t feel grief for an aborted child, or that such grief isn’t a valid subject for a story. But if you’re going to tell that woman’s story, you need to tell her particular story, and Hagio just isn’t up to it. She’s interested in trauma, not people. In “Hanshin” and “Drunken Dream,” this worked out, because the story was sufficiently open that the trauma was nonspecific; it was the universe’s, or Hagio’s, the metaphor allowing space for poetry. Here, though, the trauma is defined, and that definition, sans actual character development, results in banality. Tsugiko is nothing but the pain of her abortion, and then, when her boyfriend takes away that pain, she’s just nothing. The failed suicide of the opening, the transformation into an angelic nonentity, is at the end not reversed but fulfilled. Happiness is escaping from the complicated choices of adulthood into the oblivion-bearing arms of some wiser father.
In her best writing, Hagio’s ambivalent self-hatred comes across as a complicated yearning/repulsion around both identity and gender. Here, though, that self-hatred actually reads as something uncomfortably close to misogyny; a desire to annihilate women and grant them the peace, if not of the grave, then at least of enforced and eternal childhood.
I’d be remiss, though, if I didn’t point out that not everything in this story is clichéd romantic melodrama.
Some of it is clichéd romantic comedy. In this sequence, biology-professor-guy (named Shiroh) is teaching class when Tsugiko walks in late. It turns out they’re wearing matching sweaters, which sets the class to tittering. Tsugiko is amused, and even throws out a bon mot (“Two hearts beat as one!”) This isn’t Elizabeth Bennet, obviously, but it does demonstrate a rudimentary wit and a flirtatious self-deprecation which makes it seem for a moment like she’s maybe got a brain in there somewhere. Shiroh, anyway, is totally freaked out by this evidence of synaptic activity, and rather desperately pulls his sweater off. Tsugiko, though, ain’t going to be outdone; partly out of hurt feelings, partly out of pique, and maybe partly as courting behavior, she strips off her sweater. While teach has a button-down shirt under his outerwear, Tsugiko is wearing only an undershirt — apparently without a bra. Her nipples are clearly visible — and the act of pulling the shirt over her head has also frizzed her hair out. Even her body language is more aggressive; her legs are spread apart and so are her arms. She looks, in short, red hot, a fact lost neither on her teacher nor on her classmates (trust Hagio not to forget the homoerotic subtext.)
For these two pages, at least, Tsugiko is allowed to be something other than an angel-in-waiting. Specifically, she gets to be the spunky heroine in a romantic comedy. And, as we all know, spunky heroine=sexual aggressiveness=fan service for the nerdy guy. So, um…yay?
I suppose if I have to choose I’d rather have the spunky fan servette than the weepy dish mop. But that’s just personal preference; I don’t know that I can make a good aesthetic case for one over the other. Either way, this story really crap — mediocre and rote even by the standards of not-necessarily-fantastic-romance-fiction, like Georgette Heyer or Twilight or even — God help me — a really pernicious piece of dreck like Yes Man.
So…what to make of Hagio at this point? I’ve read seven stories, of which 5 have been quite bad, and two have been masterful. I’m feeling like I’m getting whiplash — though, at the same time, there is common ground in all the work here.
That common ground is genre. Hagio is a lot more like, say, Jack Kirby, or Alan Moore, or Neil Gaiman than she is like Lynda Barry or Alison Bechdel. Most of these stories don’t take a stand as self-conscious art for art’s sake. Even “Hanshin”, the most idiosyncratic effort so far, is drenched in sentimentality and obsessed with prettiness. Indeed, you could perhaps read Hanshin as being about genre; the second self standing in for the shojo/romance genre itself, a twin that Hagio tries to abandon only to end up more perfectly embodying it.
In a controversial review, Chris Mautner argued that Drunken Dream was too girly to attract the art comics kids. I suspect he’s in part correct — but I also wonder if Hagio’s a hard sell in that neck of the woods because she really isn’t art comics. If, say, Steve Ditko had never been seen on these shores, and suddenly a book of his work was translated, would lit comics folks see it as especially relevant?
In any case, “Iguana Girl,” the next story in the volume, is supposed to be one of Hagio’s best, and it also looks like the one that may most closely approximate an art comics sensibility. We’ll see how that goes….