When you’re an adult, sprawling out in the manga aisle of your neighborhood bookstore with a copy of Fruits Basket isn’t the same. Even though it’s got nostalgic appeal for adults longing to relive their childhoods, manga written for teens might not be stimulating enough for the 20+ crowd. These days when I read manga, I don’t want to flip through some cutesy and predictable love story or a dozen fist-pumping shonen arcs. I want to feel something new.
When done well, dark and disorienting manga does a lot more than entertain. Like signing up for skydiving classes, the truly mind-altering stuff takes you outside yourself to somewhere terrifying. No manga artist I’ve read does that better than Inio Asano, whose affecting portraits of narcissistic and self-hating personalities are the stuff of psychological thrill seekers.
Asano’s work is the comics equivalent of hyper-realistic still-life paintings. A lot of his stories are about despicable teens and adults who have given up on being happy. Through his 20 years making manga, Asano’s characteristically selfish protagonists are real enough to be relatable, but too real to be likable.
Last year, a friend recommend A Girl on the Shore to me, adding that it might haunt me forever. It has. It begins with a high school girl on a date with an upperclassman who demands oral sex. Upset and looking to regain control, she begins having casual sex Keisuke Isobe, a classmate who’s in love with her. Isobe’s got the house to himself a lot and spends his time running the anime blog of his late brother who committed suicide. At Isobe’s place, the two develop a jagged, raw relationship so unhinged that it feels voyeuristic to experience.
After devouring A Girl on the Shore, I had to read the rest of Asano’s work. Goodnight Punpun follows a very ordinary boy named Punpun Onodera and his extremely messed up family, who are all birds. Everybody else in the world is human, which puts a spotlight on Punpun’s dysfunctional life circumstance. His dad’s in jail. His mom begins to lose her mind after her husband’s departure. Also, his uncle, who’s taking his dad’s place as a father figure, has some gnarly proclivities. As a kid, Punpun sees everything in black and white, firm in his belief that he’s a normal guy, while his world is in fact overwhelmingly gray. That grayness, eventually, absorbs him. More of a feel-something read than a feel-good read, Goodnight Punpun is an hard-to-swallow story about failure and missed opportunities.
Last month, manga publisher Viz Media released Asano’s Dead Dead Demon’s Dededede Destruction in English—and it’s just as off-kilter as it sounds. Three years before the manga starts, aliens invade Japan. They’re not terrifying War of the Worlds aliens—just lingering, weak out-of-towners in a hovering flying saucer. DDDDD follows two best friends who want to play shooter games and do mundane crap against the background of the alien invasion, which, after three years, has become totally normal. It’s funny to read the way DDDDD’s teens communicate about the invasion on gaming fora— “Earth go bye bye \(^o^)/”—and interact with it—running over to the nearest crashed spaceship to “hoot ‘n’ holler at it” like it’s a dead deer.
Asano’s stuff is out-of-the-ordinary. It’s dark and funny and haunting. It’s also not for kids.