In December of last year I stood less than ten feet away from Takehiko Inoue and watched him as he painted with sumi ink on a blank wall, where a single mistake would have scotched the whole job. He was putting the finishing touches on a mural commissioned for the second story of the New York City branch of the Kinokuniya bookstore. Grasses bending in the wind and the embroidery on a samurai’s kimono appeared casually from the end of his brush, like they had somehow been stuffed in there and he was just gently shaking them out one line at a time.
Inoue is easily one of the single greatest manga-ka alive right now, and I don’t feel I’m indulging in hyperbole by saying that. Here is the guy who created Slam Dunk (which is only just now reaching us in a legitimate translation; how’s that for slow justice?), Buzzer Beater, and Vagabond — with Vagabond alone being so good that anyone else could easily have retired after finishing it. But he started another manga, Real (about wheelchair basketball), while Vagabond was still running, and judging from what little we’ve seen in English so far it’s clear he’s not doing it out of a sense of responsibility to anything but his art.
It was Vagabond that really “broke” Inoue in English-speaking territories, though. One glimpse at the cover art for each of the volumes in question was all it took to clue prospective readers in that this wasn’t “just comics” any more than The Sopranoswasn’t “just a Mafia story”. Such work was too good not to exhibit on its own in the context of an artbook, and that’s exactly what Sumi is: some of the best moments fromVagabond thus far, excerpted and reproduced at a size that does even greater justice to their beauty. (Another artbook, Water, which is the color companion to Sumi’s black-and-white, is out in Japan right now and will be released domestically at the same time as this one.)
There isn’t a single page in Sumi that isn’t somehow striking, and I suspect that’s only because there isn’t a single panel in Vagabond that doesn’t have the same effect, either. Inoue knows endless ways to make ink serve his needs — the thickness of lines, the choice of a brush or a pen, the use of screentone vs. crosshatching vs. stippling vs. you-name-it. What’s great about the book is that all of these choices are shown to great effect thanks to the book’s size (if the comic itself was this big I’d faint) and reproduction quality. I suspect Viz did the same thing here that they did with theUzumaki artbook for Naruto and used the same digital prepress files as the Japanese edition; I own the original Japanese printing and the quality is essentially identical in every way, right down to the right-to-left formatting. The only major difference is some English-language annotation in the back of the book, which is quite welcome.
Looking through Sumi also reminded me of one of the reasons I gravitated towards manga in general, after becoming progressively disenchanted with the grinding mills of Marvel and DC (with some exceptions, like Watchmen). There’s something about black-and-white comic art that is just more primal and commanding to me than color, and I never felt like a line drawing was missing anything. This isn’t to say that color isbad, but that it’s too easy to over-apply it, to use it to excess, like screentone. When comics graduated from using the old-school color process to the full-bleed, full-color printing that we see today, the use of color went from being subtle and effective to wallowing in complete overkill. Just because you could use every single spectrum, spot Pantone pigment, and Photoshop filter effect didn’t mean it was a good idea. Chinese manhua artists understand this, and they use color in a slightly more restrained manner. A master like Inoue, though, does with black-and-white what any great artist can do: he makes you feel like nothing was ever missing to begin with.
The Bottom Line: No serious lover of manga art should do without this — and Water — in their collection. No Inoue fan should even think about going without it.