A while back I wrote a review of an animated feature from Japan — Tarō the Dragon Boy — where I said something along these lines: “You could watch this just for the nostalgia value, but that would be a mistake.” The same goes for Roger Leloup’s Yoko Tsuno series. Its design and storytelling harkens back to the days of Tintin and Johnny Quest, but it has far more than retro flair going for it. It’s one you get for your kids, and then you end up reading yourself out of sheer affection for it.
History lesson. Back when dinosaurs roamed the earth, the word manga was not in the dictionary (let alone on the bestseller lists) and what most people knew about Japan was mostly confined to the business or cooking pages of the newspaper, I was still working through my bandes dessinés phase and devouring everything in sight since there was so infuriatingly little of it to begin with. Mom had given my brother and I copies of Tintin to keep us busy during a transatlantic flight (circa 1978), and after that I was hooked. I borrowed copies of the rest of the series from the library, got hooked on Astérix in the process, graduated to the likes of Heavy Metal and Epic, and added tomes by Enki Bilal (Nikopol) and Juan Gimenez (A Matter of Time) to my permanent collection.
And along the way, I stumbled across something called The Adventures of Yoko, Vic and Paul from the same publishers as Bilal and Gimenez (the now-defunct Catalan Communications). Yoko was a Japanese teenager who lived in Belgium and “worked in television”, and along with her two friends — Vic the competent straight man, Paul the comic relief — she got into any number of adventures that ranged from Nancy Drew-style mystery to wild and wooly SF in the “let’s go to far-off worlds but we need to be back in time for dinner” vein. Of course I dug it, and not just because Yoko was cute. And now the good folks at Cinebook have picked up the rights to Yoko, letting me pick up where I left off all those years ago and not forcing me to go read the darn things in French after all.
On the Edge of Life, the first of Cinebook’s Yoko reprints, deposits Yoko and her friends in one of the typically exotic locales for the series — in this case, Rothenburg, a German town that still retains a great deal of its 16th century flavor. There Yoko meets with her friend Ingrid, now bedridden due to some strange malady — one her father blames on a “vampire” who is drawing out her blood and replacing it with some curious artificial substance. Since Yoko’s not one to take any myth on face value, she sticks close by Ingrid’s side to see for herself — and sure enough, the “vampire” in question turns out to not be supernatural at all. It’s a woman in a cape and a gas mask, but when cornered she begs Yoko to allow one last sample of Ingrid’s blood to be drawn. “She’s lucky to have a friend like you!” she confesses, with tears in her voice, which only adds to Yoko’s confusion.
At least two other parallel and intertwined plotlines run into this one, and each other. There’s an eccentric about town making a very detailed scale model of the village … which seems to either have one building too many, or one too few. And then there’s unresolved questions about Magda’s heritage and family, which makes Yoko all the more suspicious when the people who should know such things clam up hard. It all locks together very cleverly — a bit too cleverly for people who love to pick holes in such things, maybe, but that’s sort of like complaining that the cars go too fast in the Indy 500. It’s par for the course.
The stories may be outlandish in their general outlines and plotting, but I like how they remain realistic in little ways that matter. Early on, when Yoko is chasing Ingrid’s bloodsucker, she overexerts herself and ends up with a stitch. A tiny detail, sure, but when was the last time you saw that kind of attention paid to things, especially in something like this? There is also a good deal of something else often omitted in adventures for younger readers, and that’s a genuine sense of wit to the dialog. At one point there’s the old what’s-that-noise-maybe-it’s-the-wind routine, but as Yoko goes to check she muses: “The wise man says: the wind carries all noises, but only repeats the real ones.” And when chastised for driving with her foot to the floor, she replies “At the end of a night, when I see a fading flame of friendship, I burn some rubber.”
The technical side of comics publishing has evolved drastically since I was a kid, and it shows most in a series like this. The original Catalan Communications printings were decent, but limited by the technology of the day — they had to be cleaned up by hand, which was costly and slow, and there were times when the retouching showed painfully. Cinebook’s editions have the benefit of today’s digital technology — they’ve been relettered and with effects retouched in a near-seamless way, and without disturbing the colors (I remember Astérix looking particularly blotchy). Every detail on every page — and Roger Leloup’s art is bursting with beautifully-observed details of architecture and technology — comes through as it ought to.
Edge of Life is actually not the first book in the Yoko series proper; it’s actually the seventh in the series, coming right after The Three Suns of Vinea (one of the volumes Catalan put out under their imprint). But as with Tintin before it, Yoko doesn’t need to be read in any particular order to make sense; the volumes are largely self-contained. Edge of Life provides a good flavor for what the series is like on the whole since it lines up and expertly executes all of the tropes the series is best known for. Yoko and her friends encounter some variety of mystery, usually in some exotic locale; they dig deeper to unravel things that stretch deep into the past; and use their native wits, technical know-how and critical thinking skills to snap the pieces into place. One of the earlier volumes of the series was named Electronic Adventures, and it would make a fitting subtitle for the series as a whole — the rest of which I’m looking forward to as it comes out. All that remains now is for Yoko to truly follow in Tintin’s footsteps and hit the big screen. I’ve got money for a ticket all squirreled away.