Let me start on as unambiguous a note as possible. Felipe Smith’s Peepo Choo is the manga title of the summer, possibly the manga title for the whole of 2010. It doesn’t just break new ground for manga, it paves it and puts parking stripes on it. It is raunchier than the last issue of Penthouse Variations you found behind someone else’s toilet, violent enough to knock the teeth from your face, and entirely too funny for its own good. It will raise one hell of a noise. It ought to.
After writing and throwing away a dozen other drafts of this review, I think I’ve managed to boil down to three basic points what makes this book such a blast of fresh air. One, as has been discussed at great length elsewhere, it’s one of the first manga titles — if not the first — created by a non-Japanese native, but published over in Japan before being licensed in English. Two, it uses its outlandish seinen plot (which reads like an overheated portion of, say, Black Lagoon) to make some fierce points about the very audience that might well be lining up for this thing. It has at least as much to say about otakudom as it does its cultural inverse, the fetishization of all things American (or at least Western) by some Japanese. Three, it does all this in exactly the style — not visual, but emotional — of the best manga: on one panel you’re getting your face slammed into the pavement, and then on the next you’re getting tickled until you can’t breathe. There’s a kind of genius in being able to do that and get away with it.
Peepo Choo opens with — and is nominally about — Milton, a meek kid growing up in Chicago’s South Side. His love for Japan is boundless, and flows directly from his enthusiasm for an incomprehensible TV series called (what else?) Peepo Choo. The only place he feels remotely at home is his wannabe-hustler buddy Jody’s comic store, where he runs the register and gets paid off the books. Jody despises the “nerds” that flock to his shop, and makes only the most marginal of exceptions for Milton. Nobody realizes the shop is little more than a front operation for its owner, Gill, a hulking psycho killer who’s just been tapped to head to Tokyo for a mission. Jody then rigs an in-store contest to bring Milton along with them (mostly to shut the poor kid up), but it’s not like Jody doesn’t have his own deluded reasons for heading J-ward. He’s heard endless stories about the country being a booty-seeker’s paradise, and he’s damned if he’s coming back from this trip still a virgin.
Over in Japan, the storyline revolves around Morimoto Rockstar — er, Morimoto Takeshi, as he was known back when he was a meek clock-puncher. Then he got drafted into the gangster life, found it more to his liking, changed his name, and adopted a personal style stitched together Frankenstein-style from equal parts Scarface and Get Rich or Die Tryin’. He’s the reason Gill has been summoned overseas, and it’s a toss-up which one of the two is crazier. While Gill dons S&M bondage gear for his kills and leaves his victims stapled to the furniture, Morimoto thinks nothing of butchering a guy in a public toilet and leaving messages carved on the dead guy’s chest in bad Engrish. Milton mercifully doesn’t know about any of this yet, but his discovery that Japan isn’t all cosplayers and cute mascots is jarring enough. It’s only a matter of time before he runs into Morimoto — or worse, before Jody runs into, say, the cute-on-the-outside, homicidal-on-the-inside teen model Reiko, with her predilection for taking people who bother her and leaving them looking like the picture you see in the dictionary next to “f — ed up”.
It took me a second reading to realize Smith’s satire of otaku-dom — whether by American or Japanese fanboys — is not just an indiscriminate flaming. The book doesn’t mock Milton so much as it sets him up to have his illusions demolished. He doesn’t want to brag about what he is, just be accepted — and he just doesn’t know yet that Japan as it actually is won’t be the place for that to happen. He’s a Babe in Toyland, who hasn’t yet seen with his own eyes how the salarymen barf on the park benches and slip thousand-yen notes into the hands of teen girls for a thirty-minute roll in the hay.
What Smith gets exactly right is an element peculiar to manga that is next to impossible to ape from the outside. I’m not talking about the visuals (after all, Even A Monkey Can Draw Manga), but the attitude, the heart-tugging, the emotional gear-shifting. It’s something I’ve seen other Western artists working in the manga tradition attempt to do, and they typically fail at it. There has to be some personal connection to the material, but more than that an understanding of why things like that happen in a manga. It’s to build empathy with the protagonist — in this case, Milton, whom we can see is a good kid and just needs to grow up a little. The tension generated comes from wondering whether or not he’ll survive this particular life lesson.
Last year, I sat in on a panel for Vertical, Inc.’s 2010 releases, during which they announced Twin Spica, Peepo Choo, and several other titles yet to be released. They’d been planning a manga line for some time, but wanted to pick titles that had that certain Vertical je ne sais quoi about them. I now have a better idea of what they mean, thanks to reading two of those titles. I’m going to have the worst time waiting for the rest of them to come out.