Comics, Manga, Reviews

Great Teacher Onizuka: A Review

This was originally published in Rolling Stone India, November 2009. Dusted and put up here because I plan to do a mega-reread of the series in the next few days.

Writer/Artist: Tohru Fujisawa
Publisher: Tokyopop
Rating: Four and a half stars

Meet Eikichi Onizuka, a bottom-rung university graduate (barely), whose primary interests are peering up girls’ skirts at local malls and getting into trouble – not mutually exclusive activities, those two. But fate has different plans in store for virginity-challenged young Eikichi – circumstance makes him leave his delinquence behind him and opt for a new career, that of an educator. Eikichi Onizuka, 22 years old, sets out to become Great Teacher Onizuka, the greatest sensei in Japan. His mission: to make school fun again. His secondary mission – getting to fourth base with someone. Anyone.

That is the premise behind this beloved shonen manga series, that traces Onizuka’s explosive – and often ludicrous – adventures in teaching. At first glance, it seems humanly impossible for a man of his calibre to really do much with his career choice. He cheated his way through his own academic career, seemingly has an IQ of 50, and the only legitimate qualification on his misspelled resume is that he has secured a second dan black belt in karate. He is perverted, being more than a little obsessed with young girls and their underwear. And he lets his fists do the talking most of the time. The first arc of the series establishes how Onizuka, beating all these odds, manages to get through a teacher training course at a public school and becomes a temporary teacher in the Holy Forest Academy, a prestigious private institute. He is put in charge of Class 3-4, whose students have terrorized the previous three home-room teachers into ending their careers – one committed suicide, another developed an eating disorder. It would take a very foolhardy, or a very determined educator to take up the responsibility of cleaning the school’s Augean stables.

But determination is what Onizuka has in spades. “You are a cockroach”, one of his students shrieks at him with disgust, right after the would-be teacher pops up where he wasn’t really supposed to. This analogy echoes throughout the series. Like a cockroach, Onizuka wiggles himself into his students’ lives even as they hurl expletives at him and threaten (and often perpetrate) violence against his self. Just as a cockroach skitters away from all attempts to stomp it out, our hero manages to best all the traps his devilish students cook up – from publishing morphed porno pictures of Onizuka to having him framed for embezzling money from student funds. And slowly, one by one, our hero wins them over using a combination of his perversely inappropriate world-view and his incredible physical prowess.

All long-running series by single creators run into similar teething issues – an initial rush of heady ideas that slowly slides into a predictable graph of highs and lows, where the creator struggles not only to find the voice, but to etch out a character’s life-story in a way that builds on its premise, instead of stagnating into repetitive cliche. Maintaining the momentum of a series, without over-stretching a story-line is a tough call. It would have been very easy for writer/artist Tohru Fujisawa to stumble. The second arc, that of the students being set straight by the teacher, resolutely avoids falling into the trap. Sure, it is long, but there are two aspects in which Fujisawa scores top of the manga-ka class (if you will pardon the school-based metaphor) – the delineation of the individual characters that make up the Onizukaverse. Every student in the class has a unique personality, a standalone voice which makes the reader identify with them. Partly because they are there in every classroom in any school in the world – the quiet, shy video-game-playing geek who is bullied at every turn; the computer whiz who knows more than he lets on; the headstrong yet confused loud-mouth who takes offence at minor quips; a girl whose parents are influential bureaucrats, a fact that she uses to her advantage; another with a dark secret involving a previous teacher. Sure, they are all genre archetypes, but it is Fujisawa’s genius that breathes new, fresh life into them.

The second thing that elevates the series to greatness is the sheer unpredictability of the central character. Eikichi Onizuka is a man of hidden surprises, whose heart of gold is matched only by his complete irreverence and lack of respect for authority. Early on in his career, Onizuka figures out that he really loves teaching, and he takes it on himself to be the kind of teacher that his generation did not have. At the crux of every decision Onizuka makes, however frivolous and played-for-laughs it seems to be, there is an important life-lesson that he imparts to his students. But Onizuka being the way he is, any attempt to take him seriously usually backfires, with hilarious results.

In addition to changing the way his students feel towards school, Onizuka also takes on the strict authoritarians that make up the faculty of Holy Forest Academy. His primary whipping-dog being the perennially grumpy Vice-Principal Uchiyamada – a running gag involves the Vice-Principal’s Toyota Cresta. The third arc of the series, in particular, involves a final stand against a new Principal who ousts the support of Chairman Sakurai, whose tacit approval had made a large part of Onizuka’s brushes with authority seem minor in the past.

Great Teacher Onizuka made me laugh, it had me gasping with incredulity, it made me come up with excuses to avoid work just so I could tear through the twenty-five volumes as soon as I could. It is not without its faults – a great deal of fan-service persists throughout the story, and let’s face it – if you have seen To Sir With Love and Munnabhai MBBS, you realize that the premise of GTO is hardly original. But even with all its over-the-top antics, it’s not just a fine comedy series, but also a drama that’s an indictment of the pettiness that afflicts today’s education system. It’s a scathing denouncement of self-serving, vainglorious modern-day teachers for whom teaching is nothing more than a way to make money, rather than the life-altering position it is meant to be. Hey, it made me want to go back to school, and that’s quite something!

Comics, Reviews

Pop Culture Update: Locke and Key

One of the genuinely distressing news of 2011 was the failure of the pilot episode of Locke and Key to be picked up for regular programming. This is bad for three reasons – because Locke and Key is one of the finest comic-books being published right now, and the success of the TV show would have no doubt brought in more readers to the series (consider how many people have read Game of Thrones this year, to get an idea of what I mean). Because from what I gather off internet reviews, the pilot episode is really well-made, with superb casting and a great script. But most of all, it sucks because a lot of shitty TV series got green-lighted at the cost of this. Seriously, makes no sense.

But still, the comic stands on its own. It is written by Joe Hill,  a man who, under normal circumstances, be known as Stephen King’s son; but right now, he’s known as the guy behind ground-breaking  genre novels such as Horns and Heart-Shaped Box. It is drawn by Chilean artist Gabriel Rodriguez. Together, the two are magical. This book happens to be one of the most perfect collaborations I’ve seen, where the art enhances the story and vice versa.

Among the things that I love about Locke and Key is that it’s among the most structured comics I’ve read. Not a wasted, throw-away chapter, page or panel on this one. It helps that the story was already planned out into three acts, each act made up of 2 miniseries. This ensures that Hill knows exactly how his story is being framed, giving us just the right amount of information, teasing us with flashbacks and tertiary characters that flicker into the overall plot at the right time. Currently, we are on miniseries #5, entitled Clockworks, where the mythology of the world is being explained by a series of flashbacks. Which brings me to –

The fact that Locke and Key is one of those rare horror comics that gets horror. Which is not surprising, considering Hill’s literary antecedents. But really, do you have any idea how hard it is to do horror in comics without falling back into icky-gore-territory or ho-hum-shock-ending cliches? This book manages to creep into your head in strange ways – through childhood fears, unexpected plot twists, and by a genuinely frightening Big Bad Villain, one that manages to stay one step ahead of the protagonists at nearly every turn.

The first miniseries, Welcome to Lovecraft, introduces us to the principal cast of characters, the Locke family and the three siblings – eldest brother brother Ty, the sister Kinsey and the youngest, six-year old Bode. The death of their father brings them and their mother to their ancestral family home in Lovecraft, Massachusetts, where strange things begin to happen. Bode, for example, finds a strange lady calling for his help from beneath a well. This is also where we start understanding that the tragedy that has befallen the family is not a random incident, but is connected to keys. Keys that do stuff, like turning Bode into a ghost. Or letting people go anywhere they want, or doing distressing things to their psyches.

Finally, Locke and Key is one smart comic that brings unexpected things to the fore on repeated reads. Small example: the second volume is entitled Head Games, and all the covers have a common theme.

In case the image on the right looks a little familiar, here’s why – it’s a riff on an iconic cover from the 1950s that was used by the US Senate to ban horror and crime comics. This particular cover was printed by EC Comics, run by publisher William Gaines, who founded Mad magazine later on. There is this legendary story of Gaines trying to defend this cover as tasteful in court. He did not do a good job of it – in his defense, he was completely doped up on cough medicine when invited to testify.

Oh, and the college the Locke kids go to in San Francisco, before they move to Lovecraft? William Gaines Academy. Ha!

But the smartness lies not just in homages or sly winks at the audience – the smartness lies in the way Hill seems to know exactly when to let certain characters take center-stage, or to subvert a known trope at just the right time, or to let a throwaway part of the scenery become a crucial cog in the battle between good and bad. The two, writer and artist, seem to have fun when telling their story, and that fun is infectious! One of my favorite single issues deals with epic battles and mundane day-to-day affairs, and there are those single-panel settings that hide worlds and untold stories in them, the kind that would make lesser writers milk them through crossovers and back-stories. Hill and Rodriguez do it in single wordless panels, the magnificent bastards!

All said and done, what is the series all about? It helps that every chapter starts with a one-page cheat-sheet, that tells you the bare bones of what’s going on and where we stand.

Locke and Key, ladies and gentlemen. The best fucking comic being published right now, BAR NONE. It helps if you get all the chapters and read them at one go, because every miniseries ends with cliff-hangers. And these are not your everyday, how-do-they-get-out-of-this-level cliffhangers, these are the holy-shit-this-did-not-just-fucking-happen kinds, the ones that make you grab for the next book in the series at 4 AM in the morning, even though your eyes are puffy and you’ve got to be at work at 9.

Comics, Reviews

Adrian Tomine – Summer Blonde

(Originally published in the July 2009 issue of Rolling Stone India)

Summer Blonde

Adrian Tomine (pronounced Toh-mee-nay, not Toe-mine, as many people think) wears a lot of hats. Metaphorically speaking, of course. His current assignments include illustration gigs with the New Yorker and Esquire, designing indie DVD covers, and editing/overseeing arthouse manga for the publishing house Drawn and Quarterly. But Tomine is not known for these interesting career forks as much as he is revered for the series of mini-comics, called Optic Nerve, which he began at the age of 17.

Summer Blonde, the third collection of the creator’s Optic Nerve series, has four stories. ‘Alter Ego’ is about Martin Courtney, a moderately successful writer experiencing writer’s block under the pressure of meeting and surpassing his debut effort. As he puts it, “They say everyone has one great book in them. Maybe I had a mediocre one and that’s it.” Things take a strange turn when he gets a postcard from an old schoolmate he had a crush on, and begins dating her younger sister, who’s still in high school. ‘Summer Blonde,’ the second story has twenty-something Neil, single, obsessed with a girl who sits behind the counter at a greeting card shop who he buys a card from every other day but cannot muster up the courage to ask her out. When she begins dating his neighbor Carlo, a man who knows his way around women, Neil becomes an unwitting stalker of the girl he cares for. Hillary Chan, the protagonist of ‘Hawaiian Getaway’ calls random strangers passing by the phonebooth next to her apartment, desperate to strike up a conversation with anyone at all, after being fired from her job and abandoned by her roommate. ‘Bomb Scare’ is set in a high school, where a boy – a member of the geek clique in the class – strikes up a friendship with popular Cammie, who has just had a traumatic experience at a party.

All these synopses make it sound like the stories go somewhere, but they don’t – think of them more as stray reels of unfinished films. Every story ends, rather, is interrupted, at a point where, in a “normal” plot, there would be a major emotional turning point for the characters involved. Be warned, if you seek happy endings in your stories, or some form of closure for the protagonists, you won’t get that from Tomine’s work. Neil, the protagonist of the second story, meets the girl inadvertently in a crowded subway train, and as they’re pressed against each other, he stumbles to find the right words. “I am sure…you really hate me,” his voice trails off. Pause. “Yeah, but no more than anyone else,” she replies, still looking away from him. End of story.

A striking aspect of Tomine’s comics is the hallucinatory nature of what he writes and draws – the kind that leaves you slightly off-kilter once you’re done imbibing them. It’s the kind of buzz you get from a Michel Gondry film, or a Bjork video, or a Weezer song. All in all, these are more experiences than actual stories. His characters are real, flawed, everyday individuals, riddled with insecurities, bearing the weight of misguided intentions, the kind that one wouldn’t notice in a crowd. They are also fucking creepy, just so you know.

Part of what keeps you engaged throughout are the interesting and varied storytelling techniques. Flashback panels, narrative captions and thought balloons, often avoided by modern comic writers, are employed by Tomine to evoke a unique emotional effect. Observe the way he manipulates silence to optimum effect. Silent panels take the story forward, let us into the mental turmoil of the characters, mark the passing of time, even freeze a few moments into an eternity. This is a comic book auteur who knows the tricks of the trade, and uses them to splendid effect.

In many ways, Tomine’s work is a natural progression of the underground comix movement of the seventies, started by the likes of Robert Crumb, nurtured by stalwarts like Pulitzer winner Art Spiegelman and Charles Burns, and given shape and form in the last part of the century by talents such as Dan Clowes, the Hernandez brothers, and Chris Ware. The creator has openly acknowledged the influence of Clowes and the Hernandez brothers in his work –the clean-lined style of his character drawings, in particular, and the deceptively simple backgrounds owe a lot to Clowes’ Ghost World and David Boring. Also, among the hardest things to do when you’re drawing comics is to create people whose faces, body structure and mannerisms do not meld into one or two oft-used templates with hair color or a costume being the only distinguishable way to identify a character. Tomine’s artwork leaves no doubt in your mind about his complete proficiency in this area – every single character is singularly drawn, each just as ugly or plain or pretty as the story demands.

Among the allegations made by his detractors is his inability to stray from his comfort zone, making all his work suspiciously similar. But there is no taking away the power in Tomine’s work to echo the human condition. The stories are about Americans, yet they resonate with every individual in any society who has ever felt alienated, lonely or loveless. Isn’t that what art is all about?