There are certain things readers tend to automatically anticipate when they open a graphic novel: characters, plot, interactions, emotional paths, a sense that the story inside can somehow maps onto their own reality. One of the things great art does, though, is upend its viewers’ preconceptions about what it can and should do, and very few contemporary cartoonists cut as vividly against the grain as the Japanese artist and graphic designer Yuichi Yokoyama.
Yokoyama’s book Garden, which just came out in an English-language edition via Picturebox, which also published his earlier books New Engineering and Travel, is in some ways the most conventional of the three. It has actual dialogue on most of its pages (rather than simply annotations at the end), it has multiple characters, and it has later incidents that connect to early incidents rather than simply going from an initial point to an end point like Travel. Garden is also impossible to mistake for anyone’s work but Yokoyama’s–not just because of its visual style and thematic concerns (insanely complicated engineering projects that arise out of nowhere), but because of this sui generis creator’s total disregard for the usual stuff that goes to make up a narrative.
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Most of the plot-in-the-usual-sense of Garden happens on the first of its 320 pages, on which a group of–tourists? We never quite find out–with near-abstract patterns for faces are told that “the garden ain’t open today,” walk around the side, find a break in the fence, climb in and start exploring. The “garden” is a series of artificial constructions: rooms, devices, pools, forests, each stranger than the one before it. Eventually, they discover that there’s a pattern or plan for the whole thing, and that they’re under some kind of perpetual surveillance.
The characters never develop individual names or personalities as they move from one strange setting to the next. They all speak in exactly the same flatly descriptive tone, to explain the images: “We’ve now arrived at a round pond.” “There are jagged objects floating in the water.” “What could they be?” “Perhaps it’s ice?” “It is not cold to the touch (thus it cannot be ice).” As in Yokoyama’s other books, repeated onomatopoeic sound effects (rendered in Japanese letters, with tiny English translations beneath them) become compositional elements and visual patterns, and he’s got sound effects for everything. “Zubo,” for instance, is captioned as “sound of flag being pulled out”; “zazazazaza” is the sound of large chunks of concrete sliding down a ravine made of sand.
The look of Yokoyama’s artwork is usually pretty close to old vector-graphics video games; take out his humanoid figures, and a lot of these images would look like abstract design rather than representation. Little shifts in his technique count for a lot–a brief sequence in which the explorers’ forms are distorted by gigantic soap bubbles is totally unnerving. Photographs are a recurring motif in the story; at one point, our characters pass through an area where absolutely everything is buried in piles of photos, with a lake of photos beyond it. Is that a commentary on contemporary surveillance culture? It could be, or it might just be another example of Yokoyama’s fondness for technological excess as architecture.
The photo motif turns up again at the dramatic climax of Garden, which basically consists of a bunch of Polaroids slowly developing, to which Yokoyama devotes six pages. (Admittedly, they’re developing in the foreground while a hurricane is sending trees hurtling by in the background, but still.) And then, for the book’s final forty-plus pages, it goes off in a significantly different direction; it’s hard to spoil a book that has no real plot, but what happens is still a surprise that makes it clear where the artist’s sympathies lie.
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Even though it frustrates ordinary expectations at every turn, though, Garden is thrilling and engaging–a page-turner, in its perverse way. This is double-distilled world-building, the work of a creator whose interest in assembling comics has nothing to do with attachment to characters and a great deal to do with constructing crazily detailed environments too big and complicated to be explained without moving through them in space and time. Yokoyama lays out his comics as if they were action manga, with tilted, dramatically staged panels, even when what he’s showing is a building made of cloth or a mountain constructed from a giant rolled-up piece of paper. His characters here, in fact, are perpetually in motion, in increasingly treacherous circumstances.
It’s odd to imagine Yokoyama’s visual techniques here being applied to other sorts of stories: most of the rest of the broad comics continuum is still, ultimately, in the domain of narrative. But comics are also a medium of incredible invented settings, places that are as striking and resonant as the interactions that happen within them, from Duckburg to the Baxter Building to the Unifactor. Part of the peculiar force of Garden is that Yokoyama doesn’t just breathe mechanical life into his own impossible landscape, he makes everyone else’s seem more important too.