Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Travel




by Yuichi Yokoyama

Introduction by Paul Karasik

We all travel somewhere. We all commute somewhere else. That is, we all go places, at some time, for some reason. But what comprises the difference between these two verbs – “travel” and “commute?” Are there instances in which they can be interchanged? I commute to work most days – taking the subway, I transfer from the L to the F train. I wouldn’t say that I travel to work, even though I technically do – I go from Queens to Manhattan, and then back again. Instead, I say it’s my “commute.” On the other hand, when visiting my parents up in Syracuse, I have to drive on the highway, on 81 N., for about five or six hours. I would say I travel upstate, but I would never say I commute to my parent’s house. I travel there.

Yuichi Yokoyama’s “Travel,” released last year in a handsome edition from PictureBox, is the artist’s follow up to his earlier book, “New Engineering.” The graphic novel follows three men as they board an immense train and travel through various landscapes both urban and pastoral before exiting at a mysterious, scenic waterfront. The knowing details that compose this manga, which is entirely wordless except for a wry commentary in the back annotated by the author, are the banal habits of our daily, mechanized lives. The travelers buy tickets for the train, they search for seats, they share a cigarette. These are indistinguishable from the insignificant actions of our own lives. These insignificant acts are composed of movement, motion, yet they register a neutral value, a zero. Their value only manifests through a negative application – that is, swiping your MetroCard doesn’t mean much until the pass expires and you need to buy a new one.

These trivial actions are shown in dynamic close-ups and through a rapid succession of kinetic panels. In his introduction, Paul Karasik compares Yokoyama’s sense of motion with American comic artist Jack Kirby’s, both “…move with an urgency that is often much greater than the action demands… machines, vehicles, and the environment itself all cascade by with this same urgency.” Yokoyama’s extreme close-ups follow menial tasks, like putting coins into a slot on page 2, or removing the plastic from a box of cigarettes on page 120. Faces are conspicuously absent, replaced by hands and highly stylized lines of motion. These speed lines gain a vitalized primacy even over the presence of the three travelers themselves. Motion becomes, in a sense, a tactile presence throughout “Travel.” This turbine of vital movement propels the incremental action into the arena of spectacle. The motion of the three travelers as they complete these little tasks is important, the three men themselves are not.

Let us look at these small acts a little closer. Compare Yokoyama’s heady motion with the clinical camera of film director Michael Haneke. Take, for instance, the opening of Haneke’s debut film, “The Seventh Continent.” Like the three men in “Travel,” the family in the film are shown going about menial insignificances – turning on lights, filling the coffee pot, making the bed. As with “Travel,” Haneke’s “The Seventh Continent” depersonalizes its characters, focusing on their hands over the conspicuously absent face. In both works, the characters are objectified, that is, reduced to mechanical parts in a completely mechanized, industrial-integrated modern, or even post-modern, terrain. Yet Haneke conjures a cold dread, while Yokoyama delights in the slick sustainable living environments and rigorously realized fashions of his futurized world. Yokoyama mythologizes the characters’ motion, and remember that mythologizing involves depersonalization of the subject.

In a sense, Yokoyama’s post-urban environment exhibits a sharp optimism towards technology that harkens back to Tezuka’s “Astro Boy”s gleeful progressivism. The characters are glorious machines fully integrated into their world. The family in Haneke’s “The Seventh Continent” violently rebels against this terrible modernity, while Yokoyama thrills in the modern world’s efficiency and clean-lined frivolity.

Others have compared Yuichi Yokoyama’s work to the American Fort Thunder collective of comic book artists. Though analogies discredit such an idiosyncratic talent as Yokoyama, making such a comparison is helpful in that it allows us to look at how modernization and capitalism in these global powers have affected each respective artist. Both countries have recently enjoyed spectacular economic boom times– look at Japan in the eighties and the United States in the nineties before Bush and Sept. 11th. Both the Fort Thunder artists and Yokoyama spent creatively formative years in both periods, in those of prosperity and those of recession, and the work expresses an optimism injected with ambiguity.

“Travel” taps into a very modern paranoia, even amidst all the bountiful architecture and sublime gadgetry. Let us look at some of the ominous moments in the text. A young man steps into the same train car as the three travelers on page 92. He seems intimidating. Then, on page 108, he unzips his voluminous jacket and pulls out… a book. He’s on a train, after all. Earlier, the three men search for a seat. The already seated commuters stare at them with cold, unremitting eyes. It seems as if the chance of them finding a decent train car is becoming slimmer and slimmer. Here we see a common symptom of the commuter – the private entity entering the public space and becoming a public entity as well. The three travelers are invisible - one man talking on the phone refuses to move to allow them to pass. He doesn’t even see them. The three men are also the center of attention, as the other passengers glare at them with imagined accusation.

Towards the graphic novel’s close, the train passes into a congested metropolis. Unlike a compound carved into a mountain seen earlier in the book, this urban center, cramped and over-crowded as it is, appears malevolent. Look at the endless flow of pedestrians on pages 150 or 138! Despite the undeniable utopianism of “Travel,” such scenes cannot shake a sense of dread. The city, and modern travel itself, is certainly exciting and full of wonderful spectacle. Yet the very human fear of facelessness is a real one as well.

Though the book resonates with a strong subtext of humanism, much of the pleasure of “Travel” derives from Yokoyama’s bold and inventive style. Yokoyama favors a smooth, clear line, he occasionally experiments with other approaches– observe pages 33-35, where the train car is suddenly suffused with shadow and Yokoyama’s line turns thick and almost muddy. Then the light comes back on in the train car and Yokoyama returns to his crisper line.

While movement itself is a primary concern of the book, another strong thematic is that of time, or more particularly, time manipulated due to variables in perception. Through the book’s exquisite pacing and composition, time both expands and contracts. In his introduction, Paul Karasik discusses how “Yokoyama is an artist with a great deal of respect for his reader. He allows the reader to do a lot of the work…His drawing is rich with detail and texture. He just doesn’t care to spoon-feed. For him the story is the telling.” And the telling is variable, relying ultimately upon the reader instead of the writer/artist as the authoritative agent. The length of time it takes to read “Travel” varies according to the individual reader – this is possibly to a good deal because of the lack of dialogue or a dramatically driven plot. Yes, “Travel” is event-driven, but it is just that those “events” consist of the “insignificant” acts mentioned above, instead of by a conventional melodrama.

Time, seen through the medium of water, becomes tangible. On pages 69 and 71, we see rain strike the window of the train. It then streaks down the pane, before eventually blurring and obstructed the view outside. A moment in time is here slowed to a discernable crawl, while Yokoyama also draws attention to the ‘speed’ of the moment – the transformation of water as a physical manifestation of the speed lines discussed earlier. Speed becomes a physicality upon the invisible surface of the window. In some sense, the very panels of “Travel” compose yet another invisible surface upon which motion lines strike in the same manner rain hits a window.

In “Travel,” then, we find a collapse and reversal of form and value – as the ineffable (time, motion) becomes physical (water, speed lines), while we observe the evidence of character through landscape in a manner completely divorced from notions of the pathetic fallacy. The notion of a closed “journey” is even upturned, as a further page of narrative follows the commentary. This additional page comes, then, after the story has supposedly finished in its climactic two-page spread of our three travelers standing before an outcropping of magnificent stone. The climax is thwarted by this additional page of narrative - the journey, the train, the landscape, does not have an end point, only an arbitrary cessation.

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