Goodnight Punpun vol. 1

After “A Girl on the Shore” didn’t entirely satisfy my craving for a new quality manga from Inio Asano, this one hits the mark.  Let me say upfront that it’s kind of a depressing read as well.  It’s about average grade school kid Punpun Punyama trying to make his way through life as his situation is upended, warped, and complicated by friends, family, and love.  Part of the series’ appeal so far is how Asano manages to nail a lot of the little details particular to being a young boy.  Hanging out with your friends trying to unpack the mysteries of sex (and find porn, though the internet has dated that one).  Falling in love for the first time.  Or contemplating dreams like becoming an astronaut and discovering a new planet when they still seem possible.  If the series was just made up of these bits it’d be a pretty decent read by itself.

Except Asano’s tendencies have always trended more toward the avant-garde and surreal.  That’s put front and center here as Punpun and his family are rendered as cartoonishly simplistic bird-like characters.  Why would he do such a thing?  I’m in agreement with Scott McCloud in the sense that abstracting a character in this way makes it easier to become more involved with them.  Asano gives us the minimum of visual cues to understand Punpun’s emotional state in a given moment while providing copious text boxes for us to understand his train of thought.  Everything else is left for the reader to fill in for themselves.

So it’s a neat trick to draw the reader into the narrative, but it also cuts both ways as it allows them to distance themselves from some of the more disturbing parts of this manga.  Such as the aftermath of violence that greets them at the end of the first chapter.  After all, it’s not happening to a real person, just a cartoon bird.  There are also other surrealist touches that characterize this series, such as the borderline psychotic behavior displayed by some of the adults and Punpun’s conversations with God — who is inserted into the story as a photo of a Japanese man with an afro.  I wouldn’t be surprised at all to learn that this is Asano himself.  Which just makes Punpun’s conversations with him about the meaning of life all the more foolish.  Don’t ask mangaka about such things:  They’re not big on giving out straight answers.  Yet if you can bring yourself to buy into the weirdness that permeates this series, you’ll be rewarded with a compelling and immersive read.  Not for everyone, but bound to be beloved by those it is for.

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