Me, Ange, and the Interlocking Shadows of Trees
Why do I love 'Naruto'? Because I love my daughter.
I've read comic books before. By the time I was her age, I'd read hundreds of comic books. I'd grown up in a mining camp in the middle of the jungle in Liberia, West Africa, in the late 1960s: no TV, little radio, meager camp library with a collection in the dozens. Comic books were mostly what was available for mental engagement there: monthly outpourings from the House of Marvel, world-wringing adventures of heroes and villains in sequential four-color illustrations, ongoing soap operas predicated on the radioactively enhanced or genetically empowered, their triumphs and failures, their foibles and fears.
Spider-Man. The X-Men. Dr. Strange. The Fantastic Four. The Silver Surfer, rider of the endless space ways, wielding the Power Cosmic and searching for Love Eternal while speaking in phrases of Syntax Inverted.
Ridiculous, really; yet, to a kid with a mind hungry for the unusual and a yearning for the land of his birth, irresistible. In their twisted way, comic books formed a bridge to the country my family had left behind when we shot into the skies over JFK International.
"This is Naruto, Dad," Angelica tells me. "I think you'll like it."
It's not a comic book the way I remember comic books. It's thick, for one thing, a perfect-bound collection of previously published chapters, the size of what people tend to call graphic novels these days. Also, it's manga. It's a Japanese comic book. You don't read from left to right, in manga, you read from right to left. The story begins at what Americans would consider the back of the book and moves toward where we think the front should be. It's like, when you first try to fathom manga, the action on each page is going backward and the entire book, too, is going backward. It takes a while to get the hang of it. At first, for the more complicated sequences, I consulted with Angelica.
"See," says my daughter, "this panel where Kakashi's starting to use the Sharingen Eye jutsu against those shinobi? The next one's over here, where you think it would be, it's just a different point of view and the panel's bigger because we need to see Sasuke in there, too."
Jump cuts. Broken eyeline matches. The sort of stuff that, my cineaste friends tell me, Jean-Luc Godard used in helping to spark the French New Wave in films like Breathless and Vivre sa vie. These techniques and the steps beyond them, mobilizing the static panels of comics, are part of manga's design vernacular, are what make the visuals so dynamic. There are other conventions, too, especially ways of expressing a character's emotions, also unfamiliar to Westerners.
"Ange, what's this raindrop-looking thing by Sakura's head?"
"Oh, that's because she's worried about Hinata," my daughter says. "That's like sweat marks in American comics."
"Ploods," I tell her, trying to make it a two-way education. "I think that's what they're called."
"Ploods," she says, nodding. "Okay."
Before she gave me that first volume of Naruto, I'd introduced my daughter to the Fantastic Four. I hadn't read superhero tales for years, had been deeply immersed in the indie comics scene and its more realistic concerns the autobiographical explorations of Chester Brown and Julie Doucet, the complex fictional constructions of Chris Ware, the Carveresque minimalism of Adrian Tomine. Like modern lit, really, but half visual: What could be better?
But we were in Austin Books and Comics, Ange and I. Me, looking for the latest issue of Dan Clowes' Eightball; she, rummaging among the shelves of manga. And I noticed, on the showcase shelves at the front of the store, the latest issue of The Fantastic Four.
The series had fallen to mediocrity years earlier. What was always subtitled "The World's Greatest Comic Magazine!" in typical Marvel bombast, what had galvanized my little-kid years in the equatorial hinterlands as Jack Kirby and Stan Lee pitted our heroic quartet against the awesome might of the Sub-Mariner or Dr. Doom or the world-eating Galactus, all of that had been allowed to dissipate to lackluster dregs.
But now, lo, the House of Marvel had seen fit to break the stagnation. The Fantastic Four was being relaunched, with the critically acclaimed Mark Waid scripting, with all manner of new vigor and vision promised. Or so the guy behind the counter informed me, anyway. Guys behind the counter in comic book shops: They know.
Here, I figured, was a chance to get my kiddo acquainted with the characters that had informed my own childhood. So I bought her the first few issues of the new series.
She read them and she loved them. I read them, too. And it was a pretty cool comic book. I mean, no, it really was: The writing seemed way above average, a skillful, innovative handling of the material Waid and his illustrators had to work with.
But I wasn't moved, exactly, as I had been as a kid.
Well, of course I wasn't, I told myself. How could I be? So many accretions of adult life weighting my history: incessant employment and monthly bills, a marriage, a divorce, a mortgage, a daughter. When one moves from the stands to the arena, the old Spanish saying goes, the aspect of the bull changes. What could a comic-book fantasy, even one as well-rendered and fraught with memories as Waid's Fantastic Four, possibly stir in the likes of me?
But Ange continued to read the series, and, what the hell, so did I. And she lent me her copies of Marvel's Young Avengers and Runaways. And they were pretty damn enjoyable, too, really. Bunch of recognizably true-to-life teenagers depicted among the alien machinery, the impossible powers, the strained contortions of plot. What's not to like? But, well, you know.
But then. She handed me a collection of manga.
"This is Naruto, Dad," Angelica tells me. "I think you'll like it."
By the time I'd finished the third volume, I was hooked. The characters, a group of young adolescents trying to survive the rigors of their renowned village's ninja academy, were so wonderfully fleshed out by mangaka Masashi Kishimoto in the writing and the drawing. These weren't stock characters with a few choice quirks added for identification's sake. These were kids Naruto, Sasuke, Sakura, Rock Lee, Ino, Shikamaru, et al. with complex backstories informing their decisions, with choices made based on hard-won personal knowledge and social machinations going back generations. Here were astonishing skills and martial techniques that weren't the result of gamma-ray mishap or genetic cataclysm but, instead, years of dedicated physical training and the study of ancient ways of controlling the body's natural energies. A slapdash junk load of mystical mumbo-jumbo requiring much suspension of disbelief, at times, yes; but compelling nonetheless.
And the drawing! The sharp delineation of the characters and their environment, the pacing, the rhythms of accelerated time arranged in strategic panels. The shorthand depiction of motion and speed and impact, the sheer cinematic direction of the battles fought, ink lines flying like shuriken against the masked background or the panel's stark white. Roll over, Jack Kirby, and tell Steve Ditko the news from Japan.
So maybe it was the novelty carried by the unfamiliar orientation of panels, the fresh methods of depicting emotional states. Maybe it was the bits of humor woven through the narrative like Naruto distracting an opponent with his Centerfold Doppelganger technique, Shikamaru's slackerly attitude toward combat or the weird brilliance of Masashi Kishimoto's takes on the possibilities of nin-jutsu. Or maybe it was, simply, the perfect combination of such riveting writing and illustration. But, by the third volume, I wasn't just remembering the rush I used to get as an 8-year-old reading about the Fantastic Four saving the world from an invasion by the Skrull Armada or, yawn, whatever. I was feeling that same rush again. You could almost see the ploods leaping from my head as I witnessed Rock Lee going up against Gaara, as Kakashi confronted the treacherous Orochimaru in the forest, as Sakura and Ino tried to resolve their feud despite oppressive circumstances.
My daughter hands me a comic book. That's how it starts.
Some fathers, I understand, have to work to find common ground with their kids. I have little but respect (and just a shade of pity) for those that do; but I don't have to work much at all, and especially not regarding Naruto. My daughter and I will geek out together over minor plot variations, over revelations of past alliances between currently warring factions, over the way Kishimoto-sensei renders the interlocking shadows of trees in an establishing shot. In a series of manga that's so concerned with the bonds of family and friendship across generations, Angelica and I have reinforced our own.
Blood, they say, is thicker than water; add the right kind of ink and, sometimes, it's stronger than steel.