Garden (2011), page 12. Yuichi Yokoyama.
(remember, manga means read right to left)
Saying Yuichi Yokoyama is the best artist of environmental processes that comics have going is a bit like saying somebody is the best right fielder the nation of Switzerland has going: it isn’t really something we’ve got a lot of. Even with the increasing prominence of landscape drawings in American comics — I’d guess it’s a combined effect of the art-comix revolution, which put sequential pages on the same level as fine-art paintings for the first time, and the translated manga boom, which introduced many a stateside reader to the more landscape-heavy Japanese comics tradition — the emphasis I see is surprisingly foreign to the comics medium. In both American and Japanese cartooning, most landscape scenes seem mainly concerned with using the form to put forth a panorama of images, a bouquet of still shots. That’s fine, but it misses a potential that this Yuichi Yokoyama page taps deep into.
What simple landscape drawing misses in its depiction of environments is that the world is a living place, a constantly unfolding process rather than a fixed background. Traditional, single-image landscape painting can’t really be called on to depict that process since it’s only single images; but comics can, and yet it does so rarely. That’s the purest, most transcendent aspect of Yokoyama’s strangely literalist manga: he draws the living world, and he uses the comics form to do it. In Yokoyama, environmental forces perform the role of “characters” with regularity, propelling sequence with the development that their very existence entails. Here, more typical characters drop out entirely and the page fixes around an unusual type of interaction for comics: not that of living things, but of the natural and man-made worlds. And still, it’s as dynamic and recognizable a “short story” as any tracking of human movement through space or conversation, a beginning, middle, and end in five panels.
There’s a willingness to play with the formal properties of comics themselves here too. The superimposition of calm, unobtrusive lettering over the art itself is a much more successful, organic way of incorporating words into pictures than the usual word balloons and narrative captions, which section the component parts of comics off from one another rather than letting them freely interact. There’s no division on this page — Yokoyama makes the language part of the images, its identity as strings of letters almost completely submerged by its placement amid pictorial lines of the exact same thickness and precision.
Yokoyama’s tracking of the actual physical movement involved in the understated, gradual rise of rainwater levels is given a surprising dynamism by his compositions: the first four panels are a slow zoom in, with the final one a quick crop back out to showcase the change that’s occurred by the end of the process. The sense of two opposing forces is palpable: even though there’s hardly explosive, Kirbyist physical contact being made between the raindrops and the shells of the boats, the splashes scattered all over each panel testify to the sheer number of impacts occurring. The page as a whole pulls the reader in two different directions, the vertical lines of the rain moving the eye down the panels, the horizontal lines of the stacked boats stretching it across. The sense of conflict is palpable, every line slashed through by another. Yokoyama’s raindrops function on the level of visual noise as well as depiction: a “screen” placed over the page, denying easy access to the pictorial depth behind it. It moves the reader forward through the panels quickly, pushing the kinetic crackle of what could otherwise read as a slow, quiet event to the forefront, confounding deep consideration of the individual drawings.
It’s a lovely exploration of how comics can propel a new and different take on landscape, a delicate sliver of life in motion as opposed to a frozen, captured moment. Perhaps the closest cousin to this kind of work isn’t comics at all, but Japanese ukiyo-e prints, which often focused around pictorial amplifications of nature as well. The tradition Yokoyama is participating in finds transcendent images in dull, everyday objects and events, giving us the beauty of something we rarely stop to consider the aesthetics of. There isn’t a much nobler goal for art, unless it’s showing viewers something they haven’t seen before. The wealth of expression and feeling Yokoyama pulls from mild atmospheric patterns and deadpan linework — from simplicity itself, both in subject and approach to comics — does both.