Natsume Ono's first comic to see print in the U.S. -- not simple -- is a powerful and haunting work. Luckily, we won't have to wait long to see more from her later this year.
In spite of the book's title, there is a deceptive simpleness to Ono's story and art. The done-in-one volume starts at the end of a young man's long journey to resurrect the only real family he's ever had and then backtracks to surgically slice out all the moments in time that led him to his final destination. Opening with the end of Ian's story, the narrative immediately returns to where he started and charts the life of a young man brutally tossed about by circumstances beyond his control. Ian's one goal in life is to reunite with his sister but events continually conspire to keep her out of his grasp. I'm hesitant to use the word "fate" because that makes it seems as though there is a grand design at work in the story and Ian's world is much more haphazard and random than that. At every turn, though, there is a sense of a world almost entirely void of redemption, although the idea of it somehow endures.
Interestingly, throughout the progression of his life we generally see Ian through other people's eyes (unusual in that this kind of narrative it is usually the object of the journey, i.e. the sister, that would be the mysterious figure). In particular, his strange history and personality catches the attention of a young journalist named Jim, whose perception of Ian is terrifyingly distant and intimate all at once. Most often I'm struck by the easy selfishness of the people Ian encounters. Through them we see terrible things happen to him -- some even happen to him before he's even born -- and I wonder now if his faith in the fact he will see his sister again is actually the worst thing that could have ever happened to him. When that faith finally falls apart it is like the character's soul is snuffed out and the rest of the story is about what is going to happen to his poor, tired shell.
This is a devastating work and yet I never felt emotionally manipulated by Ono. She somehow earns every bad thing that happens to Ian and the people close to him. While the character may seem like a black hole of pure misfortune, there are small moments of relief, perhaps even triumph, in his journey. The simplistic art style -- very different in tone than Ono's work House of Five Leaves, currently serialized online at SigIkki -- gives everything a childish innocence that somehow perfectly captures Ian's character. And just like Ian, it allows for memorable representations of grief, enduring faith, and the chilling emptiness of suffering. not simple is a work that has stayed with me long after I turned the last page and my mind flies back to its story often, like an emotional Chinese finger puzzle that I can't quite find release from.
This work is highly recommended, particularly to fans of comics slightly off the beaten path. Ono's development as a creator is certainly worth watching, although with this release she's already earned herself a permanent place on my bookshelf.
Review copy provided by Viz.