Maybe it's just because I’m part of the unwashed masses of driftless twenty-somethings, but Johnny Hiro really struck a chord with me. I’ll admit the last year hasn’t been exactly great for me as I’ve dealing with some occasional depression due to being out of school with no real job prospects on the horizon, my love life imploding, and a general sense of detachment from those close to me. I know I’m not the only one in my age group going through this. Lately I’ve been having some conversations with various friends and family members that are in the same situation I’m in that have allowed me to put some things into context, namely that when you're young, everything seems like a larger than life uphill battle where you're constantly trying to prove your self-worth, but these are ultimately shared experiences that everyone has. Johnny Hiro is a book that takes any number of those familiar twenty-something touchstones while ratcheting up the larger than life elements with ninja sushi chefs and dinosaurs, letting us view those touchstones through a specific lens which makes for an incredibly relatable and entertaining reading.
Johnny Hiro is written and illustrated by Fred Chao, and focuses on the titular hero as he tries to survive in New York City with his girlfriend Mayumi as they both deal with increasingly ridiculous, and personal, problems. Johnny Hiro could be called older material I suppose, the first issue being published in 2007, but I only really bring that up because I’ve heard about this book for a few years now with the main talking point generally being a comparison to Scott Pilgrim. To be honest after reading the book I don’t really see it, other than the fact that I guess you can't have a comic that focuses on a young romance with a handful of fantastical elements and not be compared to Scott Pilgrim. I’ll admit there are some similarities in how both books take common touchstones and put them through a specific lens, but Johnny Hiro is much more grounded in reality, even if that reality occasionally has ninjas. As much as I hate to do it, if you need to compare Johnny Hiro to a comic I think a much more apt comparison would be to Scud the Disposable Assassin.
Okay, I can tell a few of you are scratching your heads and saying “Now wait a minute Patrick, Didn’t you just say Johnny Hiro is grounded in reality? How can it have anything in common with a book like Scud, which was about a homicidal hit man robot that fought a werewolf moon and a voodoo Ben Franklin? It makes no sense!” and generally speaking you're right, but it goes beyond that. They’re clearly different in many, many ways, but Scud was a book that, outside of the craziness, always had an aura of melancholy around it that I feel like is a trait Johnny Hiro shares. This isn’t to say Johnny Hiro is a downer because of that melancholy, but the purpose of that melancholy is to make you connect with the characters and feel their every failure so that their triumphs make you want to jump up and yell “YES!” The greatest feat Scud creator Rob Schrab ever achieved was that after putting the reader through hundreds of pages of nonsense and tragedy there was always a spark of hope. That spark is the other trait Johnny Hiro shares and its one that ultimately makes it stronger.
All right, that’s enough comparison. This book deserves to be talked about in terms of its own strengths, and there are many. This book hinges on the relationship between Johnny and Megumi, and Chao’s ability as a cartoonist makes you deeply care about both of them almost immediately from page one. From there, Chao continues to explore their relationship, making them both incredibly likable and flawed in their own ways while stressing that they are both clearly in love with each other, but although the whole thing is very sweet it never gets to the point of being unbearable. The rest of the book's cast isn’t as defined, but integral nonetheless to give some context to Johnny and Megumi's lives (plus it's just plain fun when a book can make Megumi have the phone number with Mayor Michael Bloomberg or make Johnny friends with Coolio).
Chao’s art utilizes a solid sense of design with the kind of zero fuss line work that still emphasizes detail. I’m always impressed when an artist can do action and emotional character acting with an equal degree of ability, and Chao can do both ridiculously well. I already mentioned how he can make you care about his characters but that has just as much to do with how he makes them look at another character or a use small gesture as it does with the writing, and his action scenes are incredibly solid. They’re not the most intricately complex sequences I’ve ever seen, but they work and they emphasize motion and when you're looking at them you can't help but enjoy yourself.
In the grand scheme of things Johnny Hiro is a light but substantial read. Like I said, if you’re a slightly adrift twenty year old you will find a lot to like in these pages, but even beyond that it’s a comic with a ton of heart that I don’t think anyone would have a problem relating to. Maybe the most incredible thing about this book is that it never wears out its welcome. By the time you get to the last page you legitimately enjoy spending time with these characters and the world they inhabit. Luckily it looks like the second volume of this series is forthcoming, and a book with this much heart deserves it. So perhaps if you haven’t yet you should dive in now, for not only will it be a fun read it might also help give you a little context for your life, as it certainly did for me.
TL;DR: Johnny Hiro is an incredibly relatable book with a strong artistic vision and a ton of heart.
Johnny Hiro is written and illustrated by Fred Chao. This collection is published by Tor-Forge. You can look for it at your local bookstore or comic book shop or support Spandexless by buying through Amazon. Its second volume is due out summer of 2013.
A review copy of Johnny Hiro was graciously provided to Spandexless by the publisher.