Diana Thung’s August Moon is a work that is described by its publisher, Top Shelf Comics, as taking after “the films of Hayao Miyazaki.” While this quality is clearly evident from the introduction of the work’s supernatural elements a few pages in, Thung actually begins transporting the reader into the realm of the fantastic from the book’s first panel:
Miyazaki’s most well-regarded works start off in the real world before becoming settled in the unreal. August Moon’s first panel concisely conveys the very same relationship: it’s an establishing shot exhibiting a street-corner in what appears to be a normal neighborhood, with a curious word balloon in the window near the frame’s entry point. The balloon is not necessarily the first thing the reader will see when they read the panel, as their eye is more drawn towards the center of the scene. It’s come across after most of the panel has been considered, almost by chance.
“Lilliput! Lilliput!” is a proclamation signifying that the town is not typical, and typical things are not going to follow; it warrants some thought by virtue of its many appearances in the work. The line calls forth images of Lemuel Gulliver and his own journey to a wonderful new place. Beyond this particular parallel, the author does not seem to be establishing a larger connection to Jonathan Swift’s 270 year old work, but using it as an intermediary through which Miyazaki’s presence is made apparent. The reader recalls that within Miyazaki’s oeuvre there is a film that shares its name with a flying island from Gulliver’s Travels.*
The book’s first panel affects the reader subtly. Thung has planted a seed, here, and plans to cultivate it for the next 300 pages.
Despite the early introduction of the story’s supernatural elements, the reader does not feel entirely immersed in them until a ways in. This is deliberate: the author has put much thought into how the reader attains the frame of mind necessary to reach the realm of the fantastic. The first half of the book is marked with a gritty tone; it’s most concentrated in the beginning, then softens as the book goes on. This evolution of the book’s tone is crystallized in the reader’s mind when they consider certain aspects of its first half and their reemergence in its second half. Two characteristic examples follow:
There’s a murder in cold blood in the first twenty pages. Thung depicts the act in such a shocking, real way that it’s actually a bit horrifying. When death is revisited in the book’s latter half, it’s immediately followed by a banal display diminishing the gravity previously associated with it. Thung distances the reader from death, here, and it does not feel unnatural or inconsistent.
There’s a corporation called “Mon & Key.” The first thought that comes to mind is “monkey,” but Thung quickly draws the reader away from that whimsical take by putting an intense focus on Mon & Key’s workers and their actions. Then, towards book’s end, the story’s protagonist associates Mon & Key with “monkey.” The interpretation does not feel stale or late, here; the framework in which the name first existed has changed through Thung’s subtextual machinations. The reader is just as surprised as the protagonist when the word is reconciled again.
Thung does not limit her sense of focus and deliberation to the overarching parts of the work. The reader is able to open the book to any page and appreciate the author’s solid draftsmanship. Consider page 213, which begins with a wide panel taking place on a rooftop. The protagonist searches for something intently; the author begins by giving her efforts a sense of scale and importance by making her small against the backdrop. Her gaze goes across a wide area—two rows of houses. The top half of the panel is quiet and empty, indicating the level of concentration accompanying her efforts, and the lack of a good result yet.
Her mental state and the reader’s are broken by the “There!”—the reader is quickly led to her friend at the extreme foreground of the panel. It looks as if his finger is pointing out of the frame—he’s seen something big. The next panel is a 180-degree shift to his perspective, his finger providing the continuity to make the transition a natural one.
It’s solid drafting. The book is done as variations on eight panels per page—two columns, four rows—with most pages using horizontally or vertically wide panels. There’s the occasional panel splash, and the rarer full-page splash. It’s static drafting. The author does not deviate from the style described here, despite the way the story’s content and tone shift through the course of the book. It’s fine—it never seems as though there’s a lack of invention in Thung’s work.
The author delivers scenes eminently well as they are being read, but the reader is not compelled to go back to these pages once they clear them. Though themes and symbols evolve and change across the book, there are very few compositions or panels that take on a different meaning when brought up again, if they are brought up at all.
When this kind of drafting is considered with respect to the book in its entirety, a flaw becomes latent: the book is difficult to put down. That the reader only needs to contemplate compositions and panels in the immediate, without stopping for too long, means that the work’s momentum only builds as they read on. This effect is amplified when the pace dictated by Thung’s drafting is placed in tandem with the brisk pace of the story itself.
The draftsmanship takes a certain stylistic license which also contributes to the “can’t stop” feeling. Where long-form bound comics are typically drafted such that new scenes begin on a new page, Thung sometimes ends and begins a scene on the same page, even the same row of panels. This aspect of the work probably descends from the manga Thung read as a child; she would have received her books in the digest-sized tankōbon format. These volumes collect chapters of a work originally serialized in an anthology with larger dimensions, meaning that the work is laid out in a different way than originally published. It’s usually a matter of restricting the amount of panels per page, which may cause panels ending a scene at the foot of a page in the original to instead appear at the top of a new page in the tankōbon. The same effect seems to be approximated in Thung’s work†—
—and while these particular transitions are not always jarring, something is lost. The reader is deprived of clear and satisfying stopping points. The book is difficult to put down. This stylistic license, the drafting generally, and the pace of the story begin to feel unsustainable: fatigue starts setting in for the reader before the end of the 300 page work is reached.
It’s a flow problem so subtle that it’s excusable. It may even be a non-issue for those with different reading habits. It certainly shouldn’t detract from the skill with which Thung brings her seed to fruition. Both form and content are handled with great care in August Moon, and the result is a book that is worthy of the Miyazaki comparison—even worthy of consideration in a context removed from Miyazaki. It’s a great work.
TL;DR: August Moon is a fantastic work by a maturing author. Diana Thung expertly transports the reader to a magical place in a story that readers, from young adolescents to adults, will surely appreciate.
Several images in this review are modified from this preview on Diana Thung’s website.
A review copy of August Moon was graciously provided to Spandexless by the publisher.
*What if the argument is made that Swift’s work is being engaged on its own, and not vis-à-vis Miyazaki’s work? While Gulliver’s Travels does have an abundance of wondrous and magical elements, they seem to be a mere means in communicating Swift’s social criticism. If the author had an intent towards evoking wonder, it was probably ancillary to the goal of delivering satire.
That being said, the flying island Laputa was at least part of Miyazaki’s inspiration for his Castle in the Sky. Perhaps Thung similarly looked at Gulliver’s Travels with eyes that regarded the wondrous and magical elements detached from the satirical subtext.
Gulliver’s Travels is also presented as a travelogue. The reader thinks on what the protagonist and her mother use to chronicle what goes on in their town. The reader thinks on how both media differ from each other in the same way that this comic—this work on a graphic medium—differs from Swift’s prose journal. The reader might be able to coax something substantial out of these relationships.
†The book’s page dimensions, 6 x 8 inches, suggest an A5-sized tankōbon volume, despite being wider and less tall. This may or may not have been deliberate on the author’s part.