Reviewed by Donald Lemke
As a recipient of the prestigious Xeric Award in 2007, Tonorahu: Part One carries higher expectations than most debut graphic novels. Instead of overcompensating for this additional scrutiny, however, creator Lars Martinson delivers a thoughtfully restrained mixture of unembellished prose and sophisticated illustrations.
Although published by his own newly created company, the first volume of Martinson's planned four-part series shows little evidence of its self-publishing roots. From the beautifully designed dust jacket to the patterned details on the endpapers, the hardback nears the quality of a limited-edition art piece -- a welcome change from the many flimsy trades saturating the graphic novel market today.
Construction aside, Tonorahu: Part One is a well-crafted story of alienation, both cross-cultural and self-inflicted. The prologue begins with a young college graduate reflecting on the previous eight months of his life, which he’s spent as an assistant English teacher in the rural village of Tōnorahu, Japan. His aspirations upon arriving in the country were lofty, to say the least, including "fluency in Japanese, adoring students and colleagues, and a revolutionized curriculum." Although unsuccessful in his quest, he does not place the burden solely on himself; instead, he points to signs of impending failure evidenced in a brief encounter with his predecessor, Dan Welles. "There was [Dan's] reluctance to discuss his experience," he recalls, "or the fact that he was quitting after just a year, or that ever-present look of defeat on his face. . ."
As the prologue ends, the focus shifts to the story of the defeated predecessor, and Martinson's point of view changes as well. Instead of a reflective, interior monologue—an overused and somewhat tiresome technique in literary comics -- Martinson pulls himself out of the story, allowing the reader to witness and interpret the events for themselves. Soon, readers discover that Dan Welles, as one of only a handful of foreigners in the small community, is most certainly an outsider; his succeeding isolation, however, stems from his own awkwardness and social ineptitude.
This inability to adapt is dramatically contrasted against another American teacher living in Japan. After only a few weeks, Constance, who arrived in the country at the same time as Dan, has already made friends, mastered the language, and worked toward her career goals. Both adoration and a clumsy infatuation lead Dan to seek her guidance. Their discussions reveal that Dan, in fact, needs more help than Constance is willing to supply; his shortcomings do not end in the classroom but filter into his entire life. During one of their meetings, Dan asks Constance for help preparing his self-introduction, which he is supposed to present to his junior high students. "Okay, well what do you do with your free time?" she asks. Dan thinks about the question. "Well, let's see. . ." he says. "I watch TV sometimes. Or sleep. . ." Constance crosses her arms in frustration, unwilling to put forth additional effort into a seemingly lost cause.
Dan's fate and many other questions remain unanswered, and some readers might find these loose ends and secondary storylines frustrating. Others might be turned off by the strict four-panel grid utilized throughout the book. Still, all readers will recognize Martinson's skill, which will almost certainly have them awaiting the next installment of Tōnorahu.
Donald Lemke is a frequent contributor to Rain Taxi.
Books mentioned in this post