Sunday, 15 December 2013

Johnny Hiro volume 2 – The Skills to Pay the Bills review

I wasn’t expecting another volume of Johnny Hiro so soon. Mind you, I’m not complaining. I’m actually quite thrilled. The first volume was published in the summer of 2009 by AdHouse Books and republished more recently as Johnny Hiro: Half Asian, All Hiro in the summer of 2012 by Tor Books. I remember thinking while reading the first volume that it would be unlikely that another volume would be released since I hadn’t heard of any new stories about Hiro other than that one volume. Apparently I wasn’t paying attention because Tor Books released a second volume in October. What a nice surprise it was. I hope this means Fred Chao is hard at work on yet another volume of this very enjoyable comic.

Johnny Hiro: The Skills to Pay the Bills is slightly more serious in tone than the first volume. It still has its fair share of funny moments and chaotic big city energy even when scenes take place in confined areas such as Gracie Mansion. That’s not to say that the stories have changed, but just like their main character, they’ve grown up a bit. The same can be said for Chao who tells more challenging stories about Hiro and Mayumi’s struggle for a better life in New York. Another difference between the two volumes is that Chao develops the rest of the cast. We learn a considerable amount of backstory on Hiro’s boss, Mr. Masago; so much, in fact, that The Skills to Pay the Bills is as much Masago’s story as Hiro’s.

In the first volume we were introduced to Hiro and Mayumi, a cute young couple living in New York. They were just trying to settle in then and by the end of the book, they had a chance to do just that. The second volume is about Hiro’s existential crisis. Chao doesn’t keep the focus squarely on Hiro, he uses it as an opportunity to show that Hiro isn’t the only character that’s questioned the meaning and direction of his life. A couple chapters deal with Masago’s past ranging from his first job as a chef to his first partnership. It also deals with the betrayals and difficulties of his previous life in Japan and how that hardened him and left him the cold owner of a sushi restaurant in New York. It’s interesting that Masago and Hiro being in two different parts of their lives are having a similar period of growth as a result of their emotional turmoil.

I might be wrong when I say the book shifts in tone. There were elements of the more serious faux-slice of life type of narrative in the first book. There is a definitive sense of reality to the whole thing such as Hiro and Mayumi’s rather serious inability to afford a place to rent even though they’re both working full time or Mayumi having to potentially move back to Japan if she can’t renew her work visa. Many young adults have faced that same situation. You’re constantly working but somehow you’re just not making ends meet. You can feel the weight of adult responsibility on Hiro’s shoulders. Add to that the surrealist monster attacks on New York and things can get very complicated for the couple. It can seem like a difficult subject to write and it is which is why I’m so impressed by what Chao’s created with Johnny Hiro. It’s at times very funny and then it shifts gears into something that is borderline depressive because of how real the character’s struggles are. I can empathize because less than a year ago I was in a similar situation as Mayumi and Hiro. I want them to succeed to dearly that it makes for an emotionally powerful read.

After thinking about it, I don’t think my first statement was wrong. There is a shift in tone but it’s driven by the progression of the story which is why it works. Chao still took the time to write stories that were closer to the tone of those found in the first volume. The first story in The Skills to Pay the Bills is one of those stories. Mayumi wants Hiro to meet one of her friends only to find out her friend and Hiro once dated . . . well, not exactly dated. The conversation is interrupted by a King Kong like ape who grabs hold of Mayumi’s friend and runs away with her. Hiro and Mayumi run after the ape, Mayumi doing it in platform sandals which Hiro notices and comments on (aren’t they the cutest?). Chao even takes the time to address some of the sillier aspects of the first volume such as Mayumi having a job as an editor despite speaking in fragmented English. It turns out she has excellent reading and writing skills but the dichotomy between written and oral remains. It’s not explained, simply pointed out. It also got me thinking about the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis about how your ability to communicate something is directly linked to your understanding of it.

Once I was passed the halfway point of The Skills to Pay the Bills, I started to read more slowly. I didn’t want the book to end. I wanted the experience of reading it to last longer so I took my time and savoured each page. Johnny Hiro is a pretty special comic. It speaks to me in a way that surprises me. I feel like I’m slightly ahead in my life than Hiro and Mayumi are but I can still relate to them because their situation is still fresh in my mind. Fred Chao really starts to explore the characters and he does so in a fascinating way, not by focusing on one character at a time but my juxtaposing the development of one character and the past of another. He is able to simultaneously show the reader what has happened and how and what will happen and why. Now we know how Mayumi and Hiro met and we know how the rivalry between Shinto Peter and Masago started.

Despite Hiro’s existential crisis, the comic ends on a positive note. Hiro learns that no matter the difficulties you face, you have to make time to enjoy things because if you don’t, it will one day be too late . . . and even then that might not always be the case. You’re the master of your own destiny and by working hard and persevering; you can change things for the better. Masago acts as a cautionary tale for Hiro but he’s also serves as an example that it’s not always too late to change. The Tor Books website lists The Skills to Pay the Bills as the second volume of three. I’m sad to find out that there will only be three volumes but at the same time I’m very glad to know that there will be at least one more volume of Johnny Hiro.

Mad skills, Mayumi.

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