Got to admit it took me quite few pages to get into the first volume of Hidekaz Himaruya’s Hetalia (Tokyopop). Its central concept — a series of comic strips starring pretty boy personifications of the Axis Powers (Germany, Italy, Japan) as they interact on the improbable historical world stage — was initially a bit daunting to me. I’m a dolt when it comes to world history, and Himaruya runs so roughshod with his timeline that I had to rely on the notes on the bottom of the panels to get my bearings. It wasn’t until I was deep into the first volume that I realized the variably accurate footnotes were a part of the punchline. I think it was the haunted house parody where Himaruya pontificated on the differences between Japanese, English, and American horror movies. Now that was something I could critically parse.
Though the series (subtitled “Axis Powers”) starts by focusing on comic interactions between the WWII triumvirate, it quickly expands to include other nations. The centerpiece remains our initial threesome, though, with Italy the comic fall guy. As depicted in Hetalia, the Mediterranean country is more a nuisance than a worthy ally: cowardly and gluttonous, he’s pale shadow of the glorious Roman legions that once ruled the world. When militaristic Germany first meets up with him during the Great War, the self-described “pasta-loving scamp” is found hiding under an empty tomato crate. He’s ever ready to give up (“I bet he’s mass-producing surrender flags,” the personification of America sneers at one point), which regularly triggers his allies’ contempt.
The third member of the alliance, Japan, is depicted as deferential and overly interested in Western Culture (it’s “complicated and mystifying,” he states). In the anachronistic world of Hetalia, the countries’ attitudes are decidedly post-WWII, which adds to the joke. In “German Simulation,” for instance, the comic presents a game program where the player get to pretend to be Germany shopping for groceries, running into his fellow nations, all of whom act like ethnic caricatures. The Spanish cashier is overly relaxed and slow; the Italian customer cuts in line (“cutting in line is common in Italy,” we’re told); the bullying American yells at the cashier to do his “damn job,” and so forth.
While Hetalia’s “older teen”-rated humor is steeped in broad stereotypes, the exaggeration is muted by the artist’s visual decision to make each country handsome young men. (If the personification for Italy had been a rotund caricature of Benito Mussolini, for instance, the jokes would have a whole different feel.) Himaruya’s art, originally done for web comic publication, occasionally appears a bit washed out on the page, which works against some of the characters’ expressions at times. Much like Neko Ramen, the first volume shifts between four-panel vertical gag strips and short stories that are laid out in full-page comics format. In general, the latter strips prove more engaging since the artist provides them with a stronger sense of time and space. In “America Cleans Out His Storage Room,” for example, we’re shown the Yankee personification as he gets rid of the gifts that England gave him as a child: there’s an evocative flashback to the War of Independence that goes beyond simple gag work.
But make no mistake, silly simple jokes are Hetalia’s primary reason for being. Nothing wrong with that. Just don’t plan on using this book if you’re writing a paper for history class, kids. . .