Two things came to mind when I first saw the cover to the first volume of Inio Asano’s two-book What a Wonderful World! (Viz Signature). First was that the image at the top of the cover clearly was designed to evoke Ghost World. Second had we wondering which version of “What A Wonderful World” we were meant to hear in our head when we saw the title. Louis Armstrong or Joey Ramone? I’d bet the latter.
A series of nine interconnected vignettes (entitled “tracks”) populated by a cast of disaffected city youth, World recounts the existential and economic crises of its largely aimless characters: a struggling young college drop-out who half-wishes she could be a shojo heroine, “waiting for their prince to appear on a white stallion;” a school bully, rationalizing the life he’s created for himself; a former punk rocker, settled into a white-color job; a doomed robber striving to impart some last-minute wisdom to his kid partner. “Reality really is harsh,” more than one character repeats, but it also can contain snippets of beauty, too. The trick, as one protagonist says just before he’s about to be iced by a trio of mobsters, is to “aim for the good and live.”
Each of Asano’s vignettes are connected with a seeming randomness — in one pair of tales, he uses a dragonfly flitting out of the first story as a bridge into the second — though certain motifs recur suggestively. Images of falling/flying appear in three of the first volume’s “tracks.” In two of ‘em, we see figures toppling off the top of tall buildings; in the third, a young girl breaks through the fence at the bottom of a hill and goes soaring over the rooftops as a large crow watches.
Said bird (who our heroine decides is a shinigami) has been tormenting the young girl, a perennial victim in her school, for her lowly status. “The world of children is just society writ large,” the crow explains, and it soon becomes clear that the creature is badgering our young heroine in order to provoke her into doing something to pull herself out of her victim status. The bird reappears in the end of the volume’s last “track,” after another character’s funeral, so perhaps it truly is a personification of death.
Asano captures each of his people via inner monologues and subtly expressive face work (though he’s not above an occasional cartoony overreaction) and some wittily composed panels. (The image of ex-punk Horita, standing on the wall of his balcony, naked with only his necktie providing any modesty, really made me grin, while the two-page shot of the flying bike girl is particularly memorable.) If he occasionally over-iterates his themes, that’s consistent with World’s cast of rudderless urbanites still in the process of figuring out where they stand in the universe.
This is a group, after all, that likes to talktalktalk their way through epiphanies great and small — and so they do . . . entertainingly. The cynicism-shielded heroines of Ghost World would recognize ‘em all, though the girls’d probably have a few snarky words about their peers’ typically unguarded openness. Would probably have some cracks to make about Satchmo’s hit pop song, too.