by Felipe Smith
published by Vertical; $12.95 US
Review by Ed Sizemore
Milton is an African-American kid living in one of the worst neighborhoods of Chicago. He likes to skip school to hang out at Enyo’s Comics. Milton loves the anime show Peepo Choo and practically lives in his handmade Peepo Choo costume. He fantasizes that Japan is an otaku paradise, and he dreams of living there one day.
Takeshi Morimoto was obsessed with black gangster films. A run-in with the yakuza caused him to finally unleash the violent side of his personality. Now as a member of the yakuza himself, he gets to live out all his darkest perversions on those that run afoul of his bosses.
Peepo Choo is a dark satirical look at the fantasies people create about other countries based on the movies or shows exported from those countries filtered through their own psychological needs. Smith also touches on the duel lives that some people live. And just in case that wasn’t enough, he even has time for commentary on how mainstream American culture perceives the superhero comic and otaku subcultures.
Peepo Choo is a deeply flawed book. The most significant problem is that Smith’s writing has all the subtlety of a brick to the face. One might argue that in an era of South Park and Family Guy, satire can no longer afford to be subtle to be effective. Modern audiences can’t take a hint, so for Smith to get his message across, he’s got to be blunt and brutal. Perhaps that’s true. But when you use a chainsaw, you lose the fine details of an scalpel. True satire strikes with surgical precision; it cuts deep, and it leaves a scar that changes the person afflicted.
There are also some believability problems with the plot. My first reaction when Milton won a trip to Japan was, “His mother would never allow that.” She’s upset that he skips school. I can’t see her letting him miss two weeks of school to go to Japan. Second, who lets their son go off to a foreign country with two adult males they don’t know? I can’t see that happening in this day and age. Third, given the money problems Milton’s family has, I can’t see them shelling out for a passport. If anything, they’d rather have the cash equivalent of the plane fare to help pay the bills.
Then there is the gratuitous violence (and sex). Again, one could argue that the only way for Smith to convince the reader how depraved some of these people are is to simply show it. However, it’s always more effective to leave the gory details to the reader’s mind. They will fill in the blanks with what’s most repulsive to them, creating a greater emotional response and interaction. When an artist has to prove how twisted his characters are, it comes across as a lack of confidence on the artist’s part. If you’re telling a convincing story, then you can cut away at the crucial moment and your audience won’t mind. In fact, they’ll even thank you.
Peepo Choo demonstrates Smith’s potential as both satirist and a writer. You see it in the care with which he has crafted his characters, setting up three mirrored pairs. First, there is Milton. He creates a fantasy Japan that is the opposite of the world he lives in. In his Japan, all the people are otaku. Everyone is happy and gets along well with each other. A place where a silly dance can settle disputes and make everything all right. It’s a dream world he’s created as a coping mechanism for the realities he faces. Who can’t sympathize with Milton?
Milton’s counterpart in Japan is Takeshi. He has created a fantasy America where black gangs rule the inner city and live by their own violent morality. It’s a world where being the toughest and the most brutal is all that counts. Like Milton, Takeshi created this dark dream world as a coping mechanism. It’s allowed him to not only survive as a part of the yazuka, but to actually become successful. He is feared and rich. Unlike Milton, Takeshi is getting to make his fantasies real. However, his success may make him the most delusional character.
The second pair is the comic store owner Gil and the yazuka member Aniki. To the casual observer, both seem like typical businessmen. Gil runs a successful comic store. Aniki has just become a business partner to a large corporation. However, a close scrutiny of either, and the facade quickly fades. Gil is an assassin who takes pleasure in making his victim’s death as brutal as possible. Aniki is an old-fashioned yazuka member. He prefers to be discreet, but he can be vicious if need be. These two people are perhaps the only ones with no delusions as to who they are and what they do.
Finally, there is the comic store employee Jody and the Japanese model Reiko. Both are nasty, petty people who harbor nothing but disdain for those around them. Jody is all bravado and no substance. Reiko is beginning to show signs of psychotic behavior. We don’t get to spend much time with them in this volume. It will be, uh, interesting to see what Smith does with these two characters.
Smith is a gifted draftsman. He has an eye for character design and clothing. His art is best when he is doing straightforward visual narration. In this book, there is a lot of exaggeration. Actually, there is too much of it. It quickly loses its effectiveness; after the second chapter, you stop even noticing it. The same goes for the violence and nudity. After a certain point, it becomes old hat, and you wish the space was used more for storytelling and less for shock.
Thankfully, all the advance notices for Peepo Choo prepared me for the sex and gore. I wasn’t offended by the book; instead, I was disappointed. I was told there was more to the book than shock value; I can only agree slightly. The messages are just too blunt to deliver more than a momentary slap in the face. Smith has some good characters and ideas. I would like for him to concentrate on just one idea and work through it throughly and with proper nuance. If he would do this, he would craft substantive works that would have a lasting impact.