Tonoharu Part One
Tonoharu by Lars Martinson comes in a handsome hardcover, but the book doesn’t live up to the promise raised by its upscale presentation, because it ends before resolving key questions raised by its premise.
Dan is an assistant English teacher in Japan, although he speaks very little of that country’s language. He’s miserable. He lives in a small town where the only other English-speakers are gossiped about as weirdos. He has too little to do and no inclination to find better ways to occupy his time. He’s passive.
That’s the main cause of my frustration as a reader: Dan rarely does anything but complain and mope. He doesn’t know enough of the language to be comfortable, but although he has too much free time, he hasn’t done anything about it, even though he’s at a school.
A lesser disappointment is how many of the pages, although illustrated, work just as well as pure text. The panels (always four to a page in a grid) are often unnecessary, just extras illustrating what’s already been described. At times, they change only minimally.
I can see why the book won a Xeric Grant, though. It tackles a universal, always timely subject — cultural alienation in a foreign country — while sticking close to the strengths of traditional independent comics — the everyman loser who spends a good deal of time wallowing in his sorrow and loneliness.
The book does a great job of sharing Dan’s boredom, but instead of understanding him better or rooting for him, I want to shake him for wasting his time and ours. He’s hopeless… but with good reason, since he does nothing to change anything. He does try to reach out to Constance, a fellow teacher in a nearby town, but she’s got it together. She’s learning the language, meeting people, and following her purpose. His attempts thus seem like a drowning man clutching at anything floating by, and it’s no wonder she wants little to do with him. Her brush-offs only make him seem more pathetic.
He reminds me of those I’ve known who expected an outside change — whether a new place to live or a new partner or a new job — to fix what they knew of their flaws. It doesn’t work that way. He’s got to make an effort and put in hard work, and as of yet, he’s unwilling to. His laziness may be sympathetic to some, and I’m sure that the historical Japanese attitude towards foreigners doesn’t help, but I found him grating on my nerves. Like Constance, I wished he’d stand more on his own two feet.
Then there’s the pacing. Just as the book gets its characters established, it ends, before Dan demonstrates any character growth. There are three more books planned in this series, so many of my concerns will likely be addressed there. However, with book two not even scheduled (but hoped for by the end of 2009), it may be a long wait before enough resolution occurs. (In 2007, the author estimated it would take him 12 years to finish.) At $20 a volume, this is going to be one pricey story. I’d have enjoyed it much more all in one book at a reasonable price.
Greg McElhatton was more charitable than I was toward the book, but Van Jensen found it snooze-inducing and Tom Spurgeon finds it a flawed but promising start (probably the most fair evaluation). Read an interview with the artist. (A complimentary copy for this review was provided by the distributor.)