Death Note and Irregular Detective Fiction

1 01 2010

Happy New Year and a very belated post… Hopefully I can provide more musing (and not a dire example of procrastination) in 2010.

It seems counterintuitive that an audience that appreciates the detective genre’s analytical rigor could be reconciled with fantastic or absurd narrative elements but the popularity of the fantasist detective manga Death Note is not unprecedented. Death Note shares many elements with a unique genre of Japanese popular literature established in the early 1920s – irregular detective fiction.

Death Note (Desu nōto) is a 12 volume manga written by Tsugumi Ohba and illustrated by Takeshi Obata. It was serialized in Weekly shonon jump in Japan from late 2003 to mid 2006 and subsequently complied into a run of 12 tankōbon. Between 2005 and 2007 the tankōbon were translated into English and published in North America by VIZ Media‘s Shonen Jump Advance  imprint. Both an anime television series and a series of live action films based on the series have been produced in Japan as well as “guide books”, light novels and a series of Nintendo DS games that further explore the mechanics of the eponymous death note/s.

In the 1920s, in the nascent years of Japanese science fiction and detective writing, a genre emerged that combined the influence of Western detective and mystery literature with a distinctly Japanese stylistic approach and a culturally-specific focus on political and social concerns. The genre is referred to as henkaku tantei shōsetsu (irregular detective fiction). It’s an apt description for narratives that employ the rationalist, objective detective novel template and its investigative methodologies while also incorporating elements of the fantastic, gothic and postmodern absurdity.

A collection of Edogawa Rampo’s writing provides a sample of early irregular detective fiction . In 1956 Hirai Taro’s Japanese Tales of Mystery and Imagination was first published in English translation by the Charles E. Tuttle Company under his pen name, Edogawa Rampo. (The collection is still in print, ISBN 0804803196.) In the preface, translator James B. Harris briefly recounts Rampo’s beginnings as a writer. With the acceptance of his short story “Nisen-dohka” (The Two-Sen Copper Coin) to the publication Shin seinen (New Youth) in 1923 Rampo became Japan’s first modern writer of detective fiction.[1] Up until that point, mystery was not an established genre in Japanese fiction and detective and mystery fiction were considered specifically Western.

Rampo developed his own style and, in founding the Japanese Mystery Writer’s Club, encouraged other Japanese writers to take an innovative and adaptable approach to writing mystery and detective fiction. While this new genre was inspired by the works of Western writers like Edgar Allen Poe and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Rampo wanted to advance the genre and imbue it with specifically Japanese sensibilities rather then adhering to the established template set by Western writers.[2]

Just as with the beginnings of the gekiga movement there was a desire to explore challenging themes within the confines of a popular genre. Certainly, Rampo himself excels at taking the sublimated psychological implications like those expressed in Edgar Allan Poe’s Berenice (1835) and following them to extreme and lurid conclusions in stories like Imomushi (The Caterpillar, 1929) and Ningen isu (The Human Chair, 1925). This bold, psychologically revealing, fantasist and often viscerally excessive quality began to be described as ero guro nansensu (erotic grotesque nonsense) and was associated directly with the literary movement being established by the writers who were published in Shin seinen. “The erotic-grotesque-nonsense texts were targeted mainly at adolescents and seen as avant-garde and trendy. In other words, a huge consumer market for the bizarre…”[3] This seemingly outré popular fiction appealed, at the time, to a mass audience and Rampo became a well known public figure based on his expertise on the topic.[4]

While Ohba’s shinigami (death gods) and their meddling in the mortal sphere contribute the obviously fantastic elements of the plot of Death Note there is also a resonance between Rampo’s star detective, Dr. Kogoro Akechi, and Ohba’s idiosyncratic sleuth, L. In Rampo’s short story Shinri shiken (The Psychological Test, 1925) Akechi devises a way to entrap a precociously intelligent and entitled student who has murdered an old woman for her money. Some of the interior and spoken dialogue in “The Psychological Test” is entertainingly evocative of L and Light Yagami’s exchanges in Death Note.

“Now, had you been an ordinary criminal, you would not have answered my questions as you did. You would have tried to deny knowing anything about anything. But I had sized you up from the beginning as being a real intellectual, and as such, I knew you would be as outspoken as possible so long as you did not touch on anything dangerous. But I anticipated your moves, and played my hand accordingly.”[5]

– Dr. Kogoro Akechi, “The Psychological Test”

There are a number of other very interesting Japanese writers who published their work in Shin seinen in the 1920s but it is difficult to find their work in English translation. Miki Nakamura’s excellent historical and thematic analysis of the work of Yumeno Kyūsaku and some translated excerpts of his  fascinating novel Dogura magura (1935) can be found in Robot Ghosts and Wired Dreams: Japanese Science Fiction from Origins to Anime (2007, University of Minnesota Press) ISBN 0816649731.

We can anticipate an English translation of manga based on Edogawa Rampo’s work. Ryan at Same Hat! Same Hat! posted in June 2009 that Last Gasp has announced it’s intention to publish artist Suehiro Maruo’s interpretation of the Rampo story Panorama-tō Kidan (The Strange Tale of Panorama Island, 1926). Maruo’s style is the very epitome of ero guro so this should be an inspired interpretation. This manga was the winner of the 2009 Annual Osamu Tezuka Cultural Prize, New Artist Prize.[5]

Maruo is currently working an adaptation of Rampo’s short story Imomushi from which, again, Ryan at Same Hat! Same Hat! has graciously provided some images. (Please do check out this excellent blog – certainly a great source for erotic grotesque nonsense.)

Irregular detective fiction could resonate with the wider international audience that have embraced Death Note. Death Note is a nice introduction to some of irregular detective fictions themes because while it does have elements of “irregularity” it isn’t too deep a plunge into the wider genre’s potential for oppositionality to established social norms. Light Yagami may be a sociopath but his behaviour is predicated on a pathological and assiduously preserved sense of distance from other people. His deviance is expressed in a very cold and clinical way that avoids some of the messier and more potentially lurid possibilities explored in more ero guro examples of irregular detective narratives.

While the mechanics of the main characters relationships are quite strictly heteronormative, wider social order is not restored at the conclusion of Death Note despite the presence of incisive intellect, rational methodologies and ethics. As with irregular detective fiction it is the ascending peculiarity of chaotic and subjective reality that prevails.

[1] Rampo, Edogawa and James B Harris (translation). Japanese Tales of Mystery and Imagination (1956), English ed., Charles E. Tuttle Company. pg. ix.

[2] Rampo, Edogawa and James B Harris (translation). Japanese Tales of Mystery and Imagination (1956), English ed., Charles E. Tuttle Company. pg. xi.

[3] Nakamura, Miki. pg. 9. Robot Ghosts and Wired Dreams: Japanese Science Fiction from Origins to Anime (2007, University of Minnesota Press) ISBN 0816649731.

[4] Riechert, Jim. Deviance and Social Darwinism in Edogawa Ranpo’s Erotic-Grotesque Thriller “Kotō no oni”, by Edogawa Ranpo and Jim Reichert Journal of Japanese Studies © 2001. pg.114

[5] Rampo, Edogawa and James B Harris (translation). Japanese Tales of Mystery and Imagination (1956), English ed., Charles E. Tuttle Company. pg. 61.

[6] Anime News Network retrieved July 7 – 09

[7] Yoshikuni Igarashi. Edogawa Rampo and the Excess of Vision: An Ocular Critique of Modernity in 1920s Japan. positions: east asia cultures critique 13.2 (2005) 299-327 Duke University Press. pg. 302.

Rapunzel’s Revenge

25 11 2008


Rapunzel’s Revenge is written by Shannon Hale and Dean Hale (her husband) and illustrated by Nathan Hale (no relation). Shannon Hale has written five fictional novels for teens (and won a few awards for them) but this is her first work in a comic format.

Nathan Hale has written and illustrated two other works; The Devil You Know and Yellowbelly and Plum Go To School and provided illustrations for Balloon On the Moon.

Published in North American in 2008 by Bloomsbury, Rapunzel’s Revenge is recommended for audiences between 10-14.

Rapunzel’s Revenge is a fun western and fairytale/fantasy genre mash up. The story’s magic is of a shamanistic-harnessing-of-life-energy variety and is utilized by a very few characters and so contributes more of a narrative enabling framework. The most of events of the story and the actions of the protagonists are grounded in the physical, more realistic and pragmatic, western adventure context. The writers have a lot of fun with the potential of both genres’ conventions without relying too much on either to provide easy plot device resolutions. The story has really excellent pacing and despite the staying conscientiously age-appropriate the two principles have engaging and nuanced personalities (to the extent that character development is desirable in an energetic adventure).

The art is much better then might be expected considering the genre and intended audience. Comics for younger audiences often have over or under designed pages, utilize excessive palettes and are too visually conflicted. Comics have great potential to be vivacious and dynamic but it shouldn’t be assumed that children or young adults can’t respond well to, or deserve, art that is attractive, nuanced and well-balanced. Nathen Hale is not a comic artist that takes a patronizing approach to drawing for young adults. His page designs are creative but utilitarian and the use of color is thoughtful and vivid – even at its most fantasist it never tips into giddy over-saturation.

Early in the book there is a nice set of pages [16,17] that have very little text and rely on the art to convey the emotional weight of the story. Rapunzel sees her real mother for the first time since her early childhood. Hale uses very effective panel-within-panel illustrations to match imagery of unfolding, present, events with some very beautiful but simple illustrations of remembered events. The two-panel sets contain both a color and sepia panel and then Hale follows those images with another page with long, narrow alternating color and sepia panels. This succeeds in conveying a complex, very emotional event, visually and the way Hale has handled the scene makes immediate intellectual and emotional sense. It’s the comic medium working at its most effective and it’s great to see this kind of talent and thought going into a comic for younger readers.

I think the age range recommended by the publisher is a bit limiting. While the content and reading level is probably fine for most readers between 10 and 14 this story is the sort of adventure that has the potential to appeal to older readers.

Hale, Shannon (w), Dean Hale (w), and Nathan Hale(i). Rapunzel’s Revenge (2008), Bloomsbury U.S.A. Children’s Books. ISBN-10:159990070X


25 11 2008


Runaways is a property of Marvel Comics and is published in both pamphlet format and trade paperback collections. To date there has been two complete volumes with a third still in progress. The series was initiated in 2003 by writer Brian K. Vaughan and artist Adrian Alphona who stayed with series for close to two volumes, departing with issue 24 of volume two. The second volume, up to issue 30, was subsequently completed by Joss Whedon and Michael Ryan. The current, third volume of the series is being written by Terry Moore and illustrated by Humberto Ramos.

Marvel rates this series as T+ TEENS & UP (Appropriate for most readers 13 and up, parents are advised that they may want to read before or with younger children.)

Runaways is constructed to subvert many of the conventions of superhero comics. The runaways, a group of teenagers who discover that their parents are members of a super-villain cabal and choose to rebel against their elders, have a very loosely constructed idea of themselves as a team and they don’t adopt a cohesive group identity, theme or begin wearing costumes. There is a higher ratio of female characters, the group expresses a number of different levels of diversity (age, ethnicity, sexual orientation) and the character design intentionally avoids aesthetic cliches or exploitative representations. There is a level of seriousness and consequence to the story arcs and a verite to the dialogue and relationships that is usually a bit absent from superhero comics. If there was ever a North American superhero comic to engage young women, this is it.


Three of the new issues from volume three have been released and Terry Moore’s approach to character development is promising. Moore has focused on developing the relationship between Xavin and Karolina – how many comic series have really good writing about alien lesbians? It’s definitely a rarity.

Getting used to Humberto Ramos’ interpretation of the characters may take some time. While he seems a great match to Terry Moore the stylistic precedent set by the Vaughn/Alphona team left readers ambivalent even about the work of prestige contributors Whedon and Ryan. (One of the aspects of mainstream comics that readers must eventually reconcile themselves with is the existence of characters as the commercial property of the publisher. Beloved writers and artist will move on and loyal fans have to reconcile themselves with the inevitable changes to characters and narrative tone.) The first two volumes of this series are so well regarded that subsequent creators have yet to prove themselves in comparison.

In this video from the Marvel Comics site, Terry Moore talks about his own response to Runaways and some of his plans for the series.

(An aside: a lot of the imagery used in the video is from cover designs and character art by Jo Chen.)

Vaughn, Brian K. (w) and Adrian Alphona (i). Runaways: Pride and Joy v1(April 2004), Marvel Comics. ISBN-10: 0785113797

Leave it to Chance

25 11 2008


Leave it to Chance was written by James Robinson and illustrated by Paul Smith and ran, intermittently, from 1996 and 1999. A collection the first 4 issues of the series was published in 2002 under the title Leave it to Chance Book One: Shaman’s Rain. Subsequent collections – Trick or Threat and Other Stories (2003) and Monster Madness (2003) – have been published but a number of issues remaining uncollected. The series ended inconclusively and is currently discontinued.

I couldn’t find a concrete statement of the age rating appropriate for Leave it to Chance but I would place it at around 12+ for bloodless but perilous action and noir-ish dystopian view of social and political corruption and narrative complexity. Reading level is probably 9-12.

It was published by Image Comics, an imprint started in 1992 by North American comic industry insiders to free them from the contractual obligation to relinquish character rights to publishers. Image Comics began to redefine the role of writers and creator in the North American comics industry and the result was a number of very successful and unprecedentedly personal and creative works.

Leave it to Chance won a number of prestigious awards in 1997; the Harvey Award for Best New Series, and the Eisner Awards for Best New Series and Best Title for Younger Readers.

Having been published in the late 1990s Leave it to Chance pre-dates the introduction of tankobon format manga to North American bookstores and its subsequent popularity young women, an audience that had, and still remains, elusive to North American comic publishers. LTC, while in many ways a product of established comic book reader nostalgia, was a genuine attempt to write a comic divested of the genre conventions that had failed engage, and in some cases repelled, young women. It is a genre work that has a tendency to sentimentalize the young heroine and most of the dramatic tension comes not from character development but from the invocation of detective and noir conventions. Despite this LTC stands as an intuitively appealing, well written and illustrated work with the potential to transcend genre-niche readership.

The art work has a clear and energetic quality while maintaining a lot of aesthetic notes from the ligne claire and and early Will Eisner works that Paul Smith clearly admires while utilizing a slightly more robust line weight. Smith captures the best potential of the bright, colorful panels balanced with lots of atmospheric black – the panel and page designs have a lot of impact and don’t read as dated.

LTC really succeeds both visually and narratively as a pastiche of adventure and mystery influences. It would be nice to think that this really great example of pure adventure could be taken out of its older aesthetic context and unburdened of some of both its success and perceived shortcomings as a “comic for girls” and just enjoyed as a really fun and attractive adventure. There seems to be teen audience for detective stories with a supernatural element and some darker social themes – Deathnote?

Robinson, James (w), Paul Smith (p), and Jeremy Cox (c). Leave it to Chance Book 1: Shaman’s Rain (2002), Image Comics. ISBN-10:1582402531

The Good Neighbors

25 11 2008


The Good Neighbors is written by Holly Black and illustrated by Ted Naifeh. Both are from the United States. Holly Black has written a number of fantasy novels for young adults including the very popular Spiderwick Chronicles – this is her first graphic novel. Ted Naifeh both writes and illustrates a number of comic series for people of varying ages but tends to focus more on works for a teen audience. (His comic Courtney Crumrin and the Night Things has also been included in this bibliography.)

The Good Neighbors is published by Scholastic Press under the Graphix imprint and is rated 14+.

Naifeh’s art of this book is an effective balance of stylization and representation. He knows when to contribute and withhold detail so the page have a complex moodiness without being too brimming with visual content. There is a great use of ink washes and textural line work that suits the narrative which also strives to balance realistic and fantastic elements. It does succeed in being a modernist invocation of Arthur Rackham’s – perhaps the unequivocal master of fairie illustration – intricate and compelling line work, and ability to synthesize the beautiful and gruesome. (Just after writing this I found an interview with Naifeh where he talks about this exact same thing – check it.)


Black conveys an interesting sense of creepy ennui and the pacing has a sporadic quality that still manages to feel engaging. If anything it feels very reminiscent of real life – if in real life the local coffee shop had both human and goblin clientele. Both the writer and artist are very comfortable with this type of material and their collaboration has the seamless, happy feeling of an auspicious creative confluence.

The urban fantasy tone of the art and the narrative take the fairie trope to a new level of maturity and complexity without losing the sense of eiriness of the genre. It’s much more reminiscent of the thematic and psychological complexity of Christina Rosetti’s Goblin Market then other popular fantasy for young women which makes this an exciting book for girls who have always had that feeling that they don’t quite fit in…

Black, Holly (w) and Ted Naifeh (i). The Good Neighbors Book One: Kin (2008), Graphix. ISBN-10: 0439855624

Courtney Crumrin and the Night Things

25 11 2008


Courtney Crumrin and the Night Things is a comic series written and illustrated by Ted Naifeh.

The ongoing series is published by Oni Press and is rated Y: Youth (7+) Y – Youth (7+) “Bring the kids! This title is entirely appropriate for your little ones. No sex, no profanity, no disturbing themes. And while there may be action, there’s no violence. (Think ‘G’ or ‘PG’.)”

Courtney can be a bit of a caustic personality – she’s the kind of girl who keeps her composure and wit intact in the most trying circumstances. An adventure story can always benefit from a strong and charismatic personality at its center and as an iconoclast who questions authority and takes responsibility for her own actions Courtney is a role model for the skeptical and disenfranchised.

Naifeh’s artwork achieves a great balance of cartoon and detail work. The settings are always carefully balanced and fully imagined (his cross-hatching technique is really solid) while the characters have very simple faces that really show Naifeh’s talent for conveying complex expression. Considering the lack of actual detail used to draw Courtney’s face she can convey an amusing and very intelligible array of expressions.

The stories themselves balance a lot of narrative elements. Courtney’s relationships with adults are explored quite subtly and gradually over the course of the narratives – both her difficulty with her benighted parents and her growing trust and affection for her Uncle Aloysius and Calpurnia Crisp, the mentor he assigns to watch over her. Courtney’s connections with other children create much of the complexity in the stories. Her growing experience with magic may create the framework but there are always some social or emotional dynamics being negotiated.

courtnet-panelThe age rating of this title seems a bit skewed. Courtney’s adventure’s are bloodless only in terms of representation – people really do come to bad ends in this series. By volume two the moral ambivalence of both other children and adults has become an established motif. And Tommy Rawhead and Bloody Bones? That goblin isn’t just sort of scary – he’s REALLY scary. Seems better for a mid teen audience, 12+ at least.

Another good interview with Ted Naifeh…

Naifeh, Ted. Courtney Crumrin and the Night Things v1(2003), Oni Press Inc. ISBN-10:1929998600

The Professor’s Daughter

25 11 2008

profsdaughter-pageThe Professor’s Daughter is written by Joann Sfar and illustrated by Emmanuel Guibert.

It is published by First Second and rated as… I couldn’t find a rating. But more about that later.

The art in this book is so beautiful and Guibert’s technique is quite unique. First Second posted this video of Guibert working on drawings for another of his works, Alan’s War.

It seems likely that Guibert’s talent for conveying physical expression would be noticeable regardless but having two of the characters completed swathed in bandages throughout the narrative really draws attention to his skill. The panel layouts are very simple which allows one to focus on the gorgeous balance of color and shading.

Sfar’s writing is really wonderful with most of the exchanges imbued with levels of humor that transcends the dialogue. The adventure moves at a surprising pace. Both feats of daring and courtroom drama are handled with amusing alacrity. The Professor’s Daughter works as both a riff on Victorian English social norms and a tribute to the era’s popular narratives combined with a modern, infectious energy and cleverness.

An attempt to rate this book based on age would be difficult. Its clever, absurdist approach to plotting and urbane humor won’t resonate with “all ages”. It would be nice to think that some clever young thing would not only know where to situate this thematically but also really appreciate the humor of this odd love story.

An excerpt has been provided on the First Second website.

Sfar, Joann (w), Emmanual Guibert (i) and Alexis Siegel (translation). The Professor’s Daughter (2007), English ed., First Second. ISBN 10: 159643130X