If you look at works like Monster (opens in new tab), Pluto (opens in new tab), or 20th Century Boys (opens in new tab), you may think that Naoki Urasawa is a pretty serious person. His works are full of killings, mysteries, and human drama (something a bit odd to say about Pluto as that's a series about robots but it's still true.) His work intricately weaves large mysteries together with some of the best character work being done anywhere in comics or manga. Urasawa tells stories that are these huge tapestries about trying to get through the cruelty of the world. Even when he does a fairly simple, one-volume book like the recent Mujirushi (opens in new tab), this complex element of 'us vs. the world' still shapes the stories he tells.
Written by Naoki Urasawa and Takashi Magasaki
Drawn by Naoki Urasawa
Lettered by Steve Dutro
Translation by John Werry
Published by Viz Signature
'Rama Rating 8 out of 10
But there is a lot more to Urasawa than these grand epics and those are the stories that we discover in Sneeze (opens in new tab), a collection of his short stories. In these stories, we still see the Urasawa we've gotten to know from his larger works. There is the human drama that gets caught up in these larger events, like the low-level mobster who gets caught up in the machinations of two warring bosses or the kaiju fan who travels to Tokyo to see a real monster and becomes a true hero and savior of the city. These short stories feel like they could be expanded to be the next Urasawa epic but they work perfectly as these quick hits of narrative, in and out of these characters' lives that just capture the experience of these moments.(opens in new tab)
So that's the Urasawa we already know from his work. But in this collection, we also discover a more personal side of the cartoonist and his love of rock'n'roll. In a handful of autobiographical stories and one told to him by a Japanese musician, Urasawa draws more immediate and more intimate stories, taking on most of the production of them without artistic assistants, a common Japanese practice of using these assistants to draw backgrounds while the main artist draws the figures. These stories about globally known artists like Bob Dylan and Paul McCartney as well as ones about musicians more locally known in Japan offer us glimpses of Urasawa as a fan; he's just like us in his fandom, even traveling to California for a rock festival out in the desert.
Doing more of the artwork himself in these stories, the looser and more improvisational art offers a purer look at his style. His figure work, as well as his ability to capture the likenesses of celebrities, conveys the sense that it was done with little thought or planning. For all of his intricately planned narratives, these stories go with the flow, trying to capture more of the vibe of the music that he loves rather than the structure of it. They are sketchbook stories, capturing memories as much as they are trying to tell a story.
The final side of Urasawa that we find in these comics is the humorist. Many of the pieces show a sense of humor in situations or moments. One of the stories, about a hero from another world, is built to lead up to a funny but kind of inconsequential gag. But the true centerpiece of this comic is Henry and Charles, a delightful romp about two mice trying to cross a kitchen to get a piece of cake without waking up the cat. This comic features the epic qualities of Urasawa's comics, taking a somewhat messy kitchen and turning it into a vast death trap with a delicious prize at the end, but Henry and Charles are both enjoyable clowns that turn this story into the most animated piece in the book.
In Sneeze, we find the Naoki Urasawa that we know from his previously translated work but his short stories reveal a playfulness that there is just not room for in his larger work. Even in the stories that feel like they could be expanded into something larger, his work is almost more spontaneous as he does not have to lay the ground for events that will happen hundreds of pages later or pay off something that happened 10 chapters ago. These stories exist more in the moment of the story. For the reader, it's the experience of living more in the moment of these stories than what's possible in some grand epic.
Sneeze: Naoki Urasawa Story Collection goes on sale on October 20.