Every once in a while, a book appears in front of you that makes you really pause the second you see it. That was absolutely the case for me with Tonoharu: Part One by Lars Martinson. It’s perhaps a bit unfair to get your hopes up based strictly on the production values and book design, but that’s exactly what happened here. It had been a while since I was surprised by something that was both simple and beautiful, and if the interior craft matched the exterior, well, I knew I was about to read something great.
Dan Wells is an assistant English teacher in the small Japanese village of Tonoharu. When he first arrived in Japan, many of the warning signs were there if he could recognize them—the relieved-to-be-leaving teacher that he was replacing, the slightly guarded locals, the isolation from people of a similar cultural background. And the longer Dan is in Tonoharu, the harder things are getting; a burgeoning crush, the strange other Westerners, the difficulty with some teachers at the school. With his first year coming to close and the decision to renew or depart looming ever closer, Dan’s life seems more complicated than ever.
Martinson’s story in Tonoharu stands out not so much for the actual plot (a classic fish out of water tale), but rather in the authorial voice. I really like the way he tells the story, giving Dan a fumbling sort of charm. He’s clearly in way over his head, with major difficulties in learning the language or even the customs. He has such an earnest nature, though, that you feel a little sorry for him and want to have him do well. At the same time, though, Martinson really makes one feel that the best thing for Dan would be go home. He’s out of his depth both in terms of job and personal life, and in some ways he actually comes across as a little pathetic. When Constance comments that in two months she should at least know how to order coffee, followed by Dan’s broken Japanese attempts to do so, you start to get the impression that he isn’t really suited for this new situation. It certainly doesn’t help when you look at the other Westerners in the area, from Constance who seems like nothing short of bad news, or Justine and Alex referring to the locals as the “natives” and comparing them to porcelain dolls. Dan is too innocent and too good for these people, and the contrast makes you care about him even more.
Tonoharu‘s art is handsome, told in four-panel grids. All the individual elements look great, with a lot of detail paid to the backgrounds and individual details of Dan’s surroundings. This is a good thing, especially with the book’s 5.5×8.25″ dimensions. Each panel really stands out, and while he goes for a slightly more stripped down, simple look for the characters, it ends up looking gorgeous. The more I read, though, the more the way Martinson draws characters—with Dan in particular—began to stand out. It always feels like Dan’s in the same two poses, be it a side-profile or a three-quarters view. After a while one gets the impression that Martinson has only drawn Dan a couple of times, dropping each instance onto the page with minor tweaks at best between one appearance and the next, they’re so identical. It actually becomes distracting the further into the book you are, seeing the same pose and expression over and over again. Hopefully for volume two we’ll see Martinson vary up his characters a bit more.
Last but not least, though, I was really impressed with how gorgeous Martinson packaged, the book. A slightly smaller than normal hardcover, the book uses heavy paper stock for the dust jacket, and a perfectly composed image in the center with beautiful color choices. Everything is carefully put together here, from the ornate borders of the spine to the font to spell out the title. Martinson’s design sense is impeccable here.
Tonoharu: Part One is a good debut to the story. I do wish that we’d gotten the entire thing in one fell swoop, but there’s more than enough here to make me want to see more. Reused (or remarkably similar) art aside, I’m really impressed with Martinson’s skills and it’s easy to see why he got a Xeric Foundation grant to help publish the book. Definitely make sure to check this book out; Martinson is a creator to watch. Tonoharu ships in April 2008.
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