By Usamaru Furuya
256 pages, black and white
Published by Viz
Usamaru Furuya’s Short Cuts is one of the strange, off-beat comics that Viz published in its PULP anthology back in the day, and which you still hear its fans talk about in hushed tones. It was silly, irreverent, and unpredictable, and a feature I always looked forward to. I’d never seen a comic longer than a one- or two-page gag strip by Furuya before, though, so Genkaku Picasso being translated into English felt like perfect timing. What I wasn’t expecting, though, was a bizarre mixture of "special powers to help others" mixed with pop psychology.
The premise behind Genkaku Picasso is an odd one; Hikari Hamura (whom everyone at school calls Picasso) survives a horrific helicopter crash while his friend Chiaki dies, but it turns out that Picasso only gets to stay alive so long as he starts using his new supernatural abilities to help others. If he doesn’t help them, his flesh starts rotting away. Now he’s armed with the spirit of Chiaki, and the ability to sketch people’s souls and enter those drawings to try and fix what’s gone wrong. It’s a distinctly different concept for a comic, and it certainly stands out among the numerous "fighting championship" comics and manga out there.
As for "Picasso" himself, he’s an unlikely hero, a combination between the shy/awkward archetype and the whiner. He’s very much a, "Why does this always happen to me? sort of guy, ignoring the obvious response that it was either this or death by helicopter. Picasso isn’t a bad guy despite all of this, but a little of his complaining can go a long way, even when he’s right that his constant passing out (what happens to his physical body when his mind enters the drawings to help his subjects) and strange art is going to make him increasingly an outcast among his peers at school. Still, I like that even after Chiaki dies he ends up picking up new friends in the form of the first two students that he helps out. It was a nice surprise, and it keeps the book lively, doubly so since they’re able to still move around and accomplish things in the real world while Picasso and Chiaki attack the problems buried inside people’s psyches.
I must say, though, that the one big problem I have with Genkaku Picasso Vol. 1 is that the pop psychology seems a little too simple, as Picasso has to figure out what people’s issues are. I realize that the format of the comic doesn’t lend itself to deeper, in-depth analyses of those he helps (although now I’m trying to imagine a comic book equivalent of In Treatment), but of the four cases in this first book, most of them feel paper-thin in terms of substance. Hopefully that’s a problem that Furuya can fix with time.
On the plus side, Furuya’s art is nice; it’s much smoother and more strongly rendered than the art of his I’ve seen in the past. It’s still fairly simple and follows a lot of familiar styles seen in manga (and has a distinct lack of backgrounds within the real world), but it’s attractive and it’s easy to follow from one moment to the next. The best part about the art is when Furuya draws Picasso and Chiaki heading into the minds of those in need of help. Because Picasso draws their souls using a pencil, Furuya draws those scenes in an uninked, washed out, graphite-inspired realm. All the edges are soft and shaded, and it’s an instant visual difference for the reader to pick up on. Even if some of the specifics of the imagery are a bit much, the scenes look so great it’s hard to complain.
The first volume of Genkaku Picasso is a mixed bag, but I do think it holds a lot of potential. If the psychological aspects of the book can pick up, I think it’ll be a definite winner. Still, there’s already enough to recommend here: the great psyche-world art, the fact that the main character can recognize that his new powers are making him look like a freak, and the supporting cast getting built up. Genkaku Picasso doesn’t have the same bite as Furuya’s work on Short Cuts or his joke strips in Secret Comics Japan, but it’s a pleasant introduction to a longer form comic from him. I’ll take a look at another volume, definitely.