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Review: Roger Dahl’s Comic Japan

Updated on July 17, 2016
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(Can you spot Yoko Ono on the cover?)

The successful cartoonist behind Comic Japan began as a Seattle expatriate with the beginner’s job of English language teacher at a Japanese conversation school. Having acquired a bachelor’s degree in art — as well as numerous experiences of cross-cultural confusion, embarrassment, surprise and humor — Roger Dahl decided to rekindle his early love of cartooning, by submitting initial slice-of-life comic strips to several major Japanese newspapers. Appearing first in 1991, and then running for more than two successive decades, his compiled work has appeared as Zero Gravity in The Japan Times of Tokyo, the nation’s leading English-language daily.

Comic Japan is a collection of the best of Dahl’s Zero Gravity cartoons from The Japan Times, grouped in eight themed sections that survey such topics as food, culture, work, relationships and travel. Each section is announced by a brief framing narrative from the author, and is fleshed out by dozens of comic panels that explore the humor of that particular facet of life in a foreign and often inscrutable land. Several pages at the book’s opening offer a biographical glimpse of the author, along with insight into the origins of Zero Gravity.

Anchoring the book are the young expatriate couple of Lily and Larry, both English-language teachers, and both trying to cope in their own unique ways with the challenging dynamic of living in Japan. Throughout, they are assisted (or confounded) by the friendly Koyama family and many more native acquaintances and associates. At times rueful, at times skeptical, at times exhausted by their ordeal, Lily and Larry nonetheless keep up their good spirits, and keep trying to remain in balance with the world about them.

Mr. Dahl’s observations are well served by the form and composition of his comic panels. Some are spare in verbiage, allowing the humor and whimsy to slowly unfold through successive images. Others are dense with expository text that more fully carry the panel’s message or convey the pointed cultural chaos. In all, the gently assured drawing style and deftly rendered characters of individual personality readily invite the reader into Dahl’s light-hearted microcosm.

Through the structure and tone of his comics, Roger Dahl manages to convey humorous, sometimes bizarre, but gently affectionate encounters with the people and customs of Japan. His work has been called ‘genius’, ‘minimalistic’, ‘insightful’, ‘funny and incisive’, and maintains a bemused, yet softly satirical mood throughout. Comic Japan is certain to delight the infrequent visitor or émigré to Japan, the comic-book or graphic novel aficionado, and the armchair traveler alike.

Comic Japan is a softcover book in slightly landscape format, 8.5” w x 8” h, consisting of 168 pages. Comics are rendered in large readable size, in black and white toned drawings.

The book is published by Tuttle Publishing, an imprint of Periplus Editions (HK) Ltd., of North Clarendon, VT, and Tokyo, and is available in North America, Latin America, Europe, South Asia and Japan from Tuttle Publishing and its affiliates.

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