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Culture Roger Dahl's Comic Japan

Roger Dahl's Zero Gravity cartoon strip has been a popular feature of Japan's leading English-language daily newspaper, The Japan Times, since 1991.

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Roger Dahl's Comic Japan: Best of Zero Gravity Cartoons from The Japan Times-The Lighter Side of Tokyo Life is a collection of humour strips by Roger Dahl that originally appeared in the Japan Times. As such, it reads much like other collections of newspaper strips that most should be familiar with. The strip's format is like that of many weekly strips, closer to Sunday funny size than the three or four panel daily strip, but in black and white.

Dahl has definitely lived in Japan. I could imagine someone who's never lived here being a little baffled at the content of some strips, and that's a good thing! It means he's tackling the subject without making it bland for accessibility. There was a reference or two that I didn't get, and I think it makes the strips all the better when the punchlines do hit. Most people living in Japan get to know what a kotatsu is by the end of their first winter. Who cares if 98% of Westerners who haven't lived in Japan don't know. Having such detail makes the book more relatable overall, and creates a true representation of modern Tokyo.

He covers all different aspects of life here, from work to weather, from language to love. Ultimately, it's light humour, but he manages to develop the personalities of his characters enough, and the gags have enough variety to them to keep them moving along at a brisk pace.

On the topic of variety, there is one editing choice which I would rather the book didn't do: the strips are printed out of order and grouped by topic. So, there are 20 pages about working in Japan, followed by 20 pages about studying Japanese, and so on. As a result, some of the jokes start to get repetitive, like he's using the same joke twice. A gag where a street map is in the form of a giant maze is followed by a joke where the subway station is drawn as an MC Escher picture. Separate gags, but both are variations on the idea that directions in Japan can be confusing. This happens a fair bit, and the book would read better if they were spaced out.

A second minor complaint is that all the strips are titled, but the title really adds nothing to the joke, and generally just states the joke. A joke about drinking sumi ink, thinking it's coffee, is called Sumi-Ink Coffee, while on the same spread, another strip where chewy squid can be blown like bubble gum is called Squid Bubble. I thought it was a really strange choice. After a while, I just ignored the titles, and enjoyed the strips just fine.

Recently, I have read a lot of comics by foreigners about living in Japan (and have even done some myself), both short and long form. It seems with the manga boom and the access of the Internet, more and more comic artists make the move to Japan. Dahl started these strips in 1991, and has a long head start on most of these artists. It is more polished and professional than most of these web strips and indie comics out there, and I think it is much more appealing to a general audience. Also, he isn't informed by the language of manga at all, so the strips are easier for Westerners to take in, compared to many younger artists who borrow from manga liberally to the point that it might be hard to follow by the majority of Westerners. I'm happy to see comics about Japan that don't try to be Japanese comics.

Dahl's cartooning is quite excellent. The lines are lively, the characters are expressive, and he has a consistency to his characters and designs throughout. It's a fair bit better than the average strip in newspapers today.

On the whole, these sorts of collections have a hard time keeping my interest for long periods, since there is no thread from page to page, but that doesn't mean I didn't enjoy it. I just enjoyed it in small doses. It's a weakness of the format. Really, these sorts of strips work better in the weekly delivery system than in a collection. This book is suitable for anyone who's lived in Japan (or who have deep aspirations to) to have around and dip into when you want a laugh. It creates a vivid impression of Tokyo.
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Roger Dahl
Tuttle Publishing
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