House of 1000 Manga Rohan at the Louvre
by Shaenon K. Garrity, Apr 24th 2014
Hirohiko Araki is an interesting cat. Since the 1980s, he's devoted most of his career to his sprawling supernatural/badass epic JoJo's Bizarre Adventure, one of the out-there classics of manga. JoJo has been many things over the years—gothic horror, globe-trotting battle manga, murder mystery, postapocalyptic sci-fi, Western—but its weird blend of glam, beefcake, gore, and psychedelia is unmistakable in any incarnation. Araki has traveled the world, in contrast to the many manga creators who never have time to leave their cramped Tokyo apartments (for a recent Hayate the Combat Butler storyline set in Las Vegas, creator Kenjiro Hata sent his assistants to the U.S. to get reference photos for him, which strikes me as impossibly sad, albeit probably fun for the assistants), and is especially fond of glamorous European cities. His other passion is rock music, references to which he works into his manga at every opportunity. In an industry dominated by clones and wannabes, Araki is an original.
My House of 1000 Manga partner Jason Thompson has already covered JoJo in a previous column, and one could ask for no better guide to all things JoJo than the fan who wrote one of the first online JoJo FAQs, did some pseudonymous scripting for the English release of the anime, and used to wander the Bay Area looking for the “JoJo's Venture” arcade game before achieving the ultimate dream of editing the English edition of the manga! Before writing this column, I offered it to Jason, knowing that my own admiration for Araki's work pales before Jason's years of scholarship. But Jason gave me his blessing, believing that the highest expression of Araki love is to spread it to as many otaku as possible. And so I get to spend a week writing about the gorgeous, freaky full-color Araki manga Rohan at the Louvre.
Rohan at the Louvre is the only title by a non-French artist in the Louvre's comics line, and if it hadn't been reprinted in English by NBM I'd never have guessed the Louvre had a comics line. The Musée de Louvre Editions comics are stories, fiction and non-fiction, set in or inspired by the museum, published in the standard French bandes dessinees format: full-color, hardcover albums about 100 pages long. The other artists selected to draw Louvre comics include heavy hitters like Philippe Dupuy (creator of the popular character Monsieur Jean with his usual collaborator Charles Berbérian), Enki Bilal (the Nikopol trilogy), David Prudhomme (Ninon Secrète and other titles, plus he drew a boss sketch for me once at an Athens comics festival), and Nicolas de Crécy (Salvatore, The Celestial Bibendum); Araki is in rarefied company here.
Someday I'd like to find out how the Louvre chose Araki, out of countless cartoonists, as the sole representative of manga—hell, the sole representative of comics outside the bandes dessinees world. Maybe the Louvre editors recognized a modern fine-art aesthetic in Araki's stylized, poppy compositions and surreal subject matter. Or maybe he just was the first manga-ka to jump at the opportunity to draw a bunch of cool artsy European stuff. (Judging from his recent book about Italian architect Antoni Gaudi, Vagabond creator Takehiko Inoue might have been another good choice.)
Araki's contribution to Louvre lore stars Rohan Kishibe, one of his recurring JoJo characters. Many readers suspect that Rohan is his creator's self-insert; not only is he a manga artist, but his name contains all the letters needed to spell “Hirohiko Araki.” He also has one of the coolest-looking powers in JoJo, which is saying a lot. Rohan can literally read people like a book, using his Stand, Heaven's Door (as mentioned above, Araki loves rock music), to make people's bodies erupt into pages of text revealing their life stories and personal information. As a minor bonus, Rohan also has superpowered manga-drawing abilities, which he demonstrates in Rohan at the Louvre by signing autographs for his European fans at impossible speed. (“When did he do that?! He didn't even touch the paper!”)
None of this has much bearing in Rohan at the Louvre, which is essentially an old-fashioned Japanese ghost story in which Rohan's powers barely come into play. As a totally ripped teenager, Rohan has a fleeting romance with a mysterious young widow. Years later, haunted by a story the woman told him about a cursed Japanese painting, he tracks the piece to the Louvre and ventures into the basement storage stacks with a posse of doomed museum staff. (The notes from the Louvre Editions editor at the end of the book point out that this story is impossible, as the museum doesn't have a modern Asian art collection.) From there all hell breaks loose, Araki style.
It's a pretty flimsy narrative, although probably appropriate to the limited length of the project. (A one-volume bandes dessinees album must seem like the shortest of short stories to an artist whose main work is currently 110 volumes long and counting.) The pleasure of Rohan at the Louvre is in the art, in seeing one of the great gonzo manga artists go nuts on a full-color graphic novella. Bright pinks, blues, and neon greens pop against neutral backgrounds. Flashbacks to 19th-century Japan take on a staid blue-gray cast to contrast with the pop-art colors of the modern sequences. In action scenes, bodies twist improbably and explode into splashes of red-and-black gore. Sometimes Araki shades figures in gray, giving the impression of unfinished artwork walking through a full-color setting. In one panel, a grayscale Rohan looks out a window to a full-color scene, and it looks like he's holding a painting. Throughout, Araki seems to be having fun with the possibilities of color and ways he can visually express the idea of art intruding into reality.
This wasn't the end of Rohan's visits to Europe. A year after Rohan at the Louvre, Araki published Kishibe Rohan Meets Gucci, a story drawn for a fashion magazine in which the superpowered manga-ka, bearing a magic handbag, confronts the Italian design company in Florence. I wish this had been the beginning of a whole series of Rohan's European vacations: Rohan vs. haunted Greek ruins in Athens! Rohan vs. the ghost of Kafka in Prague! Rohan vs. the snotty staff at the duty-free shops in the Swiss airport! The possibilities are endless. But at least we got this remarkable, improbable manga. And the Louvre added to its collection of Asian art after all.
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