Illuminated manuscripts, Persian and Mughal miniatures, Victorian novels enriched by illustrations from the likes of Cruikshank and Phiz: Illustrated texts have a long, rich and varied history.
It can seem odd, therefore, that nowadays picture books are so persistently and exclusively associated with children.
Wikipedia, for example, in its entry on the subject, allows that “some picture books are also written with older children or even adults in mind,” but that brief nod is all we hear in the entry about such anomalies: Evidently they are too marginal to warrant further discussion.
This relegation of picture books to the children’s table is particularly odd in that it has happened even as we are being inundated by a flood of picture books intended for adults: comics and manga.
The notion that, when it comes to books, pix are for kids is so securely rooted that many have been unable to see that a significant number of the comics that occupy an increasing percentage of the shelves in our bookstores are, without a doubt, illustrated books for adults.
In fact, comic books are the type of picture book in which the most exciting work is happening. It’s clear that, in the hands of the right artists, there’s no subject with which the form cannot be used, and used to brilliant effect.
To offer just a few stellar examples: We’ve seen reportage in Joe Sacco’s “Palestine,” travel writing in Guy Delisle’s “Pyongyang,” memoir in Yoshihiro Tatsumi’s “A Drifting Life,” philosophy in Fred Van Lente’s “Action Philosophers” series, and the list could go on.
Now Oji Suzuki’s “A Single Match” shows us that there’s one more thing comics can do: poetry.
True, the doctrinaire may not want to call the 10 stories in Suzuki’s “A Single Match” “poetry,” but they would probably also have trouble placing the work of poets such as Susan Howe and Ronald Johnson on the same shelf as the verse of Longfellow and Tennyson.
Open-minded readers, though, will recognize, as early as “Color of Rain,” the first story in the collection, that the experience of reading Suzuki’s tales has more in common with reading poetry than it does with reading conventional narrative (illustrated or otherwise), and that, like poetry, they warrant not just reading, but rereading.
“Color of Rain” is mesmerizing in part because it is baffling, and it is baffling for good reason: We spend much of the tale inside the dreams and desires of a boy who’s been put to bed by his grandmother after getting drenched in the rain.
To simplify dreams and desires is to rob them of all that make them compelling. Instead, with the sound of the rain that enters the room, with the buzzing of the fly the grandmother can’t quite capture, with all the sounds and experiences that enter the boy’s dreams — and the drawings are so effective that the sounds rise off the page — Suzuki takes us into another world where the boy “walk[s] between raindrops” with a brother he doesn’t have. In the final frames the boy wakes, the fly is trapped in the water-filled glass bulb of the fly-catcher, and the boy screams “gramma!” as he runs out of the room.
We are uncertain how to connect these closing frames with the hallucinatory walk and train ride the boy takes with his imaginary brother, but it is clear that, emerging from sleep, the boy has understood something, that some resolution has been reached. We dive into the story again in search of links we may have missed, but even more, to experience the dream we know we’ll find.
Instead of facile understanding, then, we are left with wonder, and this is characteristic of most of the stories here. Even more poetic, for example, is “Tale of Remembrance,” in which the author uses recurring motifs to move further away from simple narrative, further toward something richer. The narrator remembers a girl, “a cute girl,” “a strange child,” and at the same time, reflects on his memory, how he has preserved in it his time with the child, and how, having communicated what he recalls, he has passed his memory on.
The language, as translated by Jocelyne Allen, is not just poetic, but poetry:
My long, loneliness …
was so that I could tell you my
memories … / like this tonight …
and not help but feel like they’re real.
The destination of all the tales in this collection is — as the last story is titled — a “City of Dreams.” At the end of that final story a boy asks his uncle, “Where is that City, and can I go there, too?”
“Well now” the uncle replies, and the story ends.
Well now, we say, and turn back to the first page.