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Swan Vol 1 by Ariyoshi Kyoko

Swan, Vol. 1 by Ariyoshi Kyoko (1976). Translated by Maya Perry. DC/CMX, 2005. 195 p., $9.95.

Another imprint from DC Comics, this time one that is still going on, and a series that is still being published, too (Swan runs 21 volumes in Japan and so far 4 in translation). Shaenon Garrity’s review of Swan in The Comics Journal 269 got me to read this shoujo manga (that’s: girl’s comic) from the seventies. Her discussion of the expressive use of layout, line, etc. sold me on seeing what I could pick up. I’m not exactly new to shoujo, back when it was almost non-existant in English and not yet the blockbuster it is now, I read a few early translations from VIz (Hagio’s A, A’, Keiko Nishi’s Promise), but I haven’t looked at any recently. None seeem to exciting to me, storywise. Formally, though is another story.

Swan is a comic about a teenage girl named Masumi who wants to be a great ballerina. At the time (the seventies) ballet was not very big in Japan, and this story (so far) has a kind of nationalistic element of elevating Japanese ballet to that of the Russian and the French, etc. Masumi is selected for a special ballet competition, meets other dancers, and gets some lessons from a famous Russian ballerina… err, male ballet dancer’s are called what? Naturally, she is insecure and worried and doesn’t think she’ll do well at all, and, of course, there is much melodrama amidst dancing. Volume one passes and we haven’t even hit a romance subplot.

It didn’t sound like much to me. I know nothing about ballet and really have no interest in it, and while I can get sucked into a melodrama as much as anyone, I don’t go out of my way when there are plenty of other things to read. But this manga ended up being both interesting and enjoyable. Kyoko’s layouts and techniques for expressing emotion are wonderful to behold.

She frequently uses a full or half-page figure at one side to lead off a page. Head shots as well as figures often break out of any panel borders or float above/outside the panels, crossing over many at once. This gives the pages a much less structured look than a traditional American comic organized into tiers of strips. Figures are often set at angles, which amplifies emotional tension such as confusion or surpise.

Kyoko uses very few background images. A few establishing images of buildings or rooms are used, but for the most part the story relies on figures and heads (for showing faces expressing emotion). Backgrounds are white, black, minimal/abstract (a few lines), or some kind of expressive line work: radiating lines for surprise or action, dark squiffly lines for jealousy or emotional shock, flowers or stars or lights for happiness. While the moods of the story could certainly be expressed with just facial expressions (and Kyoko could easily do that with her drawing skill), the line work ups the ante, so to speak, heightening the drama to higher levels. The layouts, the faces, the lines, they all harmonize to really sing the emotion. There is no restraint here.

The characters are the rather traditional shoujo style: big eyes, lots of hair, extremely thin (in this case, fitting for a cast of dancers). Kyoko occasionally drops into cartoony abstraction for comedic effect. Where her figures really shine is in the dancing sequences. She often uses what Neil Cohn calls the “Embedded Action Transition” (more on that when I get to discussing his book). This involves repeating the figure in moment by moment change within the same panel. In this way, the dance moves are beautifully mapped out on the page. When showcasing the dance she almost always makes the figures of a size that outshines the other elements of the page–after all, to the characters and the readers, the dance is the focus.

There is nothing that could be considered a standard layout within the book. Each page starts anew. Panels go off the page. Panels often don’t have borders. Panels overlap larger images. The pages are in constant flux. On one hand I admire this, on the other I like a certain amount of structure (probably not a surprise).

Take a look at this page and you see some of what I’m talking about: the figures that break out of panels, the large figure at the right that introduces the page (you have to read right to left here), the close-ups, the sparse backgrounds (more backgrounds here than in many of the pages), and over on the left some of the abstract linework used to indicate emotions.

I think a non-manga comics artist can take away a number of lessons from Kyoko’s work without necessarily taking on the manga style. Certainly the expressive lines to convey emotion are not so different from the iconographical use of hearts, stink lines, skull and crossbones, or the oft-used speed lines.

Will I be reading more volumes of Swan? I’m not sure. Perhaps. I’ve got a few other manga to discuss first.