By Mari Okazaki
Translated by Angela Liu and Liz Forbes
Lettering and Retouch by Star Print Brokers
Mari Okazaki's Suppli follows the life of twenty-seven year old Minami Fujii. When she's dumped by her long-term boyfriend, she's forced to come to terms with the sad state of her life — she has no friends, is practically an old maid, and is stuck in an advertising job where she has little pull. But with the help of some friendly co-workers and a little self-confidence, just maybe she can turn her life around...
I didn't like Suppli on the first read-through, mostly because of the art. It's not that Okazaki is a bad artist — she's got a masterful command of body language and her figure work manages to capture some of the liveliness of fashion illustration without becoming sterile and static. No, I didn't like her storytelling. Pages are crammed full of chaotic overlapping panels overlaid on top of oddly arcane symbolic motifs, which makes them very hard to read.
Of course, on my second read-through I realized that all of these storytelling choices are intentional.1 The chaotic page structure is essentially a reflection of Minami's own inner turmoil. The more conflicted and confused she is, the more chaotic the page becomes. But when she's free from disractions or focused, the storytelling is simpler, more conventional and direct.
Here's one of the more effective sequences from volume one. Minami's spent the last chapter putting together her dream project, shepherding it from conception to production, only to be called before the board of directors and told that the client has decided to go in a different direction...
In the upper right, Minami is in a purely reactive mode, trying to placate the board of directors. She's angry, confused, defensive, and the jumbled, fragmentary panels capture that state of mind. (I like how she's pushed out of her own panels by the careless comments of of others — a good use of dense word balloons.)
Then the decision is finally handed down, and Minami is forced to finally confront the fact that her project has been killed. This is relayed through some simple, forceful panels, in direct contrast to the jumbled critique we've just witnessed. And once it finally sinks in, the panel structure starts to be come more complex, though not nearly as complex as the argument on the facing page. Note that it's focused on Minami, now, with close-ups of her features and glimpses into her thoughts — this time the turmoil is purely internal rather than shared by the entire room.
And after all the anger, shock, and self-pity, there comes a final moment of resignation, solitude, deadness. I think we've all had a moment like this, where we feel powerless, and it's all we can do to just exist. It's a powerful transition, made all the more notable because it doesn't share the usual M.O. of a two-page splash. We're conditioned to expect big things to happen in a big spread like this — if not a slam-bang physical confrontation then a dramatic reveal or a powerful emotional moment. What we get instead is a moment defined by the lack of action or powerful emotions — just sheer exhaustion.
After all, that, though, I still don't like Suppli — not that it's bad, mind you, but josei just isn't my cup of tea. It's still worth reading to see a storytelling technique that's not frequently employed in American comics and which we can definitely learn from.
- Okay, in retrospect it's pretty damn obvious, but give me a break. I'm thick.