*WARNING! Coarse language in this review! Probably some spoilers too!*
The Insult Humor genre is a staple of cartoons. Gross, immature, irreverent parodies of real life date back at least to Mad Magazine, a periodical I and at least one of my readers have fond memories of reading every month, and the tradition can be found continuing in web comics such as Penny Arcade and animated series like South Park. One of the most unarguably impressive modern additions to this classic staple of the medium of caricature is Peepo Choo, american artist Felipe Smith's bitter three-volume "fuck you" to Japan, America, and everything in between.
The manga is basically about people who put trust in the idea that a better place for them conveniently exists on the other side of the world, somewhere over the rainbow if you will, and what happens when they go there (hint: it ain't pretty). Milton is a self-proclaimed otaku living in Chicago, who watches an anime called Peepo Choo from a magical fairy land called Japan where everyone cosplays and buys Peepo merch in Akihabara. Well, lucky for Milton, the owner of his local comic shop (one of those shitty ones with "Game" in the store name) has business with Yakuza, so he's just won a free trip to JAPAN!!! Accompanied by Jody, an employee at said comic store who hates comics and went along in hopes of losing his virginity (he also has the single best line in the first volume), Milton makes a harsh discovery upon landing in Tokyo - Japan is no different from America! No-one cosplaying in the streets! Drunken salarymen! The Peepo-Speak he learned in preparation for the trip wasn't normal Japanese! And after meeting a real otaku, Miki, and her jaded English-speaking friend Reiko, Milton learned the cruelest truth of all: Peepo Choo was never popular in Japan! Running parallel to Milton's horrible wake up call a young Yakuza calling himself Rockstar raises hell on the streets in imitation of an obscure american TV show.
Smith uses his story as a launch pad for violent criticisms of everything popular culture, generally expressed in the most insulting way possible. Gone is the lie of the relatable, friendly misfits we've come to know and love though franchises as varied as Glee or Densha Otoko. Gone is the "cool" Japan fed to us by jerks like Stu "DJ Milky" Levy and Danny Choo. Redeeming qualities are all but absent in this world of cruel fact. Want to live the dream in Akihabara and meet all the cool cosplayers? Too bad, because Japan and America are exactly the same when it comes to treatment of geeks! Want to make friends by learning another language? Too bad, because all the american boys think you're a slut! Wanna get the sexy asian girl and be rid of your virginity at last? Too bad, because no-one takes gaijin seriously in Japan! The brilliance of Peepo Choo is that rather than settle for mere righteous anger (not that there isn't plenty), Felipe Smith actually turns the bitter material into successful comedy, frequently pointing out the absurdity of our own delusions. A good example of this humor is in the second volume, where we are shown how Peepo Choo became popular in america. At Wizard World Chicago, the bombastic CEO of a manga/anime company called Japa-Tastic (basically Tokyopop) convinces a crowd of confused teenagers to buy lots of copies of the manga through waxing poetic on Japan, a country where a nerd’s “wildest dreams were a reality.” He then goes offstage, takes off his gaudy costume and reveals himself as the greedy corporate super villain he really is, gloating about how easy it is to fool otaku. MUAHAHAHA! Get it? It’s funny because it’s true. These nods to brutal reality within a thoroughly unreal story is one of the many things make Choo so great.
One of the other things that makes Peepo Choo work is the art. While Smith’s style is incredibly crude, it effectively manages the difficult feat of telling us everything we need to know about the story in the most humorously exaggerated manner possible, with liberal application of dynamic panel structures, bold speed lines, and even some mild surrealism. In the world of Peepo Choo, no-one is ever happy, sad, or mad; they are ecstatic, depressed, or enraged. But it’s not just posturing - Smith uses his over-the-top style to add to a well-thought out story with interesting characters, rather than distracting from their absence.
However, sometimes Peepo Choo goes too far. As great a comic as it is, it’s riddled with problems like a yakuza riddled with bullets. It’s not that I mind shock value, mind you. I did not mind that Rockstar was killing people, or that Jody’s immature fantasies were almost always illustrated. Stuff like that did bring both shock and value to the story in interesting ways, not to mention surrealism. But I draw the line at pointless shock value. This side of the story manifests itself in the yakuza subplot, especially in the first volume. The most blatant example is Gill, the man-mountain of an assassin who also happens to own the comic store in Chicago. Though carrying a lot of the plot twists, it seems Smith never found the time to give Gill a real personality, aside from his habit of getting aroused by graphic violence. There’s some attempt to fix this in the third and final volume, but by then, it’s too late. The damage has already been done, and roughly a third of the whole series has been dedicated to useless “look at what I can show” posturing.
Despite the manga’s angry exterior, Peepo Choo is definitely a story told with the characters in mind. Though the first two volumes do a very good job hiding it, the third volume brings a lot of character-focused, maybe even coming-of-age storytelling that I could connect with and relate to from my own experiences. I have never been to Japan, but learned the easy way about the reality of what japanese comics really are from the convenience of knowing smart people and reading smart writing on my favorite topic. However, Milton never got that. He got a crappy comics store where he met people who knew about as much accurate information about Japan as a nine year old knows about sex, and was dumped into a world he thought he understood but in fact ever knew a thing about. But in the end, he does make friends, and despite his disillusionment still manages to work up the courage to cosplay and be an otaku, not because of any country, but because of who he is and what he wants to do.