Publisher’s description: She’s cute. She’s a barrel of fun. She’s irrepressible. And…a bit of a klutz. She’s Haruo Hattori, and now she’s leaving her little country farm town, her boyfriend, and her loony family for college in the big city. Before she leaves, she makes a pledge that she’ll remain true to her boyfriend, despite all the temptations a big city can throw at her, and the temptations pile up like cordwood when the need for a few yen to rub together nets her a job at Club 9, a hot hostess bar. The charming country girl lights a lot of fires in the hearts of the club patrons, and her short skirt is fanning the flames! How ya gonna keep `em down on the farm once they been to Club 9? Collecting the story-arc from issues #13-19 of the Super Manga Blast! ongoing series.
Club 9 is raucous slice-of-life, fish-out-of-water comedy as only What’s Michael? creator Makoto Kobayashi can craft.
A week or so ago was Free Comic Book Day, and I took my kids to the comic book store to get free comics. I also let them pick out one comic apiece for purchase (I think it’s important to give the store our business, even on free comic book day). As part of their promotion, the store knocked the prices down on several boxes of their older manga: $3 each! I didn’t have time to look through them all, but I did pick up an old gem, Makoto Kobayashi’s Club 9 (or Miss Hello in the original Japanese). This series found its first appearance stateside in the Dark Horse/Studio Proteus anthology Super Manga Blast!, a fantastic monthly series that lasted further into this decade than Viz’s Pulp but nowhere near as long as the successful Shonen Jump.
Super Manga Blast
Before I get to my review, I want to give a little history of Dark Horse’s experiment with a manga anthology, in part because I think Club 9 is the kind of series you just wouldn’t see nowadays—it’s the product of a time and place in manga’s history here in the U.S. that, for better or worse, has passed. Super Manga Blast! really only has two anthologies to compare it to: the gendered duo of Shonen Jump/ Shojo Beat, and the edgy anthology Pulp, both from Viz. There was the brief, two-year Raijin Comics, but, even at 46 issues, it never seemed to make a real impact—I knew very few stores to carry it when it was released, and I haven’t come across too many copies of the magazine since its demise. Of course, that may be a matter of marketing. Sega was a big backer of Raijin, and I wonder if it was sold more in game shops and outlets and marketed less to the comics market. If that’s so, it may seem like a bizarre sales misstep. So much has changed in the past decade, but if you look back at the emerging manga market at the turn-of-the-century, you see that nobody knew exactly how to establish manga, how to get the comics into the hands of the people who were demanding it. Comics stores seemed skittish to buy in, there wasn’t a bookstore market—hell, most manga was still flipped to read left to right and saddle stapled like superhero comics!
So, boys got Shonen Jump, which led with the juggernaut Yu-Gi-Oh and shifted nicely into Naruto, and girls had Shojo Beat, and art comics and post-underground readers found their way to Pulp, but there has never been a general, all-purpose manga that tried to be all things to all people the way Super Manga Blast! did. The advantage here was that I could pick up an anthology with a grab bag of assorted fun series—none of which may have been something I would have spent the time or money to check out individually, but together the whole package was attractive enough for me to take a risk. Unfortunately, that may have been Super Manga Blast’s downfall. It didn’t start with a “marquee” draw, an established series that had a built-in audience. Of course, again, nobody knew at that time what would work—now, with the pattern of Shonen Jump, Shojo Beat, and Yen Plus, we know that the whole point of an anthology is to build a platform, a launch pad for the manga series, but back then the anthologies were the point in and of themselves: Pulse, Animerica, Super Manga Blast!, these all were created to be ongoing series. Super Manga Blast! tried a variety of manga, including two titles by Makoto Kobayashi, What’s Michael?, a series Dark Horse had previously released in thin collected volumes, and Club 9.
Kobayashi is a wacky, wacky guy. You know how, with most of the best manga, you can get an inkling of the creator behind it once you’ve read a good deal of their work? Well, that isn’t the case with the creator of What’s Michael? and Club 9. No, Makoto Kobayashi makes sure that you know maybe all too much about him, or at least a cartoonish, lecherous, drunkard version of himself. He mocks himself, placing a buffoonish Kobayashi stand-in into his manga as if to say, “look, all’s fair now, right?” By poking fun at himself, he’s free to cut loose with whatever humorous quip, characterization, or sequence of events might occur to him. In What’s Michael?, this means running the main character, the tabby cat Michael, and it’s core cast, through various, and variously absurd, scenarios. He might parody gangster movies, or romance, or domestic drama. Michael may play a bit part as a silent observer in one story, while in another he becomes a Garfield-ish anthropomorphized cat, dancing, wearing clothes, etc.
Artistically, Kobayashi has a narrow, rubbery line, more akin to American comic strips or European gag comics than the traditional perceptions of manga. This is probably why he was an early import—translations of What’s Michael? go back nearly two decades. He has a keen sense of slapstick, and the humor of never letting a joke go—some of his stock pieces will recur almost randomly, at time acting as a means to end a chapter or story without a clear narrative end. Suddenly a What’s Michael? “skit” (for lack of a better term) about mafia cats will cast off any pretense of story by ending with a line-up of cats dancing. Kobayashi seems to both love drawing dancing cats and find them endlessly hilarious. Or, in Club 9, a brief interlude glancing back at the main character Haruo’s parents will close out with some goofy stab at her mother’s desperate need to appear young, or her father’s stoic inability to express himself. Kobayashi derives much of his humor from his character’s basic physicality—they have distinct, and distinctly funny, looks, they dance, prance, fall, sashay—they throw themselves through the occupied space. And while motion lines are a favorite of his, to, say, express the swaying hip of a club hostess, Kobayashi rarely uses speed lines. He squeezes every bit of humor and characterization out of the facial expressions and gestures of the people and animals that fill his stories.
The interesting thing about both What’s Michael?, which has a variety show/gag/one-off joke kind of structure, and Club 9, which is an ongoing, episodic manga, is that he is less interested in building narrative tension through conflict than he is in crafting story around various funny characters and letting them carry the story. Unlike most manga, and especially most humorous manga, which establish their primary characters and conflicts almost immediately in the first chapter or two, Club 9 takes its time, following several funny meandering diversions before settling into core series characters and conflicts. He takes risks this way, and I think it’s more successful to do character pieces and vignettes with a series like What’s Michael? than it is to try to tackle that in an ongoing series with a sustained narrative. I don’t know, though—I could just be recognizing that it is an easier way to tell a story.
Well, obviously I find a lot to write about here. Hell, I’ve just blown 1000 words without really addressing the manga itself! Before I go further, let me say this: Club 9 is damn funny. Haruo is a charming, ditzy, lovable character you can’t help but want to follow, and Kobayashi masterfully handles her with a light touch. After all, you don’t want a character as innocent and sweet as Haruo getting into any real danger, and Kobayashi establishes early on that she lives in a world that, no matter the conflict or adversity, at heart is basically good and gentle. No matter what gets thrown at our heroine, be it lecherous and drunk men, ghosts, or her own ignorance, nothing is so much a threat that you fear for her life or well being. So you have every opportunity to laugh. And you will laugh.
Here’s the thing: the strengths and weaknesses of Club 9 are the ways in which it finds its own path, sidles right up to the conventions of other manga, particularly romantic comedy, and veers away. For example, there’s a sequence in these opening chapters where a ghost occupies the girls’ dorm where Haruo lives, and the ghost haunts the dorm because he died a virgin. It’s a funny bit, and could be richly mined as a plot and humor engine, but this scenario occupies the narrative for barely a blip in this volume. That’s a concept that could establish 12 volumes of a whole other slapstick romantic comedy manga. Kobayashi has it take up just enough room to accomplish what he needs—to get Haruo out of the dorms. It’s a hilarious sequence, and Kobayashi tosses it in for plot device! Instead, he just follows his heroine wherever she may lead. If you’re an impatient reader, or you like to know where a series is headed, its trajectory, then Club 9 is not for you. You’ll get frustrated not knowing which conventions are feints, which are toss-offs, and which are real. On the other hand, if you relax and go with the flow, don’t try and anticipate or ask yourself “where is this going?”, then you’re in for a fun romp of a series.
The other mixed bag for Club 9 is its audience. The humor here is not for anyone younger than Haruo, certainly. This is manga for college and up. Not because Kobayashi is doing anything that would rate this R, more like PG-13 (yes, I’m borrowing from film. But that’s because manga ratings make no sense and aren’t consistent). And while it must be said that Club 9 likes its sexual under-(and over-) tones, the fact of the matter is, this is simply not going to be as funny to teens or tweens. There’s no frame of reference—it will just appear to be some kind of mocking of an extended Sex in the City scenario starring that ditzy blond cheerleader from Glee if she were a hick with a body writing checks she can’t cash. Not that there isn’t precedence for a character like Haruo in American comics—Little Annie Fannie and Blondie come to mind. Both of those characters have dual implicit and explicit sexual dimensions, both are naïve, and both only work if you’re in on the joke.
All this and more is true of Haruo. It’s this basic sexuality, which she seems completely oblivious of, that drives the series. This is not the “dumb blonde” act that Marilyn Monroe used so cleverly. No, Haruo is genuinely naïve to the point that she has no idea what the men around her are thinking when they see her. The “will she or won’t she” question here is nothing more than, “will she or won’t she ever mentally catch up to the kinds of things her body seems to be saying?”
Warm, bright, funny—Club 9 is a series I highly recommend if you ever come across it. It’s an excellent diversion, well worth reading for the fully realized characters and Kobayashi’s keen sense of humor.