Despite their rather sparse release calendar, this year was probably the most active Dark Horse has been in a while. In addition to their ongoing CLAMP releases and rescuing Planetes, they also put out a few new titles as well. We already covered the most high profile one, I Am A Hero, but for my money this one was even better.
WANDERING ISLAND (Bokuen Erekitetou), by Kenji Tsuruta. First published in 2010 and first published in North America in 2016.
Mikura Amelia is a free spirit who spends her days helping her grandfather with his delivery service, flying back and forth amongst some of Japan's most distant islands. After her grandfather dies, Mikura discovers his journals. Within them is information on Electric Island, a floating island that's known amongst the old folks but only as a legend. After a chance encounter, Mikura makes her grandfather's quest her own. She'll use all the knowledge and skills she has at hand to discover Electric Island or die trying.
It's not common that we get an old-fashioned adventure in manga form. Sure, there are plenty of manga based around quests and boss battles, but I'm talking about the sort of real-world daring-do adventure that most people haven't seen since the heyday of the Indiana Jones franchise. Wandering Island feels like a throwback to these sorts of stories, but its heroine helps keep it down to earth even when she is in the air.
It's Mikasa's emotional journey that gives this story its heart. Her grief for her late grandfather clearly has affected her to the core, no matter how much she tries to play things cool. The big reason she starts this quest for Electric Island is because it's one of the few tangible things left to her by her grandfather. By hunting down clues and talking to all of his old friends, she can connect to something of his that's tangible (at least in her mind). She loses herself so much in that search, that need to connect to SOMETHING that she neglects everything else around her: her friends, her job, even her utility payments. But in true dramatic fashion, it's only when she hits her lowest point that she makes a breakthrough in both her search for the island and her state of mind. It's a really satisfying emotional arc. Hell, it would work just find as a stand-alone book.
All of this is going on over a backdrop that feels almost removed from time. Mikasa and company live on the Izu and Ogasawara islands, a tiny and far-flung chain of islands stretching out into the vast Pacific. This means that aside from the odd laptop and cell phones, Mikasa and her fellow islanders live a lifestyle that isn't all that far removed from her grandfather's prime. To most folk this is going to feel as exotic as any historical piece, but that old-fashioned quality also just works with a world full of old islanders, old biplanes, and floating islands. It's not the most action-packed one; Mikasa spends more time floating out in the ocean and pouring over maps than she does flying planes. It's still a really compelling and timeless one, though, and that's what makes it feel so unique in today's world of manga.
Kenji Tsutura isn't a well-known mangaka. He's only ever had one other work published in English, most of his work over the last few years was illustrating actual literary novels. The closest he's gotten to the mainstream is doing character designs for Magical Shopping Arcade Abenobashi. Truth be told, though, that's a real shame. His pages are full of characters that look like dashed-off life sketches contrasted with these lovingly drawn backgrounds full of everyday clutter and detail. They are very clear drawn from reference, but frankly I couldn't care less when the end result is so stunning. He also keeps his frame mostly on Mikasa and her reactions, so she never gets lost in all that detail. The only time he lets things open up is when Mikasa takes to the skies. There he likes to zoom out far, to let Mikasa's plane be dwarfed by the vastness of the air and the ocean around her.
In comparison, the characters are kind of gawky with these mildly goofy looking faces, but he's so good at capturing restless movement and body language with linework that's just rough enough to resemble a first sketch. I do wish he wasn't so obsessed with finding times and places to draw Mikasa in bikini tops or stripped to her underwear. He doesn't leer at her in the same way that a lot of sleezy manga leer at their female characters, but it does feel rather gratuitous after a while. You see a similar contrast in the way he draws the flying scenes. You have these beautifully rendered planes set against seas of rough brushmarks or skies made of pale washes of ink. It even carries over to the color pages. While they're done in lovely watercolors, Tsutura's coloring is looser than someone like Yoshikazu Yasuhiko. His color sometimes bleed outside the lines and the seas are almost impressionistic. It's a very casual approach, but then that's ultimately a very fitting one for the story in question.
There's an essay afterwords from good ol' Carl Horn, a man who's no stranger to filling his essays and translation notes with all sorts of trivia. Here he covers a brief history of the islands where the story is set, some of the planes featured, the island's uniquely Western-influenced background, and a bit about Tsutura himself.
Wandering Island is ostensibly about the journey to find a mythical island, but it's the emotional journey that Mikasa takes that make it one-of-a-kind. When you add that to Tsutura's intriguing and singular art, you get a manga that deserves a lot of praise and a LOT more eyes on it.
This series is published by Dark Horse. This series is ongoing in Japan with 1 volume available. It is currently in print.
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