The cover of Taiyo Matsumoto’s GoGo Monster (Viz) features a beautiful parade of animal-like creatures, each composed of pieces that look like aspects of animals you’re probably familiar with and brilliantly bright colors. They’re packed close together among a few trees in a wide-open, white vacuum-like space, and they all seem to be marching toward Yuki Tachibana, a little school boy rendered in scratchy black-and-white and seemingly lacking the rounded suggestion of a third dimension that the creatures possess. He’s busily scribbling on his desk.
You won’t see any of the bright, purely abstracted creatures on the cover on any of the book’s 465 interior pages. Nor will Tachibana. Nor will anyone. It’s not just that Matsumoto didn’t draw any inside, but even if they were there you wouldn’t be able to see them.
You see, you’re a grown up. You’re all black and rotted inside, like all grown-up are. You’ve lost all ability to see the others and their otherworld and, if you’re like most people, chances are you won’t even be able to notice the effects these creatures and their interactions with one another and the natural world have on our visible world.
Tachibana’s only in his third-year of school, and while he’s exceptionally sensitive to a peculiar supernatural world’s intersection with his school, even he’s losing that ability. He can no longer see-see the others, and he never hears from the leader among them that once befriended him. He can still see the wake of mischief they leave, and aspects of a world unique to his perceptions, but he laments that as he grows older it’s getting fainter.
That’s essentially the core conflict in Matsumoto’s master work, or at least one of the core conflicts as I see it, and I wouldn’t necessarily trust me to navigate Matsumoto’s dense symbolism, invented mythology and long, long stretches of meditative image essays correctly, if there even is a correctly.
Besides, the great pleasure of GoGo Monster is doing so yourself.
Tachibana is naturally ostracized by his classmates and, to a certain extent, the teachers at his school as well. They’re a little afraid of him, but mostly just regard him as a weirdo, inventing visions for attention. Are the things he sees and the things he talks about simply the products of his imagination? Is he insane? Or is it all real? Is the school haunted by warring supernatural creatures, turning it into a nexus that touches a completely different world unlike any we’ve seen?
Matsumoto is awfully coy on the subject. When we first meet Tachibana, his only friend is Ganz, the kindly old school caretaker, who has seen other kids who have seen the things Tachibana has seen in the past. He’s quickly befriended by Makoto Suzuki, a new kid in school who is fascinated by Tachibana, and hasn’t built up the sort of resistance that the other kids in school has.
Around the edges of their story is “I.Q.,” a kinda sorta point-of-view character who seems weirder than even Tachibana. He always wears a box on his head, viewing everything through a single eye-hole cut in it, and seems to spend all of his time in the school’s rabbit run.
It may not be immediately apparent from the art (and certainly not from the storytelling or subject matter), but Matsumoto is the creator of Tekkon Kinkreet, and it says something about his considerable talents that GoGo Monster seems to be the work of an entirely different person.
His work is quite representational—to a point. He point-of-view, the “camera” shifts quickly from panel to panel, finding unusual angles, and the characters occasionally stretch or shift ever so slightly, a forearm looking a little too long here, an ankle behaving strangely, an adult’s face growing cartoonier than the perfectly (but never mechanically) rendered school grounds, airplanes, desks, objects and animals.
Matsumoto leaves a lot of whites in his art, and its rather light on shading, calling greater attention to the artist’s line work, which is here occasionally scratchy and remarkably loose. There’s a tactile quality to the lines here, making it easy to see Matsumoto’s pencil moving up and down the paper as you read, or imagining you can brush your fingertips across the surface and dust aside excess lead. Or maybe that was just me.
(Joe “Jog” McCulloch insightfully referred to it as “furiously cartooned” when discussing it in his best of the year piece. And McCulloch named it his single best book of 2009, by the way, if you need a more enthusiastic recommendation and knowledgeable opinion to check it out)
I don’t mean to spend too much time trying to pick the book apart though, separating various elements and trying to categorize and evaluate them. This book is what a great graphic novel should be—irreducible. Each and every bit of it serves the work as a whole, creates a world, evokes a mood, tells a story, proposes ideas, stokes feelings.
The word “perfect” can be a dangerous one for a critic to use, as it establishes an extreme terminal point on a scale or spectrum of that critic’s assessments of quality. It boxes the critic in, even if only a little bit, and thus I’m always hesitant to use it. I keep it behind glass with the word “emergency” printed over it, and usually leave it there, unused.
But I have to admit, after reading GoGo Monster, after spending some time staring at a blank Word document, after writing and re-writing pieces of this review, I’m sorely tempted to break “perfect” out.
RELATED: While looking for a cover image to use at the top of the post that actually reflects the cover I was talking about—the book comes in a cardboard slipcase with different imagery, which is the image I ended up using up there—I came across this 2008 post at Same Hat!. Do check it out; it’s got lots of great images of the book, and will give you a much better sense of the visuals than my stumbling attempts to do so likely did. There's also a photo there of the cover I was actually talking about, the one on the book itself rather than the slipcover—the copy I read came from a library, so it was sans slipcover.