Comic books from the 1960s and ’70s, even the good ones, often ask contemporary readers to bring to them some degree of moral relativism, and Baron Yoshimoto’s The Troublemakers (Retrofit/Big Planet) is no different. Collecting a number of short stories that the author produced in the late ’60s and early ’70s, the book offers readers a glimpse at the career of an artist who helped to mature the artform. But because of the sociopolitical milieu that these stories emerge from, they are dotted with choices that look odd from the perspective of 2018, particularly in regards to questions of gender and sexuality.
The most apparent example of this is the collection’s first story, “Eriko’s Happiness.” The first page of the story, which is reproduced in full on the book’s cover, features the title character leaning against a tree. Yoshimoto draws the image with a keen eye for detail, taking the time to delicately render the folds of Eriko’s clothing. She says to the reader, “My name is Eriko. I’m eighteen.” Yoshimoto composes his drawing so that the reader is positioned below Eriko, looking up at her, accentuating the curves of her body. Her left arm suggestively disappears behind her skirt, and she looks back at the reader from over her shoulder. She wears the oft-fetishized Japanese school girl’s uniform, and this, coupled with her reassurance to the reader that she is indeed “of age,” makes for a sexually provocative image. If this were drawn in 2018, we’d easily see this as sexualizing young women.
Interestingly, Yoshimoto resists this impulse elsewhere in the story. Eriko is just about to graduate high school, but she spends her free time in a fleeting relationship with an older gentleman who she calls “Daddy.” There are a number of sex scenes in the story, but Yoshimoto largely renders them so that details are concealed, but without employing the kind of titillation common in prurient cartooning, with a strategically placed bubble or shards of glass. Yoshimoto blocks the scene so that the characters are so tightly entwined that they appear as a single, pretzel-shaped being. Yoshimoto draws the rest of the comic with that particular mixture of introspective characters, expressive emotions, visual emphases on faces, and a flatness of composition that readers might recognize from early romance comics. His sex scenes feel like an extension of that, as though Yoshimoto is employing a language that’s only capable of suggestion or allusion, not pornography.
But at the same time, these drawings invite the reader to participate in the sexualization of young girls. Yoshimoto’s images are beautifully drawn, and once you’re inside the story, it’s difficult to label them with modern-day terms that might connote either appropriateness or discomfort. On the page that open’s “Eriko’s Happiness,” it is understandable to feel repelled by the composition but entranced by the lines and the play of shadow. The story forces readers to engage with a variety of emotions—not at once, but moving from one moment to the next. Yoshimoto uses emotion to captivate readers and hold their attention. Despite the discomfort or difficulty of judging a decades-old sexually provocative work, there’s still plenty here with a welcome intensity.