The GeeksverseREVIEW | Wayward, Vol. 1: String Theory (Image Comics)

REVIEW | Wayward, Vol. 1: String Theory (Image Comics)
Published on Friday, May 22, 2015 by
Jim Zubkavich and Steve Cummings break through the manga/Western comics barrier with Wayward.

  • Wayward_Vol1-1Paperback/full color/$9.99 (US)
  • Availability: 25 March 2015
  • Story: Jim Zubkavich (credited as “Jim Zub”)
  • Illustrations: Steve Cummings
  • Colors: John Rauch, Jim Zubkavich (credited as “Jim Zub”), Tamra Bonvillain, Ross Campbell, Josh Perez
  • Letters: Marshall Dillon
  • Backmatter: Zack Davisson
  • Publisher’s description: “Rori Lane is trying to start a new life when she reunites with her mother in Japan, but ancient creatures lurking in the shadows of Tokyo sense something hidden deep within her, threatening everything she holds dear. Can Rori unlock the secrets of her power before it’s too late? JIM ZUB (SKULLKICKERS, Samurai Jack) and STEVE CUMMINGS (Legends of the Dark Knight, Deadshot) team-up to create an all-new Image supernatural spectacle that combines the camaraderie and emotion of Buffy with the action and mystery of Hellboy. Collects WAYWARD #1-5.”

As seen in the publisher’s description text reproduced above, a lot of the promotional materials for Jim Zubkavich and Steve Cummings’ Wayward have taken to comparing the comic to both Joss Whedon’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Mike Mignola’s Hellboy. It’s a fair enough juxtaposition, given the series’ youthful female lead and its contemporary occult adventure conceit. It’s also perhaps the easiest way to introduce the comic to readers unfamiliar with manga or anime—Wayward, in my mind, has more in common in terms of theme and subject matter with Julietta Suzuki’s Kamisama Kiss or Adachitoka’s Noragami than any of its peers in Western comics.

What does this all mean, in simple, concrete terms? Well, in a nutshell, this means Wayward is a genre coming-of-age story that has a high school-aged protagonist—Irish-Japanese transfer student Rori Lane, who already has her hands full dealing with identity issues and being an outsider in a society that values conformity—stumbling onto the affairs of Japan’s panoply of yōkai (supernatural monsters) and kami (deities, roughly translated), discovering that she has formidable supernatural abilities of her own, and being thrown haphazardly in the middle of a conflict beyond her ken.

Zubkavich and Cummings bring a Western comics sensibility to their interpretation of what might be described as a manga subgenre. The pacing of the initial storyline is far more brisk than that often seen in serials optimized for publication in biweekly/monthly manga magazine installments, and the art is free of the overt stylistic quirks some observers may have come to readily associate with the Japanese comics aesthetic. Wayward may take inspiration from manga and Japanese folklore, but it is still fully informed by Western comics craft.

These days, it would probably be considered irresponsible to review a comic that deals with Japanese characters and themes, penned by a Canadian writer and illustrated by an American artist, without addressing the topic of cultural appropriation. All throughout my reading Wayward, Vol. 1, my mind kept turning to the following quote from award-winning graphic novelist Gene Luen Yang’s 2014 National Book Festival speech:

We in the book community are in the middle of a sustained conversation about diversity. We talk about our need for diverse books with diverse characters written by diverse writers. I wholeheartedly agree. But I have noticed an undercurrent of fear in many of our discussions. We’re afraid of writing characters different from ourselves because we’re afraid of getting it wrong. We’re afraid of what the Internet might say. This fear can be a good thing if it drives us to do our homework, to be meticulous in our cultural research. But this fear crosses the line when we become so intimidated that we quietly make choices against stepping out of our own identities.

After all, our job as writers is to step out of ourselves, and to encourage our readers to do the same.

I am by no means an expert on Japanese culture and folklore, although I would describe myself as being more informed on these topics in the anime/manga context, relative to your average comics reader in North America. I have no inside track into the creative process behind Wayward, beyond what Zubkavich and Cummings have made public on blogs, interviews, social media, and the backmatter section of Wayward‘s individual issues. And I don’t know anything about their personal lives outside of what’s readily accessible online to the general public. Did a “fear of getting characters different from [them] wrong” influence Wayward? I have absolutely no idea. But I do feel confident in writing that Zubkavich and Cummings have been as “meticulous in [their] cultural research” as they can be, and that they have both the professional and personal background to mitigate, if not avoid altogether, the orientalism that occasionally plagues Western works of popular entertainment that spotlight Asian cultures. After all, Zubkavich’s lengthy résumé includes stints writing officially licensed comics and animation featuring characters from popular Japanese video game properties, for both the Japanese and the international markets. Cummings, who lives in Yokohama with his family, is immersed in modern Japanese life. In addition, they have recruited Japanese folklore scholar Zack Davisson (author of Yurei: The Japanese Ghost and a translator who has worked for Dark Horse Manga and Drawn & Quarterly) to serve as something of an unofficial consultant on the title.

If there’s anything that might be deemed controversial in the comic (fully keeping in mind that the bar for controversy in comics has been set so much lower in the social media era), it should have nothing to do with cross-cultural concerns and more with the portrayal of a self-harm incident involving a key character in the book’s second chapter. It’s a genuinely disturbing and startling scene given the contrasting tone of the material preceding it, but it serves a purpose beyond shock value—it rapidly advances the task of character development, and underlines, in no uncertain terms, the thematic and emotional stakes in play.

None of these ancillary concerns and issues should take away from the strengths of the work, however. Wayward is a solidly entertaining and proficiently crafted comic, regardless of whether one views it against the background of manga or Western publications.

3 Responses
    • “penned by a Canadian writer and illustrated by an American artist”

      You mean White Canadian and White American. The idea that both Canadians and Americans are by default white only adds to issues of orientalism.

      • I don’t think the creators’ skin color is relevant to the discussion, though. I only bring up their nationality (and not race/ethnicity) to posit a reason as to why some readers may assume that the comic features instances of cultural appropriation or orientalism, especially now that Western interpretations of foreign cultures are rightfully subject to more critical examination.

        Because of my limited knowledge of Japanese culture, I’m in no position to say whether an assumption of this sort is correct or not. What I do know is that Zubkavich and Cummings likely know more about Japanese culture than I do (the latter, especially, since he lives in Japan and speaks the language), and given what can be gleaned about their past work and personal lives in the public realm, I trust that their portrayals of that culture are as fair and as informed as they could have made it, within the premise of the comic.

    • […] Geeksverse has a great review of Wayward Vol. 1, including a solid run down of some touchy subject matter we deal with in the series. “I do […]

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