Robledo and Toledano return for volume 1 of Tebori.

Of Tattoos, Organized Crime, and Motorcycle Chases: “Tebori” v1

“Tebori”, Volume 1

Teboria volume 1 cover

“Ken Games” remains the best comic book series I’ve read this year.

The creators behind that series, writer Jose Manuel Robledo and artist Marcial Toledano, returned to create another series called “Tebori” after that.  They’ve published two  volumes so far.  I believe the whole series is slated to run four books before it’s done.  I’ll be reviewing the first here.

 

Tattoos and Yakuza, Oh My!

Tebori is the name for the Japanese practice of tattooing by hand without modern mechanical help. It’s all manual work with long needles instead of ink guns.  (Or whatever they’re called. Sorry, I’m not a tattoo guy.)  It uses much blunter instruments, which the Grand Masters control like wondrous professionals.

That’s the setting for this story. There are a couple of minor spoilers for the book in the description, but here’s how the publisher describes the book:

Yoshi, a troubled teenager, is sent by his grandfather to Seijun, a highly renowned tattoo artist. Against all expectations, the boy masters the art of tattooing, including the complicated Tebori technique. Ten years later, Seijun reveals a great secret to his apprentice: his clients are from the yakuza, the formidable Japanese mafia. Each tattoo they bear has a specific meaning, often to do with the murders they’ve committed. When Yoshi discover that his friend is tattooed with the same strange design as one of the yakuza bosses, his whole world turns upside down…

Yoshi ran with a motorcycle gang before moving in with one of the seven legendary Grand Masters of Tebori.  He learns how to give the common customers their regular tattoos while studying more advanced techniques from the Master.  It successfully keeps him out of trouble, to the point where he turns too blind an eye to what his Master is doing upstairs with his “special” customers.

Yoshi believes a tattoo should have meaning.

There’s another employee at the tattoo shop that Yoshi is effectively mentoring, while he spends some nights out with his old friends grabbing a few drinks and reliving the good old days.  But the vast majority of his life is in the tattoos.  He’s a sympathetic character, even in spite of his flaws and his earlier outlaw experiences.  Forced into a world he wouldn’t have otherwise chosen, he makes the best of a bad situation. He’s a hard worker and a gifted artist.

Then he meets a cute girl, which threatens to upset the apple cart in another direction yet again.

 

Manga Flashbacks

Riding horses in a flashback in Tebori

One of the side stories in Tebori has to do with a hunting expedition that goes strangely wrong.

Reading this book reminded me of the time when I read my first manga, 15 years ago.  I learned a bunch about Japanese history and culture in those early books, particularly in titles like “Lone Wolf and Cub” that were set in such a specific historic period.

In this book, Jose Manuel Robledo fills his script with little pieces of exposition that explain to the reader the traditions and techniques of the tattoo world and how the yakuza honor it so much as a part of their culture.

Being yakuza, though, they often get mad and violent when they don’t get their way. There’s a balance between respect and fear that permeates this book.  People often do things because they made one bad decision early on and have had to live with it their entire lives.

As with “Ken Games,” Robledo fills the book with liars whose truths eventually come out quicker than they did in his previous work, but to no less effect. It’s not quite as tightly woven a plot here.  The stories behind the tattoos are often grist for the story mill, and those little trips to other side stories give the book more of a chance to explore Japanese culture at the expense of tightening up the plot.  I’m also guessing that e’ll be coming back to some of those stories as the series plays out.

Yakuza go in, guns blazing

Part of the enjoyment I got out of this book was in reading those little side stories that come from the various “guest stars” of the book.  I liked being absorbed into a whole other world without worrying about whether the action was rising or falling.  This book never bored me, and that’s what counts.

I’m glad I bought the second volume already.  If I had to wait six months to read the next part, I’m sure I’d forgot everyone’s names and backstories. At the least, I’d start confusing and co-mingling the two.

Since the series runs four books, though, that means I’m on the regular publishing schedule for the next two books in the series. I’ve been playing catch-up with BD so much that I’m not used to waiting on the “next” book in any series.  Usually, everything’s been done for years.  This is a new experience.

 

A Problem With Digital Comics

This book has a glossary. That presents a problem.

Robledo’s script includes a lot of Japanese words that will likely be unfamiliar to you.  Sure, you might know “kamikaze” or “yakuza.” What about terms like “sujibori” and “yabusami”? I doubt it. Helpfully, such words are each marked with an asterix. Their definitions can be found in a glossary at the end of the book.

If you’re reading this comic digitally, though, it’s a hassle.  You need to stop reading, scroll to the last page, load it, and then scroll back to where you were.  It might be a little easier on an iPad, but on a computer monitor on the website, it’s just not worth it.  Thankfully, I could infer many of the meanings from their context; the rest I could let slide.  When I finished the book, I read through the glossary and learned some helpful terms. Most of them are specific to the tattoo world.

I wish Comixology had some way to mitigate this.  What if I could tag a specific page, and then tap a key to flip back and forth between that bookmarked page and the page I’m currently reading? Push the “B” key and go to the Bookmarked page.  Push the “B” key again to go Back to the last page you leapt from.

It’s not a feature that too many comics would need. I doubt we’ll see it anytime soon.  Ah, well…

The Art of Marcial Toledano

Toledano’s art is different from “Ken Games,” even the fourth volume of that series, which was completely different from the first three.  This series is obviously inspired by a healthy amount of manga.  The meticulous backgrounds, the duotone like patterns, the speedlines, the attention to small details and machinery…

In Tebori, Toledano draws great motorcycle chase scenes like this one.

When the book starts with motorcycle gangs chasing each other around the city and taking out the bats, I thought I was about to read an “Akira” homage.  It’s not that, but I’m pretty sure Toledano could pull that off if he wanted.

Toledano’s style is an interesting mix of realistic with cartoony. Faces are expressive to the point of cartooniness once or twice, but everything feels more “real” than even “Ken Games,” with less cartoonish proportions. It’s like he’s trying harder with this book to make a live action classic Japanese yakuza movie.  Characters still have very individual looks, but he achieves that without making them “the one with the abnormally large chin” or “the one with the kewpie doll face” or “the one that could be a Bruce Campbell caricature.”

Blockheads request dumb tattoos

There’s one scene that breaks that rule, but it’s done with purpose. It’s about a pair of oafish ignorant blockheads who are coming in for the most basic tattoos ever.  They’re meant to be seen as cartoonish characters, while helping to show Yoshi’s distaste for the most base part of his own customer base.  He wants to be doing works of art on bodies, not four leaf clovers and “Mom” banners on people’s shoulders.

Storytelling is always clear, from panel to panel.  Toledano draws backgrounds with enough detail to make them feel real, including all the little items on shelves or hanging on the walls.

Toledano also gets credit for designing the tattoos for the book. The key moments of the book are highlighted by insanely complicated tattoo designs, often being inked onto someone’s body. I have the feeling that they were done on the computer and then superimposed on the art in post-production. They’re just too good to be drawn in repeated panels.

The Quirks of Lettering

There’s one interesting trick in the lettering with this book.  The tails between balloons often go out of bounds before coming back in.

Here, take a look:

In Tebori, word balloons go off panel and return

 

It shouldn’t work.  It’s not something I would ever recommend to an up-and-coming letterer.  But I have to say, I liked it in this book.  It’s a stupid simple little technique that helps keep the panel from getting cluttered while allowing the balloons some space between them.

My eye has no problem following the tails, mostly because they never go that far out of the panel. If you filled them in with a pencil, you likely wouldn’t go more than an eighth of an inch out of the panel.

It’s just another technique, but one I can’t recall ever seeing before.

The font, itself, is weird.  It’s the same one they used on “Ken Games” that doesn’t quite sit on a clear baseline.  Like with those balloon tails, I wouldn’t recommend this to an up-and-coming letterer. As a reader, I got used to it, but it does make everyone look like they’re talking half-drunk all the time.  They look uneven, like a bad hand letterer did the job.

But, then, I do miss the hand lettering days, so maybe that’s why I forgive this font so much.

 

A Variety of Color Schemes

Life is tranquil, business as usual, downstairs at the tattoo parlor.

 

The colors in the book are beautiful.  Toledano uses multiple color schemes across the book. They indicate a location, time frame, mood, or a specific storytelling purpose.

Inside the night club where Yoshi hangs out with his buddies, things are bright and colorful.  It’s such a dramatic difference from the rest of the book that it looks neon.

At the tattoo parlor, you can feel the yellows and greens downstairs of the commercial lights, while upstairs things assume a more somber yellow and brown scheme to give it that old school feeling.

Toledano draws and I believes colors this sequence, dropping out the color around the action to highlight what's going on.

In the motorcycle chase at the beginning of the book, there’s a sequence where they are racing through crowded city streets.  Toledano goes monochrome for everything except the motorcycles, which get brighter colors to stand out more clearly. Each gang also has its own color scheme on the bikes so you can tell them apart. It’s a smart trick to help the reader parse out a fast-paced, crowded scene.

Recommended?

Yes.  If you went through a manga phase like I did, and enjoyed learning a bit about culture from fiction, then this book will work for you.  I’m not a tattoo guy by any stretch of the imagination.  It’s a culture I just don’t “get.”  But here, it makes sense and creates an atmosphere and a situation that makes for blockbuster storytelling situations.

I’m still not getting a tattoo, though.

But this book is good, with a story that will draw you in.  The art will keep your focus on the page so you don’t miss a trick.

Again, I’d suggest reading “Ken Games” first, but this one is good, too, and a completely different story. (Though there is a cameo in this book by a familiar character, I believe…)

The digital edition of this book is available on both Izneo and Comixology.

(This is Pipeline BD 100 review #35.)

1 Comment

  • Top 5 BD of 2017 So Far - Pipeline Comics August 8, 2017 at 7:43 am

    […] follow-up series to this is the Japanese Tattoo crime story, “Tebori,” of which I reviewed the first volume.  Two volumes are available thus […]

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