I’m trying to write more. Probably the day after you read this, I’ll have a new short story up on essays.iamdavidbrothers.com. In the meantime, though, I’d like to talk about this old drawing from my friend Emma Ríos, co-creator of Pretty Deadly and Island magazine, and creator of ID from Image Comics.
The Flickr title for this one is “Gokudo Cats,” gokudo being a Japanese word that references the yakuza, and cats being…c’mon. You know what cats are. Meet me halfway here.
What first struck me about Emma’s art way back in 2011, when she was working on Osborn with Kelly Sue DeConnick, was the way she approached motion. She was using a technique in a way I found remarkable and striking, one of those “read the page, then read the page again, then save a screenshot of the page” kinds of things. She really brought some superhero bombast to the page, filtered through influences I’m not qualified to guess at. (I guessed that there was some Kirby in the mix when I first wrote about it, but I think that’s true of the vast majority of people who work with Marvel and DC.) That sense of motion made for exciting superhero comics, a genre where if the action scenes aren’t on point, everything else falls apart. More than that, it was new, novel—I saw it and it made me pause. That’s a feeling I chase in comics and media more generally, and Emma really delivered way back then.
Gokudo Cats is different. It’s from 2012, a single illustration that Emma submitted to a yakuza-themed art show in Portland that was running at the time. (I submitted a short story in zine form, which you can read here.) Emma perfectly captures stillness in this work. Not the absence of motion, that’s not what I mean. More like…if I had to describe this scene, I’d call it a vibe. There’s a narrative depicted here, but not necessarily one that’s being pushed forward or held back by the actions of the characters in the narrative. It’s just a moment, and in building that moment, Emma first had to build the vibe of that moment. I asked a few people about it, and most of them remarked on the way that it feels liminal, my favorite take being that it felt like a “calm between two storms.” It’s a moment frozen in time, but it’s a moment that lasts forever too. She’s drinking, he’s tattooing, and the cat is doing cat-things for eternity.
So: stillness in the sense of not inaction, but subdued or minimal action. It’s like watching a kid playing with building blocks. There is motion there, even though they may not be moving around too much. Every time you look at them, it feels like they’re in the same place, but there’s evidence of their movement too. If this picture were a Boomerang, like from Instagram, you’d see the old man pushing his tattoo needle down into the subject’s skin, the cat batting at something in the woman’s clothes, and the woman raising or appraising her beer can. Outside the window, a wind would blow back and forth, swirling in such a way that you can’t tell whether it’s coming or going.
The window is a crucial piece of the drawing for me. I like hiking and being outside, and recently went on a solo hike. It was eight miles, bright and early on a hot day, and I saw something that struck me early in the hike. The area where the cloud cover or fog met the tops of the trees looked like a mid-air waterfall almost, with the water vapor streaming down “into” the forest from afar. But it looked like the reverse, too, with the vapor rising out of the trees simultaneously. If I focused one way, the water fell. The other way, it rose. I was halfway up a mountain, staring at a sea of green and grey, trying to guess at the tides.
The way Emma drew the clouds, ground, and forest intermingling outside the window feels like that to me. It’s a concrete thing, very specific, but it’s anything too. It’s an ocean, it’s the sky, it’s the Earth. It’s an injection of the idea that some things are bigger than us into a piece that’s focused strictly on humanity otherwise. The posters, the tattoos, the posture, all of it feels deeply real to me, something that could be to such an extent that it might as well be. But the forest and clouds are out there saying, “There is more.”
The intrusion of the branches in the foreground does that for me too. It could be from a bonsai tree or from an off-screen full-sized tree, but it’s another reminder that nature surrounds us. We exist within it, rather than the opposite. In the Flickr post that went with this image, Emma described it as being a little Hayao Miyazaki-ish, and I can totally see it.
Even with the gun, the beer, and the tattooing, the image brings Miyazaki to mind because it evokes peace and contentment more than anything else to me. Everything and everyone in their right place, from the armed woman with a beer to the tattooist with a subject. Everything just looks right. Everything looks as it should, like the platonic ideal of a cool evening in this particular setting.
Sometimes, it kills me how good Emma is. I’m happy we’re friends.
Right now, Emma and Kelly Sue DeConnick are releasing the third part of their Pretty Deadly project. They just put #2 to bed, so that should hit in a few weeks. #1 is out at your favorite place to get comics, and the paperbacks are at bookstores, comic shops, libraries…shoot, you probably know somebody who owns them. Ask around. Tell your friends.
I do an irregular newsletter with lots of stuff like this. If you’re interested, check out (me+you) on TinyLetter. I also wrote a story inspired by this illustration called In-Between, which you can read here.
Emiko sat by the window nursing a beer, with her legs splayed in the same way that her mother used to chide her for as a child. A cat played around her feet, alternating between demanding attention and studiously ignoring every human in the room. Emiko wore a robe with the top pulled down to let the touched-up tattoo on her back heal and cool off in the evening’s breeze, two more things that would’ve made her mother frown in that certain way she did, as if she hoped that making a sour-enough face would let her walk back her daughter’s bad decisions. It was bad enough her husband had tattoos, but her only daughter too?
Though Emiko called him uncle, Hideki was actually her father’s sworn brother, now an old man who retired from one life and found another. Hideki had dedicated his new life entirely to leisure and tattooing. When he permanently left the city and moved halfway up a mountain—Emiko had taken a car most of the way there this evening, and walked the last three miles as the sun set—he took an artist’s name and set about his second life’s work. He was a horishi who worked without the aid of machines, like many others in their world, and had a good reputation amongst his prospective clientele. Hideki wasn’t particularly exceptional, but he was still connected, and that went a long way. The relative inaccessibility of his studio and his lifelong cranky attitude only added to the mystique. He certainly played the role of a master, even if he was more of a journeyman.
Hideki had been Emiko’s haven for decades. He first put ink to her skin when she was sixteen, a solid decade before before he permanently left the city. Her father had died six weeks earlier, upending her idyllic home life. She fought with her mother until she either ran away or was put out of the house, depending on who you asked, and she ended up running straight to Hideki. She was oozing grief by the time she knocked on his door, her hair dirty and matted and her eyes huge and wet in the twilight outside his apartment’s door. He gave her a bed, chores, and structure. He loved her father, and so, he loved her too.
Together, they designed and executed the first step of what would later become her munewari soushinbori, a type of full body tattoo with an opening on the chest. It was dedicated to her father, but when her mother saw it by accident some months later, the halting reconciliation they’d embarked upon froze solid. Her mother attacked Hideki with a ferocity Emiko had never seen before, a flurry of swinging fists and flung curses. She broke Hideki’s nose and orbital before Emiko finally pulled her off him. They drove home in silence, save for Emiko’s occasional whispered apology. It took over a year for her mother to trust her again.
The view out of Hideki’s window was incredible. The window looked down the mountain, back the way Emiko had come. She could see clouds wafting past tree tops down below in the bright moonlight, a spread of white and blue and green that felt more like an ocean than a forest. The colors reminded her of her own tattoos, with designs that coiled and twisted around her body as if they were swimming through a sea of their own. She could see for miles, and the sounds of the mountain and bright night sky made her feel relaxed. Emiko knew that there was a city in the distance, somewhere past the gloom and clouds, but for now, the whole world felt natural. She finished her beer and set it on the windowsill next to the mostly-empty rice bowls, sake cups, and other cans that had settled there over the course of the evening.
Hideki claimed he had an eye for aesthetics, and so had designed and built his home to maximize its harmony with the outdoors. Branches from trees tapped his windows on windy days, plants of all types littered his working area, and the building was cooled by natural air flow in the summer. The sun rose through his bedroom window in the mornings, his own personal alarm clock, and set through the window in his living area, where he ate dinner and read before bed. From the outside, his home seemed like it was on the verge of being overgrown. Inside, it simply felt right.
Comfort was paramount to Hideki, he’d come to learn. He worked when he wanted, how he wanted, and on who he wanted, while keeping his own hours and generally being his own boss. No more foolish old men giving him marching orders, no cops preventing him from getting what he wanted. Just peace, quiet, and his craft.
The room was filled with a thin, hovering layer of cigarette smoke. Hideki had smoked the same brand of tobacco since she was a kid, rolling his short, blunt cigarettes himself. The smell was so familiar to Emiko that it was a comfort in trying times. Sometimes her nostrils flared as she gazed out of the window, savoring the second-hand smoke, while her uncle worked on the young gangster who’d come to his studio.
Tonight’s subject was an underling who’d recently earned some stripe or another, a milestone in his burgeoning career but one that Hideki had achieved and forgotten eons ago. The man was an underling in Hideki’s former organization and had been gifted a session with Hideki from his boss. Hideki came up with a design, accepted the enormous check, and was on his fourth of six sessions with the young man. By the end of it, the man’s back would be covered and Hideki would have another finished work for his private album.
Emiko had arrived around ninety minutes before the man, so she and Hideki had time to share a small meal and drinks while he touched up the tattoos on her back. She pulled on her light robe shortly before the man came in the door. He walked tall, full of big-city swagger and privilege. He hit on her at first, a crude attempt rooted in an assumption that she was there as another gift from the boss.
Instead of responding, she lowered her robe and exposed her torso, an act that made him smile, at least at first. But as he registered the tattoos and the withering glare she leveled at him sank deep into his heart, he realized he’d made a horrible mistake. He bowed deeply, apologizing profusely to Emiko and her uncle both for the disrespect. He was silent for the remainder of the session, even when Hideki’s needles occasionally poked a little too deeply and sent shivers of pain up and down his back.
Emiko’s father had been dead for twenty-some years now. After the drama of the tattoo, after making peace with her mother and attempting to live at home again, she had walked the straight and narrow. School, exams, and then university. But it didn’t take. She found herself drawn to her father’s business, but the sexism rooted in the field did its best to push her away, to keep her from finding a family of her own.
Still, she was good with a gun but better with a blade, and she soon found a lane that worked for her: freelance. Her new career took her all across Tokyo, and then to Hiroshima and the Ryukyu Islands. When things got too hot for her in her motherland, she left. Her mother barely spoke to her any more, and it’s not like she’d leave behind a lot of friends or lovers if she simply disappeared.
There was a city in America that she’d heard of, one where she could ply her trade and possibly find great success. Her path there took her through Taiwan, Hong Kong, and then Hawaii before making it to the mainland, with each stop deepening her connections and desire for something new. When she arrived, she was exhausted, but found a warm welcome from strangers who knew her by reputation. Within a year, she had found her groove and settled in. Within two, she’d started sending money back home to her mother, her way of making amends.
Five years after her arrival in the United States, five years after she left the only world she’d ever known, she received an email from Hideki. He was never much for flowery messages or correspondence, and the email was so short as to be curt. He simply told her to read the attached file and do as she willed. She imagined him typing out the email, one finger at a time, frowning at the screen, and smiled.
The file he sent her told quite a story. At the beginning was the same coroner’s report that she’d read dozens of times before, detailing her father’s condition when he died. After that was a dossier. It was new, and it suggested that her father died from one 5.56 round fired from long range. She immediately wondered if it was an American who’d killed her father, some bored GI wandering around drunk and armed. But the more she read, the more it came off like a professional shooting, which meant it must have happened on someone’s order. And sure enough, the following pages explained exactly who ordered the hit, who delivered the order to an underling, and which assassin who pulled the trigger. It was a mix of police surveillance, private detective work, and Hideki’s own intelligence, gathered and collated over the course of several years.
Her father had been retired for quite some time before he died, ever since she was a young girl, so his death must have been payback for some past sin. But her father was her father, so within twelve hours of reading the email she was on a plane back home—first class—and by the end of the week every man involved in her father’s death was dead, whether they were in bed, in the arms of their mistress, or attending a business meeting for their legitimate enterprises.
It was the assassin that was the hardest to kill, but he was old and slow when it counted. She caught him while he was in bed, sleeping alone. She stood there a moment, listening to him breathe, waiting for it to change. When he woke and moved to pull a snub-nosed gun from under his pillow, she threw a knife at his shoulder. By the time the gun cleared the pillow and he was struggling to lift his dead arm to aim at her, she’d closed the distance between them and buried a second one in his heart. She didn’t take her time or exercise any cruelty. He was simply alive in one moment and dead the next, the gun falling out of his limp hand as a last gasp passed his lips.
Emiko had killed him not twelve hours earlier, and taken the long drive to Hideki’s place after checking out of her hotel and closing out her affairs in the city. She had a hunch that someone would be after her, though, and wasn’t surprised to see car headlights down the mountain as she gazed out of the window. They were winding their way around the roads, getting closer and closer to the studio, flickering on and off as the cars took the twisting turns. She counted three cars or trucks, and imagined she could hear the growl of their engines over the air, despite the distance.
“Uncle?” she said. She picked up the gun that sat between her legs, checked the action and ammunition by instinct, and placed it on the windowsill.
“Yes, little girl?” he replied, his focus locked on the picture taking shape before him. His gloves were dotted with blood and ink, the ash at the end of his cigarette long and hanging dangerously over his subject’s back.
They hadn’t called each other by name for years. He called her “little girl,” and she called him “uncle” in return. It was a reminder to her that her life was not always what it is today, and a reminder to him of the same. She half-smiled every time she thought of his love for her, and hoped he felt the same.
“They’re coming,” she said. She shrugged her robe the rest of the way off and gathered her neatly folded pants and shirt to put them on. She pulled her hair into a tight ponytail and stretched her arms above her head, reaching for the heavens before dropping them to her side. She shook her shoulders. She felt loose.
Her uncle sighed a deep sigh and was quiet a moment. “It’s a pity.”
I put together a short story collection called Darker Than Blue, Volume 1: eight stories from the city. It’s available now for $5, which gets you 62-page PDF and epub versions of the work. Darker Than Blue contains eight stories about crime, violence, paranoia, grief, joy, and family in the city, and one story about Sun Wukong contemplating murder on a mountaintop. The book design, layout, and lettering is courtesy of my old Image Comics collaborator Sasha Head, while the cover is by East of West’s Nick Dragotta. This is the prologue:
The city ended up the way it did thanks in no small part to certain actions taken in the Summer of 1974, right around the time Nixon resigned. Six men died that summer, a number that pales in comparison to the city’s quadruple-digit body count that year. While their names will never appear in any history book, their deaths marked a turning point in the landscape of criminal activity in the city.
Two years prior, a young boy named Harrison was struck and killed when a gunfight broke out near a friend’s home uptown. The conflict was part of a series of running turf wars that were beginning to bubble up around the city. Three of the men, representatives of a local penny-ante racketeering operation, wanted to prevent two of their rivals taking over, and the most expedient way to do that was to force them out. The sixth was a tame cop, one who was interested only in making sure the newcomers got what they wanted and that he got paid, not in that order. The boy was nothing more than collateral damage, and the cop made sure that his death went unsolved when the investigation into the shooting began. No suspects, unreliable and tainted witness reports, and no arrests meant that it was just another night for most everyone in the city.
That summer, Rosaline Baines, mother to Harrison, enlisted Shawn Jenkins, a relative who served with her late husband in Vietnam, in her mission: kill all six men to balance the scales. They succeeded, though Jenkins lost his life finishing the job. After, Rosaline quietly returned to her life, raising three daughters, eight grandchildren, and twelve great-grandchildren before she died. She raised a family of teachers and activists, musicians and artists. They grew up ignorant of their mother’s sin, but unknowingly lived through the aftermath.
She never understood the full repercussions of her actions, but Rosaline’s hate made waves. The men were not high-up, they were not important men by any means, but they were significant enough to be missed. Each man ran or worked with a smaller gang of men and boys in addition to representing a greater organization.
Rosaline’s actions disrupted a delicate ecosystem in the city. The death of the cop gave the police an excuse to crack down on urban violence with increasingly militarized equipment and strategies. The police, already no friend to the majority black communities in the city, began to shoot first and justify their actions later, if at all. The death of the other men created two different power vacuums, one that left their crew leaderless and another that left their organization on its back foot and desperate to regain its former strength. The crews splintered, splintered again, and eventually went to war in the streets. Their former masters made a futile effort to regain control of their charges while the cops cracked every black and brown head in sight.
By the spring of ’75, the city was burning. Newspaper editorials demanded government intervention. Politicians found a toehold and dug in, eager to show how tough on crime they really were. The city was on track for its highest crime rate in years, with records being broken seemingly every month. Small business owners fled first, rising insurance costs eliminating the free-falling rents in the area, and a significant portion of the city’s whites soon moved to a neighboring town.
When summer arrived, crime suddenly plummeted to lows not seen in years. The police were baffled. Their strong-arm tactics worked, they believed, but the result was unprecedented. The streets went from noisy to quiet over a period of mere weeks, barely more than a month. Rumors swirled: secret police death squads, assassinations, bribes, and buyouts. The police expected a flashy new player to step in, another target to be knocked off its perch. Nothing materialized.
Outside of the eyes of the police, however, was another story. Months of machinations by persons previously unknown paid off, and the vast majority of the city’s criminal element found themselves under the control of one organization, which was itself controlled by a small coalition of men and women. Word came down quickly: settle the violence, keep the peace for a while, and we’ll make money for decades. Provide a few sacrificial lambs, eradicate the snitches, and the city is ours. Invest in politicians, in education, in the community, and we’ll be unstoppable. Resist, and the best you’ll get is a closed casket funeral in a potter’s field decades down the line, when they finally find what remains of your body.
Now, almost fifty years later, the organization had fully infiltrated several aspects of life in the city. The politicians that weren’t on the take knew that more than a few of their fundraisers and supporters had ties to crime. Undercover cops were tolerated until they ran afoul of the wrong profit-seeking venture and were ejected, not killed, from their top secret operations. A little give-and-take kept everything running smoothly. The cops got to hit their marks for the year and the crooks kept the dope moving and the streets under control.
The organization cracked down hard on random violence. Street gangs were annexed as soon as they formed and unleashed with better tactics, training, and discipline. There were rumors of a popular and expensive youth center in the hood that doubled as a front for recruitment, high schoolers used as muscle, and a veritable army of orphans who were adopted and trained to use their fists, sticks, knives, and guns in the pursuit of profit, not to mention the veterans who enlisted for a better life and came home with the best of Uncle Sam’s tactics lodged inside their head.
White flight eased as the decades passed, though the city remained overwhelmingly non-white as the black, Asian, and Latinx populations eventually reached parity. It’s one thing to fear for your life and your business on a daily basis, but if the crime is limited to happening over there, to them, then maybe the risk was worth it. There was a lot of money to be found in the city for anyone who had an eye toward profit.
Segregation was built into the DNA of the city. The further north you went, the closer you got to the Neon, a ten-block district of nightclubs, bars, music venues, and conspicuous consumption. The further south you went, the worse things got. Toward the middle was a tug-of-war between the rich and poor, both angling to push the other out of their neighborhoods as soon as possible. But it was stable. It worked as intended.
The city was ringed by a route on the light rail system that most natives called the O or Loop. It was a project that began as a triumph of city-planning but was soon outpaced by the growth of the town. The Loop surrounded most of the city, forming a perimeter that touched almost every single major district. Supplemental trains and buses covered the rest, spider-webbing across the city. For a dollar fifty-five, you could loop from blight to the Neon or vice versa in about thirty-minutes. Everyone that didn’t drive used the train, and everyone that didn’t use the train or drive never left their neighborhood.
Most people in town have one goal: don’t rock the boat. The city works. Keep it that way. It became a vibrant and up-and-coming place, a place where a family could be raised with a certain amount of care and jobs could be found no matter your skill set or education on one side, and those with certain skills or temperaments could thrive on the other. The penalty for Heaven was just a bitter taste of Hell now and then.
One of the best ways I have to describe my life under white supremacy, of living and functioning in White America, is that it’s a constant battle to define, protect, conserve, and nourish my self in the face of relentlessly overwhelming opposition. It’s having to keep a firm idea of who I am in my head to counter the onslaught of dissenting opinions from people, from pop culture, from tradition, from the world as a whole. I have to assert myself and define my self, because the definitions thrust upon me have never been true.
I have what I like to think is a strong name. David, then two middle names honoring different men who came before me, and then Brothers. I’m proud of it, proud enough that I haven’t used a pseudonym online in probably fifteen years. My name is always either present from jump or just around the corner when you come across the places I haunt online. I want you to know exactly who I am and what I said and where it came from.
Names are powerful, whether you possess a name or learn someone else’s name. I learned as much from Kunta Kinte, Marlo Stanfield, and Roxanne Shante. Your name is your name. It’s currency. It’s all you have, after everything is over. It’s your life. Your name is storage, and that storage holds your reputation, your hopes, your dreams, your likes, your dislikes, and more. My name is my definition, a way to organize and preserve the collection of experiences, talents, and feelings that made me what I am. I am David Brothers.
I have a hard time with how we hashtag victims of violence to honor them. I don’t actively argue or root against it, because I understand exactly why we do it, but I personally choose not to do it. A hashtagged name collapses the three hundred and sixty degrees of a person’s life and self to a single point, like a sphere seen from a distance. Their name shifts from a definition of who they are to a hashtag that describes how they died. When I need shorthand when discussing violence, I try to refer to the killer and not the victim. A recent and particularly egregious murder isn’t #BothamJean to me—it’s #AmberGuyger. She committed the sin, so why should he have to bear the indignity of having his name taken from him on top of losing his life?
That loss of detail comes naturally from working in shorthand…it’s how compression works, and it absolutely kills me inside. It feels unfair to the dead, another injustice heaped on top of a lifetime of them. When you see the names Oscar Grant, Abner Louima, Nia Wilson, Freddie Gray, Sandra Bland, Stephon Clark, and dozens more names I’ve seen and had to consciously put out of my mind to keep from screaming until I die, you don’t think of proud fathers, mothers, brothers, sisters, daughters, siblings, or anything else. You think of them as victims of America first and foremost, and then, hopefully, you’ll recall some part of their humanity after. It’s hard to explain how unjust that is to me, to have your whole self taken and then completely redefined due to matters beyond your control.
The murder of Oscar Grant by BART Police Officer Johannes Mehserle in 2009 wasn’t the first one that hit close to home, but it was the first that happened in my backyard as a grown man. I live in Fruitvale now, and I still go to 12th St BART on my daily commute rather than Fruitvale Station. Every time I think about Fruitvale Station, I think about watching Ryan Coogler’s movie Fruitvale Station in Berkeley with a theater full of black people weeping at what America puts us through, bawling at the way Michael B. Jordan’s portrayal of Oscar Grant passes from a man to a memory, and then from a memory to shorthand for state-sponsored violence.
Lupe Fiasco released a new album recently called DROGAS Wave. There’s a lot to chew on in it, but two tracks that caught my attention are “Alan Forever” and “Jonylah Forever,” and they’re named after Alan Kurdi and Jonylah Watkins. Alan was a toddler who died when a boat capsized on its way from Turkey to Greece, where his family hoped to find asylum. Jonylah was a six-month-old girl who died of gunshot wounds in her father’s lap, due to a gangster seeking retaliation against him.
I vividly remember Alan. 2015 was a bad year. It was the year my grandmother died, and the year that videos of police brutality went from rare to constant. Alan died a little over halfway through the year. I remember him because well-intentioned but foolish whites posted his image all over the internet in an attempt to bring constructive attention to the refugee crisis, the same way the same group posted videos and pictures of black lives being cut down to bring awareness to an issue that black people have had figured out forever. I get it, because something has to be done in the face of atrocity, and sometimes you need to shock people into action. Galvanize them. But it still made me unbearably sad, and still does, because he was a boy who had been transformed into a tool by people who did not care about him except as leverage, a final indignity in his short life. Alan’s photo is at the top of his Wikipedia page. A photo of him smiling and being a child is below the fold.
Lupe does something I’ve probably only seen in poetry before this. He wrote about the dead, trying to get at their interiority, to express that they aren’t just another victim of the evil that people do, but people unto themselves. Souls. It’s fan-fiction, of a kind, and one where, rather than dying due to factors far beyond their control, they experience life in a better world than this. They get a chance.
Fundamentally, the songs are about how important it is that adults protect children, and in so doing, secure our future. Alan survives the water that took his life, expresses joy, grows up, and joins the Canadian Olympic swimming team. Jonylah survives the bullet that took her life, takes her first steps at one year old, gets a scholarship at sixteen, a doctorate at twenty-two, and goes on to serve her hometown with a free clinic. At the end of both songs, the reason why Lupe chose those specific occupations become clear, as Alan and Jonylah rescue their younger selves from their real-world deaths. Alan leaps off a boat, grabs his younger self, and swims to shore, while Jonylah was on the scene when her younger self was shot and leverages her medical knowledge to save her own life.
It’s a parallel universe thing, but despite the fantasy, it hollowed me out. It helped me realize why I have such a hard time with hashtagging the dead. As I am now, I’m all potential energy. I could be this, I could be that, I could be anything. Anything. But when I’m #DavidBrothers, I’m the victim of a person, entity, or culture that considered my life less than theirs. All that potential energy would be lost in favor of a static existence I never wanted, earned, or asked for. Lupe’s song suggests what they could’ve been if the trauma of reality hadn’t cut their lives short, and the idea is equal parts enthralling and heartbreaking, particularly because they’re children.
“This is what life would be like if we were better.”
some books are there for you when you need them, and anathema when you don’t. on a certain level, it doesn’t even really matter if a book is good or bad, so long as you get something valuable out of it. right?
Tite Kubo’s supernatural adventure comic Bleach was serialized from 2001 through 2016 in Japan, and from 2004 through 2016 in the United States. I found it while I was ankle-deep in a half-hearted try at college in my small hometown, and liked it. The drawings were nice in a “Jamie Hewlett-meets-manga” way, the character designs and fashion were almost universally cool, and I’ve forever had a soft spot for swords and sandals tales.
It stars Ichigo Kurosaki, a kind-hearted goofball who turns out to be a prodigy with a destiny. Circumstances awaken his power as a Soul Reaper, someone who maintains the balance between the living and spirit worlds by killing white monsters with magical swords. Bleach’s setting is a great storytelling engine, one that allows for infinite variation and creative problem-solving, as long as those problems could be solved with swords.
I liked it until I didn’t. I drifted away and came back again and again over the years until I finally tapped out somewhere around volume 38, over seven thousand pages into the series. I was dissatisfied with the progression, the villains, and the shape of the thing, the way it wasn’t hitting my buttons any more. The collected editions felt the same: several so-so stories book-ended by great ones, which would keep me interested enough to buy the next, until I finally lost patience.
Certain things about the series remained excellent, even during the valleys. Kubo has a knack for designing title pages or sequences that are bar-none the absolute best in comics. The title designs are ornate and designed to evoke a specific mood, and often double as beautiful pieces of art even when removed from the context of the series. A quick glance at a list of chapter titles shows that almost every single title Kubo came up with works as a pretty killer song title, too—”The Shooting Star Project” is a highlight, as are “Everything But The Rain” and “Quincy Archer Hates You.” (In my head, they’re all tunes created by the various projects Damon Albarn has been a part of—Blur, Gorillaz, and Rocket Juice & the Moon.) But ultimately, the series was lacking something I needed.
I’ve been buying the Shonen Jump comics anthology since the phonebook days, and leapt at the digital version when its publisher Viz Media moved away from print. Bleach ran in Jump, and as a result, I ended up seeing a lot of Bleach in passing after quitting the series. I generally skipped over it in favor of other strips I liked more, but it was there, and at one point I found myself not reading it, but looking at it on the regular. By this point, Kubo had announced that the series was on its final arc, which in the end would run just under 4,000 pages. He was still doing killer title pages, and while I had next to no idea what was going on in the story, the drawings were striking. Bold designs, fascinating layouts, and a generally intriguing approach to visuals.
At that point in my life, as a reader and critic, I’d started to demand more from myself and the art I consumed. I wanted to understand and discuss art better than I had been, and I wanted to be challenged and stunned at the same time. I started to feel like Kubo was equally restless about where he was at, from my perspective, because I began noticing things in his art I hadn’t before. Character proportions had changed, outfits became more complicated, and I found that he would often throw three or four pages at a type of scene he used to solve in just a couple panels.
The mood he had always been evoking via chapters-as-song titles was increasingly present in the art, a move that was either incredibly self-indulgent or just plain incredible, depending on your point of view. Chapters ranged from near-silent to crowded with speeches about the nature of violence, the point of living, the pointlessness of revenge, and other subjects more suited to chanbara cinema than shonen comics.
And just like that, I was back. Bleach grew up while I wasn’t paying attention, and grew up in a way that threw it right back onto my radar so hard it became a highlight of every week’s issue of Jump. Kubo’s self-indulgence felt like a victory lap. He knew the series was wrapping up, so why not send it off in style? Why not give all these dusty old characters one last moment—or several—in the sun before packing them away? Why not give them a speech that makes you think about who they are and what they do before they cut down someone in an extremely cool way?
Kubo had always been strong at design, but now he was flexing his strength with concepts, too. An exceptional swordswoman who learned healing arts in order to prolong her ability to fight. A man who capped his own overwhelming power in order to preserve the joy he found in battle. A man who turns children’s games lethal, a mad scientist who is determined to stay ten steps ahead of everyone else, a blade that takes a life with each swing…
The specifics probably won’t matter to you if you haven’t read the series, but I suddenly went from bored disinterest to hanging on almost every word. The action was good, and sometimes exceptional, but it was the total package that really drew me back in. Bleach was a comic that wasn’t afraid to let itself breathe or get weird, and as a result, it found its footing again. It felt self-assured.
That confidence helped cause a shift in how I look at comics. I went from demanding comics to be what I wanted to being more willing to meet a comic on the creator’s own terms. Which isn’t to say I suddenly like everything ever, or think everything has merit—it just expanded my comfort zone. Kubo is telling his story the way he wants to, and I found something to respect and enjoy there.
The chapter titles-as-songs aspect of Bleach is wildly underrated, but key to the whole experience for me. Bleach will never be as resonant or full of fluid action as Eiichiro Oda’s One Piece or Masashi Kishimoto’s Naruto, the other two entries in the shonen “Big Three.” Those series center friendship, legacy, and destiny in a way that Kubo never really did. But what Kubo does well is dig deep into the idea that style can be substance, that something beautiful is able to inspire enjoyment, too.
Bleach is a series of vibes. It’s a story that progresses and expands in a mostly reasonable manner, but the real entertainment comes from the vibe. Discovery, exuberance, freedom, melancholy, fear, creativity, reconciliation, desperation, and fury. Kubo drops you into pool after pool of these feelings and invites you to just relax and enjoy the moment. “Enjoy the ride.”
The final chapter of the series, Chapter 686 (there are technically over seven hundred chapters, but some chapters feature negative or half numbers: again, Bleach is a vibe to roll with) is called Death & Strawberry, mirroring the first chapter of the series. It’s out next week as I’m writing this, and aims to wrap up the series. The penultimate chapter was a ten-year time skip; the one before that ends with the hero slashing the villain in half. Wrapping everything up is a tall order.
If Bleach ends like other shonen books, the hero will have accepted his destiny or retired or both, settled down with one of the female characters, possibly had kids, and look back fondly on the friendships he made. A core theme of “looking out for others” will be reiterated, and we’ll get one last look at familiar faces wearing nice new clothes.
That’s fine. Everything between chapters one and six-eight-six are what matters. For me, that period spans early college to independent adulthood. I became a professional writer, started a comics blog, killed a comics blog, lived in three cities, and held down a fistful of different jobs. When I was younger, Bleach scratched an itch I had for good shonen adventure comics, ones with creative settings and not-too-complex characters. As an adult, I’m stuck on how Kubo churns out jaw-dropping pieces of art and expands his universe in ways that hit me on a whole other level, be it philosophically or just as spectacle.
It doesn’t matter to me how it ends. Not really. It did what I needed it to do, even when I didn’t know I needed it.