Written and illustrated by Ken Niimura. Published by Image Comics.
If you read comic books weekly, eventually you start to crave something different, refreshingly different. Japanese manga couldn’t be any more different than American comic books. Henshin is a book comprised of thirteen short stories written and illustrated by Ken Niimura. Originally released as a series of free web comics, Image Comics brings the English translation stateside in its original manga format. Even if you’re not interested in manga, these stories have the same wide-reaching appeal and charm of a newspaper comic strip. Just like those Sunday “funnies”, Niimura will fill your heart with the same warm “awe’s” and goofy laughter.
When this book initially came to my attention, I completely misinterpreted what it was going to be about. Since “Henshin” is Japanese for “transform”, I thought this was going to be a book about various people transforming into silly superheroes to save the day. That’s very far from what this book is about but it didn’t disappoint in the slightest!
Niimura’s art style is beautifully evident the moment you set your eyes on the cover. It’s minimalistic. Sure, he’s fully capable of adding a lot more detail (which you can see on his website) but the choice to use as few lines as possible gives the stories a relaxed appeal. I never felt overwhelmed by what’s on the page. Most of my reading of this book happened over the course of a couple days – between classes, waiting in line at the grocery store or lounging around my couch. With the typical American comic book, I have to set aside time to absorb the story from beginning to end. It could just be something about the way I personally read comics, but I almost always feel rushed to get through a book before someone interrupts me. Henshin is completely different. The stories feel as big as any book from one of the US publishers, but much easier to absorb. Because of the big panels and short dialogue, I was able to get through the short stories in half the time it takes to read 22 pages of the latest Batman or Uncanny X-Men.
Henshin is comprised of a series of 13 short stories that are loosely related to a theme of “transformations”. As I said before, these aren’t superhero stories (although one story in particular does involve super powers). Instead, Niimura uses something much more relate-able to tell each story: human growth.
In the book’s second story, “Kitty and Me” Niimura actually uses himself to describe how he fell in love with cats. It’s adorable – despite a brief detour to talk about pooping and toilets – and doesn’t end the way you’d expect. The “potty” humor surprised me but this was definitely my favorite. Niimura pokes fun at himself in such a way that it almost makes you want to think of something about yourself that is equally silly.
“Bully Bros” takes a situation that many people may be familiar with: being a child told to be on your best behavior for your father’s boss and his family. Naoki is young boy with a special ability which I won’t spoil. He’s forced to hang out with his dad’s boss’ boys who are terrible bullies. Most of the story revolves around his struggle to not reveal his ability to the boys to avoid frightening them. While the big reveal is absolutely silly, it turns out that Naoki wasn’t the one his mother should have been worried about.
Not until over halfway through the book is the reader finally treated to the tip of Niimura’s humor. “Par-tay” was the funniest story I’ve read in a while. Niimura once again uses himself to tell a story about what happens when friends unexpectedly visit. Niimura has no food in his kitchen, but he sets out to make a delicious soup for dinner. That’s basically where his involvement in the meal ends. The final meal itself owes its “flavor” to another friend who visits. You might never truly be able to enjoy another bowl of soup again in your life.
From the down-right silly (Bully Bros) to the hilariously disturbing (Par-tay), Niimura effortlessly makes his readers giggle and gasp with every story in this book. What was most surprising were the emotionally touching stories. In particular, “The Victory Sign” is about two long-time friends Kosuke and Keita. It’s the only story told over large passages of time. There are some funny moments throughout, but seeing the friendship between the two from high school boys to old men invokes good feelings. Especially the bittersweet ending. Keita is a true friend that supports Kosuke whether it’s in practicing to hit a home run or getting through a rough-patch in his marriage. It’ll make you want to be a better friend to your own friends.
Overall, Henshin is a wonderful book with few faults. Some of the stories had elements about them that I didn’t understand but it’s likely that I missed something in my initial reading. For example, the bookend stories “No Good” and “Shut Up” are related and tell the story of a girl named Naoki coming to live with her aunt and uncle. Something traumatic happened to her back home. Her living with her relatives is a way to help her heal and give her a “fresh start” so she can finish high school. By the end of the second story, it’s implied that she isn’t the same girl when she arrived. I gathered that she was a bully in her home town and her parents sent her away after she went too far. This is purely my own interpretation but I was a bit disappointed it wasn’t more obvious to the reader.
Lack of clarity here and there do little to distract from the amazing aspects of this book. As previously stated, the artwork is so wonderfully refreshing because it’s so minimalistic. What’s impressive is how easy it is to follow the story without reading the dialogue. Niimura says he wrote this book so that the visuals drive the story as much as the dialogue and it definitely shows. While the book is over 250 pages, you could easily finish it in less than half the time it takes to read two US trade paperbacks. I bought it digitally on Image’s comic app, but I’ll be buying it again in print because this is something I absolutely want on my book shelf. If you like the newspaper comic strip humor and art style or just want something adorable and quick to read, you’ll enjoy Henshin.