Goodnight Punpun is unlike any other manga you've ever read. It's the sort of convention-defying, senses-shattering experience you get when reading Will Eisner or Chris Ware for the first time. It takes notions of what manga can be --- of what comics can be --- and throws them right out the window. It's at once achingly familiar and deeply alienating.

Punpun, originally serialized in Japan from 2007-2013 and now being published in 2-in-1 volumes by Viz Media, is written and drawn by Inio Asano, one of the most singular voices in modern manga. Best known for the romance manga Solanin and the psychological horror Nijigahara Holograph, Asano has made a career out of combining intense character-driven storytelling with appealing art. Punpun is the purest expression of this yet, and also incredibly surreal.

Broadly speaking, it's about fifth grader Punpun Punyama, the breakup of his parents' marriage, the shenanigans he and his porn-obsessed friends get into, and his love for new classmate Aiko. Sounds normal, right? But for one thing, Punpun, his parents, and his Uncle Yuichi are all depicted as crudely drawn cartoon birds interacting with beautifully drawn humans.

For another, the reader never sees Punpun actually talk. Any dialogue of his is said in caption boxes or separate black panels. It's a little disorienting, but that's just the beginning. Punpun also has a chant that can summon God. And God in this case is a photograph of a Japanese man with an afro, whose every word is depicted like a Star Wars opening crawl.

 

Viz Media. Read right to left.

 

The weirdness of Punpun's world isn't just limited to his family. At his school, the principal and head teacher randomly play hide-and-seek and scream. Punpun's class teacher is rather normal... right up until he starts beating himself up and yelling about the importance of doing your homework.

So yeah, typical heart-tugging slice-of-life this ain't. Yet as bizarre and grotesque as this story can get, it's also really relatable. Who hasn't developed an instant crush on the new kid at school? And what kid hasn't been confused and curious about sex? And isn't a central part of humanity being completely overwhelmed by one emotion or another to the point of hysterics? Asano focuses in on all of these questions, and the answers he provides are compelling.

The key to selling the reader on the surreality of Punpun is Asano's gorgeous, unconventional artwork. Besides the contrast of birds to humans, the backgrounds aren't drawn, but a mix of computer graphics, black-and-white photographs, and 3D-modelled interiors. Somewhat similar to the techniques used by Jonathan Safren Foer, this blend of reality and drawing forms a hyper-real aesthetic that grabs you and doesn't let go.

 

Viz Media. Read right to left.
Viz Media.

 

Goodnight Punpun is definitely one of the most starkly original manga I've seen, and a contender for one of the best comics released so far this year. It's a nice reminder of how this medium can touch on universal experiences in incredibly unique ways. Check it out, and prepare to be repulsed and fascinated.

 

Goodnight Punpun Vol. 1 is on sale now, digitally and in print. A copy of this book was provided by the publisher for review.