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Yotsuba&!: The Cure for Depression

For people not in the know, the manga “Yotsuba&!” — the story of a young girl and her endlessly patient, endlessly suffering adoptive father after their move into a new town– is probably the most hilarious and joyful comic on the stands. Yotsuba should be in the dictionary next to the definition for “precocious” – she’s got a preternatural ability for slicing to the truth of a situation with a verbal scalpel, providing both the visual, slapstick humor for the kiddie set and the subtext to amuse the adults.The title is a reference to the book’s central storytelling MO, where each chapter introduces Yotsuba to something new, and shows the repercussions of her usual misunderstanding or obsession with that thing.

What’s amazing about Yotsuba&! is that it’s believable children’s entertainment without being pandering. Kiyohiko Azuma has mastered the concept of the all-ages humor comic, and the first few pages of this issue, before the title page, might be the most atomically funny concept I’ve read in months – it’s just a little girl wearing a ridiculous cow costume to brilliant effect. It’s all played deadpan, none of it is in any sort of stereotypical overacted “manga style.” Children and adults will find this hilarious for different reasons, and that’s the main reason why I think “Yotsuba&!” is a fantastic piece of work and a criminal exclusion from last year’s humor comic Eisner nominations.

“Yotsuba&Vengeance”, for instance, an early highlight of the series in volume two, features her watching the revenge-filled end of a crime flick and then going around trying to imitate it. On the face of it, this sounds like it could be pretty trite and insipid, Family Circus-style humor, but there’s an intangible quality Azuma’s writing and artwork possesses that elevates “Yotsuba&!” to a totally different level. What should be banal becomes joyous, as Azuma communicates – and infuses the reader with – Yotsuba’s infectious enthusiasm for … well, everything. The simplest pleasures are sources of great joy for Yotsuba, and it’s hard not to feel that way when you read the book; I’m fairly confident this series could be prescribed as a cure for depression.

A lot of the credit for this goes to Azuma’s incredibly slick art style. His cartooning is impeccable, his faces incredibly expressive, and his storytelling very solid – as clichéd as it sounds, much of the story is communicated without the dialogue. From her excitability to her father’s stoicism, the storytelling and characterization are absolutely driven by the art. Azuma really lets loose when exploring Yotsuba’s cruel streak , and the adorableness of a five-year-old girl emulating the worst aspects of human nature – greed, revenge, jealousy, spite. In Yotsuba’s hands, the ugly becomes both cute and hilarious.

That’s the special alchemy that “Yotsuba&!” is capable of, in the end — the transmogrification of the ordinary and banal into the wonderful and exciting. Azuma, and the main character, approach the world with an appreciating-the-little-things joie de vivre that makes the Insane Clown Posse’s “Miracles” look rational and cynical. And it’s unfailingly intelligent, and never talks down to the reader or its main character. Simply put, “Yotsuba&!” is probably the funniest and most cheerful comic out there, and if you’re down, if you’re blue, if you just got dumped or lost a loved one, this is a really effective tonic. I love this book.

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