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Dementia 21

Hi, everyone! Jim here, with another comic book review/recommendation! I hope you're all healthy and have tons of reading material, but if not, we can remedy one of those things. Before you get your hopes up too high, I should probably tell you that it's the latter.

Today I want to tell you about an excellent set of two graphic novels that may have slipped entirely past your notice. It's a manga called Dementia 21, created by Shintaro Kago and published by Fantagraphics Books. Now, I'm sure some of you never got into the manga thing. But this isn't really like your My Hero Academia, or One Piece, or whatever your mind conjures when you hear the term "manga". The fact that it's published by Fantagraphics, best known as more of an "art house" comics publisher, is telling enough that Dementia 21 is different.

Kago's comic follows a young woman named Yukie Sakai, an overachieving elder care worker whose high ratings on her company's app draws the ire of a vindictive coworker, who happens to be sleeping with her boss. The coworker pulls some strings and makes sure Yukie gets only the most troublesome and bizarre cases of elder clients. What follows is a series of surreal, outlandish, and sometimes horrific comedic adventures involving her trying to keep her clients happy and her company scores up.

A few examples: In one story, Yukie must deal with a man's high tech dentures that gain self-awareness and learn to replicate. In another, she finds a world hidden inside a woman's wrinkles. In yet another, she must care for a 100 foot tall kaiju fighting superhero. Kago always takes his premises and pushes them to their furthest extreme, earning out-loud laughs, and sometimes managing to keep the twists coming all the way until the last panel of the chapter.

And it's not just a string of jokes. Dementia 21 has a lot to say about the weakening and decay of the human body and mind as age sets upon us. Yukie often encounters clients with latent powers emerging as their minds slip. And it has a lot to say about our uneasiness around it, too; the way some dehumanize and isolate the elderly as something 'other', and the powerlessness we feel when the only thing left we can do for somebody is provide some degree of comfort. There are multiple stories where elderly people are used as games for others' entertainment, and a particularly great chapter where future archeologists are studying relics of the "Ell-Durly", what they believe to be a separate race that coexisted with humans.

This all sounds like it could be pretty depressing subject matter, but Kago has an absurd and anarchic sense of humor, and the cutting satire is balanced by the idealistic, eager-to-help heroine Yukie, preventing it from ever getting bogged down or ponderous.

Reading Dementia 21 also led me down an interesting rabbit hole. Writer/Artist Shintaro Kago is strongly influenced by a Japanese genre of art called "Ero Guro Nansensu", which is a shortening of "Erotic, Grotesque, Nonsense". This movement was founded in the 1920's and 1930's, right around the time the surrealist and dadaist movements were taking place in western art. Go ahead and search "Ero Guro", and you'll see some fantastic, strange, beautiful, maybe NSFW artwork that I'm not going to post here.

Ero Guro has influenced all kinds of great Japanese art from the last 90 years. It can be found all over manga, especially in the horror genre. Junji Ito has elements of Ero Guro in his popular horror comics. The titans in Attack on Titan, creatures I find both deeply unsettling and weirdly comical, owe a debt to the movement. In film, I would point you to work like "Tetsuo the Iron Man", and a personal favorite of mine, gore master Yoshihiro Nishimura's super imaginative and utterly bonkers nonstop schlock-fest "Helldriver". Not for the squeamish, but you'll never see anything like it.

But I digress. Stuff like this just fascinates me. And I think Dementia 21 will fascinate you!

Thanks for reading! I'll be back next week with another comic book or graphic novel recommendation. Everybody stay comfortable!

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