Required Reading is DoomRocket’s love chest, opened twice monthly to champion a book that we adore. This week Arpad recommends ‘Opus’ by Satoshi Kon, available now from Dark Horse Comics.


Cover to ‘Opus’. Art by Satoshi Kon/Dark Horse Comics

By Arpad Okay. Opus: a taut crime drama that bursts its own seams. Opus demolishes the fourth wall, then the house, the foundation, and annihilates the city it occupies. It’s a police story, a wunza where the esper detective is paired with the mangaka who created the series. It’s funny and weird with overcast conditions, a constant cloud of dread.

What pushes Satoshi Kon’s legendary face-melter out beyond the normal “hyper-psycho near-future action” manga is its reality-defying premise. A sleep-deprived manga artist finds finishing his series impossible when the characters rebel and pull him into his last unfinished chapter. He escapes the comic world, taking the story’s heroine with him, and they bring an early volume of the trade paperback with them when they return to the book world, truly fracturing things.

Literally. Kon depicts the hemorrhaging serial’s reality as if the panels we see Opus through are glass cracking. Looping back and smashing through the plot before it even comes to pass splits the page, the shards fall out, and a great white void begins sucking the drawings away. The portals work both ways, sometimes opening to the world where it’s just a book, sometimes leading into other volumes of the book itself. Sometimes it isn’t breaking glass but an atom bomb, a giant eraser wiping the slate clean.

Stylistically, there’s nothing quite like it. What would be a mildly complicated shell game is lifted up into the sublime by thoughtful art technique. Then there’s the psychological impact the book has on itself. The characters in the manga who read their own lives in graphic novel format have to relive past traumas. Time begins to shift, their experience warps their narrative, and fate changes before it happens. Discerning who is writing the story becomes impossible.

The story itself is impossible.

Kon’s drawings keep pace with the sophistication of his plot. The shattered panels and cityscapes that disappear in a burning rush of un-creation hit hard because of the substance his world resonates with. Kon has a cinematographer’s eye for visual storytelling, dynamic staging and framing, intense action beats affecting in both the moment and the aftermath. His characters, their faces and body language, are rendered with just as much attention to detail. Their fear is as palatable as what scares them. The puppet master villain manages to make something sinister out of a cliché, but his dead-eyed puppets and his previous incarnation as a mad serial killer are truly unnerving. Kon has the flexibility to convey horror and humor. He can also step back to let the art process unravel as the world fades.

The nuts-and-bolts approach to deconstructing a sequential art world inside itself comes off like a mix of Watchmen and Understanding Comics. A book is brought into a book for side-by-side comparisons of past and present structural collapse. Rushed background scenery collapses, half-drawn filler characters get into incomprehensible confrontations as the edges of the drawn world are explored, the laws of perspective fail. And all the while, the mangaka gives you a running commentary of why he made the choices he did, because only an artist would be preoccupied with their process while being stalked by a killer.

Opus is heavy with meta-thought as well as meta-action. Is the reason my life is epically messed up really just to sell books? Was it right to write such controversial, hurtful stories just to grab people’s attention? It’s easy to maim and murder people you don’t have to face. Who is the real puppet master? The greatest burden the author has to confront is that all the characters, good and evil, came from him, his mind, his heart.

If Opus can bring its author into a comic and then the comic back into reality, it tests the definition of reality. If it cracks, it probably isn’t reality, right? Read it again and you will pick up on evidence of cracks in the world that predate its fracture, perhaps the result of time travel, perhaps sunken fault lines that were always present. The other echo heard in Kon’s story is Philip K. Dick’s VALIS: there is no gap between author, page, or audience. The story rewrites the reader.

Dark Horse Comics/$19.99

Written by Satoshi Kon.

Translation by Zack Davisson.

Art by Satoshi Kon.

Lettering by IHL.

You can order ‘Opus’ here

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‘Beasts of Burden: Animal Rites’ a horror book with mood, depth, and love