Manga: The Knight Cartoonist
November 27, 2021 · 0 comments
By Jeannette Ng.
Much as the Motion Picture Academy loves films about film-making and writers love nothing more than a protagonist who is also a writer, manga about making manga has become its own little subgenre. There is an art to balancing the indulgent navel-gazing and insider-jokes with the bluntly realist looks behind the proverbial curtain at the brutal grind of it all. That delicious sprinkling of disillusionment amid the more pandering lionization of the medium is what I’m inevitably after, being a long-time fan of Bakuman and Skull-face Bookseller Honda-san.
The Knight Cartoonist and Her Orc Editor by Indoso and Takafumi Sato is a lot of things and amid being an urban fantasy story set in modern Tokyo and a sex comedy with retired tentacle monsters and temp agencies run by monster summoners, it somehow finds the time to be also sort of be a black comedy about the process of making manga.
Yeld is an orc who has quit the village-ransacking business to become an editor. Despite his initial fears of ostracism, Tokyo apparently finds him no more remarkable than a lost American and he’s found moderate success. But everything becomes rather more complicated (and ridiculous) when Annelise, an aspiring artist who also happens to be a holy knight shows up with her manuscript. A childhood cloistered among other equally violent martyrdom-chasing knights has not equipped Annelise to handle criticism well.
Fantasy RPG tropes collide riotously with manga industry concerns of deadlines, genre trends, artist exploitation and hostile online feedback. And all the while, clothes are flying off the characters every other chapter. Annelise’s enchanted armour soaks up every type of damage, including emotional, but Yeld’s blunt criticism of her work is too much and soon she is naked, and then Yeld’s naked, and we are firmly in the realm of old-school sex comedy.
Faces are dramatic and expressive, and I am partial to Yeld’s ridiculously cute tusks as well as the deeply blobby, minimalist depiction of Ichiro Koganei, the tentacle monster. I am, personally, less enthusiastic about her periodic nudity, for all that there is still something about the metaphor of criticism leaving you naked and humiliated. At the same time, the abruptness and eyebrow-raising quasi-pornographic vigorousness of clothes literally exploding off her never fails to get a giggle out of me. Despite being almost the diametric opposite, I am reminded of Kill la Kill’s navel-gazing deep-dive into fan service and fashion. I think that’s a compliment, but I’m also not sure.
Annelise manages to conjure up increasingly outlandish methods of death as her moods swing from passionately motivated to melodramatically depressed. Beyond being a vehicle for fan service, Annelise is a classic amalgam of convoluted honour system, bottomless font of violence, wide-eyed innocence and deeply fragile ego. And despite the unrelenting hyperbole, I do find myself relating to her artistic process. She has a breakdown so violent her clothes explode off her just because she runs out of ink. Criticism cuts her so deep that she immediately seeks death. Praise can send her into such an embarrassment spiral that she locks herself in an iron maiden. She is an utterly absurd caricature, but somewhere in there, that is indeed me. I, too, suddenly feel like the world is over and I cannot write another word because of a minor inconvenience.
On the other hand, Yeld functions as the narrative’s voice of reason, arguing against the exploitative excesses of his industry. He believes deeply in his role as an editor to usher into the world new and beautiful manga. Between him and Annelise, they arguably encapsulate the twin impulses within most artists.
Tokyo’s manga scene turns out to be just as full of monsters and dragons as the alien world Yeld and Annelise left behind. The art finds endlessly absurd ways to fitting dragons and assorted fantastical beings into suits and offices. Despite its already deeply absurd premise, The Knight Cartoonist and Her Orc Editor manages to eke out some form of escalation every chapter, and it’s not just Annelise donning ever more enormous yet ultimately useless armour. Later chapters see the titular duo reluctantly dragged back into their world of swords and sorcery, to battle first each other and ultimately, a magical analogue to online piracy. With only three volumes and plotlines that use as stakes the dreaded threat of cancellation, there is an inevitable bittersweetness to the ending, even as everything wraps up neatly enough. As our orc editor says, all good stories must end one day.
It’s hard not to root for this bizarre little tale when Yeld launches into a heartfelt defence of janky, rejected, first-draft manga because it has a soul, unlike the trend-chasing pulp (“Death Game at the Other-World Banquet”) she’s been producing for the exploitative publisher Mimico. That said, The Knight Cartoonist and Her Orc Editor is at the same time, aggressively genre-aware and given just quite how many tropes this story manages to stitch together behind its boobtastic cover, there is also an undeniable note of cynicism. Especially as the story of the accidentally immortal manga artist resolves itself with not an affirmation that all stories should end naturally but that everyone wants to milk this golden calf for as long as it is worth. Cynical, certainly, but it is also a resounding and laudable rejection of the tortured artist cliché. After all, there is nothing more inspiring than comfort, health and a steady paycheque. Annelise’s many mood swings certainly do not help her create. Which, again, returns me to the point about how deliriously whiplash-inducing the whole reading experience is.