Have you ever watched what happens when a sword slices through reams of paper? Or a fish is put into water? What does it look like when centrifugal force pops a man out of his shirt? Yuichi Yokoyama wants to show you. Concerned with phenomena rather than character and narrative, his comics resemble the output of a drafting machine: sequences that present multiple views of an object in action and look like exploded product diagrams. Yokoyama seems to enjoy the resulting images as much for the strange shapes that are generated as for what they reveal.
New Engineering, the first collection of Yokoyama’s strips in English, is almost entirely nonliterary, an art installation on paper. Stories of intrepid construction, frustrated missions, disastrous meetings, and dangerous communications are told by way of dynamic, spiky sound effects and complicated drawings of suspended objects—all rendered with an abstracted geometric intensity that never lets up. Stasis is not permitted; anything can happen as long as it continues the forward motion.
The layers of sound effects are a key component in the creation of this frenzied atmosphere, and they remain untranslated in the panels themselves. (Footnotes offer some help: paka is the sound of a copier lid being opened; baribaribari ribaribariba, pets eating wildly; shlll, a dinner plate flying; gan, a refrigerator door being yanked open; dosun, an uprooted bush hitting someone in the gut.) Happily, this adds to the distancing effect. As you think about the sounds the words represent, your brain is tickled into regarding the strips as pure information rather than narrative, like a time-lapse film of a snowdrop bulb pushing up through the earth to produce a bud or of a construction site becoming an office block.
The protagonists of Yokoyama’s world dress in elaborate costumes that mask their humanity, making them generic beings that function like chess pieces or soldiers. In this fantastic—and nonsensical—attire, they swarm over a man-made mountain, decorating it with paint and markers. They build bridges across rivers. They fight one another in teams on the land and in the air. And, with the same bathetic energy, they drink cans of soda and uproot a geranium, compelled to keep moving through a world where there is only one certainty: Sooner or later, everything will become a tool or a weapon.
New Engineering sounds violent, but it’s really not. It’s an arrangement of elaborately choreographed set pieces, in which the characters’ movements allow Yokoyama to examine what happens to objects as they shift in space. He seems never happier than when freezing the action to show a book cut in half or a brush blackly marking the ground. Weapons here are not for killing, but for changing the state of objects. One typical sequence culminates in the introduction of a giant sword—four men are needed to carry it—that is used to cut through several materials at once. When the layers are sliced, shattered, splintered, and flattened, one character says to another, “This place is taken care of. Now onto the next floor.”