Inio Asano’s Goodnight Punpun is a strange beast, and so is its titular character. Just what exactly is that birdlike creature supposed to be? My guess is somewhat more functional. No fan theories here. Just some autobiography with a smidgen of critical literature on comic books.
Note: I haven’t actually finished the series yet — I’m on the fourth book. A full review might come at a later date.
Goodnight Punpun is similar to Dave Sim’s Cerebus in that you have a main character that’s instantly recognizable and easy to reproduce. Just like Cerebus himself, Punpun is a cartoonish creature that’s a bit on the abstract side but still very expressive. He’s always surrounded by gorgeous and realistically-drawn backgrounds, and by humans who actually look like humans. And it’s not that Asano couldn’t be bothered to draw a normal-looking human as the main character — he did so in his previous works. Plus Asano is a virtuoso in the manga world. So why draw Punpun that way?
In Understanding Comics, Scott McCloud talks about abstract and realistic characters, and why one might want to pay more attention to design: the more you simplify a character, the more the reader can identify with it. You can then enhance the capacity for projection in your comic book. The creator could also play around with that concept a la Andrea Pazienza and have the main character constantly shift between different art styles like Zanardi, but essentially it’s the simplistic drawings that tug at your heart strings the most.
So in a deeply depressing manga about mental illness this trick appears to be all the more sadistic to me. I wasn’t doing all that great mentally in 2020 to begin with, and here’s Mr. Asano making me feel the void through an innocent-looking doodle shaped like a bird. It did not feel the least bit cathartic to me, but other readers might disagree — after all, there’s that video on YouTube with Asano receiving a huge Thank you card from his fans for #WorldMentalHealthDay.
Sure, I didn’t have a good time reading Goodnight Punpun during the pandemic and I’m not even sure I can stomach several more volumes of its gut-wrenching trauma, and yet, despite all this, I couldn’t look away. For a short, terrible while, I was Punpun. And inhabiting Punpun’s world for a while I needed to know what the next few pages held in store for me. Thank you, Inio Asano, indeed.