Today, Drew and Patrick are discussing Tokyo Ghost 3, originally released November 18th, 2015.
Drew: There’s something violating about an “averted happy ending” — endings that dangle a “happily ever after” in front of the audience before cruelly snatching it away. Vertigo is probably the most well-known example of this, but there are countless others. It’s an effective choice — we’re conditioned to expect happy endings, so denying us that happy ending at the last moment is always surprising — but it’s often brutal on the audience, who just wants resolution for the characters. It would be misguided to suggest that Tokyo Ghost 3 presents an averted happy ending — the central conflict has barely begun, let alone concluded — but I couldn’t help but feel just as violated by the loss of that “happily ever after.”
Part of what makes the loss of Teddy and Debbie’s utopia so effective is that this issue details exactly how hard-earned it is. We already understand how arduous their lives had been up to their arrival in Tokyo, but that’s nothing compared to Teddy slowly re-learning how to be human. It starts off about as well as can be expected.
It actually gets worse from here, as Teddy nearly dies from withdrawals, but his incredulity here is essential in making Kazumi’s monologue about living in harmony with nature more palatable. When he calls her preachy under his breath, we’re assured that this isn’t just a luddite screed (even if Teddy is representing the worst of our technology addictions here). In spite of his unsavoriness, Teddy may reflect the attitudes of the modern audience more than anyone else in this series, even as Kazumi represents something much more appealing.
The point is, writer Rick Remender and artist Sean Gordon Murphy actually take us on Teddy’s journey to sobriety. It’s not enough to simply make bucolic meadows and babbling brooks appealing to us, Teddy needs to come to chose these over his technology. As with the first time he cast aside his “shows,” he may actually be choosing Debbie, but that only goes to make the choice more personal.
Curiously, though Teddy may reflect our own addictions to technology most accurately, Debbie continues to be our narrator, viewing that addiction from the outside. That may tacitly assure us that we’re more like her than Teddy, but it also provides us with some insight as to what it takes to break his addiction. Perhaps more importantly, it provides a running (albeit possibly unreliable) commentary on his progress. Early in his detoxing, Debbie assures us that “Led Dent is gone,” but when Teddy’s training, only a page later, she casually refers to him as “Led” again. This hints at a deeper problem within Teddy that isn’t just about tech — the frustrations that drove him to embrace technology in the first place are part of him, not the residue of his addiction. That frustration returns as Teddy struggles in his lessons, and Debbie calling him “Led” in that moment reminds us that Led and Teddy aren’t so easily separable.
Which I suppose will make the fall all the harder (if also revealing why it’s necessary). By the end of the issue, Teddy and Debbie have found happiness and are working towards peace — Teddy still feels guilt over his actions, but he’s remarkably open about them. Indeed, the scene where he apologizes and kinda sorta proposes could be a satisfying ending if it didn’t happen in issue three. As it is, its really more of a set-up than a conclusion, with Mash secretly vowing revenge against Teddy. It’s disappointing to think this life will be thrown down the drain, but it’s intriguing that the evil comes from within the utopia. Kazumi may be able to heal physical wounds and help people buck their addictions, but there’s nothing anyone can do to cure Mash’s bitterness.
Patrick, this is an interesting issue to comment on, as it kind of retroactively turns itself (and the previous three issues) into back-story; it seems the inciting incident has yet to happen. We now know what’s at stake should Teddy and Debbie lose what they have in Tokyo, but that’s it, plot-wise. Is this character- and world-development enough to hang three issues on, or were you surprised to realize this “end” is actually a beginning, too?
Patrick: That’s an interesting question, Drew. I can understand where it feels like the narrative hasn’t quite snapped into whatever it is yet, but I’m not as convinced that that’s a problem. If anything, the series’ meandering direction grants it a sense of scale that I don’t think would be possible otherwise. Remender has almost an improvisational quality to his plotting, like he’s following whatever thread is most interesting without worrying about where it’s going. (Though, his comment on the letters page about having two possible endings in mind for the series at issue 10 sorta undermines this idea.) I see a lot of parallels to Remender’s Captain America in that regard. That series started off with an entire issue devoted to Cap getting stuck in Dimension Z. The second issue starts with the words One Year Later, and suddenly the end of the previous issue seems like little more than background for the story to follow. Ditto the relationship Steve forges with is adoptive son in the following issues – eventually it’s nothing but backstory for a resolve-of-man / revenge-but-nobler-than-revenge story.
And now that I think about it, that may be a quality that all of our favorite episodic plot-engines share. Let’s take Game of Thrones, for example. [Spoilers for Game of Thrones.] The series always pivots around what at first appear to be clear conclusions to explore what fresh drama the aftermath of those conclusions invites. The first book / season ends with Ned — who is clearly our prototypical protagonist — failing in his mission to save the kingdom from the Lannisters, and being executed. The story of the War of the Five Kings can only follow as a logical result of Ned’s execution; one story’s climax is the next story’s exposition.
But I guess the question I’m curious about is what effect that has on an audience. Having all these little endings peppered about can make a reader feel like the work they’re putting in won’t “pay off” in one cohesive meaningful way in the end. Even though, y’know, the pay off is presumably there in each installment, there’s just nothing that signifies that we should put the material down and be satisfied.
And I think that’s where Tokyo Ghost is a lot more successful than something like Captain America. Each issue has its own narrative and thematic hook. The first issue explored a culture addicted to technology, the second focused on an individual’s addition, and this issue is sort of a learning-to-live-again. Drew, like you, I wanted to badly to be satisfied with that as an ending. If I had to guess, I’d say Murphy also wants that: Remender gets the hell out of his way and let’s the artist draw one hell of a beautiful vista.
Goddamn do I love this page. This is Murphy at his best – the brush strokes in the water lick against the soft-lithograph rock walls, and the complimentary blues and blacks give this scene a serenity you don’t see much in comics.
So when Mash shows up on the final page to clue us in to the drama from the next issue, it can feel like a huge subversion of all the serenity I was talking about. Mash even seems to acknowledge this in his mutterings. He says “Samurai are born to die.” Teddy and Debbie find peace only to lose it.
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