Complex simplicity

This sweet-natured, simple tale of friendship and love is as straightforward as comics get – except that it’s completely backwards. Unusually for an English-language publication, it’s laid out as a manga, running from right to left, from the front cover, through each page, to its conclusion. When I first picked it up I wondered if there was some clever formal trickery going on, and I had a go at reading it left to right, but the narrative just dissolved completely – with the important proviso that you will find the same scene at either end, whichever way you read it.

The retrospective plotting that produces this symmetry is nothing fancy or demanding however – it’s a technique that Hana Chatani deploys simply to reassure the reader that there is a point to this low-key tale, an invitation, similar to the one that appears in the first panel, to share in the lives of these characters for a little while. There is relatively little I can tell you about this book without spoiling its unfolding for you, an unfolding which will occupy no more than an hour or so of your life, although I always take the time to re-read a short comic at least once. Its debt to manga is not only in its layout, but in the style of the art, which has a handmade finish and an indie vibe. I’m not a big manga reader, having been introduced to comics first through the bandes dessinées tradition, and then through British and American stories, and I usually find them a bit difficult to digest. This book however, takes what I usually experience as a weakness – the tendency to make every character ‘cute’ – and manifests it as a strength.

Here, the cuteness of the characters is an aspect of a narrative voice that has real affection for them, and which is able to share that affection credibly – these are young people who reach out with compassion through the hyper-connected soup of urban sociality. They are people worth knowing, individual quanta in the great condensate of humanity with whom we might end up entangled, and I guess the ‘point’, if there is one, is that anyone we might randomly collide with could be as important as anything we will ever encounter. The small things that happen in human interactions can trigger big things. The mathematician Edward Lorenz, a founder of chaos theory, had a name for this: he called it the butterfly effect.

Butterflies feature in Pass the Baton, as a shared interest of two characters between whom such a sensitive dependence on initial conditions produces powerful emotional effects. It’s not a heavy-handed symbol at all, but it is played out emphatically, as colour enters the comic in its closing pages, and new possibilities branch out implicitly from the closure of the narrative. Chatani identifies something irreducibly precious in the interaction of these characters, something whose importance is generalised not by moving away from the particular, but by emphasising it. The unlikeliness of the detail is the token of its numinous beauty. This is, as I’ve said, a simple comic – a simple story, simply drawn – but like the relationship between the butterfly and the ultimate effect of its beating wings in chaos theory, it points us towards an irreducible complexity.

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