It is exceptionally hard to scare someone via comics. Horror in other media relies heavily on implication and anticipation; the artist always knows exactly when and in what order you will experience their story. Comics yield some of that control — it isn’t possible to force people to only see one panel at a time. This doesn’t make comics an inferior medium for horror, it just makes it unlike most others — and it can be hard to find a creator that is effective at scaring you.
Not Junji Ito, though. He is my comics artist boogeyman, capable of regularly lulling me into a false sense of security before — bam! — he hits me with a terrible image that I cannot scrub from my brain, a page that will just sit there, on my bookshelf, haunting me and beguiling me for being so impressively twisted.
But maybe you’re not sure if Ito is for you, and you want one of his more chill works to see what the fuss is about. Mimi’s Tales of Terror, out this week, is a good way to dip your toe into the shallow end of the Ito pool. Getting into Ito can be great fun, especially if you have a friend who is also an Ito-head. What the fuck! you can text each other back and forth about 18 times when you read Ito’s story about jacked-up balloon people, or Uzumaki, his sprawling opus about a town obsessed with, and cursed by, spirals. (Soon to be an Adult Swim miniseries.)
A collection of long out-of-print short stories based on a Japanese anthology of urban legends, Mimi’s Tales of Terror follows Mimi, a university student, as she encounters strange, unexplained phenomena. This means that this set of stories is a bit less out there and not as grotesque, just a brief tour through some weird and unsettling events.
There’s a drawback to this: Mimi’s Tales of Terror is not a good showcase for what Ito does best. A good Ito story is excellent at building a palpable dread, as his clean line work and deep inky blacks introduce you to characters that are almost doll-like in appearance, seemingly incapable of the macabre distortions they will endure, before his panels explode with grotesquerie or cosmic horror. Mimi’s Tales of Terror is Diet Ito instead — Goosebumps, not Clive Barker.
What Mimi’s Tales of Terror is great at, however, is surfacing an underappreciated aspect of Ito’s work: He’s so damn goofy. There’s a wry wit and playful curiosity to the legendary mangaka’s horror comics, one that’s easy to overlook given some of the artist’s aggressively dark work, like Black Paradox, about a group of people who meet for the purpose of dying by suicide alongside each other. Ito, by all accounts a very happy, well-adjusted man who struggles to raise his cat, frequently tells stories about the warping power of obsession, ironically an occupational hazard of being a cartoonist. Obsession in an Ito story makes people strange, and their strangeness can be contagious — frightfully so.
So while the stories in Mimi’s aren’t quite good at showcasing Ito’s craft at purveying scares, they are good at peddling oddity — like “Grave Placement,” where a yoked bodybuilder enjoys flexing in a cemetery, or “The Woman Next Door,” a story about one of Mimi’s neighbors who has a bonkers secret, one that is never really explained or commented on after it’s revealed. That said, there are moments where you get a sampling of this contemplative, moody foreboding of Ito’s more celebrated works, like in “Seashore,” a story about a woman who sees the spirits of the dead washing up in the surf, where Ito spends a two-page spread on a loving depiction of the ocean. Or the haunting, mournful ghost story “Just the Two of Us,” about an orphaned girl who refuses to leave Mimi’s side.
Ito’s unfussy, efficient storytelling can make his characters feel thin and his endings abrupt, but it’s moments like this that show why he’s a master of the form, and why he’s so good at scaring people with comics. Comics are a deceptively active medium — a series of moments suspended in time and juxtaposed against one another, where the reader unconsciously stitches them together to create meaning. Ito’s work thrives on this collaboration, inviting you to pause on images both horrific and mundane, to get lost in them, to make them more than they are without your imagination. Because, like any good horror storyteller knows, he can scare you plenty, but not as much as you can scare yourself.
Mimi’s Tales of Terror is available in bookstores and Viz.com Tuesday, Oct. 24.