The opening page of Katsuhiro Otomo’s Domu presents a tabula rasa. But rather than the blank slate as opportunity, this tabula rasa is a prison for human creativity and an indictment against the society that produced it.
A group of children huddle together, not so much to investigate a boyhood curiosity, but more to push out an unpitying emptiness. In the background another boy walks by almost anonymously. His personalized backpack and wing-decaled baseball cap light up in a brief, but invariably inconsequential spark of creativity. Forced into a birds-eye view, the reader’s emotional distance from the scene is exacerbated. Unable to connect the visual fragments of the panel in a cohesive narrative, readers are simply onlookers.
Otomo taps primordial feelings of isolation and alienation in this powerful panel. Moreover, he incorporates the reader themselves in this drama. What Otomo presents the reader, is a comics that undermines the usual processes by which narratives are constructed from various visual and textual fragments. Just as the environment itself defeats the characters depicted, so too are readers defeated. The visual elements are too diffuse, and the textual elements are completely absent. The level of detail in the linework of the boys, the cross-hatching on their clothes and the ben-day dots coloring their shadows, serve to further isolate the boys through use of the masking effect (where greater detail equates to increased realism and therefore reduced emotional investment).
Domu tells the story of a battle between powerful two psychics, both residents of super-massive apartment complex in Tokyo. Cynical and jaded, Old Man Uchida uses his psychic powers for his own twisted entertainment. For him the thousands of residents in the complex become mere puppets, performing acts of vandalism and self-injury until they are psychically forced into suicide when Uchida grows bored with them. However, when young Etsuko and her mother move into the complex, a psychic battle ensues. Etsuko takes it as her duty to stem the loss of life and ultimately bring Uchida to justice.
Beyond the extrasensory battle that provides the centerpiece to the graphic novel, psychic repression of the human spirit remains the central conflict of the story. With Domu, Otomo delivers a powerful comment on how environments shape human psychology. Rather than simply demonize the monstrous Uchida, Otomo illustrates how even the villain’s murderous psychopathology is influenced by the stifling, soul-destroying environment he finds himself in.
With panels like this one, and many similarly-themed, Otomo illustrates an environment equal in monstrosity to Old Man Uchida himself. In 1983, Otomo was awarded Science Fiction Grand Prix (Japan) for Domu. This marks the first time a comicbook has won an award usually reserved for general fiction.