Four-Eyed Stranger #16: “Gon” Forever

Set in an animal world that alternates freely between being realistic, metaphoric and phantasmagoric, Masashi Tanaka’s brilliant series Gon appears destined for an existence that mimics the life of its titular character.

“In his own way, Gon is a super-hero of the post-dinosaur, pre-mankind era where he has, somehow, mysteriously, found himself,” writes CMX Editor Jim Chadwick. in an afterward titled “Gon but not forgotten” included with the first volume.

Sadly, that title should now be changed to “former CMX Editor.” In May this year, DC Comics announced it was closing down its CMX imprint, which had recently republished all seven volumes of Gon.

This isn’t the first time the tiny, apparently indestructible dinosaur faced marketplace extinction in North America. In the 1990s, DC Comics published a short-lived version of the series, reformatted (flipped for right-to-left reading, and also re-ordered) from its original form.

Gon, out of step with the times in his own adventures, may have been out of step with the market back then,” Chadwick writes.

Beginning as a serialized comic in Japan’s Morning magazine, Gon was published in seven volumes by Kodansha in the 1990s. The CMX imprint published those volumes for English-speaking audiences between 2007 and 2009.

“An entirely silent series whose surface simplicity masks the true complexity of its execution … Gon is [Tanaka’s] masterpiece–a work that, once you experience it, you will never forget,” writes Chadwick.

Those qualities of silence, and complexity disguised as simplicity, resonate with words from the ancient “book of the samurai,” the Hagakure. A line in its eleventh chapter reads, “The essentials of speaking are in not speaking at all.”

Gon bring to mind the samurai because at times the little guy seems to embody elements of bushido. In some of his stories, he’s courageous and loyal, displays honour and benevolence. Conversely, at other times, he’s a spirit of pure anarchy and exuberance, revelling in displays of strength, fighting, conquering foes.

Most amazing of all, Tanaka conveys this wide range of emotions and behaviour without a single line of dialogue or narration. Utilizing human-like facial expressions and body language, he manages to give Gon and the various animals he encounters such qualities as pride, anger, resentment, ambition, awe and joy. There are fight-scenes in Gon that recall samurai movies and manga like Lone Wolf and Cub.

Across seven volumes, Gon‘s adventures take him around the world, where he lives with, battles and fights alongside all manner of animals. In one story, he bends a lion to his will, using the big cat the way a human would a horse. In another, he lives with a group of baby eagles, becoming a brother to them as they grow and learn to fly and hunt.

“Masashi Tanaka’s Gon was a beautifully drawn, totally original, and implausible story with no words at all about a baby dinosaur suviving among mammals,” writes Frederik L. Schodt in Dreamland Japan.

In Manga: Sixty Years of Japanese Comics, Paul Gravett writes, “Masashi Tanaka’s intensely rendered panels dramatize the animal kingdom’s survival instinct without a sound.”

Combined with the timeless quality of the story, the comic’s word-free storytelling gives it a refreshingly open and global feeling. In a recent collection of wordless comics titled Graphic Witness, George A. Walker writes in his introduction, “Free of the confines of words, books written in the universal language of pictures are understandable anywhere in the global village.”

An utterly compelling and charming creature, Gon comes across as a hybrid character that combines elements of a trickster and a shinto-esque, samurai spirit.

“[But] Gon‘s world is anything but cute,” Chadwick writes. “It’s a very violent place, a natural world where survival of the fittest is continuously practiced, but where Gon‘s only too happy to tip the balance, stepping in to dispense his own form of rough justice.”

An exceptional story follows Gon as he simply strides through the animal kingdom alongside a misfit group of animals, all of them battle-scarred and weary. Their demeanour is so formidable, the fiercest of creatures make way.

Even though Gon is described as a baby, there’s no real indication of the character’s age, or even its gender. Interestingly, after only a few panels, neither of those elements seem important. Gon embodies raw joy in creation, in his own power, in exploration and discovery, and this brings to mind another memorable counsel from the Hagakure.

“There is surely nothing other than the single purpose of the present moment,” reads a section in the second chapter. “A man’s whole life is a succession of moment after moment. If one fully understands the present moment, there will be nothing else to do, and nothing else to pursue. Live being true to the single purpose of the moment.”

Gon’s “purpose of the moment” seems to be to pursue exuberance and triumph. Even though this occasionally steers him into displays of outright selfishness and wanton destruction, most of the time, his purpose places him in honorable situations, fighting for righteous causes. If history (real and fictional) is any indication, Gon will return from extinction in the English-speaking marketplace.


Appearing every other week, Four-Eyed Stranger looks at classic manga reprints and unusual modern work by Asian artists.