‘Wayward Volume One: String Theory’ Beautifully Captures Accurate Folkloric Context

The comic series Wayward depicts the struggles of a group of supernatural teens growing up and fighting evil on the streets of modern Tokyo.

Wayward is the new series written by Jim Zub (Skullkickers), a comics artist and art instructor based in Toronto. Published by Image Comics, the series debuted in Fall 2014 and the first five issues have now been released in gorgeous trade paperback format as Wayward Volume One: String Theory.

The action focuses around a group of teens with supernatural powers fighting evil spirits in contemporary Tokyo. The central character, Rori Lane, is a half-Japanese, half-Irish girl who’s newly arrived in Tokyo following her parents’ divorce to live with her Japanese mother. The first issues chronicle her arrival and adjustment to living in Japan, the struggle of adapting to a Japanese school… and the unexpected discovery that she has supernatural powers.

By the end of the first five issues she’s gathered a gang of similarly empowered supernatural teens, and they’ve started a royal rumble through the back-streets and underground of Tokyo with the various malicious supernatural spirits that also inhabit this city of more than 13 million.

It’s an entertaining tale which has been described as a sort of manga-meets-Buffy. But it’s particularly impressive for two reasons.

First there’s the remarkable full-colour artwork. Series co-creator Steve Cummings, who lives in Yokohama (Tokyo’s neighbouring sister city) does the line art, and has produced a magnificently detailed, wonderfully accurate rendition of the city to serve as a backdrop. Zack Davisson — the translator of several of Japan’s top comics artists and an expert on Japanese folklore in his own right – comments in an introductory essay to the collection that he scoured the frames looking for inaccuracies or mistakes and was unable to find any. He was floored by the realism and accuracy of the scenes, even down to the Kanji on the store signs and shop ads on the street (which, apparently, contain bonus clues and messages for those who can read them). It’s a stunningly beautiful comic, and one that will resonate immediately with anyone who lives or has lived in Tokyo.

Second, there’s the effort to ground the comic within an accurate folkloric context. The spirits these teens fight aren’t just random nasties; they’re all drawn from specific mythological or literary sources. Davisson produces supplementary material for the series, and in the trade paperback collection these short essays on the different types of spirits and demons (yokai) are included at the end of the book (along with additional sketch art); they make for fascinating and informative reading.

Davisson’s involvement in the comic is appropriate. A scholar of Japanese folklore himself (he maintains the excellent English-language, Japanese folklore website Hyakumonogatari Kaidankai.com, he’s also the translator for Shigeru Mizuki’s works, which are in the process of being translated and published in English by Drawn & Quarterly. Mizuki is the venerable, award-winning Japanese manga master renowned throughout the world not only for his comics but for his research into spirit folklore in Japan and also abroad. In addition to Mizuki’s manga work, he’s also a member of the Japanese Society of Cultural Anthropology, and has purportedly conducted fieldwork in over 60 countries. It’s this authentic folkloric backdrop which informs many of Mizuki’s comics, including such well-known works as GeGeGe no Kitaro and Nonnonba.

In many ways, Wayward builds on this tradition, offering a sort of 21st century version of Mizuki-inspired supernatural action adventure (albeit one with cell phones, wifi and female lead characters) set against a well-researched backdrop, which the author and artists have gone to considerable pains to render authentic. And although the protagonists are a gang of teenagers, it’s not a kid’s comic: there’s blood and beheadings in full measure, as well.

Davisson mentions in his introduction that he was initially skeptical at a bunch of westerners writing a comic set in Japan (I shared the same skepticism when I first saw it). And he addresses the problem of orientalism and westerners’ tendency to fetishize ‘Japan as Decoration’ (especially in comics) in his introduction. Fortunately, the authors of Wayward put in considerable effort to avoid these tendencies, and to develop a comic that addresses themes of hybridity, youth culture and social change (the demons are, endearingly, torn between rejecting and embracing modern technology and the changing world), and one that is as authentically researched as possible. As Davisson admits, after reading it, “I was hooked.”

Wayward Volume One: String Theory collects the first five issues of this gorgeous comic, which contains the opening story arc and introduces the main characters (good and evil alike). The characters’ different personalities are immediately appealing, the unfolding plot is intriguing, and the backdrop is beautiful. What more can one ask for? Davisson’s informative commentary on folklore and history are the icing on the cake. The collection ends on a bit of a cliff-hanger, but the series continues, with individual issues forthcoming from Image Comics.

Wayward is well worth a read – let’s hope this one sticks around for a while.

RATING 8 / 10