On some evenings, after dinner but long before bedtime, I doze off briefly. I find myself in an environment that seems assembled from slices of various spaces in my life — schools, airports, hotels, city neighborhoods, hometown streets, shops, bedrooms, living rooms. All of them familiar and alien at the same time, much like the things that parade past me in those hybrid spaces. Someday, I told myself, I'd find a way to commit this dreamland hyperspace to a story or a drawing, but panpanya beat me most of the way to it with An Invitation From A Crab. It is also the only manga I have ever seen that has an index.
Japanese popular culture has a whole subsection devoted to works that are essentially plotless but never boring. They are about the flavor and texture of a set of experiences rather than a formal story about them, although sometimes there's a story, if only in the — to use terms in vogue these days in science — emergent or procedural sense. Nichijou is like this; perhaps also Yotsuba&!. Even Tsutomi Nihei's alienscape BLAME! worked that way, too; mood and atmosphere were the real point, not the plot.
Crab is closer to the former of those two than the latter. It's broken into a slew of relatively unconnected shorts — some only a couple of pages, some running to dozens — that all feature a waifish female protagonist, a few recurring character figures: her [?] dog, a man with a curious diving-helmet-like shape for a head, various animals that talk (or just pretend to talk). This character lives in some urban environment in Japan — ostensibly Tokyo, but it's more just some generic City.
The point of Crab is not to make any kind of statement about this character or her environment; it's to conjure a mood of dislocation and quiet surprise, with this character as a befuddled witness to it all. One strange thing follows another, and another, and another, and somehow the strangeness of everything that we're presented with joins back upon itself, Möbius-loop style, to bring us the feeling of narrative closure. Sometimes that closure is real, sometimes it's simulated, but somehow it's always palpable.
Example: The protagonist gets off at the wrong stop on the train, and finds all subsequent departures have been cancelled. The surrounding neighborhood is devoid of bus stops; all the taxis have flat tires. Then a kindly shop owner takes pity on the protagonist, and before long we're entertaining the possibility that the protag's body and soul have detached from each other ... and that the best place to look for the body would be in the railroad's lost-and-found.
Another story: The protagonist finds her(?)self working third shift in a power plant, cracking coconuts. How a power plant is supposed to run on coconut juice is just as much a mystery to the protag as it is to the rest of us. But then we find out, and the punchline is a scream — although the humor is leavened throughout with creepy undertones about the way modern industrial living uses its inhabitants.
If you take the same scene and print it in back and white as opposed to color, you can add an emotional current that wasn't there before. Shadows turn into inkwells; the edges of faces become razors. Maybe this is why I found myself liking comics in black and white more than their color counterparts — they were stripped of everything that didn't have to be there, and that allowed them to take an extra step into abstraction. They turned the world into geometry and gesture and fields of dark and light.
Crab is in black and white, but also many shades of gray — cross-hatched, brushed-on, screen-toned. Streets and buildings and even the sky overhead are all painted with thick, ominous, foreboding strokes, but the protagonist is always depicted with simple, friendly lines. The effect is a kind of contrast I did not even notice at first — an innocent, sometimes droll figure in the foreground, a spot of white, at times surrounded by great rolling layers of gray and black. Even when things seem most foreboding, this figure is our psychopomp, our guide through its own netherworld.
Stories this freeform and unconstrained by conventional narrative rules can be hard to sustain. Dream logic is charming at first, but it runs the risk of feeling just as hidebound as anything "conventional" when all it yields is tail-chasing. To adapt a line I've used elsewhere: in a story when anything is possible, nothing matters. In Crab, most anything is in fact possible: a dolphin can be used as an adding machine, and a collection of hot-pot ingredients can glow in the dark. The miracle here is how none of this feels arbitrary. Somehow, it matters, even if only for the time it takes to go from the front cover to the back.