Spring Training Aoizaka High School Baseball Club
It's February 15, and you know what that means. Pitchers and catchers peek out of the dugout, and if they see their shadows, local sportswriters have to pretend that the Pirates could be contenders for the next six weeks.
Honestly, I don't know why they bother pretending. The Pirates are so bad that Neil Huntington's incremental tinkering isn't going to improve their win-loss record one bit. This team needs a complete dynamiting and rebuilding along the lines of the 1997 Pirates, and the longer they delay it the longer their losing streak will get.
But enough of my hang-ups. You want comics!
"Aoizaka High School Baseball Club" originally ran in the September 16, 2005 issue of Weekly Shonen Sunday, which was one of the comics I purchased during my trip to Japan. I gave most of the other manga I purchased on this trip to a friend's daughter, keeping only a single issue of Tsurikichi Sampei Classic and this single story (razored out of the phone book). Why these two? Out of all the manga I purchased in Japan, these were the only stories where I understood everything that was going on. Given that there are tons of incomprehensible American comics, being able to follow a comic in a foreign language was a definite sign of superior storytelling.
Anyway, let's take a look at "Aoizaka High School Baseball Club" and see how some clear storytelling, with a small assist from the reader's baseball knowledge, can make a comic completely understandable even if you don't read the language.
Here's the first story page. We've got two people wearing batting helmets (possibly the same person, depending on the style of helmet, but at least one of them is actively batting or in the warm-up circle), a catcher, and a (as-yet unidentifiable) fielder, all standing around looking shocked. What's going on isn't clear - and intentionally so, as the artist is trying to build tension.
There are a couple of techniques used on these pages that you'll see over and over again through the story. First, we've got the tilted panel borders imply that action is happening. There's also a figure, superimposed over the rest of the panels on the page, which implies that all of the actions are happening simultaneously. And finally, there's a full bleed at the bottom of the page, which drags your eye to the left and entices you want to turn the page and see how the action is resolved.
This page is okay by itself - it's not spectacularly composed, but it gets the job done.
Now it's obvious what's going on - the fielder has his hand raised as if catching a ball, there's a runner at his feet, we've got a close play at the plate which has gone well for the fielding team (which I'm guessing is the titular Aoizaka High School Baseball Club, judging from the "A" on their hats). How can you tell? Well, you have the umpire's body in the upper left, making that distinctive "out" punching motion, and you've also got the other Aoizaka players in the lower right, pumped up and celebrating. Note the shocked look on the fielder's face indicates that this was a really close play - he's excited to get the call. Heck, even the crowd is shocked.
Also, this has been a complicated play. The wide shot makes it clear that there are a players clustered around second and third bases, implying some sort of multiple-steal attmept. We can also see that the downed runner is at home plate, and there's a batter still standing just outside of the box, making it obvious what happened - the batting team just tried to steal home and failed. The runner is, of course, dejected, but the batter is also sweating bullets - he's mystified and more than a bit worried by his inability to hit the last pitch he received (I'm guessing they were trying a hit-and-run).
Note another technique being used here - widened gutters that temporally separate the individual vignettes on the page. We also have right angle panel borders rather than angled panel borders, indicating that the action has slowed down - it's a cue to be less excited.
Also note that one of these teams doesn't have a large following - third panel on the left-hand page makes it quite clear that the seats down the first-base line are completely empty, while the seats down the third-base line are packed. (At Japanese stadiums the home team's fans sit on one baseline, the away team sits on the other baseline.) From the angle that the runner walks off at, Aoizaka is the team without fan support.
The identitiy fo the "fielder" is now revealed to us - he's the pitcher. We know this because a) the catcher is talking to him, and b) he's wearing a pitcher's glove, with a solid mesh to conceal his grip. Judging from the catcher's extreme pose in the previous page's flashback, and the fact that the pitcher is covering home plate, we can make a guess about what led to the ambitious steal attempt - a passed ball.
The catcher is worried. We can tell from his ultra-serious expression, and also from a time-honored technique borrowed from anime. First his glasses glaze over, lending him a cold, indifferent expression, and then when he glances up, the brilliant light is reflected from his eyes instead of his glasses, making him look more intent. Obviously, this is an impromptu conference where he's telling the pitcher that they need to step it up - no more mistakes.
Now for a quick review of the situation, only briefly glimpsed in the previous wide shot. There are runners at second and third, easily identifiable by the positions of the runners and basemen. Also, barely seen on the scoreboard in the back, we can see that Aoizaka is the home team, that there's a full count (listed Japanese style as 2-3) and one out. At least seven innings have been played, with the only runs visible being scored in the first inning - two for Aoizaka and four for their opponent. Oddly, no glimpse of the current score.
The Aoizaka player in the upper right is clearly their manager, identifiable by the fact that she has a girl's hairstyle and she isn't wearing a glove, meaning she isn't a position player.
And now, the 3-2 pitch. Here's a nice sequence, building up the drama of the duel between pitcher and batter. The wind-up and release are both nicely done, with the positioning of the ball in the finanal panel making it really feel like it's coming right at you. I like the use of scuff marks and jagged outlines to show rotation, and a nice sunburst is always welcome in my book.
But there's also an important visual cue hidden in the wind-up - that's a really unusual grip that the pitcher has on the ball. I suspect that he's throwing knuckleballs, which would explain a) why there was a passed ball on the previous play, and b) why the batter missed by a country mile.
A nice sequence, here. First, the over-the-shoulder view of the pitch, with the backgroiund worn down to a tiny tunnel. I like this effect, because a) it shows how intently everyone is focusing on the pitch and makes you focus on the pitch; and b) you don't have to fill in the rest of the background, which saves time. Bonus!
The angled panel borders are back too, heightening the tension, at least at first. The batter's eye is locked on the pitch, as evidenced by that oddly disturbing dilated pupil glaring from a heaviliy shadowed face, and also by that wonderful panel of the white ball spinning in the void of space. And he's obviously got a lock on it, judging by his placement of the bat and the gradated sunburst clearly showing that he's putting all his power into this swing. The angled panel borders disappear, freezing this moment of time - these are not actions to be rushed through, but slow-motion moments to be savored.
But what's this? Why is the last panel photo-negative? That's odd and unsettling. What could this possibly mean? Also, why is the ball passing through the bat rather than ricocheting off it?
Because the batter misjudged the pitch again! Strike three! Nice use of the unsettling photo-negative effect to cue the audience that something funny was going on.
But look at that terrible placement - high and outside, and the catcher doesn't have a grip on it! Dropped ball on strike three! The angled panel borders are back again as the catcher scrambles to the side to get it, and turns to throw - but why is the opposing team yelling from the dugout?
The batter isn't moving! He's so shocked by his miss that he's just standing there in stunned silence!
There's the tag, and the second out. The catcher gloats about their good fortune - and admires the pitcher's skill. The full-panel image of the pitcher, surrounding by text, and the self-satisfied look on the catcher's face make this clear. The pitcher, though, isn't a bit worried - is he putting too much on the ball, taking too many unnecessary chances?
The batter slinks back to the dugout, while his teammate taking his practice swings berates him for missing. But the batter isn't taking this lightly - he slams his batting helmet down with authority and declares something to his teammates, perhaps that this pitcher is unhittable.
The retired batter is watching every pitch of the at-bat with incredible intensity - the extreme close-ups of his wide, vacant eyes and the scratchy bags beneath them showing just how much he's been pushed to the edge, as he replays his at-bat in his mind. He's clearly obsession about this more than is healthy, and the tight shot of another player (his coach?) with a cloudy background behind them clearly indicating a level of concern.
Meanwhile, the game continues. Strike one, as indicated by the umpire in the first panel. Another another caught ball in the eighth panel - strike two.
And then one more warm-up...
...and it's strike three, again indicated with the photo-negative technique.
But it's a passed ball again! This time, the runner is on the ball, he scrambles down the baseline. The pitcher screams, the fieldrs are shocked, the fans go wild, the manager prays, the catcher spins and fires...
...and the batter-runner is out at first! Three outs! Inning over!
Nice transition from the praying manager to the manager jumping for joy with her hands still clasped together.
Judging from the raucous on-field celebration, you'd think Aoizaka might have wone the game. But look closely at that dialogue in the last panel - there's two 4s and a 9 there. We're going to the bottom of the ninth with the score tied, and Aoizaka gets one more chance to win this thing!
And there you have it - two at-bats of thrilling baseball action, all completely comprehensible even if you can't tell your kanji from a hole in the ground. Of course, it helps that it's baseball - the possible actions are restricted to a narrow frame of reference that makes it easier to understand than, say, two people talking in a diner.
Even so, that's some good storytelling.