Johnny Hiro: The Skills to Pay the Bills
by Fred Chao
New York, TOR, 2002
A Review by
Colleen R. Cahill
Like any media, graphic novels have those pieces that shine with adventure, warmth and great stories. One brilliant gem is the Johnny Hiro series by Fred Chao. This is a comic that TOR books has gathered into graphic novels and the second volume, The Skills to Pay the Bills, is a fascinating mix of drama, humor and touches of the weird that make it a really good read.
The touches of the weird appear in the first story, “Guys, Girls and Gorillas”, as John Hiro is running through New York City to join his girlfriend Mayumi and meet her friend, Amanda. Little does he know that Amanda is an ex-girlfriend of his, which leads to some awkwardness with John wishing for “another guy to balance things out”. What he gets is a large ape that grabs Amanda. Seems that King Kong is back in town and Amanda is just the thing the big guy is looking for. This leads not only to a chase through Manhattan, but also to some flashbacks of John’s past, giving us an interesting insight to him.
Many of the stories are a mix of past and present, as we learn a lot more about John’s boss, the sushi chef Masago. “Big in Japan” explains how he became chef, which involved sumo wrestlers, the Japanese mob and his feuding partner, Shinto Pete, a rival chef. Later in the book the story “Take me to the River” tells us about John’s co-worker Katsu, who is a pivotal player in the relationship between Masago and Shinto Pete. Interwoven in all these stories is John and Mayumi as they deal with everyday life including the pressures of jobs while living in a big and sometimes dangerous city.
Not that all is deep and dark. When Masago takes a catering job with Mayor Bloomberg in “A Party at Gracie Mansion”, he is revved up for a great opportunity. When the guests start complaining about the food, John investigates and stumbles on two guys putting ketchup and vinegar sauce on the sushi. A chase ensues through the mansion, with much mayhem involved. When John discovers Mayumi is there, attending with John’s rival for her affections, things get hot as John is pushed to his emotional edge.
Even when the stories focus on other characters, this book is still really about John and the path he is seeking, one he hopes will take him to his life’s work and also make him a better person. This is made clearer by the short vignettes between the main stories, as when John sees a trouble soul assisted by a stranger on the subway, leaving him thinking about how he did not step up to the situation. Unlike some comic characters, John does change and this is part of why I enjoy this series so much.
You need not read the earlier book Johnny Hiro: Half Asian, All Hero, but I am betting you will want to after reading this work. So try out this treasure and don’t see if The Skills to Pay the Bills is a gem for you, too.