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"Gon," a Manga Without Boundaries

How Masashi Tanaka's little dinosaur transcended culture and language through pure expression

By Joachim HeijndermansPublished 7 years ago 5 min read
Gon is © of Masashi Tanaka
Narrative art is unique in its method of conveying a story by not being necessarily reliant on text. Ask any comic book artist, art instructor or publisher, and they'll tell you that a good comic should be able to visually tell its story without the need of text. The flow of the narrative must work even before the words and balloons are added in. But what if you take this philosophy to its most extreme lengths? You end up with a little manga series that transcends both language and culture called Gon.

Gon is a manga series created by artist Masashi Tanaka, starting its run in Weekly Morning magazine in 1991 and ending in 2002. It is the story of a cranky little dinosaur named Gon that survived the extinction of its species into modern times, roaming the Earth while encountering a variety of other wildlife. His interactions with these animals vary from friendly to violent, with Gon often engaging in battle against much larger foes, being adopted by a family of animals or becoming a surrogate parent to others, all while in search of food and a good comfy place to nap.

Gon is © of Masashi Tanaka

The manga's story structure is very basic, with Gon usually minding his own business, before getting wrapped up in the lives of the animals that happen to live in the surrounding area. Due to possessing super strength and being nigh-invulnerable, no predator poses a threat to him, nor does any animal that stands up against or annoys him in some way manage to get away with it unharmed. Gon travels from place to place, leaving either a rampage in his wake, or end up with an army of fauna loyally following him out of fear of getting on his bad side. Sometimes he imparts lessons on the creatures he meets, such as teaching them how to collect hard-to-get food or defend themselves against predators. Basically, he's a sort of trickster character, a post-modern version of Anansi if you will, though much less on the tricks and more on the brute strength and intimidation techniques (also, he's a dinosaur, but I could list the differences all day and still stand by my point), echoing elements from classic western heroes or a Ronin from old jidaigeki stories, where the hero comes into town (or a jungle in Gon's case), kicks a ton of ass, and then walks off into the sunset, going wherever the winds may take him.

The stories of Gon's adventures are hardly unique, and despite its episodic nature the series often falls into familiar patterns and repetition, where the only major difference is the change in supporting cast and Gon's goal for that installment (those goals usually being food, sleep or solitude). But it's not the stories that Gon tells that make the manga unique, but the way that the stories are told, as they are completely devoid of a single word.

Gon is © of Masashi Tanaka

Tanaka's artwork is, while heavy on the inking and the shadows, exceptionally cheerful. That is, cheerful in the use of cartoony expressions and slapstick moments whenever Gon gets into a fight. Because believe you me, this series does not shy away from the brutality of nature, with many of Gon's supporting characters meeting a gruesome end at the hands of predators, natural disasters, and illness, even with many of them being cute and fluffy baby animals. Death is part of nature, and Tanaka does not balk at showing this in his stories, nor does he sugarcoat the realities that come with being part of the dog-eat-dog world that is the animal kingdom, no matter how young or adorable the critters that Gon meets may be.

What makes the manga truly unique compared to many other titles is the complete absence of any dialogue or sound effects. It is a story purely told through visuals alone. This is a deliberate decision by Tanaka, hoping to create a manga that could be read by anyone regardless of language or culture,as quoted below:

Tanaka: “[“Gon”] contains no dialog or onomatopoetic words. People always ask me why I have done this. From the beginning, I didn't think it was necessary. Manga should be without grammar. I also think that it is strange to give animals human language and make them talk. What I set out to do with Gon was to draw something that was more interesting than anything you could say in words. Manga still has great potential that does not exist in other media. I plan to continue developing the art of expression.”

By doing away with dialogue, the comic relies solely on the emotions and expressions of the characters. When Gon's constant grumpy mood is broken up by him smiling, being torn, or becoming enraged, you feel it a thousandfold more than if he sat down and gave a play by play of the emotions he was feeling (as quite a few manga series are guilty of doing). By focussing on the pure unfiltered visual emotions, Takara succeeds in capturing the experience of animal life, creating perhaps the most accurate depiction of xenofiction.

Gon is © of Masashi Tanaka

Xenofiction, stories where the perspective of the narrative lies with animals or other non-human characters, is nothing new, with examples like Black Beauty, Watership Down, and Pom Poko. But where these stories express the feelings of animals through analysis and even unique languages, they are still relying on the human tool of words to convey the experience. Gon, on the other hand, captures the experience of what it is to be an animal the closest, mostly by virtue of its medium: comics. Animals don't speak, they act. They don't ponder or think on whether killing is good or evil. They don't judge others, whilst acting out pure self-interest (with ironically, Gon the character sometimes being the only exception to this by coming to the rescue of others, but only if it doesn't affect him negatively).

Animals operate on a simple system of harsh actions, guided by instinct, hunger, and the drive to survive. They have no need for words. The language of animals is universal. And to capture this, Gon must be universal to its readers. In complete silence, Gon brings us along into the heart of nature, often throwing us head first into the thorns and wasp nests that are scattered throughout it, but also showing us its beauty, as we travel along with the crankiest of little dinosaurs in his trek across the planet.

Gon is © of Masashi Tanaka

Gon is published by Kondasha in Japan (and briefly by DC comics' defunct comics line Paradox Press and manga imprint CMX), and is currently available from Kondasha Comics USA.

The series has been adapted into a CG animated series available on Netflix, two video games on the Super Famicom in 1993 and the Nintendo 3DS in 2012, as well as having a delightful cameo in Tekken 3 on the Playstation 2. A film has been in the works since 2009 but has no release date as of this time.

Gon, available from Kodansha Comics USA

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About the Creator

Joachim Heijndermans

Joachim is a freelance artist and writer. He writes short stories and draws comics. Likes to travel, paint, collect rare toys, and read in his spare time. His fiction writing has been featured in magazines, websites, podcasts and television

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