Review: Letters to an Absent Father
I don't consider myself a fan of fan fiction. Especially those using established characters. Unfortunately, the vast majority of the promising genre is populated by bloated, tiresome reads that amount to nothing more than cheap fantasies. When an already established character's motivations, ideals, and even sometimes entire psyche are completely torn apart for something that fits what the fanfic writer wants that character to be, I find that unreadable. Again unfortunately, it is very rare to find a fanfic which is both well-written and keeps those characters intact.
But there are exceptions to every rule, and Maré Odomo's series of Pokémon-based comic strips, Letters to an Absent Father, is one of those exceptions. Letters is a brilliant little series of masterpieces centered around the ubiquitous protagonist of the Pokémon series, Ash Ketchum. As I'm sure you all know, it is insinuated that the Ash character in the anime doesn't know his father. This is where Letters comes in. As the title suggests, the strips are letters sent by Ash to his estranged dad.
Essentially, the “letters” are a young child's observations, musings, questions, etc. that would normally be asked by a son to his father (some, of course, have a Pokémon spin to them, but the core idea is still there). For instance, one reads; “I lost another battle today. I try so hard. But sometimes... it's not enough. I just need to try harder.”
In this lies Letters' genius. Through it's simplicity, and Odomo's obvious understanding of the plight of a fatherless child, comes strip after strip of gold. Yes, a few of these venture into darker territory than any facet of the Pokémon franchise has ever dared tread, but the strips stay true to a 10 year-old's perspective on the world. In this, Odomo captures the innocence one sees in a child when he/she is trying to handle a situation much too complex for someone at such a young age.
The Ash we see in Letters is confused and entirely overwhelmed by the situation he finds himself in. He is vulnerable and frightened, but is, as nearly every child is, naively optimistic about his father. Whether he sends the letters is left unknown, and maybe it should stay that way. Ambiguity, when applied by a good writer, can be what keeps readers coming back to the series.
Matching the simplicity of the writing is the artwork. It isn't terribly artsy, and instead relies on simple designs, which makes sense. These strips need a modest art style. The tone of the series is derived from utilizing the naive mind of a child, and the art must reflect that to bring that tone to the surface. And Letters does this beautifully.
Now, I know me loving a series of comic strips that does something widely different with the Ash character may seem contradictory when compared to my statement claiming whats make the fan fiction genre generally weak is “cheap fantasies”. What you must understand, hypothetical critic-of-a-critic, is that, as fanfics, these strips aren't fantasies of what Odomo feels Ash should be, but are legitimate observations of what he could be. Ash is ten, essentially on his own, and hasn't a father to turn to. It makes sense to take the character down this road. The strips are rooted in reality, which comes from Odomo's apparent experiences as a young child without a father.
Odomo deciding to use a nearly universally known character from a children's show rather than using original or autobiographical characters was a keen move. So many people cherish the Pokémon franchise as something they grew up with that these strips were practically preordained to find a fan base. Using Ash connects Letters' target audience to their childhood before a single panel is read, and that connection is capitalized upon so well, and so fully, that Letters is a modern storytelling marvel that is a prime example of why the Internet's ability to give everyone a voice is something to be embraced.
Everything right about Letters, though, can be everything wrong about it in the future. I don't know if Odomo is planning to continue the series, but if it does see a second set of strips, Ash needs to mature, if only slightly. Letters could very easily become another trite series, complete with fans longing for how it used to be. But with Odomo at the helm I don't see that happening. He knows what he is doing, and if he has reasons to keep this series going, I'm sure he will keep the magic alive. Though I've been wrong before.
But this review isn't about Letters' future. What Odomo has achieved with this series is mind boggling. It captures everything to love about fan fiction, and isn't overt about being part of that genre. It's an analysis of childhood deserving of national attention that has me eager to see more bright minds take a stab at making fan fiction a viable, respected genre.
Letters to an Absent Father is now for sale in booklet form on Maré Odomo's website, mareodomo.com. The individual strips can be found on Odomo's flickr account.