How to Disappear Incompletely: Finding the joy in life’s sorrows with “Disappearance Diary”

Christopher M. Jones
5 min readMay 7, 2016

In the introduction to Disappearance Diary, author Hideo Azuma starts his comic with an anecdote which informs the premise of the story. Dissatisfied with his life as a manga artist, he takes a “sabbatical” only to spend weeks on end doing nothing but getting wasted and sleeping. The symptoms of alcoholism take their toll, and when he can’t bear the depression and hallucinations any longer Azuma decides to commit suicide. He attempts to kill himself by hanging from a tree trunk on the slope of a mountain, but due either to the incline of the slope or the ineptitude of the knot he fucks it up and ends up getting so drunk that he falls asleep in the noose.

That story is effortlessly packed into a total of 2 pages and 13 panels, and it’s wonderfully indicative of the comic to come. Almost as soon as one opens the book, Azuma sets a tone that is at once deeply concerning, darkly absurd and strangely joyous in its idealistic portrayal of an optimistic person going through some very grim times.

Disappearance Diary is an autobiographical story about 3 instances over the course of 10 years wherein Azuma drops out of society, sabotaging and ultimately reconstructing his life in the process. The first chapter deals with his adventures as a homeless vagrant, the second as a construction worker and gas specialist after he abandons his job and family, and the third as an inmate in a psych ward. Together the stories paint a picture of a man suffering from a kind of buoyant ennui, a manic disenchantment with everything but survival for its own sake that translates despair and emptiness into jovial appreciation for small victories and wild stories to share.

Azuma’s self-caricature is among the most effective I’ve seen in autobio comics. Paunchy, chronically disheveled and with one eye always bulging, you can practically hear his voice as he yelps and grumbles his way through life like a displaced John Belushi. Indeed, the craftsmanship throughout all of Disappearance Diary is deceptively elegant in its cartoonish simplicity; Azuma’s ability to concisely render a 10 or 12 panel page, communicating needed information while largely avoiding seeming busy or overstuffed, is a testament to his many decades as a professional comic artist. The subject matter is frequently dismal, but because Azuma adheres to the gag-manga discipline he spent his whole life working in — a type of joke comic that favors soft linework, punchline-per-page delivery and uncrowded panels — many of his ordeals, from having to steal food from other homeless men to having his IV drip replaced at the hospital in order to better stave off hallucinations, take on a tone that seems downright convivial.

His adherence to this tone is so effective, in fact, that it’s easy to forget you’re reading a comic about a suicidal vagrant driven to the streets by a growing sense of purposelessness. At least, it’s easy to forget that for the first two chapters of the book. Here’s how chapter 3 opens up:

…Shit.

The specter of Azuma’s drinking problem looms large over the whole book, but it’s only in the final act where it becomes the decisive, driving force in his life. He drinks so he can go to sleep; he drinks so he can steady his hands to draw. He drinks on public benches and vomits in the bushes. He drinks, in his words, “in the park, at City Hall, in cafe bathrooms.” And when he doesn’t drink, he has petrifying hallucinations that drive him to suicidal levels of paranoia.

Have you ever had so much to drink for so many days or weeks or months or years on end that when you cut yourself off you started hallucinating? I have. It sucks. It’s like that panel right above: you get into a kind of abusive relationship with your own mind and body, and your life becomes all about keeping your habit happy so the devils don’t come back. On the page after this Azuma runs through traffic in his desperation to get to his next drink of liquor, referring to his behavior very aptly and poetically as “christening [a] lunatic’s road.”

Yet even through all this, these few pages are the only ones where the comedy in Azuma’s story becomes a secondary concern. At the very beginning of the book, he lays out a disclaimer that states “This manga has a positive outlook on life, and so it has been made with as much realism removed as possible. It’s harder to draw stuff realistically, and it makes things gloomy!”

The most tragic moment of your life can have a strain of comedy threaded somewhere inside of it; the funniest joke you’ve ever heard is likely told just as well in a melancholy whisper. Disappearance Diary is an example of the purest form of autobiography: presented as a life self-edited to bring out the humor in a man’s most hopeless days, we see not so much the light at the end of a long tunnel as a derelict house that has been luminously decorated, inviting and affable even in its bleakest corners.

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Christopher M. Jones

Writer, media critic, and thinker of thoughts based out of Austin, TX. Get in touch at chrismichaeljones@gmail.com, or follow on Twitter at @CJIsWingingIt