Head Trips

Way down at the end of the long tail, Evan Hayden and Ryan Sands are translating manga that would never otherwise make it into English.

Their blog Same Hat! Same Hat!! is the home of some of the strangest manga you will ever see: Gag manga that is more head-scratching than thigh-slapping and horror stories that turn everyday life inside out. In addition to scanlations, Hayden and Sands have also begun creating original webcomics of their own.

Same Hat began because Hayden and Sands wanted to write about things they liked that weren’t appearing anywhere else. “It happened that really gross and scary Japanese horror comics and really irreverent and insane four-panel gag manga weren’t being covered, so hilarious and disgusting stuff is really what we do,” says Sands.

“Sometimes both at the same time,” adds Hayden.

Yoshida SenshaSame Hat takes its name from a short strip by Yoshida Sensha in which two businessmen in suits and ties and, yes, identical hats, walk past each other shouting “Same hat!” with increasing enthusiasm. “Sensha does a style of four-panel comedy that really speaks to us,” says Sands, “and it’s kind of turned into a litmus test for our friends. People look at it and either start laughing really hard or don’t see why it’s funny at all.”

Unlike American comic strips, Sensha’s manga don’t end with a punchline. The humor comes more from the incongruity of the entire situation: a dog that reads the newspaper, random appearances by the King of Hearts, and an overgrown baby who responds to questions with the demand “Ask me like my mother would!” Sometimes the humor isn’t obvious; think Andy Kaufman reduced to four panels. Sands likens it to the sensibility of Perry Bible Fellowship.

Same Hat's horror manga work the same way: They make you question reality. Japanese horror manga can be bloody in amazingly imaginative ways, but Hayden says it’s the whole experience that draws him in. “There’s more of an emphasis on the atmosphere freaking you out rather than straight up blood and gore all the time,” he says. “It’s nice to have something chill you without having something really explicit about it, which is what drew me into people like Junji Ito.”

Junji ItoIto’s story Falling is one of the gems of the site.

“I see an affiliation between Japanese horror and H.P. Lovecraft,” says Sands. “It’s not that there is a crazy guy that wants to stab you, it’s not that a werewolf wants to eat you, it’s that the whole universe is plotting weird destruction, coming apart at the seams. I like that whole level of existential freakout.”

Sands’ favorite is Suehiro Maruo’s Poison Strawberry, the tale of a sociopathic girl who smiles sweetly while sowing mayhem and death among her fellow students and the world at large. “People go on about how horrifying and gory and depraved his manga is, but he has a very elegant art style,” says Sands. “It’s rooted in 1920s and 1930s Japanese imagery, and it’s really nice.”

While scanlators are technically violating copyright, Hayden and Sands say they would cheerfully pull down any of their strips if they were licensed in the U.S. — which is unlikely. “Ideally the way it works is we are creating buzz about series that could eventually make these publishers a lot of money,” Sands says. Falling is the only exception; it would have been part of the Museum of Terror series if Dark Horse had not chosen to stop publishing that title after volume 3. “I would be extremely happy if no one ever read Falling on our site because there was an awesome edition you could buy at your comic shop,” says Sands. “There is a huge incentive for people to prove to companies like Dark Horse and Viz that we love Junji Ito and we want more from him. It almost seems redundant to say it, but the people who read scanlations are the people who spend a lot of money on comics.”

Their original webcomics began as an offshoot of Same Hat. Hayden has been drawing comics on and off since he was 11, and he added some comics to his personal website because it was a more affordable way to publish them than making print comics. Two of the comics are his alone: Zone System and Webby Crunch, both of which exemplify the “existential freakout” of Japanese horror comics. Hayden drew with ink and screentone, then tweaked them on the computer.

The Bible by Evan Hayden & Ryan SandsThe third webcomic, The Bible, is really about getting the Bible wrong. It began when Sands told a joke about the plagues of Egypt and Hayden responded with a series of non sequiturs about Jesus, the burning bush, and rivers of blood. “Most of what I learned about Christianity I learned through comic books and other pop culture,” he explains. Sands interviewed Hayden and worked that up into a narrative script, then Hayden drew the comic, coloring it entirely with Sharpies. “I have a huge collection of Sharpie markers in every color they have ever made, including the woodwork touch-up Sharpie which works well for skin tones,” he says.

That comic has been their breakout hit. “The people who respond best to it are those who were raised Catholic and sort of understand it, but we have a subset of people from religious blogs who picked up the comic along the way and sort of embraced it as well, which is kind of confusing,” says Sands.

“Better they miss the joke than send me a bunch of angry e-mails,” says Hayden. “I’m not trying to be critical of the Bible. I’m trying to be critical of my own ignorance. I think ignorance makes for funny story telling sometimes.”

“I continue to have a strong sense of guilt about it, as Catholics should, but nothing that kept me from putting it online,” Sands adds.

Hayden and Sands have two works in progress: an original horror comic called Stillborn and a scanlation of a 16-page Yoshida Sensha manga called The Young Bandit. This month they will be sharing a table with friends at the Alternative Press Expo.

Then it’s back to the blog — and, Hayden says, a new emphasis on scanlation. “Somewhere along the way we have turned into kind of a news and here’s-what-we-think-is-awesome blog, just because scanlations are time-consuming when you have two people doing them,” he says. “Putting the original webcomics online for free and getting people interested is the most satisfying, but most of the people who like our site came to us because we were scanlating stuff they couldn’t find anywhere else.”

Brigid Alverson