GRAPHIC NOVEL REVIEW: Del Rey Manga Round-Up, Part Two
Welcome to the second week of Manga Round-Up! This time, we have four more books from [[[Del Rey Manga]]] – all first volumes in series, as new-reader-friendly as it’s possible to be – which are aimed at a slightly older audience (sixteen and up) than the books I looked at last week.
And you know what “older audience means,” don’t you? That’s right – gore! (Did you think I was going to say “sex?” That’s the 18+ manga, which none of the publishers have sent me yet.)
Leading off the parade of blood-spattered stories is Hitohi Iwaaki’s Parasyte, in which alien spores drift down to Earth and creep into people’s ears to eat their brains. The parasites, who have no name for themselves – no culture or language of any kind, actually – then eat other humans, in very violent ways. It’s hinted that this is possibly a reaction by someone or something to save the Earth from us horrible humans. (But only hinted, at the beginning, and not brought up again.)
Our viewpoint character is a teenage boy named Shin, saved from having his brain eaten because he had his earbuds in while he was sleeping. (Possible life lesson #1: never, ever stop listening to music. Possible life lesson #2: don’t sleep on the floor, as the Japanese do.) Unfortunately, the parasite still got into his body – it just took over his hand instead. Shin names the parasite Migi (since it is his right hand, and that’s the Japanese word for “right”), and tries to live with it. But the parasites are utterly amoral and protective of their secrecy, so the mere fact that Shin knows they exist means that other parasites (the ones that ate brains, and so control whole bodies) want to kill him as soon as they learn about him. And getting along with an amoral, alien right hand that can transform instantly into whirring engines of death is not easy.
The parasites have complete control of their own flesh, in utter disregard of the laws of physics, leading to the obligatory tentacles, organic saw-blades, and other nastiness flowing out of infected people’s heads (and Shin’s arm). And did I mention this was bloody? It’s very bloody. It’s all in black and white, as is typical for manga, but it’s still awfully darn gory.
The art is clear and crisp, cleanly divided into panels that flow easily from one to the next – it’s clearly manga, but the page layouts are closer to Western comics than many manga are. It’s not as flamboyant-looking as many of the manga I’ve seen, but it’s easier for my eyes to follow what’s going on; I think that will be generally true for readers raised on American-style comics as well. If you like horror stories in comics, and haven’t tried manga yet, this would be a good series to dive into.
(The series is twelve volumes, and was published once before in the US starting in 1999 – but that version was photographically “flopped,” so that it would read from left-to-right, like Western comics. And so “Migi” necessarily became “Lefty” in that version.)
Alive, which was written by Tadashi Kawashima and drawn by Adachitoka, has slightly less gore than [[[Parasyte]]], but is possibly even creepier. A virus is running endemic through humanity, as the back cover shouts but the characters in the book only gradually realize. And this virus, in the best horror-story fashion, causes its sufferers to commit suicide.
As if a worldwide wave of suicides wasn’t bad enough, it seems as if some of the people infected with the virus have developed some different, disturbing, abilities. In [[[Alive]]], this all plays out, as one might expect from a manga story, against the backdrop of a group of Tokyo high school students. (And, without giving everything away, by the end of this volume it’s pretty clear that Alive has been influenced by Katsuhiro Otomo’s magnificent Akira.)
The art is again a relatively clear, clean version of the standard boy’s manga look, with characters that are easily to tell apart and actions that can similarly be easily followed. There’s some violence here, and some quite frightening scenes, but it’s not as obvious a gore-fest as Parasyte is.
I liked this one quite a lot; the dialogue is realistic, the art is easy for Western eyes to follow, and the situation is compelling. The ending in particular is great – at least from the point of view of getting people to buy the next volume. It’s also a deeply creepy book, so don’t say I didn’t warn you.
Le Chevalier d’Eon, by Tou Ubaka and Kiriki Yumeji, is fun but utterly weird. It’s a historical story set in early 18th century France, where the titular nobleman is a bumbling policeman by day, and an agent of Louis XV’s super-secret anti-supernatural squad by night. (He, of course, reports directly to the king in a variety of secret rooms hidden in the walls of Versailles.) Oh, and d’Eon – to battle the evil forces I’ll explain next paragraph – is possessed by the spirit of his dead sister, Lia, and so dresses up in long flowing gowns to do his sword-fighting. (He/She also seems to have some mystical abilities which are not really explained in this volume.)
Weird enough? I’m not done yet. d’Eon battles a series of evil poets, driven mad (and in the process of turning into hideous snake-men) by a shadowy force that I’m sure is explained more in later volumes. The evil poets write with the blood of virgin young women, and their writings, which have cosmic significance, are called “Psalms.” (Yes, the reference to the Old Testament is very deliberate.) The evil poets also have some supernatural abilities, and may be leading up to an apocalypse of one kind or another. Oh, and Louis XV’s beloved daughter, Sophie, is a leading indicator of evil poet behavior, since she’s only able to say “Palms” and gets more agitated when a new poet emerges. Finally, the evil forces are specifically described as “revolutionary,” and it’s clear that their activities will eventually lead to the 1789 revolution.
So we’ve got an example of people from one culture appropriating another culture’s history and religion to tell an adventure story – and, y’know, I’m totally fine with that. I didn’t enjoy [[[Le Chevalier d’Eon]]] as much as I hoped to, since I found the art distracting and hard to follow. It’s drawn in what I think is more of a girls’ manga style, with lots of details and extraneous lines, and very stylized, complicated layouts for fights, so the action scenes were particularly hard for me to figure out. Still, it’s got loads of gonzo energy and a remarkably insane premise, so this is a hard book not to like.
Last this week is Mushishi, a much quieter series by Yuki Urushibara. (Startlingly, this seems to be his first published manga work; it’s amazingly accomplished for a newcomer.) In a nutshell, this is a Japanese version of John Constantine; an enigmatic, blonde, smoking guy wanders around fixing various people’s trouble with specific kinds of supernatural entities. Mushishi is – so far, at least – less bloody and more ecological than Constantine was; its hero Ginko is more likely to leave people alive at the end of his visits, and he’s not the asshole Constantine is. But the tone is reminiscent of Alan Moore-era Swamp Thing and the early years of Hellblazer; the stories are well-crafted and the translation is lively and colloquial.
It’s set in a vague, ahistoric Japan – some stories are essentially contemporary, others seem to have taken place in the past. So far, all of the stories take place deep in the countryside, far away from the cities, and I expect that will continue. Ginko is an expert on “mushi” – an incredibly ancient order of life that predated animals and plants, comes in a bewildering variety of forms and types, is usually invisible to most people, and have widely varying affects and abilities.
(Having just run through some elemental biology with my nine-year-old son, I have to admit I snorted a bit at Mushishi’s description of the mushi as “very close to the original forms of life. And since they’re so close [to the origins of life], their shape and very existence is kind of vague.…Some are transparent…kind of like ghosts.” So they’re ancient bacteria, eh? But this is clearly a fantasy story, and the “close to the source of life” speeches are just the bafflegab to explain it, so I went along.)
Each story is completely separate, and they follow roughly the same pattern: Ginko comes to a town, or just a single person, who is having troubles. The source of the troubles turns out to be mushi, and Ginko gives advice, or helps to free the person from the mushi. (Mushi are very prone to parasitizing human, it seems.) What makes the stories work is their quiet, matter-of-fact tone, their close focus on real people’s reactions to the uncanny, and their willingness to allow all kinds of human behavior and emotions – good, bad, and indifferent – be given play.
The art in Mushishi uses more free-flowing tones and background textures than most manga I’ve seen, with fewer areas of dark black. It does an excellent job of establishing mood, and can move from quiet contemplation to near-horror very quickly and smoothly.
Every reader or viewer who has been excited and fascinated by Japanese folklore – by fox spirits and ghosts, by the films of Miyazaki and the stories of Lafcadio Hearn – should take a look at Mushishi; it’s reimagining the core myths of a people in an interesting new way for the modern world (not unlike, in their different ways, the “Snow White” anthologies of Datlow and Windling did for Western legends). This is the most impressive manga work besides Otomo’s Akira that I’ve seen so far (which might not mean much; after all, I’m still pretty new to this).
Parasyte, Vol. 1
Del Rey Manga, 2007, $12.95
Alive, Vol. 1
Tadashi Kawashima & Adachitoka
Del Rey Manga, 2007, $10.95
Le Chevalier d’Eon, Vol. 1
Tou Ubaka & Kiriki Yumeji
Del Rey Manga, 2007, $10.95
Mushishi, Vol. 1
Del Rey Manga, 2007, $12.95
Andrew Wheeler has been a publishing professional for nearly twenty years, with a long stint as a Senior Editor at the Science Fiction Book Club and a current position at John Wiley & Sons. He’s been reading comics for longer than he cares to mention, and maintains a personal, mostly book-oriented blog at antickmusings.blogspot.com.