So this month's reviews have been ... well, less than stellar. It almost makes one give up any hope of finding a manga with vampires in it that DOESN'T suck (pun not intended).
Thankfully, there's always something like today's review out there to save our collective sanity and renew that hope again. We've had enough tricks this month - time for a treat.
HELLSING (Herushingu), by Kohta Hirano. First published in 1997, and first published in North America in 2003.
There is a secret organization tasked with protecting both England and the Protestant faith against those who would threaten it, be they supernatural beings or merely Catholics. That organization is Hellsing, led by the authoritative Sir Integra Fairbrook Wingates Hellsing. Her secret weapon against these forces is the vampire Alucard, who relishes the opportunity to take out beings lesser than himself. During a routine mission in Cheddar, a young policewoman named Seras Victoria is shot by Alucard in an attempt to kill the vampire keeping her hostage. He offers her the chance to live, and she accepts, becoming a vampire in the process. Now she too is a member of Hellsing, and they're going to need all the help they can get when an assignment finds them clashing with the Vatican's own secret weapon - the deadly Father Alexander Anderson.
Oh Hellsing, you glorious, gore-ious piece of work. It's such a relief to find a vampire manga where the vampires aren't beautiful bishonen nor creepy little girls, but instead are mad, dangerous monsters.
The story is rather piecemeal, with only the last story taking longer than a chapter or two. We get the introduction, followed by a flashback to Integra's past so as to explain both how such a young woman came to being in charge of the organization as well as the nature of the bond between her and Alucard. There's another brief story about a couple of punk kid vampires, leading up to the conflict in Belfast with Anderson. Until that point, Hellsing's enemies are minor and all but nameless. Anderson is something else entirely, though. He has the power (both physical and supernatural) to inflict some real damage and keep pace with Alucard. Thus, their fight has some actual stakes, and it's less about vampires showing off as it is a bloody battle, and it's the absolute highlight of the volume.
Characterization is not terribly deep here, but the story doesn't suffer for it greatly. Alucard is mostly a cipher, being cool, distant, arrogant, and bloodthirsty. Interestingly, in spite of his ego he does not seem to begrudge being a servant to a human, but then he mostly savors the chance to fight. Of course, it helps that his mistress is no shrinking violet herself. Intregra just embodies stern authority, and steals the scene of every scene she is in. I'll admit up front that I have an almost irrational fondness for Integra. She's just so damn cool. She's smart, capable, authoritative, and does not waver even in the face of death. It's all the more remarkable because she is just a human - unlike her vampiric servants, she has no superpowers nor immortality to aid her. She commands Hellsing and Alucard through sheer force of will, and I love her to bits for it. Seras is the closest thing we have to an everywoman, and her cheeriness and reluctance to drink blood are meant to serve as contrast to the dark and bloody circumstances around her, even if that reluctance is starting to slip by volume's end. Still, she is a policewoman by training, and handles her weapons like a pro. Even Anderson is not dull, as we first see him as a kindly priest at an orphanage, and it's like night and day to see him at his true calling, vanquishing vampires with holy weapons fueled by an unquenchable bloodlust and what he sees as his righteous duty to protect his church.
Oh, did I mention that there's a running subplot about how the Catholic and Protestant faiths are still fighting one another like it's 1699? Of course, the battles have gone underground, but the two factions behave more like countries at war, defending their borders against both supernatural threats and whatever side they perceive to be the heathens. It's kind of ridiculous when taken out of context, but it's a sort of ridiculous that fits right in with the story as a whole. Hellsing is no super-serious drama. No, this is a balls-to-the-wall action piece, and while it may be kind of dumb and kind of ridiculous, it simply doesn't care. In its own strange, occasionally gory way, it's a lot of fun, and that more than anything is the saving grace of this manga.
Hirano's art is one-of-a-kind, to say the least. It's not perfect by any means, as he struggles with perspective, which is why sometimes characters have orangutan arms or heads too seemingly small and narrow to fit them properly. You'd think they'd be a little more refined considering that all the major cast members were taken (with few modifications) from Hirano's previous porny doujinshis. Still, in spite of their inperfections, his character designs are strange and distinct. Hirano excels at broad expressions, with cat-like eyes and curling, toothy mouths shifting into grimaces, shock, and pure, cackling madness, taking on an almost psychedelic air.
There's not a lot of fluidity to the images, but the poses are strong and dynamic. He also makes excellent use of shading, at times practically drowning the pages in ink (and often substituting it for backgrounds). Hirano's idea of fanservice is more about guns than panties, and he lavishes detail upon Alucard's and Seras' powerful, fanciful weaponry. He's not shy about gore, so blood is often found gushing across the page in Pollock-esque splatters. Panels tend to be narrow and long, but he's not above letting the characters pop out of the panels or breaking out some page-wide splash panels for dramatic effect. A little detail that I rather liked is how Anderson's prayers (which were in English even before translation) are written in with sloppy, handwritten cursive.
Hirano's art overall is rough but pleasingly strange, a fine complement to the story within.
There's an author's note, along with a bonus chapter about another pair of Catholic warriors: Heinkel, another secret agent for the Vatican, and Yumiko, a Japanese nun with a bloody split personality. While it's incredibly politically incorrect (as it's about Catholic assassins attacking Muslim terrorists in Palestine), tonally it's a perfect fit with the main story - full of action, a little bit ridiculous, and doesn't care what anyone else thinks of it.
Hellsing is a personal favorite of mine. It's not deep by any means, but it's incredibly fun to read with a great cast of characters and a unique if imperfect visual style.
This series is published by Dark Horse in conjunction with Digital Manga Press. All 10 volumes have been released and all are currently in print.
You can purchase this volume and many more like it through RightStuf.com!