Monday, October 27, 2014

One Volume Wonder: CRIMSON CROSS

It takes a lot for a vampire manga to grab my attention.  It takes even more for a one-shot vampire manga to do the same.

CRIMSON CROSS (Crimson Cross ~ Shi ga Futari o Wakatsu made ~), written by Sakae Maeda & art by Kyoko Negishi.  First published in 2006, and first published in North America in 2010.

Karl is a man with a mission.  A descendant of the Van Helsings, it is his personal mission to hunt down the world's vampires, and in particular the master vampire Elliot.  Why?  Well, part of it is that he wants to avenge those in his past killed by Elliot, but he also has a more personal revenge in mind.  On a whim, Elliot turned Karl into a vampire and now every cross and bit of scripture Karl wields threatens to destroy him just as much as the prey he seeks.  Nonetheless, Karl is determined to save the innocent women he encounters along his way without losing his humanity in the process.

I didn't have high hopes for this one.  There are countless manga that take bits and pieces of Dracula mythology and repurpose it for their own means.  For every single series that recombines it in interesting ways, there are easily half a dozen others that make a complete mess of the matter.  Crimson Cross manages to become one of the former by anchoring those bits and pieces to an interesting and compelling lead character who is caught in a surprisingly philosophical dilemma.

Karl is a man who is torn between two worlds, both in a literal sense (human vs. vampire) and in a spiritual sense (heaven vs. hell).  He's a holy warrior who has been turned into a demon against his will, and he is determined to fight back against his curse and continue to fight his good fight against the monsters who made him this way.  He's determined to hold on to his humanity and to not let his own thirst for revenge distract him from that.  Unfortunately, Karl has good intentions but not a lot of physical strength, so he tends to get hurt a lot.  I do wish that so much of his motivation wasn't tied so much to saving naïve waifs from vampires.  It doesn't matter whether it's his mother, his friend, a random witch he meets in the woods, they are all these perfect virgin sacrifices made in the name of the plot, and the last of that list earns him a grudge from a bunch of random werewolves to boot.

The vampires here are something of a mixed bag.  They're very typical in the sense that they're decadent, hypnotic noblemen out to exploit the plebes.  What makes them slightly atypical are their weaknesses.  It's not so much the use of holy words against, although I do like the idea of Scripture being thrown at them like spells.  No, here the greatest danger to a vampire is sheer boredom.  One lesser vampire let himself be killed by a hunter in the past because he was just THAT bored with eternity.  Thus, to Elliot and company, Karl's struggles are like some glorious joke that's too amusing to stop.  While they are perfectly capable of violence, the vampires here come off less like monsters and more like philosophers (albeit dickish ones).  I'll happily take their half-hearted attempts at thoughtfulness over "Oh, woe is me, I'm surrounded by riches, women and demonic power, but what I truly pine for is looooove."

That's a good way to approach Crimson Cross in general.  I do wish it had been a little different - maybe make it a little bit less sexist, a little more coherent, or give it a more definitive ending.  Still, I was invested in Karl and his conflict because Maeda made a genuine effort.

Negishi's art is surprisingly good as well.  Her character designs are handsome and grounded.  They're all delicately drawn and very expressive, which goes a long way towards selling the reader on Karl's internal conflict.  That delicacy does hurt the backgrounds, which end up being a lot of wispy greys and blacks.  It does blend well with the vaporous qualities of the vampires' powers, though, and at time the effect is pleasingly spooky.  While it's not gruesome, Negishi doesn't shy away from violence, be it the burns on Karl's body, the blood pouring from Elliot's latest victim, or one character having their eyeball ripped out of their skull.  If the art has any particular failings, it's that the panels shift angles all the time.  The images pan up and down or tilt in all directions, and it's mildly distracting.  Still, there's a lot of quality and subtlety to be found in the art here, and it helps sell the reader on this story despite its shortness.

DMP tends to pick up a lot of middling series, but here they found a real diamond in the rough.  Don't dismiss this as just another wishy-washy vampire manga, as there's more than enough effort and thought here to make this one worth your while.

This series is published by Digital Manga Press.  It is currently out of print.

You can purchase this volume and many more like it through!

If you haven't already, please consider donating to the Carolina Manga Library's IndieGoGo campaign.  They're at 78% of their goal with less than a month to go, so let's get them to 100% and beyond!

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