Friday, October 28, 2016

Review: I AM A HERO

Naturally, I saved the best of what few zombie manga are out there for last.  It was one of the most coveted unlicensed titles for many years, and its announcement was five years (and an unprecedented cooperation between its Japanese and American publishers) in the making.  There's no way I could hold off on this one until December.

 I AM A HERO (Aiamuahiro), by Kengo Hanazawa.  First published in 2009 and first published in North America in 2016.


Hideo feels like a supporting character in his own life.  He toils away as an manga assistant after his own solo attempts when nowhere.  He's surrounded by other, equally dorky and frustrated men.  He's plagued not only by doubt and depression, but also reoccurring hallucinations.  His only comfort is his girlfriend Tekko, and even then he can't be certain if she's completely faithful to him.

Then one day a mysterious plague turns the populace into ravenous monsters and Hideo's world is turned completely upside-down.  He doesn't understand what is going on, but he knows two things for certain: he wants to survive, and the key to survival is to keep moving.


I Am a Hero is one half zombie apocalypse and one half indie-comic character study.  It's a combination that might frustrate those who are just looking for undead blood and guts, but it's incredibly effective in establishing Hideo's world, his outlook, and the ultimate mood of the piece.

Dark Horse made the right move in publishing this series as 2-in-1 omnibuses because the first volume is literally just set-up.  At the most, the setup to the outbreak is all in the background.  You see a snippet or two of newscasters here, a gradual increase in people with sick masks or complaints of flu-like symptoms from passers-by there.  You could easily miss it if you just scan over the pages.  Then that slow simmer of dread bursts into a full-blown boil at the halfway point and doesn't really let up from that point on.

That's not to say that the first half is nothing but building dread or dreadful boredom.  Hanazawa does a brilliant job at making Hideo feel like a real person.  He has moments of ennui, frustration, and outright paranoia, but he also has moments of joy, even compassion.  Even if you can't relate to the mangaka-specific stuff, you'd be hard pressed to find a young adult who couldn't relate to someone suffering with a derailed career or uncertainty about whether their significant other really loves them.  In that sense, Hideo and the other equally messed-up folks around him feel very real and very sympathetic, which makes the horrors they experience all the more visceral.

It's also fascinating to see how Hideo reacts in the face of zombie doom.  He doesn't sack up and become a big damn hero right away like so many protagonists in these sorts of stories do.  No, if anything Hideo spends most of his time in a state of confusion, fear, and even denial.  His first concerns aren't taking out all the creatures coming at him, it's to take care of his girlfriend (even as she tries to bite him) and check on his friends.  That feels to me like a more realistic reaction to such an unthinkable disaster than it to load up on guns and melee weapons and turn your life into a Dead Rising let's play.  That's not to say that Hideo won't get a moment of glory.  The story takes some pains to establish that Hideo actually owns a shotgun, something that is extremely rare for a Japanese civilian.  It's not done too often, but it's frequent enough that it would be ridiculous to not have him use it at some point.  If anything, its presence adds to the suspense.  You're wondering not just if and how Hideo will survive, but when will Hideo break out his oh-so-literal Chekov's gun?

There's a lot more specific stuff I could touch on, but doing so would be a discredit to the book.  There's just so much going on in this book.  It's a zombie apocalypse told not in broad strokes, but instead in the small touches of humanity and everyday details that build into something greater.


It also helps that Hanazawa's art is more than up to the task of tackling both the emotional moments as well as the horror.  His characters tread this thin line between seinen-style reality and a sort of caricature-like gooniness. No one is what you would call traditionally pretty, but definitely look like people you could actually see on the streets of a middling Tokyo suburb.  Things only get weirder when they become undead.  Their eyes go bloodshot, their skin pales to the point that every blood vessel is visible, and their bodies mold and shift like Play-Doh as they suffer one physical trauma after another.  It's not too gruesome - the actual gore is kept to a minimum - but it's disturbing nonetheless.

The backgrounds also play a role in selling the reader on the reality and mendacity of its setting.  I'd be curious to learn if Hanazawa was using any particular town as reference or was working from more generic reference material because it really does look like the sorts of townscapes you'd see while zooming by on the trains.  The same goes for the interiors, which are mostly these cramped little apartment blocks that are full of little everyday details and wear. They're not glamorous, but they're all skillfully done.  He also does some interesting things with the framing.  Most of the time he keeps things fairly plain but also tightly focused on Hideo and his reactions.  It's only at the most dramatic and emotional points where he opens things up.  Sometimes it's just a single page spread, but one standout sequence features a zombie rising to attack as viewed through a mail slot.  It flows like a storyboard and it uses its fish-eyed perspective to convey both the speed of the attack and the horror of the situation.  It's moments like that really help me understand this manga's incredible reputation and it's something that you should experience for yourself. 


There are translation notes, but not nearly as many as I'm used to seeing in Dark Horse books.  I guess that's what you get when Carl Horn isn't the one translating for once.  There are also some color pages midway through.  I do wish they would use glossy paper for their color pages, as the colors seem to lose some vibrancy when printed onto normal print stocks.  That being said, adding color doesn't make too much of a difference to Hanazawa's art beyond capturing the sickly purple tint and nearly pinkish-red eyes of the zombies.


I Am A Hero more than earns its reputation as one of the best zombie manga out there.  Its slow-burn approach to storytelling combined with its excellent art makes it compelling in a way that a lot of zombie media hasn't been.  This series was well worth the wait, but don't wait to start reading this one.

This series is published by Dark Horse.  This series is ongoing in Japan with 20 volumes available.  Two 2-in-1 omnibuses are currently available and is currently in print.

Wednesday, October 19, 2016


Well, I might as well keep this zombie train rolling with another review.  Unfortunately it's not about the recent show that actually did have zombies, trains, and zombie trains.  No, instead it has zombies, boobs,, that's pretty much it.

HIGHSCHOOL OF THE DEAD (Gakuen Mokushiroku: Haisukuru obu za Deddo), written by Daisuke Sato and art by Shouji Sato.  First published in 2006 and first published in North America in 2011.


Takashi Komuro was already having a bad day.  He's bitter because his childhood friend Rei is dating his best friend Hisashi, wondering why childhood pinky swears don't automatically translate into promises of commitment.  Then strange people start attacking his school and it seems that no one is safe from the onslaught.  Now Takeshi and Rei must team up and find any remaining survivors if they want to stand a chance.


Highschool of the Dead has a reputation for trashiness, and it's not completely unwarranted.  It's not for nothing that the most memorable moment from its recent animated counterpart was an enormous pair of boobs performing a sort of bullet-time jiggle around a high-caliber bullet.  If reading the manga has shown me anything about it, though, it's not that Highschool of the Dead is inherently trashy.  It's just a very formulaic zombie survival tale.

A big part of what makes great zombie films great are the living people at their core.  While what makes those character great varies greatly, most can be said to be memorable.  That's not the case here, as the main cast has no more personality about them than the zombies that chase them.  Takeshi is a moody little bastard, Rei alternates between crying and yelling at Takeshi, Saya is your standard snooty rich bitch, Kouta is a feeble geek, and Shizuka is a flat-out ditz.  Takeshi and Rei's quasi-relationship is about as complex as things get, and it's hard to not get choked up over the tender moments the two share.  How could you forget moments like the time where Takeshi slapped Rei to stop her from crying?  How about all the times he saves her because every time Rei tries to fight on her own, she ends up falling down and crying even more?  It's really quite beautiful, if by 'beautiful' you mean awful and more than a little bit sexist.

Otherwise, there's nothing in this particular plot that you couldn't find in a million other zombie movies.  The undead uprising begins, the cast is pared down to the primary group, and they end up teaming up to fight zombies more effectively.  They try to reach out to the authorities, but fail in their efforts.  Those in charge either start to break down under the stress or exploit their power for gain.  Not even the zombie attacks onto themselves possess any novelty.  People get bitten and torn apart while zombies get stabbed, shot, and clubbed.  The craziest things ever get is when the feeble nerd turns a nail gun into a rifle, and that's far too little insanity to make up for what is otherwise a bog-standard narrative.  What on earth could be drawing people to this otherwise mundane story?


Oh, how could I forget the real draw of this series: the fanservice.  Shockingly, there's not nearly as much fanservice here as there was in the animated series.  That being said, there are panty shots a-plenty and I'm sure are purely prurient reasons that all the women keep getting their clothes torn off from low, exploitative angles.  I'm sure it will not shock you to learn that the Sato brothers got their start in hentai, as one glance at how they draw boobs will give that away immediately.  Shizuka in particular has a set so big that sometimes they hang outside of the borders of the panels.  The porninesss also shows up in other weird little ways.  I swear that Rei's screaming face is always drawn in a weird, open-mouthed way that normally isn't seen without the subject being covered in drool and semen. 

Beyond the lewd elements, there isn't much to the character designs here.  They tend towards the long and gangly side of things, with lots of floppy hair and pointy chins.  They also don't have much of an eye for the violence, as the violence usually ends up reverting to extremely high or low angles and filling up the panel with flailing bodies and sprays of blood.  It's also quite stiffly drawn, and more than once the Satos draw bodies twisting and turning in ways not possible in nature. You'd think that schlockmeisters like these guys would revel in the chance to draw some extreme content, but instead they just settle for drawing some extreme boobs and slacking off on the rest.


I don't know how on earth the Satos managed to make a zombie apocalypse boring, but they found a way with Highschool of the Dead.  I can't believe I'm saying this, but I would much sooner watch the TV series, Stephen Foster dub and all, than I would reread this manga.

This series is published by Yen Press.  This series is currently on hiatus, with 7 volumes available.  All 7 volumes have been published in print, in e-book, and omnibus form and is currently in print.

Thursday, October 13, 2016


Thanks to Monster Musume, the notion of a romance with a monster girl isn't as weird of a notion to manga readers as it was when this series first came out.  It's a shame, as today's review is frankly a far more palatable take on the idea.

SANKAREA: UNDYING LOVE (Sankarea), by Mitsuru Hattori.  First published in 2009, and first published in North America in 2013.


Chihiro loves zombies.  It's not just that he loves zombie movies and memorabilia and such.  He has a veritable fetish for zombie girls, and he's experimenting on his beloved dead cat to try and perfect a zombification potion.  It's during this work that he discovers Rea Sanka, daughter of the girls' school headmaster, shouting her woes into a well.  The two bond over their mutual secrets, but the bond is short-lived thanks to Rea's abusive, controlling father.  She accidentally puts Chihiro's formula to the test, and the results are a success.  Rea is a zombie, free at last to enjoy the world, but the beginnings of rigor mortis might put that to rest before it can ever truly begin.


If you had told me previous to reading this volume that I could find enjoyment in a shonen romance about a boy in love with a zombie girl, I would have told you that you were insane.  Yet here I am, fully prepared to explain why Sankarea totally worked for me on a story level.

A big part of what makes it work is that our leading couple are a bit more down-to-earth than the usual sort who populate these sorts of stories.  Zombie obsession aside, Chihiro isn't some nervous nebbish or unrestrained perv.  That allows him to actually engage Rea like a person before everything goes to hell, much less the other wandering clichés that surround him.  They actually get to have something resembling a connection, and it's sad that this is such a novelty.  As for Rea, it takes longer for her charms to come through.  That's understandable once you start to learn the sort of pressure and horrendously broken home life she has to deal with.  The abuse she suffers would be enough to drive anyone to the brink of suicide.  It's only after the accident that her charms start to truly shine.  It seems like there's nothing like escaping a horrible home situation to bring out a certain giddiness in her.  It's not just that she's getting to experience all sorts of otherwise mundane things for the first time, but that she savors the freedom her undeath has brought.  At long last, she can go anywhere and do anything she pleases.  When she's acting like that, it's pretty easy to see why anyone (much less Chihiro) would find her adorable.

It's a good thing that Rea turns out to be so charming because her backstory turns out to be positively Gothic.  It's not just that she's practically a prisoner in her own home, there's also the fact that her father is obsessed with her in the unhealthiest of ways.  It verges upon the incestuous at times, and it's bound to give you the shivers far more than the prospect of zombie romance.  Like a Gothic villain, he's also incredibly over-the-top.  The only strange thing is how swiftly he seemingly gives up once Rea dies and comes back to life.  In comparison, Chihiro's life is quite mundane and his world populated mostly by a lot of clichés.  We've got the pervy sidekick, the pervy old man, and an older-sister wannabe of a cousin who is mostly there so the readers can ogle someone.  As things get more serious, they feel less like comic relief and more like the lazy, half-hearted space-fillers that they are.

It's not often that a shonen romance actually gets me invested in its own story, much less one with a premise like this.  It just goes to show what a little time and care can do towards making the prospect of a zombie romance not just palatable, but something I would be willing to read more of.


Sankarea's art also wants to keep the focus on the romance and not on the horror elements...well, at least most of the time.  It does indulge in fanservice from time to time.  Most of the time it doesn't go beyond the odd gawk down a girl's shirt as she leans into frame, although sometimes it gets rather indulgent when it comes to the cousin.  It's the only way I can explain why she's the one who ends up in ludicrous, coquettish poses or baring her boobs in a totally pointless bath scene.  Otherwise the characters are perfectly ordinary.  The youngsters have an anime-friendly look and plenty of goofy expressions to go around, while the adults look more serious and squared-off.  Despite the premise, there's not a lot of gore to go around.  The most graphic moment is the one they use for the cover, which tells you just how tame the art is all around. 


One minor point that I do want to point out is that Hattori does throw in a few references to other zombie media here and there.  That's part of the reason the title is what it is.  It's not just Rea's name, but also a reference to the Japanese title for Zombi 2.  I also love that the translation notes confirm that Chihiro's cat is indeed named Bub as a reference to Day of the Dead.  References like these aren't frequent or obvious enough to distract, but if you know the material you can appreciate the little nods.


Sankarea is a monster girl romance I can actually kind of get behind.  It works where others fail because it takes its time with the core relationship and it keeps things tame enough (for the most part) to keep the concept tasteful.  It's not brilliant, but it's a far better start than most non-undead romance manga can hope to deliver.

This series is published by Kodansha Comics.  This series is complete in Japan with 11 volumes available.  All volumes have been published and are currently in print. 

Saturday, October 8, 2016


It's October once more, which means it's time to look over some monstrous manga.  That is, manga about monsters and hopefully manga that ARE monstrous.

Well, hopefully at least.

Let's start things off with a quirky little oddity from the dying days of CMX and their short-lived partnership with web manga distributor Flex Comics.  It was meant to bring revolutionary new titles to the States.  The actual result were weird little one-off projects like today's selection.

ZOMBIE FAIRY (Kyonshii Sennyo), by Daisuke Torii.  First published in 2007 and first published in North America in 2008.


Aoto Hozoki's family didn't think much about the weird old coffin in the basement.  All they knew is that Grandpa picked up 20 years ago from an old Chinese monk.  Until Aoto took it on TV for experts to examine, they had no idea what it could contain.  What it did contain was Chun-Ai, a jiang-shi (or Chinese hopping vampire) who turns out to be a magical being under a terrible curse.  Now Aoto and his family must help Chun-Ai break her curse and return her to normal all while keeping things under control in their own household.


Zombie Fairy.  That's a weird combination of words.  It simultaneously offers up something overdone and kind of boring with something magical and exotic.  In other words, it's a perfect reflection of the work itself.

At its core, this is another sitcom-style comedy, albeit one with a touch of action to it.  Torii certainly wrote his cast like they were in a sitcom, in the sense that they are the blandest sitcom stereotypes you could imagine. You know you're dealing with a serious lack of character when the most well-defined member of the cast is the horny old grandpa pulled straight from some 90s schlock.  Aoto might as well not be there for all he contributes to the story.  That being said, the magical beings aren't treated much better.  Chun-Ai has only two modes: innocent girl and mindless monster.  For a while it looks like they will trade on Lin-Fa's vanity as a gag, but she mostly gets relegated to the role of Giver of Exposition.  When it comes to the cast, Torii was clearly just going through the motions to get to what he really wanted to write about: the mythological angle.

To his credit, Torii digs deeper than most supernaturally-themed manga do for his creatures, which is part of the reason why the title is so clunky.  It's not that it's inaccurate, it's that Chun-Ai is a combination of creatures that few in the west would recognize off-hand.  Jiang-shi are obscure enough (unless you like old Hong Kong exploitation films), and it's weird that they went with 'zombie' when they are often more closely tied to vampirism.  The 'fairy' part is even more complicated.  Chun-Ai is meant to be a sennyo, a being from Chinese/Japanese Buddhist mythology that's closer to what westerners would call a 'nymph' versus a fairy.  The story finds a terribly convoluted way to make combining such drastically different ideas work, one that involves demons and seals and the Chinese zodiac.  None of it makes a bit of sense, and the worst part is that it ultimately doesn't matter.

That's right: there's no ending.  The story sets up a big quest to hunt down a bunch of demons and simply leaves it there.  It seems that Torii was no more successful in Japan than he was in the States.  Maybe if Torii had put more effort into the story overall, that might not have happened.


That's a real shame because Torii's artstyle is pretty cute.  The character designs are more doll-like than the standard, anime-friendly look that most works like this use.  He also plays with perspective a little, and the character designs can actually hold to that without looking weird.  It's actually kind of unique looking in that sense.  That's about the only unique quality, though.  He's a perfectly competent artist, but no more beyond that.  The jokes, the action, the backgrounds - all of them are drawn in a perfectly unremarkable way.  Honestly, the title and the characters might be the only original ideas to be found in the entire thing.


A title like Zombie Fairy demands a certain degree of commitment and skill to make it work without being ridiculous, and this Torii guy simply wasn't up to the task.  This renders the book nothing more than an obscure oddity, even by the standards of the CMX library.

This book was published by CMX.  It is currently out of print.