Tuesday, December 6, 2016

Review: THE BLACK MUSEUM: THE GHOST AND THE LADY

There was actually quite a diverse selection of horror manga this year, and not all of it is gruesome.  Sometimes it was moody and gothic, much like today's selection.

THE BLACK MUSEUM: THE GHOST AND THE LADY (Kuro Hakubutsukan: Ghost and Lady), by Kazuhiro Fujita.  First published in 2015 and first published in North America in 2016.



PLOT:

One night, a theater-loving ghost known as The Man In Grey tells his story to the curator of Scotland Yard's Black Museum.  In life, he was a duelist plagued by despair.  In death, he found himself bound to a young woman called Florence Nightingale.  He will defend her from vengeful spirits born from mankind's worst emotions, but if she should ever fall into the deepest possible despair he will kill her. Their bond allows her to survive family opposition, the horrors of Victorian hospitals, and even the perils of the Crimean War, but her greatest threat yet may be another spectre from The Man In Grey's own past.



STORY:

The Ghost and The Lady is a fascinating amalgam of concepts.  It's something of a Gothic ghost story, but it's also something of a biography with bursts of tragedy and action to boot.  It's an odd combination on paper, but in execution it works shockingly well.

Despite being part of the title, the Black Museum part is little more than a framing device.  The only reason it keeps coming back up at all is because the story is being told (a la flashback) by the ghost (named Jack) himself to a quizzical young curator.  I can live with the interruptions, though, because the core of the story is so strong.  It takes a bit to get going though, mostly because the story has to stop to not only explain Jack, but also the concept of the eidolon.  The eidolons is truly where Fujita's background as a supernatural shonen mangaka starts to shine through, since it's mostly an excuse for fierce hulking spirits to swirl and lash out at one another violently.  It's basically a rather on-the-nose metaphor for all the anger, resentment, and prejudice people feel towards others or themselves and it adds a dynamic element to what would otherwise be scenes of snooty people saying awful things until Florence can bear no more.

As far as Florence herself, she's handled quite well.  Shonen mangaka are not known for writing great women characters, but Fujita finds a way to show us her inner strength without being overly preachy or too modern for the Victorian era.  We see how her grim bargain with Jack allows her to overcome her doubts and find within herself not only confidence, but also resolve and even a degree of cunning.  Combine that with her deep well of compassion and it's easy to see how a woman like this could become a great nurse.  She also plays off of Jack very well.  He's a very theatrical sort of character, even before we learn about his backstory, and it would have been easy for Florence to be overshadowed by him.  Instead, she takes him and their situation in stride and she learns to play with his expectations just as much as she does with the stuffed shirts around her. I can't vouch for how well this matches what we do know historically of the real Florence Nightingale, but it certainly works as far as making her a strong and compelling protagonist.

The plot more or less follows Florence's life up to her involvement in the Crimean War, sparing no effort to conceal both the horrors of the battlefield hospitals as well as the fierce opposition she faced from the military brass.  Then the story derails as another ghostly figure from Jack's past life appears, which in turn triggers an extended tangent into his entire backstory.  It's a melodrama that would be more than well-suited for Jack's beloved Drury Lane theater, but it does rather stop the story dead in its tracks right as the book ends.  Hopefully things pick up right away in the second half because I really enjoyed Fujita's twisted take on history.  Like Jack himself, I'm eager to see if it ends in exquisite tragedy or not.

ART:

Fujita's visual style is fascinating.  There's a fluidity to his work that breaths life into the otherwise stiff world of Victorian England.  It's most evident in how he draws Jack and the eidoleons.  It not only suits the ethereal nature of both Jack and the eidolons, but gives their duels a sense of speed and power that might not otherwise be there.  Since these battles are not limited to the mortal plane, he goes wild with them.  Sometimes they'll fill up the entire panel with blows as the spirits swirl about one another.  The eidolons let loose all sorts of arrows, sword attacks, chains and blows upon our heroine's spirit, which tear vividly (if bloodlessly) under the attacks.  It's completely over-the-top, but it totally works in context.

That same sort of looseness also applies to the character designs.  Admittedly, how crazy he gets with them depends on whether they are allies to Florence or not.  Florence and her ilk are fairly down to earth, but her opponents are more like gross caricatures of horrible old people.  Regardless, he goes positively wild with their expressions, particularly with the eyes.  Florence in particular has these heavily outlined eyes that make her look permanently sleep-deprived, but also do wonders towards bringing the reader's eyes to her face and heightening both her depression and her moment of steely, even furious resolve.  There's not a lot of subtlety to be found here, but it's hard to care when each face is drawn so wonderfully.

Even with all that, Fujita still takes care to not neglect the period details.  He captures the stuffiness of manor homes and the decrepit hospitals with plenty of care and loads of lovingly hatched detail.  That includes the grime and (occasionally) the gore.  He doesn't revel in it, but it would be difficult to sell the reader on the true difficulty of Florence's mission without it.  Even his paneling is bold and dramatic.  The conversations between Jack and Florence are framed in almost uncomfortable close-up, as if they were literally getting up in your face.  Drama is highlighted through extreme high and low angles.  Florence's kindest, most spiritual moments are framed in an almost saintly manner.  Again, it's not subtle in the least, but it works with the sort of heightened emotion that Fujita is going for.  It's honestly a shame that we haven't seen more of Fujita's work here because if this manga is anything to go by, we've been missing out.

PRESENTATION:

It's not everyday I come across a manga with a bibliography.  Clearly, translator Zack Davisson wanted to make sure the readers knew that he knew precisely what he was talking about.  He also includes a brief essay on the real Florence Nighingale discussing her role in coverage of the Crimean War as well as her effect on the field of nursing.  As for the translation itself, it captures the sort of formality such an era would demand without getting too hung up on it, as well as capturing the theatricality of Jack's mode of speech.  It's not just that he likes to drop in Shakespeare lines from time to time, but his everyday speech is colored by both his love of theater and his love of dueling and that comes through very nicely. 

RATING:

The Black Museum: The Ghost and the Lady turns its eclectic combination of ideas into a surprisingly compelling and visually dynamic whole and one that more people should be checking out.

This series is published by Kodansha Comics.  This series is complete in Japan with 2 volumes available.  1 volume has been released and is currently in print.

Want a chance to win a $25 RightStuf gift certificate to buy manga like this one?  All you have to do is leave a comment here to enter this year's Annual Holiday Giveaway!

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