From the stack: Dorohedoro vols. 1-3

It’s probably silly, but I always feel guilty that I don’t like Q Hayashida’s Dorohedoro (Viz) more than I do. I find it difficult to pinpoint exactly what the barrier is for me, since there are so many things to admire about the comic.

Most notable is Hayashida’s sensibility, which she has in abundance. While stories about magic are usually filled with sparkle, she’s set-dressed hers in convincing grime and clutter. Her main setting is a world called The Hole, and the name isn’t ironic. It’s a filthy, often frightening place where average humans live and try and protect themselves from magic-using sorcerers who like to experiment on the non-gifted. But it’s also a strangely homey place. Sure, violence is routine, and you’re living at the whim of powerful beings with next to no conscience, but you can find good dumplings.

Hayashida applies the same gritty-but-not approach to her characters. Our hero, Caiman, is an amnesiac with the head of a lizard. He’s terrifying to look at, but he’s goofy and kind of sweet when he isn’t chomping his jaws down on the heads of sorcerers to see if they’re the one who left him with no memory and a reptilian noggin. He’s very solicitous of Nikaido, the tough girl who makes the dumplings and helps him with his various projects (like the head chomping). They have an appealing rapport, and they’re very protective of each other.

Even the villains have their virtues, mostly because they aren’t entirely focused on villainy. Sorcerer mobster En seems to have a dozen different agendas at once, any of which can be set aside for an adorable (but creepy) new pet. His enforcers, Shin and Noi, are kind of the cloudy, mirror version of Caiman and Nikaido, but with an added level of blithe certainty. They’re endearingly amoral, not even bothering to justify they’re actions. They like their lives, whether they’re eating lunch or slicing and dicing hapless humans.

So, with an interesting cast and a distinct vibe, what’s the problem? I think it’s in the storytelling, which can feel not fully realized. I find it difficult to invest in Caiman’s quest to find out what happened to him. Aside from a general (and justified) sense of being badly used, there isn’t much in the way of specific urgency to Caiman’s search for answers and vengeance. He’s certainly likeable, but his aims seem strangely small. They could represent the overall injustices visited on the denizens of The Hole at the hands of the sorcerers, but Hayashida doesn’t really go there. Keeping things relatively light is an interesting choice that works in a lot of ways, but I keep wishing she’d raise the overall stakes a bit.

On another storytelling front, the staging of certain sequences can be rather confusing, especially when a lot is happening at once. I love the look of the book overall – the environments, the character design, some of the witty ways Hayashida plays around with pacing – but I wish there was a more consistent level of clarity.

Since you can do so for free, at least with chapters that haven’t seen print yet, I’d certainly encourage people to read Dorohedoro. And I certainly wouldn’t recommend a whole lot of things that you can read for free, because time has value. But this series has a lot of strengths, and Hayashida seems to be a remarkable creator in a number of significant ways. Dorohedoro just isn’t as tight as I would hope, and it feels like it could be without losing any of its quirky appeal.