Undiscovered Ono

I keep meaning to write up a license request for two of the comics that Natsume Ono has created for Kodansha’s Morning 2, Danza, which ran for one volume, and Coppers, which is ongoing. They’re dramas about police officers in New York, which is certainly unexpected subject matter for this particular creator, and I’ve enjoyed lots of comics that were originally published in Morning magazines. The thing is that, by most accounts, they aren’t very good, at least by Ono’s standards.

Here’s what Khursten Santos said about them in her marvelous overview of Ono’s work:

Danza is a collection of stories although she eventually focused on two NYPD detectives before eventually dedicating Coppers to an entire squad. Her venture into this copland ain’t no NYPD blues. It’s simpler, if not, less dramatic than that. I would have to admit that these two are the weakest of her works as her brand of storytelling kills the excitement in police stories. It’s still a good read. Just not as great as the others. If you sincerely love her sense of melodrama, then you might find some fun in Danza and Coppers.

Personally, I’ll read anything by Ono, and even lower-tier Ono is still pretty awesome. But if I’m going to devote my energies to begging for more of her work in English, I’d be more inclined to bend my energies towards her Basso work.

She started a new series in Shogakukan’s IKKI called Futugashira, but there’s next to no information available on that one. I’m quite intrigued by what little I’ve seen of her other ongoing, an historical drama called Tsuratsura Waraji that’s another Morning 2 title. But if I were to pick one non-yaoi Ono title that I really, really want to see, it would be Nigeru Otoko.

It ran for a single volume in Ohta Shuppan’s Manga Erotics F, which is a constant source of surprises, mostly in the “I can’t believe this comic ran in the same magazine as that comic” vein that makes me love a magazine. (Hi, Comic Beam!) The description makes it sound like a moody, grown-up fantasy, which is very much in my comfort zone. And it reinforces Ono’s standing as the queen of the Fifth Genre prom, so it’s hard to see how something could go really badly wrong in a single volume.


Re-flipped: not simple

I’m digging into the Flipped archives again. This one came out just as Natsume Ono’s work was starting to be licensed in English. It focuses primarily on her first licensed work, which generated some mixed reaction, though I loved it.

I’ve given up on prognostication. Experience has demonstrated that I’m usually too optimistic, and looking back at my predictions makes me realize that they’re more in the line of affirmations than realistic expectations. I will indulge in one, though: by the end of 2010, a lot more people will be aware of the work of Natsume Ono than they were when the year began.

To be honest, I’d never heard her name at the beginning of 2009. My first glimpse of her work came through a random copy of Kodansha’s Morning 2, which is serializing Ono’s Coppers. I remember thinking that those pages didn’t look much like anything else in the magazine. It took me a while to connect the creator of Coppers with my next encounter with Ono.

That happened at Viz Media’s online IKKI anthology, which serializes chapters of Ono’s House of Five Leaves. It’s one of those series that on first glance leave you not quite sure what you just read, though in a very pleasant way. The opening chapters leave the doors of possibility wide open, and subsequent installments don’t so much shut them as fill in the details of those possibilities.

It’s about an out-of-work samurai, Akitsu, who becomes entangled with a gang of kidnappers. Akitsu doesn’t resemble the standard manga samurai in physicality or disposition, lithe and diffident instead of sturdy and aggressive. It’s easy to see why he’s unemployed, but it’s enticingly unclear why gangster Yaichi lures Akitsu into his circle. It could be that Akitsu is easy to manipulate and the last person you’d expect of ulterior motives, or it could be simple, unexpected fondness. Yaichi might merely like to have Akitsu around.

Ono seems entirely comfortable with leaving readers to guess where things might be headed in terms of event and even intent, though I always have the sense that things are moving in interesting directions. Her work seems both confident and restrained. It also seems just slightly askew of what one might expect when one considers demographics like seinen (comics for adult men), josei (for adult women) or yaoi (male-male romance, which Ono has created under the name “Basso”). So it makes sense that the magazines that have featured her work – Morning 2, Shogakukan’s IKKI, the late Penguin Shobou’s Comic SEED! – seem less designed to cater to a specific demographic than to simply publish an interesting variety of comics by accomplished creators.

The first Ono title to see print in translation, not simple from Viz, arrives this week, and the publisher has posted the first chapter online. Comics creator, editor and critic Shaenon K. Garrity has described the book as “scary good,” and I’m in complete agreement. I think it compares favorably to one of the most acclaimed books of 2009, David Small’s Stitches: A Memoir (W.W. Norton). Like Small’s autobiography, not simple explores the hideous consequences of parental cowardice and cruelty, and, like Stitches, it’s constructed and paced with admirable precision and craft. As was the case in Stitches, I’m reluctant to describe the plot in too much detail, as a great deal of pleasure is derived in the timing with which Ono reveals the underlying facts of her characters’ lives.

The book follows a young Australian man named Ian, barely more than a boy, really, as he searches for his older sister, the only bright point in his grim experience with family life. Along the way, he meets a writer, Jim, who’s taken with Ian’s story both for its inherent pathos and for its narrative possibilities – he wants to know how Ian’s story comes out at least partly because he wants to tell it. Ian’s life and Jim’s novel intersect and overlap, and the story-within-a-story elements aren’t always entirely successful, but Jim’s mixture of sympathy and self-interest give Ian’s tragedies a needed edge and the possibility of at least a little remove on the part of the reader. One of the recurring criticisms I saw for Stitches was that it was just so depressing, a quality compounded by the fact that the events it portrayed actually happened. In not simple, Ono is playing with the idea of tragedy as an entertainment beyond merely presenting a tragic series of events. It’s an intriguing extra element, even if it isn’t seamlessly applied.

Ono doesn’t engage in the kind of experimental illustration that’s sprinkled throughout Small’s work, but her drawings are striking, characterized with a kind of crude fragility that supports the tone and content of her story. Like everything else about not simple, its look is deceptively… well… simple. Fans of Bryan Lee O’Malley’s Lost at Sea (Oni Press) would feel very much at ease with a cartoonish style invested with emotional depth and urgency.

People who have sampled House of Five Leaves, which is scheduled for print release in April of this year, might be surprised that not simple was drawn by the same creator. The former has a lean elegance that’s really in contrast to the more stylized look of the latter. I’m fond of both styles for their individual virtues and for the fact that they both come from the same pen. It’s exciting to see that Ono’s versatility in terms of content and tone extends to her work as an illustrator.

There’s just so much to admire about Ono’s work – its variety, its uniqueness, the level of talent it suggests. I don’t think it’s unreasonable to hope that she becomes one of those creators whose popularity transcends the audience specifically interested in comics from Japan and those who are interested in well-made comics in general. Her work seems to have transcended any specific demographic in Japan, and I believe it will here.



It makes me a little wistful to think that Tesoro is probably the last work by Natsume Ono that Viz will debut, at least for a while. Viz was responsible for introducing English-language readers to Ono’s work, at least in licensed form, and they’ve provided a steady supply since not simple arrived at the beginning of 2010. There’s more House of Five Leaves to come, which is reassuring, but Viz has pretty much run through her catalog of works that ran in Shogakukan’s IKKI or Ohta Shuppan’s Manga Erotics F.

She’s got a number of titles in progress, mostly for Kodansha’s Morning magazines, but Viz has almost never published a Kodansha title. Kodansha itself seems to be reluctant to publish its own seinen works, so the best hope of Ono fans would probably be Vertical. As for the yaoi titles she created under the name BASSO, I have no idea who might publish those, though perhaps Viz’s new boys’-love line might be a possible home.

I can see why Viz saved Tesoro for last. It’s charming, but it benefits from having a larger view of Ono’s body of work. It contains some of her earlier short works for magazines like IKKI and some self-published stories, and I can see it gaining a non-manga audience. It’s very much in an indie-comics vein, especially if we’re talking about recent indie comics where the creators seem to feel freer to indulge in some genial whimsy.

Readers who are familiar with the rather leisurely pace Ono adopts for her longer works might wonder how she manages a smaller number of pages. (Ono herself expresses skepticism about her abilities in this vein, though mangaka rarely sound confident in their author notes.) Given her facility for small, finely articulated moments, she proves to be a natural at short stories. There’s a lot of charming material in Tesoro, and while the tone tends to be genial, there’s a surprising amount of variety on display.

My favorite entry is “Senza titolo 1,” which dips into Ono’s beloved well of grumpy older Italian men. A sophisticated lady helps a doctor friend make his way home on a night when he’s had too much to drink. She learns the source of his distress, and, while he’s helped her in his capacity as a psychologist, she discovers that they share some of the same anxieties. It’s lovely and sad, and it’s probably the most sleekly drawn piece in the collection.

Other charmers here include the third of “Three Short Stories About Bento,” which is spare in its details but very emotionally potent in an understated way. It focuses clearly and compassionately on a parent-child relationship, which is also familiar Ono territory, and she revisits that ground a few times in this collection. In the “Froom family” shorts, she introduces a father who tries to carve out special time for his son that will give the kid a break from his bossy older sisters. I liked the quirky, chatty “Padre” strips about a baker with three demanding children better than “Senza titolo #6,” where we see the kids as somewhat dysfunctional adults.

Speaking of dysfunctional adults, or at least near-adults, the contingent that found not simple a bit too much will probably see its seeds in “Eva’s Memory.” I personally loved not simple, but I can look at “Eva’s Memory” and see justification for the accusations of contrivance and maudlin melodrama. “Senza titolo #5” is flawed in some of the same ways, but it’s on the sweeter side, so it’s easier to take.

On the whole, it’s a wonderful sampler of a lot of Ono’s core sensibilities. There are many characters here who have reason to be sad or discontent trying to focus on their pleasures and blessings. There’s a lot of eating and aimless chatter. And there are a lot of nicely observed moments, especially among messy, loving families. If you like Ono, Tesoro is essential, and if you’re unfamiliar with her work, it’s a good, gentle introduction that gives you a sense of her range.


MMF: On Ono

Alexander Hoffman has launched the latest Manga Moveable Feast over at Manga Widget, an examination of the fetching and varied comics of Natsume Ono. I’ve got a few pieces in the pipeline for this week, but I thought I’d point to a few things I’ve already written:

Can’t wait to see what everyone has to say about this versatile, very distinct creator!



Thanks to everyone who voted in this month’s Previews poll. A Devil and Her Love Song (Viz) and Durarara!! (Yen Press) pretty much tied, and plenty of people suggested that Devil is something I should read even without the prompting of democracy, so I’ll just go for both. I love it when a plan comes together, and when a plan falls apart in interesting and useful ways.

Speaking of plans, Alexander (Manga Widget) Hoffman is gearing up for the next Manga Moveable Feast. This installment focuses on the work of Natsume Ono. I believe I may have expressed a fondness for her work once or twice. I’ll have to check my files.

And, on the subject of Manga Moveable Feasts, I like it when the events cast a spotlight on a specific creator like Rumiko Takahashi and Fumi Yoshinaga. So, for this week’s random question, I’ll ask which mangaka you’d like to see at the center of a future feast?

Osamu Tezuka seems like an ideal candidate, because so much of his work has been licensed and translated and lots of it comes in affordable, one-volume chunks. I kind of suspect that his individual works are so different and dense that it might take a month-long feast to cover everything. Yuu Watase would offer a reasonable amount of variety, but some of her series are so very, very long that it might pose a barrier to participation. I’d actually really enjoy a Junko Mizuno feast, since she’s such a distinctive artist, and it might poke Last Gasp into publishing another volume of Little Fluffy Gigolo Pelu, because I loved the first volume like I would my own emotionally disturbed child.



License request day: Franken Fran

I swear I’ve seen Erica Friedman describe Akita Shoten’s Champion Red as a shônen magazine where dignity and hope for a better world go to die, perhaps even suggesting that its readership should be monitored for their potentially detrimental influence on the gene pool. I trust Erica implicitly, but there is a horror series that’s run in Champion Red that was recently… well… championed in comments, and – as sometimes happens with horrific scenarios – curiosity has overcome good sense. (Don’t go in the Champion Red basement, you fool! It’s filled with the creepiest kind of otaku!)

I refer, of course, to Katsuhisa Kigitsu’s Franken Fran. Those covers make me wish for the swift oblivion of death to end my shame, but the host of Sunday Comics Debt sent me on the road to no return with the following remark:

I like to think of Franken Fran as Pinoko all grown up, and being raised with the Doctor’s medical skill would make her a prime candidate for doing outlandish operations that would be banned in any country. Admit it – all the elements are there – she’s a childish tumor with no qualms of ethics or humanity, and enjoys operating madcap experiments that would make Desty Nova proud, just for the fun of it.

Now, you all know of my completely misguided adoration for Pinoko. I’m not going to bore you by repeating it, but she’s so creepy and disturbing and precious and… ahem. Sorry about that.

It’s being published in German by Panini, and you can see some preview pages at the Amazon listing for the volume. The insides look a little more restrained than the “purchase by mail and try not to think of the shipping clerk judging you” covers would suggest.

We’re almost done with Black Jack (Vertical), and while it seems like a series with great snowy-Sunday reread value, I’d feel better if I knew there was something similarly ridiculous and entertaining on the way. Franken Fran’s potential tackiness may overwhelm its giddiness, but I’m willing to take that risk.


Re-flipped: Tokyo Zombie

It doesn’t seem right to go through all of the current Manga Moveable Feast without addressing zombies, and it doesn’t seem right to address zombies without considering ironic zombies, so here’s an old Flipped column on a title that checks both off of the list.

I think Yusaku Hanakuma’s Tokyo Zombie (Last Gasp) has helped me crystallize my objections to zombie fiction in general.  Given the limitations of the genre, it very often seems like too much effort has gone into its various renderings.  Tokyo Zombie looks like it was dashed off during study hall, and that works in its favor.

The official tag for the style is heta uma, or “bad, but good.”  I might modify it to “bad, but appropriate,” to be honest.  That Hanakuma’s style of illustration suits the material doesn’t mean it’s aesthetically pleasing in any meaningful way or that a practiced knowledge of the fundaments of drawing seems to be peeking out through a conscious effort at crudeness.  Proportions are odd and shifting, and body language and composition are stiff.  To be honest, the living and the undead aren’t always immediately distinguishable from one another.

But really, the best a zombie story can be is crude, quick, and maybe a little subversive, and Tokyo Zombie is all of those.  The action begins on “Dark Fuji,” a mountain of garbage, studded with illegally dumped toxic waste and human remains.  Whatever the opposite of a primordial soup is reaches boiling point, and the undead begin shambling down from Dark Fuji to do what zombies do – very slowly overtake the living.

A small subculture of survivors build an enclosed area where the rich live on the labor of an oppressed class of slaves, and the balance is maintained by brutal enforcers.  Stripped of most of their comforts and diversions, the rich become extremely bored, and a brutal arena featuring slaves versus zombies springs up.  There isn’t much in the way of subtlety in the way Hanakuma portrays the class conflicts of post-zombie society, but there doesn’t need to be.  It’s just a backdrop for gross-out violence and a source of jokes about brutal things happening to generally terrible people.

Hanakuma’s greatest strength is probably pacing.  He rarely lets a sequence drag on longer than necessary, and he keeps the inventively gross gags coming.  If they’re imperfectly rendered, how much artistry does flesh-eating really require?  There’s plenty of gory event if not detail, and what would lovingly drawn innards really add to what seems intended to be a brisk, coarse outing?

(P.S. Tokyo Zombie was originally serialized in the alternative manga anthology, Ax.  In August of 2009, Top Shelf will publish a 400-page collection of stories from the decade-old magazine.  Kai-Ming Cha has an interview with the translated collection’s co-editor, Sean Michael Wilson, at Publishers Weekly.)

(P.P.S.  Last Gasp is also the publisher of one of the finest comics I’ve ever read, Fumiyo Kouno’s Town of Evening Calm, Country of Cherry Blossoms.  Aside from its publisher and creator’s nation of origin, it has absolutely nothing to do with Tokyo Zombie, but I like to mention it whenever I can, no matter how feeble the pretext.)


The Favorites Alphabet: spooky supplement

We interrupt your regularly scheduled, letter-by-letter installment of The Favorites Alphabet in honor of the horror-tinged Manga Moveable Feast! This week, the Manga Bookshelf Battle Robot retreated to the dank catacombs of our secret base to conjure the spirits of our favorite spooky manga! Read on… if you dare!

 “The Enigma of Amigara Fault” | By Junji Ito | VIZ Media – I haven’t read much horror manga. In fact, aside from the delightfully bizarre Tokyo Zombie and one volume (so far) of The Kurosagi Corpse Delivery Service, my experience is limited to the works of Junji Ito. While Gyo and Uzumaki certainly deliver weird and disturbing tales, it’s “The Enigma of Amigara Fault,” a short story that appeared in Gyo’s second volume, that I find most memorable.  In it, an earthquake has revealed a rock formation riddled with human-shaped holes that go farther back into the rock than researchers are able to measure. People flock to the site, drawn to holes that seem to be custom-made for them. Those who enter the holes are committed to moving forward with some profoundly jibbly-inducing results. Just thinking about it is kind of giving me a wiggins. Look for images from this one in this weekend’s Let’s Get Visual column! – Michelle Smith

The Kurosagi Corpse Delivery Service | By Eiji Ōtsuka and Housui Yamazaki | Dark Horse – Despite my ongoing reviews of Higurashi: When They Cry, I’m not really a big reader of horror manga, tending to find it too scary. Which says more about me than about the genre. However, I picked up Volume 1 of Kurosagi Corpse Delivery Service for its unusual cover, as well as the fact that it was translated and edited by Carl Horn. Imagine my surprise when I got one of the funniest, most satiric, and, yes, scariest manga coming out here. For our heroes, dealing with corpses isn’t like searching for mysteries a la Scooby Doo – it’s a job, and they are usually trying desperately to get paid. It just so happens that their various skills go really well with solving problems involving dead bodies. Nestled in among the sarcastic dialogue and long pointed looks at Japanese politics and society is some really creepy imagery – watch out for the chapter with the birds, or the one with the ears. – Sean Gaffney

Parasyte | By Hitoshi Iwaaki | Del Rey – There are just so many reasons this eight-volume series is awesome, not least of which is Iwaaki’s facility with really gruesome and surprising bits of violence. It’s an invasive-species nightmare scenario featuring bizarre space spores taking over indigenous creatures (mostly human) and turning them into ravenous, shape-shifting, and dangerously intelligent predators. Fortunately, one of the parasites doesn’t quite make it to its host’s brain, turning average teen Shinichi Izumi into humanity’s best protector, and his right hand into a formidable defensive weapon, not to mention an adorable and insightful pet! Iwaaki jumbles a lot of elements together – coming-of-age drama, violent suspense, evolutionary theory, family tragedy, and boy-and-his-dog sentiment. The beauty part is that Iwaaki jumbles it all well, making for one of the most beginning-to-end satisfying tales you’re likely to find on the manga shelves. Originally published by Tokyopop, Del Rey picked up this out-of-print gem and did a bang-up job repackaging it. – David Welsh

School Zone | By Kanako Inuki | Dark Horse – In this odd, hallucinatory, and sometimes very funny series, a group of students summon the ghosts of people who died on school grounds, unleashing the spirits’ wrath on their unsuspecting classmates. School Zone is as much a meditation on childhood fears of being ridiculed or ostracized as it is a traditional ghost story; time and again, the students’ own response to the ghosts is often more horrific than the ghosts’ behavior. Inuki’s artwork isn’t as gory or imaginative as some of her peers’, though she demonstrates a genuine flair for comically gruesome thrills: one girl is dragged into a toilet, for example, while another is attacked by a scaly, long-armed creature that lives in the infirmary. Where Inuki really shines, however, is in her ability to capture the primal terror that a dark, empty building can inspire in the most rational person. Even when the story takes one its many silly detours — and yes, there are many WTF?! moments in School Zone — Inuki makes us feel her characters’ vulnerability as they explore the school grounds after hours. – Katherine Dacey

Tokyo Babylon | By CLAMP | TOKYOPOP – When David suggested that we all pick favorite horror manga for this week, at first I thought I didn’t have any. Though horror movies were a favorite genre once upon a time, that preference never really transferred to print for me, or at least I didn’t think it had. Then I realized that some of my most beloved occult-themed comics fall closer to the horror mark than I thought. My favorite of these (and indeed, one of my favorite comics of all time) is CLAMP’s 20-year-old series, Tokyo Babylon.  Complete in just seven volumes, it’s a decidedly immature work, featuring uneven storytelling, outrageous outfits, and one of the strangest, most over-the-top examples of BL-leaning shôjo I’ve seen to date. On the other hand, not only does it finally rip our hearts out with the precision of a serial killer, but it scares the bejeezus out of us all along the way. This is a dark, cruel little series, that takes real joy in its emotional shock value, and its occult setting provides ample opportunity for that quality. Not that I’m complaining. When I look at the images I chose for my review of the series , I can see that I picked out several of those that had creeped me out the most. For genuine scares and emotional brutality all wrapped up in one delicious “classic” shôjo package, you can’t beat Tokyo Babylon– Melinda Beasi

What are your favorite horror stories?


Re-flipped: GoGo Monster

Okay, I don’t know if this comic counts as horror in the strictest sense of the term, but it’s one of the first titles that came to mind when I considered this month’s Manga Moveable Feast. It’s one of my favorite spooky-ish comics, and yesterday was Taiyo Matsumoto’s birthday, so…

“Yeah, well…” a grade-schooler opines early in Taiyo Matsumoto’s GoGo Monster (Viz), “There’s a kid like that in every class, right?” He’s talking about Yuki, a classmate who claims to sense things no one else can, an invisible population of mischievous creatures and a new insurgence of more malevolent beings. And the classmate is right; if manga is to be believed, the schools of Japan are well stocked with young people who traffic in the eerie. None of them are quite like Yuki, though, probably because not many creators are quite like Matsumoto.

Matsumoto has an extraordinary talent for rendering kid logic, their concepts of loyalty and justice and the way they engage with the world around them. This knack was on vivid display in Tekkonkinkreet: Black and White (Viz), for which Matsumoto won an Eisner Award in 2008. Like that book, GoGo Monster features two temperamentally different boys cleaving together to face the inevitable.

Many supernaturally sensitive manga characters can be divided into two categories. They either use that sensitivity to protect the unaware, or they struggle to conceal their abilities for fear of ostracism. Some are driven by both motives, but Yuki answers to neither. He’s disconcertingly matter-of-fact about the things he perceives, and he’s genuinely immune to the ridicule of his peers. He’s an excellent student, but he’s a disruptive presence. Yuki doesn’t perceive his own abnormality, and he doesn’t feel any pressure to conform.

While Yuki has few allies in the student body or faculty, he does garner the sympathetic attention of a new kid at school, Makoto. Average in every respect, Makoto is less intrigued by Yuki’s beliefs than by his indifference to ridicule. Maybe he recognizes it as a kind of strength of character, or maybe some emerging empathy makes him realize Yuki is at risk. Makoto is engaged in all of the aspects of Yuki’s character, not just his oddity. Instead of limiting him to the role of sidekick, this engagement actually makes Makoto Yuki’s equal in terms of reader engagement, or at least it did with me.

Other benevolent figures in Yuki’s sphere include the school’s elderly groundskeeper, Ganz, who understandably takes the long view of things. While the teachers yearn to fix Yuki, Ganz is content to listen to the boy. Then there’s IQ, who is even more ostentatiously weird than Yuki. IQ, who’s in an older grade than Yuki and Makoto, wanders the school grounds with a box on his head with a single eyehole cut into it. It’s telling and slyly funny that this is less disconcerting to his peers and teachers than Yuki’s less obvious strangeness and bursts of temper. Like Ganz, IQ has an odd kind of faith in Yuki, though the source of that faith is oblique.

The most interesting thing about GoGo Monster, the thing that grounds it, is that it’s ultimately irrelevant whether or not the things Yuki perceives are real. It’s Yuki’s belief in their reality and the possible consequences of that belief that drive the drama. That belief is never in question; Yuki is absolutely sincere, as is Matsumoto.

Tekkonkinkreet was set in a dying fantastical city slowly being destroyed by crassness and consumerism. Treasure Town was a richly imagined, almost living place. In GoGo Monster, the school setting couldn’t be more prosaic, but it’s no less vivid. Matsumoto captures the rhythms of the place, the mundane snippets of conversation, the casual cruelty, and the bustle. Even without the meticulous visual detail Matsumoto lavishes on the place, you can practically smell the food from the cafeteria.

That fidelity makes it all the more effective when you start to see glimpses of it through Yuki’s enhanced perspective. Matsumoto is positively restrained in introducing the weirdness that Yuki sees infesting Asahi Elementary. You glimpse it from the corner of your eye at first, or blink and it disappears. The clearest sense of them comes from Yuki’s crude drawings, and even he admits that they aren’t literal renderings. “This is just a conceptual sketch,” he tells the closest thing he has to a friend. As the school year that constitutes the book’s timeline progresses, Matsumoto reveals more of what Yuki is sensing.

Beyond his marvelous illustrations and elliptical storytelling, the fascinating thing about Matsumoto’s work is his ability to make me root for undesirable outcomes. In Tekkonkinkreet, I found myself hoping that its protagonists would accept the futility of their fight for Treasure Town, that they would cut their losses. In GoGo Monster, I found myself siding with the forces of conformity. Admirable as Yuki’s sense of self is, and enviable as his immunity to social pressure may be, I still was persuaded by Matsumoto’s argument for a healthy, happy Yuki, even if it resulted in a less interesting, less special Yuki.

I should probably mention that GoGo Monster is a beautifully produced book. It’s magnificently colored hard cover comes sheathed in an equally handsome slipcase. The edges of the crisp, white pages are tinged red with a continuation of the cover image. It’s all very lovely, but the book would still be extraordinary even without those bells and whistles. Matsumoto has craft, intelligence, and heart, and he balances those qualities as well as almost any creator alive. In a fairly extraordinary year for challenging, artistically satisfying manga, it seems like a certainty that Matsumoto will garner a second Eisner nomination, perhaps even a second win.

Re-flipped: Kazuo Umezu

For this week’s blood-soaked Manga Moveable Feast, I thought I’d revisit some old Flipped columns that have a horrific bent.

With so many aspects of the manga industry apparently in question, there is one thing I can say without too much fear of contradiction:  it’s a good time to be a fan of horror comics from Japan.

CMX is offering the creepy-cute moralizing of Kanako Inuki’s Presents.  Dark Horse is serving fans of Shaun of the Dead-style self-aware chills with The Kurosagi Corpse Delivery Service, written by Eiji Otsuka and drawn by Housui Yamazaki.  Old-school angst and energetically rendered savagery take center stage in Hitoshi Iwaaki’s Parasyte from Del Rey.  In spite of some moments of uncertainty along the way, Tokyopop did a great public service by finishing the apocalyptic ten-volume run of Mochizuki Minetaro’s Dragon Head. Viz Media released new editions of Junji Ito’s Uzumaki and Gyo in its Signature imprint.

What really makes this a mini-golden age for horror devotees, and the Signature line a relative horn of plenty for such readers, is the quantity of Kazuo Umezu manga on offer.   Umezu’s tykes-in-trouble classic, The Drifting Classroom, recently wrapped up an 11-volume run, and Viz just released Cat Eyed Boy in two fat, prestige volumes.

The Drifting Classroom begins with an elementary school blowing sky high.  The community is devastated by the apparent deaths of hundreds of students and their teachers, not realizing that the victims should have been so lucky.  Instead of a quick and relatively merciful end, the school has been cast into a hellish, post-apocalyptic landscape filled with mysterious perils.  The grown-ups are less than useful, giving in to panic and madness.  Umezu dispatches them with ruthless efficiency, placing the focus on the kids and their attempts to survive external and internal threats.

I’ve rarely seen a comic with as much insanity per page.  Umezu’s pace is relentless as he tosses the dwindling student body from frying pan to fire and back again.  It’s like a child’s worst nightmares woven into one and infused with adrenaline.  Grown-ups are useless, and peers are even more pernicious than they suspected.

The brutality never becomes wearying, because Umezu has seemingly boundless imagination in finding new ways to render horrible things happening to children.  Some moments have slowly mounting terror, like a panicked stampede of kids charging at a handful of out-of-their-depth faculty.  Others pop out of nowhere with the kind of jarring effect that slasher film-makers only wish they could muster.

It’s incidental, but the series provides additional pleasure when you remind yourself that The Drifting Classroom was originally created for children, originally serialized in Shogakukan’s Shônen Sunday.  One shudders to think what Fredric Wertham would have made of manga.

After the hyperactive terror of The Drifting Classroom, Umezu’s Cat Eyed Boy seems almost serene.  Like a lot of horror manga, it’s episodic in its construction, following a half-demon protagonist as he’s drawn to scenes of horrible things happening to terrible people.

Actually, “protagonist” might be the wrong term.  Cat Eyed Boy has no vested interest in the misfortunes he witnesses.  Sometimes, he’s just an observer.  He can demonstrate a penchant for taunting humans, playing on their superstitions.  If he sometimes finds himself opposed to malevolent forces, it’s generally a matter of self-preservation.  He’s not admirable by any means, but he’s understandable.  If Cat Eyed Boy’s odd existence has taught him anything, it’s that people generally suck.

This is most clearly demonstrated in what might be described as his origin story, “The Tsunami Summoners.”  Rejected by both the human and demon sides of his family, Cat Eyed Boy is taken in by a lonely spinster in a seaside village.  The community doesn’t share his foster mother’s benevolence, and his childhood is characterized by alienation and hostility.  The Cat Eyed Boy becomes the scapegoat for the town’s misfortunes, blinding them to more insidious threats on the horizon.

“The Tsunami Summoners” is a wonderfully twisted morality play, easily my favorite entry in the first volume.  It delivers Umezu’s visual imagination, inventive plotting, and ambiguous morality.  The title character could easily be one of those prolific and slightly sickening types – hideous on the outside, but with a pure and childlike heart.  Umezu’s approach is much more interesting; the Cat Eyed Boy owns both his human and demonic heritage.  He can be hurt by human cruelty and fear, but the impish part of his nature earns at least a portion of it.

His foster mother, Mimi, is equally ambiguous to me.  She’s driven by loneliness as opposed to any specific affection for the Cat Eyed Boy; Mimi wants a child, any child.  Even the villagers aren’t entirely unreasonable in their fears; they come out on the wrong end of the moral equation, obviously, but the sliver of sympathy you feel for their fears adds extra spice to the story’s outcome.

If the Cat Eyed Boy is a bit on the adorable side, like a plush toy, Umezu doesn’t stint on disturbing character design.  “The Band of One Hundred Monsters” is a parade of the grotesque.  And ultimately, it’s the internal deformities, that are most disturbing – anger, jealousy, sadism, greed.  Umezu’s mastery comes from his ability to render both.