Review, Jirō Taniguchi memorial edition: Icaro

When Stan Lee died in November last year, I was reminded of Silver Surfer: Parable again, his collaboration with Mœbius. Another collaboration of similar titanic proportions was Ikaru/Icaro/Ikarus by Mœbius and Jirō Taniguchi.

Ikarus (イカル / Ikaru, English title Icaro)
Language: German (originally Japanese)
Authors: Mœbius, Jean Annestay, Jirō Taniguchi
Publisher: Schreiber & Leser (originally Kōdansha / Bijutsu Shuppan-Sha)
Year: 2016 (original run 1997)
Number of volumes: 1
Pages: 284
Price: € 24,95
Website: https://www.mangaupdates.com/series.html?id=1169
ISBN: 978-3-946337-06-5

One memorable line of dialogue in this manga is: “Often the most brilliant ideas are bigger than the man who conceived them. And they can be no longer controlled.”

Who knows, maybe Mœbius thought the same way about Ikaru. According to the interview included in this edition, Mœbius created the initial concept, then wrote a script together with Jean Annestay. As with some others of his comic projects, Mœbius didn’t have time to draw it himself, and in this case he wanted this story to be drawn by Jirō Taniguchi. Taniguchi, however, heavily re-wrote and above all radically shortened the script. Furthermore, the magazine serialisation in Morning was not popular enough with the readers to warrant a continuation, so that instead of the 10.000 pages written by Mœbius and Annestay, these less than 300 pages is everything that has ever been drawn of Ikaru.

The premise is simple and striking: in the near future, a child is born with the ability to levitate and fly through the air. The Japanese government takes the boy away from his mother and locks him up in a remote research facility to study (and ultimately weaponise) him. Twenty years later, Icaro, as he is named, rebels and breaks out of his captivity.

Ikaru could have been (and to some extent is) a fascinating science fiction mystery thriller, with great moments of psychologisation associated with the ‘Kaspar Hauser’ motif of a child growing up in isolation. However, Taniguchi didn’t cut enough from the original script so that the manga is bogged down with unnecessary subplots, such as a rebellion of supernaturally powered clones, or the lesbian relationship of the villainous minister of defence.

There is a lot of Katsuhiro Ōtomo’s Akira in Ikaru (even though Mœbius downplays this in the interview), from the theme of the child with mysterious powers that is experimented on – reminiscent of Tetsuo, Akira, and the ‘numbers’ who also depend on a regularly administered drug – to the depiction of the clones’ psychokinetic powers. Ikaru also shows Taniguchi excel as a draughtsman with subjects not commonly depicted in his other works. The highlights of the art in this manga are the backgounds that show Icaro’s prison, which looks like a huge old greenhouse, and the scenes in which soldiers try to entangle the fleeing Icaro in ropes.

One more particularly clever little scene needs to be pointed out: in the beginning, one of the scientists is told on the phone that a levitating child has been born. The next panel shows him wide-eyed and speechless holding the phone. The panel after that shows him in the same way (from a slightly different angle), but the whole panel is turned upside-down! Then the phone call continues depicted in the usual orientation. This one panel could be interpreted in many different ways, e.g. that the scientist’s world has just been turned ‘upside-down’ through this discovery, or that ‘up’ and ‘down’ are relative directions for someone who can fly.

Within Taniguchi’s oeuvre, Ikaru takes an odd place as it was made in 1997 in between two masterpieces that defined his style: Chichi no koyomi (1994) and A Distant Neighborhood (1998). Both of these are semi-autobiographical, so a science fiction story like Ikaru, at this time in Taniguchi’s career, seems like a throwback to the 1980s when he made Ice Age Chronicle of the Earth, and if I’m not mistaken, he never took on another science fiction project after Ikaru.

So is Ikaru required reading for the Taniguchi enthusiast? On the one hand, it is certainly interesting and relevant given the circumstances of its creation – the rather peculiar nature of this French-Japanese collaboration – as Taniguchi is often said to have been strongly influenced by French comics in general and Mœbius in particular, and also to have been more warmly received in Europe than in his native Japan. On the other hand, this is also a flawed manga and definitely not one of Taniguchi’s best, and not every reader might want to spend € 25 on a 290-page manga.

Rating: ● ● ● ○ ○

More Jirō Taniguchi memorial reviews on this weblog: Ice Age Chronicle of the Earth, Chichi no koyomi, Trouble Is My Business.

Advertisements

Kanji-kana ratio for stylometry?

I ended my blogpost on hiragana frequency as a stylometric indicator with the remark that, rather than the frequency distribution of different hiragana in the text, the ratio of kana to kanji is used as one of several key characteristics in actual stylometric analysis of Japanese texts. I was curious to find out if this number alone could tell us something about the 4 manga text samples in question (2 randomly selected scenes from Katsuhiro Ōtomo’s Akira and 2 series from Morning magazine, Miko Yasu’s Hakozume and Rito Asami’s Ichikei no karasu – in the following text referred to as A1, A2, M1 and M2, respectively). My intuition was that the results wouldn’t be meaningful because the samples were too small, but let’s see:

This time I chose a sample size of 200 characters (hiragana, katakana, and kanji) per text.

Among the first 200 characters in A1 (i.e. Akira vol. 5, p. 16), there are 113 hiragana, 42 katakana and 45 kanji. This results in a kanji-kana ratio of 45 : (113 + 42) = 0.29.

In A2 (Akira vol. 3, pp. 125 ff.), the first 200 characters comprise of 126 hiragana, 34 katakana, and 40 kanji, i.e. the kanji-kana ratio is 0.25.

In M1, there are 122 hiragana, 9 katakana, and 69 kanji, resulting in a kanji-kana ratio of 0.52.

In M2, there are 117 hiragana, 0 katakana, and 83 kanji, resulting in a kanji-kana ratio of 0.71!

6 hiragana, 2 katakana, 3 kanji in A2 (Akira vol. 3, p. 125).

Thus this time the authorship attribution seems to have worked: the two Ōtomo samples have an almost identical score, whereas those of the two Morning samples are completely different. Interestingly, this result contradicts the interpretation from the earlier blogpost in which I had suggested that the scientists in Akira and the lawyers in Karasu have similar ways of talking. The difference in the kanji-kana ratio between Akira and the two Morning manga, though, is explained not only through the more frequent use of kanji in the latter, but also through the vast differences in katakana usage (note that only characters in proper word balloons, i.e. dialogue, are counted, not sound effects).

Ōtomo uses katakana for two different purposes: in A1 mainly to reproduce the names of the foreign researchers, and in A2 to stretch syllables otherwise written in hiragana at the end of words, e.g. なにィ nanii (“whaaat?”) or 何だァ nandaa (“what is iiit?”). Therefore the similarity of the character use in the two Akira samples is superficial only and the pure numbers somewhat misleading. On the other hand, it makes sense that an action-packed scene such as A2 contains less than half as many kanji as the courtroom dialogue in M2; in A2 there are more simple, colloquial words for which the hiragana spelling is more common, e.g. くそう kusou (“shit!”) or うるせェ urusee (“quiet!”), whereas technical terms such as 被告人 hikokunin (“defendant”) in M2 are more clearly and commonly expressed in kanji.

In the end, the old rule applies: only with a large number of sample texts, with a large size of each sample, and through a combination of several different metrics can such stylometric approaches possibly succeed.


A sad anniversary: Review of Moon Knight #194-200

Language: English
Authors: Max Bemis (writer), various
Publisher: Marvel
Publication Dates: June – December 2018
Pages per issue: 20
Price per issue: $3.99
Website: http://marvel.com/comics/series/20488/moon_knight_2016_-_present

Another year has passed in which Moon Knight was largely ignored by critics. Rightfully so? The last story arc by Max Bemis and Jacen Burrows, collected in a trade paperback titled “Crazy Runs in the Family”, showed great potential. What came afterwards, though, was quite a mixed bag:

#194, drawn by Ty Templeton, is seemingly a one-shot which introduces Uncle Ernst, a supervillain from Marc Spector’s childhood.

#195-196, with brilliant artwork by Paul Davidson, is a weird and charming little story about The Collective, a new supervillain (or group of villains?).

#197-198, drawn by Jacen Burrows again, seem to tell a very similar tale about another group of adversaries, the Société des Sadiques. Their leader turns out to be none other than Uncle Ernst, which in hindsight makes #194 the first part of this story arc.

Although the story appears to be finished with #198 (which is also the last issue to be collected in the TPB, “Phases”), #199 (art by Davidson again) continues it with another face-off between Moon Knight and Ernst.

#200 (still drawn by Davidson), finally, brings back the supervillains from the previous arc, Sun King and The Truth, the former allying with Moon Knight while the latter has been corrupted by Ernst.

Thus, with the interruption of #195-196, we basically have a five-part finale, the cohesion of which is futher damaged by the change of artists. Bemis has injected a lot of clever and darkly humorous ideas into these issues, though their connections to the Nazi Holocaust are sometimes bordering on tastelessness. Still, the cancellation of this series after this anniversary issue is a remarkable marketing failure, even for Marvel. Usually, such an anniversary would be used to invigorate and generate new interest in a series at least for the next couple of issues (which has recently worked well for e.g. Action Comics at DC), but Marvel didn’t even seem to have had that much faith in Moon Knight. The 200th issue itself is not that flashy either: a slightly increased size (30 pages) for an increased prize ($5), some guest artist pages (one each by Jeff Lemire and Bill Sienkiewicz), and an action sequence of two double-page spreads by Davidson – that’s it.

What remains in memory of this Bemis/Burrows/Davidson run is a number of whacky characters, stunningly drawn panels, witty lines of dialogue, and ways of storytelling that at least feel fresh. And three comic creators to watch (although Bemis seems to identify more as a rock musician). However, the lack of success of a rock-solid series such as Moon Knight also says a lot about the current state of American superhero comics in which such a vast amount of material is published each week that the comic books are cannibalising each other in their competition for reader attention.

Rating: ● ● ● ○ ○


Exhibition review: Le Monde de Tardi, Basel

At age 72, after 50 years of making comics, Jacques Tardi is more than worthy of his own exhibition at the Cartoonmuseum. I can’t say how this Tardi exhibition, which ends on March 24, relates to the one at the 2015 Fumetto festival in Lucerne. Anyway, it’s always worth reminding people through such a show that the author of the WWI comics for which he is perhaps best known, C’était la guerre des tranchées and Putain de guerre, is the same who created the Belle Époque mystery series Adèle Blanc-Sec in the seventies, and who also authored the Nestor Burma detective comics, as well as the historical comic Le Cri du peuple in the early 2000s, and, most recently, the WWII comic Stalag II B, to name but a few. A dazzling array of comics, and the Basel exhibition covers them all.

The primary medium of presentation are framed original drawings, of which there are apparently more than 200 on display. Here, however, it becomes obvious why the exhibition is titled “Le Monde de Tardi” (and not “Die Welt des Tardi”): while the commentary texts on the walls are in German, no translation is provided for the French speech balloon texts. Which is a pity, given that Tardi is not only a masterly draughtsman but also a witty wordsmith. At least this aspect of Tardi can be appreciated in the library room of the museum which is well stocked with German translated editions of many of his albums. In the library one can also watch a film about Tardi in – again – French only: Tardi en noir et blanc, also available on YouTube with German audio.

My impression was that the previous exhibition I had seen at the Cartoonmuseum, Joe Sacco – Comics Journalist, had done a slightly better job at telling something about the artist himself and his working process instead of just the finished works. But this is a common shortcoming in comic exhibitions.

Le Monde de Tardi must be a highly enjoyable exhibition if you’re fluent in both French and German, but I doubt you get much out of it if you speak neither.

Rating: ● ● ○ ○ ○

The best comics of 2018: a meta list

[UPDATE 2: added 9 more lists – ComFor (German), Comic Report (German, multiple mentions only), Comic.de (German), Comicgate (German), Diamond (comic books via Major Spoilers, TPBs via The Beat), Smash Pages, Women Write About Comics (Big Press, Small Press).]

[UPDATE: added 14 more lists – 101 Comics (DC, Marvel), Bookriot, Comickunst (German), Gamespot, Hyperallergic, The Hollywood Reporter, Spiegel (German), Readings, The Comeback, Toledo Lucas County Public Library, Tor Online (German), WhatCulture, YALSA; arrows next to entries indicate that their rank went up or down compared to the previous version.]

Just in time for some last-minute Christmas shopping: here’s a ‘master list’ of comics that appeared on best-of-2018 lists on the Web. Each comic is assigned a score from 1 to 30 for each list it appears on, depending on its position or the total number of entries in that list, and the sum of these points results in the rank below (full explanation here). Some lists are still missing, so I’m going to update this post as more lists are published.

THE TOP 25 COMICS OF 2018:

  1. The Prince and the Dressmaker by Jen Wang (246 points) ⇧
  2. Mister Miracle by Tom King and Mitch Gerads (223) ⇩
  3. Sabrina by Nick Drnaso (218)
  4. Berlin by Jason Lutes (202)
  5. Saga by Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples (155) ⇧
  6. The Immortal Hulk by Al Ewing and Joe Bennett ⇩, tied with
    Upgrade Soul by Ezra Claytan Daniels (142)
  7. Young Frances by Hartley Lin (133) ⇩
  8. Action Comics by Brian Michael Bendis (130) ⇧
  9. Woman World by Aminder Dhaliwal (123) ⇩
  10. On A Sunbeam by Tillie Walden (117) ⇧
  11. Be Prepared by Vera Brosgol (115) ⇩
  12. The Lie And How We Told It by Tommi Parrish (114) ⇩
  13. X-Men: Grand Design by Ed Piskor (112) ⇩
  14. All the Answers by Michael Kupperman (111) ⇩
  15. Batman by Tom King ⇧, tied with
    Runaways by Rainbow Rowell and Kris Anka ⇩ (107)
  16. Der Umfall by Mikael Ross (106) ⇧
  17. My Boyfriend is a Bear by Pamela Ribon and Cat Farris (105) ⇩
  18. Justice League by Scott Snyder (99) ⇧
  19. Exit Stage Left: The Snagglepuss Chronicles by Mark Russell and Mike Feehan (97) ⇩
  20. Why Art? by Eleanor Davis (96) ⇩
  21. Girl Town by Carolyn Nowak ⇩, tied with
    Peter Parker: The Spectacular Spider-Man by Chip Zdarsky ⇩ (94)
  22. Monstress by Marjorie Liu and Sana Takeda (92) ⇧

[Comment written after the second update:] This time, the list paints a dismal picture of the state of comics. Not that the comics that made the top 25 are bad, but with only one European comic (Der Umfall) and not a single manga, the Atlantic and Pacific divides are clearer than ever. Simply put, Americans seem to read American (including Canadian) comics only. Which is a pity, as they are missing out on e.g. three (3!) new Spirou albums (though technically, Il s’appelait Ptirou already came out in late 2017 in France). The next European comics from further down the list would be Spirou in Berlin by Flix (rank 29), Imbattable by Pascal Jousselin (rank 30 – another French comic originally published in 2017), and La terra dei figli by Gipi (rank 33 – already published in 2016 in Italy). The only manga in the top 50 are My Solo Exchange Diary (the sequel to My Lesbian Experience With Loneliness, which ranked 2nd in the previous year) by Nagata Kabi (rank 35), My Hero Academia by Kōhei Horikoshi (rank 38), and One Piece by Eiichirō Oda (rank 47).

The following lists were evaluated: 101 Comics (DC, Marvel), Adventures in Poor Taste – series, Amazon, A.V. Club, Barnes & Noble (‘Manga’, ‘Comics’), The Beat – Manga (‘Comics’ list not considered due to extent), Bookriot, CBC, Chicago Public Library, The ComebackComFor (German), Comic Report (German, multiple mentions only), Comic.de (German), Comicgate (German), Comickunst (German), Da Vinci (German translation at Sumikai), Diamond (comic books via Major Spoilers, TPBs via The Beat), Entertainment Weekly, Forbes, GamespotGoodreads, Gosh (adult, kids), Guardian, The Hollywood Reporter, Hyperallergic, io9, Kono manga ga sugoi (English translation – male, female), Major Spoilers Podcast, Newsweek, Oricon (German translation at Sumikai; ‘Franchise’ list only), Paste, Publishers Weekly (Critics Poll), Readings, School Library Journal, Spiegel (German), Smash Pages, Syfy Wire, Tagesspiegel (German), Toledo Lucas County Public Library, Tor.com, Tor Online (German), The Verge, Vulture (Best Superhero Stories; comics only), Washington Post, WhatCulture, Women Write About Comics (Big Press, Small Press), YALSA, Your Chicken Enemy.


Hiragana for stylometry?

The other day I’ve been made aware that some things I’ve said in an earlier blogpost, “Author dictionaries and lexical analysis for comics”, might be misleading. So let’s be clear: if you would like to find something out about the writing style of an author or text, it’s not the best idea to look at the frequently used nouns, kanji, or other units of high semantic content. Those are more useful for analysing the content, i.e. the topic(s), of texts. In stylometry, units with low semantic content, such as function words (the, a, it, etc.), are more attractive objects of study, as they can be used almost independently of the topic and often present writers with a choice of which word to use when. In other words, the same writer tends to use the same function words and may be identified by them. (In practice, though, a combination of different characteristics is used for analysis – see the Stylometry article at Wikipedia and the references there.)

In order to automatically separate function words from content words in a digital text, part-of-speech tagging software may be employed. For Japanese, there is e.g. Kuromoji. But isn’t there a simpler way? Can’t we make use of the kanji–kana distinction used in the aforementioned earlier blogpost? If we identified kanji as the semantically rich(er) units, wouldn’t it be sufficient to focus on the kana for stylometric analysis? Maybe, maybe not. The results would probably be poorer, due to two main reasons:

  1. Every content word (noun, verb, adjective), even if usually written in kanji, may also be written in kana. For instance, 分かる (to understand) is more frequently spelled in hiragana only, わかる. So when we gather kana from a text, we might end up with unwanted content words.
  2. In flection suffixes, hiragana are dependent on the preceding kanji, and thus ultimately on the content of the text. For instance, a text on musical performance might contain many instances of the verb 引く hiku (to play an instrument), so one can expect the hiragana か ka, ki, ku, ke and こ ko to occur more frequently than in other texts, as they are used for inflecting 引く.

That being said, why don’t we put this kana analysis method to the test anyway? Let’s take the example from Akira vol. 5, p. 16 again in which the scientists are talking (初めまして。スタンリー・シモンズ博士です etc.). We’ll focus on hiragana and ignore katakana, as they tend to be used for nouns too. Starting from those two panels, I manually counted these and the following hiragana until I reached 100. Here are the 5 most frequent hiragana in this set:

  • de: 8
  • i: 7
  • shi: 7
  • te: 7
  • no: 6

That means, if this was a sufficiently large sample, in any other piece of text by Ōtomo, or at least within Akira, roughly 8% of its hiragana should be de, 7% should be i, etc. So I randomly picked another scene from Akira (vol. 3, p. 125 ff) and looked at the first 100 hiragana there. The 5 most frequently used hiragana from the previous example are used less often here, with the exception of i:

de, su, u, ru, se, da

  • de: 3
  • i: 8
  • shi: 1
  • te: 2
  • no: 3

In these pages in vol. 3, we find mainly other hiragana such as tsu (9 times – including small tsu), ga (6 times), o (5 times) and su (5 times) to be the most frequently used. That, however, doesn’t tell us anything yet about the similarity of these two pieces of text (which I’m going to call “Akira 1″ and “Akira 2″ from here on). We need to add a third example, and for this purpose I’m going to use 100 hiragana from Miko Yasu’s Hakozume from the recently reviewed Morning magazine. If our method is successful, the differences between Hakozume and each of the two Akira scenes should be larger than those between Akira 1 and Akira 2. With frequency values for approximately 50 distinct hiragana we now have 3 × ~50 data points on which we could unleash the whole range of advanced statistical methods. But we’ll keep things simple by simply adding up the differences in frequencies: Hakozume contains only 6 instances of de, i.e. 2 less than Akira 1; Hakozume uses 3 times i as opposed to the 7 in Akira 1, i.e. 4 less; Hakozume contains 6 instances of shi less than Akira 1; etc. Here’s the table of frequencies of de, i, shi, te and no in Hakozume:

a, no, na, n, de, a, no, ga…

  • de: 6
  • i: 3
  • shi: 1
  • te: 6
  • no: 8

The combined difference between Hakozume and Akira 1 for these 5 hiragana would be 2+4+6+1+2 = 15. For all ~50 different hiragana, the sum is 96.

This looks like a large number, and indeed, when we calculate the difference between Akira 1 and Akira 2 in this way, the result is 82. This means, the two Akira chunks are more similar in their usage of hiragana than Hakozume and Akira 1.

However, we’re not done yet. We still need to compare Hakozume to Akira 2. The result of this comparison may come as a surprise: the sum of differences is also 82! So Akira 2 is as similar to Hakozume as it is to Akira 1. If our goal was to find out whether a given piece of text is taken from Akira or not, our method would fail if we used Akira 2 as our base text with which to compare all others.

ha, no, ki, ka, ra, ho, do, de, ki, wo…

Just to make sure, I took another 100 hiragana from a different random manga in the same issue of Morning, Rito Asami’s Ichikei no karasu. I’ll refer to Ichikei no karasu as Morning 2 from now on, and to Hakozume as Morning 1. The results of the comparisons are even ‘worse’: while the sum of differences between Morning 2 and Akira 2 is 98 – i.e. vastly different – the difference between Morning 2 and Akira 1 is only 74, i.e. very similar.

Frequency of all hiragana in each of the four 100-hiragana samples

In a way, the results do make sense though. We’re looking at dialogue, after all, and the way scientists (in Akira 1) speak is closer to that of lawyers (in Morning 2) than that of insurgent thugs (in Akira 2). And apparently, the conversation between the two policewomen (in Morning 1) is not quite unlike the latter.

As ever so often we could now blame the unsatisfactory results on the small sample size – if we had used chunks of 1000 hiragana instead of 100, surely our attribution attempts would have been more successful? We’ll never find out (unless we obtain a complete digital copy of Akira and extract the hiragana automatically). Another way to improve results would be to tweak the methodology: using data mining algorithms, more elaborate metrics such as co-occurrence of several hiragana could be employed. In actual stylometric research, hiragana seem to be used in yet another metric – the ratio of all hiragana to all other characters (kanji, katakana, rōmaji).


Manga reviews, Halloween 2018 edition: Ajin, I Am a Hero, Uzumaki

Halloween means scary manga time at The 650-Cent Plague. As always, here are short reviews of two recent and one classic horror manga. Find the previous Halloween blogposts here: 2017, 2016, 2015.

Ajin – Demi-Human (亜人 / ajin, lit. “sub-human”)
Language: German (translated from Japanese)
Authors: Tsuina Miura (story), Gamon Sakurai (art)
Publisher: Egmont (originally Kōdansha)
Years: 2015- (original run 2012- )
Number of volumes: 12 so far
Volumes reviewed: 1
Pages per volume: 226
Price per volume: € 7.50
Website: https://www.egmont-manga.de/buch-buchreihe/ajin-demi-human/ (German publisher), https://www.mangaupdates.com/series.html?id=75929 (Baka-Updates)
ISBN: 978-3-7704-8605-2

When high school student Kei is hit by a truck one day, he discovers that he is an immortal ‘ajin’ – one of 47 such beings known to exist worldwide. Ajin are not considered human, and Kei fears he will be experimented on if he gets caught. Now he is on the run from both the government and bounty hunters.

Ajin suffers from the same mistake that many mystery manga series make: somehow the creators think the basic premise (in this case, Kei’s immortality) isn’t interesting enough, so gradually more and more supernatural phenoma are revealed (here: the ajin’s petrifying voice, demonic figures with razor-sharp claws, and who knows what else in the following volumes). In this and some other ways, Ajin is a poor man’s Death Note with its ‘howcatchem’ plot structure and its eccentric detective character.

On the plus side, the art is pretty cool, particularly the motorcycle chase scenes. If I had read this manga when I was 14, I would probably have loved it, even though (or maybe precisely because) the publisher’s age recommendation is 16+.

Scariest moment in vol. 1: there’s nothing really shocking here, but it’s quite a chilling scene when Kei realises that he can heal his injuries by killing himself – whenever he dies, he is alive and healthy again shortly afterwards. This is perhaps the most interesting thing about Ajin: how on the one hand his friends, family and everyone else around him turn away from him when they find out he is ‘not human’, and how on the other hand he slowly embraces his newfound power so that he is indeed in danger of losing his humanity.

Rating: ● ● ○ ○ ○

I Am a Hero (アイアムアヒーロー / ai amu a hīrō)
Language: German (translated from Japanese)
Author: Kengo Hanazawa
Publisher: Carlsen (originally Shōgakukan)
Years: 2012-2018 (original run 2009-2017)
Number of volumes: 22
Volumes reviewed: 1
Pages per volume: ~230
Price per volume: € 7.95
Website: https://www.carlsen.de/serie/i-am-a-hero/30897 (German publisher), https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/I_Am_a_Hero (Wikipedia)
ISBN: 978-3-551-79491-8

You might have already heard that this is a series about an average guy trying to survive a zombie apocalypse. This first volume, however, deals much more with protagonist Hideo himself than with flesh-eating undead. We get to know his daily routine, his lacklustre job as an assistant in a manga studio, his difficult relationship with his girlfriend Tekko, his futile attempts to get his own manga published, etc.

Hanazawa’s attention to detail is admirable. He uses a great many panels for the mundanest of Hideo’s activities, e.g. his lonely TV dinner after work. Each panel itself is meticulously drawn, sometimes obviously photoreferenced with reproduced lens distortions. Not only does this slow build-up make the eventual confrontation with the zombies more dramatic, it also allows Hanazawa early on to plant subtle hints about the coming zombie virus outbreak. But is he able keep up the suspenseful atmosphere over the course of 22 volumes? I don’t know yet, but at least vol. 1 is highly successful in this regard.

Another asset of I Am a Hero is its meta level. Hideo’s work at the manga studio, his dealings with magazine editors, co-workers and rival mangaka, and his ramblings about what makes a good manga all amount to a sometimes straightforward, sometimes satirical perspective on the manga industry.

Scariest moment in vol. 1: forget the zombies. Granted, the final scene in which a zombie crawls towards Hideo (and the picture surface) is impressive. But far more terrifying are Hideo’s hallucinations which are unrelated to the zombie apocalypse. This man simply has some severe mental issues. Thus when he is alone at home at night and starts seeing faces and arms outside his window and under his bed, it is so frightening because Hideo is such a realistic character. Some other reviews have descrived Hideo as “eccentric” or a “loser”, but he’s neither – he’s quite a normal person like you and me. So which is the scarier notion: getting attacked by fantasy creatures, which we know don’t exist in real life? Or losing your mind, which happens all the time to people in real life?

Rating: ● ● ● ● ○

Uzumaki – Spiral into Horror (うずまき / uzumaki, lit. “spiral” or “vortex”)
Language: German (translated from Japanese)
Author: Junji Itō
Publisher: Carlsen (originally Shōgakukan)
Years: 2013-2014 (original run 1998-1999)
Number of volumes: 3
Volumes reviewed: 1
Pages per volume: 201
Price per volume: € 7.95
Website: https://www.carlsen.de/serie/uzumaki/33037 (German publisher), https://www.mangaupdates.com/series.html?id=6086 (Baka-Updates)
ISBN: 978-3-551-79271-6

The classic horror manga for this year’s review comes from one of the master mangaka of horror, Junji Itō.

The town of Kurōzu is haunted by spirals. In the first chapter, the inhabitant Mr. Saito develops an obsession with all kinds of spirals, collects kimonos with spiral prints, seashells, pottery with spiral designs… but that isn’t enough for him, he wants to become a spiral, and in the end he dies after twisting his body in a spiral shape inside a barrel. In the second chapter, his widow develops a phobia against spirals. In the third chapter, a girl at the local high school is slowly swallowed up by a vortex growing on her forehead (perhaps the most famous image of this manga), etc. etc.

It’s impressive how many variations of the spiral theme Itō comes up with. The episodes are only loosely connected through the high school couple of Kirie (a classmate of the girl from chapter 3) and Shuichi (son of the Saitos), though apparently in later volumes (see e.g. Jason Thompson’s review), an overarching plot emerges. Thus the stories in this first volume have a kind of Tales From The Crypt feeling to them. Their ‘twist’ endings are never funny, but somehow still darkly humorous. A great deal of this gloomy atmosphere is conveyed through Itō’s fine linework with which he subtly varies his characters’ facial expressions.

Scariest moment in vol. 1: when Mrs. Saito, already in hospital due to her fear of spirals, realises she has spirals on her fingertips – her normal papillary ridges – and wants to get rid of them.

Rating: ● ● ● ○ ○