Manga reviews, Halloween 2016 edition: Shi Ki, Detective Ritual, Parasyte

Continuing the ‘tradition’ from last year, here are some more reviews of relatively recent creepy manga:

Shi Ki (屍鬼 / shiki)
Language: German (translated from Japanese)
Authors: Fuyumi Ono (original story), Ryū Fujisaki (manga adaptation)
Publisher: Egmont (originally Shūeisha)
Years: 2013-2015 (original run 2007-2011)
Number of volumes: 11
Volumes reviewed: 1-4

Pages per volume: ~190
Price per volume: € 7.50
Website: http://www.egmont-manga.de/buch-buchreihe/shi-ki/ (German publisher), https://www.mangaupdates.com/series.html?id=15089 (MangaUpdates)
ISBN: 978-3770481163

In a remote Japanese village, a mysterious epidemic breaks out. One by one, several villagers become anaemic and then die. The local doctor, Ozaki, resolves to find out the cause of the supposed disease.

What starts promisingly as a suspenseful medical thriller soon (in vol. 3 at the latest) turns into a generic vampire story if there ever was one. It turns out that the family who recently moved into a castle-like mansion near the village are vampires who suck the blood of the villagers and turn them into vampires too. Part of vol. 4 is even told from a villager-turned-vampire’s perspective and leaves no doubt about what they are.

That being said, this manga has some things going for it: on the one hand, it manages to keep up some of the suspense even after the vampires have been clearly established as the cause of the deaths. Plus, the art style is truly distinctive – characters are elongated and twisted, faces become fine-lined caricatures, stark contrasts are employed and inverted again. In some instances Fujisaki relies too much on photo-referencing though, resulting in overly flat compositions.

In any case I don’t think I’ll read the remaining 7 volumes anytime soon.

Scariest moment in vol. 4: the little vampire girl with the puppet.

Rating: ● ● ○ ○ ○

Detective Ritual (探偵儀式 / tantei gishiki)
Language: German (translated from Japanese)
Authors: Ryūsui Seiryōin (writer), Eiji Ōtsuka (storyboard), Chizu Hashii (artist)
Publisher: Tokyopop (originally Kadokawa Shoten)
Years: 2011-2012 (original run 2004-2009)
Number of volumes: 6
Volumes reviewed: 1-3

Pages per volume: ~170
Price per volume: € 6.50
Website: https://www.mangaupdates.com/series.html?id=15089 (MangaUpdates)
ISBN: 978-3-8420-0134-3

Detective Ritual is more of a mystery than a horror manga, but it’s sufficiently creepy to be included in this Halloween-themed review post. Set in the near future or an alternate present, the story is about two rivaling detective organisations aiding the police in murder investigations, one government-sponsored and the other a group of precocious teenagers. The former, however, becomes the target of mass murder themselves…

The artwork is competent but unremarkable (except for the eccentric character designs) – the biggest draw of this manga is its irreverent attitude towards the detective genre: time and again, the initial, overly convoluted explanations that the detectives offer as solutions to the murder cases turn out to be wrong. There’s also a nice metafictional sub(?)-plot about a former detective who has become a writer of mystery novels.

This is certainly a manga that stands out by virtue of its weirdness, but it’s hard to really like it.

Scariest moment: the first of the eponymous ‘detective rituals’, a gruesome mass decapitation which is re-visited several times.

Rating: ● ● ● ○ ○

Parasyte – Kiseijuu (寄生獣 / kiseijū)
Language: German (translated from Japanese)
Author: Hitoshi Iwaaki
Publisher: Panini Manga (originally Kōdansha)
Years: 2016- (original run 1988-1995)
Number of volumes: 10
Volumes reviewed: 1

Pages per volume: 278
Price per volume: € 8.99
Website: http://www.paninishop.de/parasyte (German)
ISBN: 978-3-95798-893-5

Parasyte is a horror manga classic, but its publication in German began only this year, probably in order to exploit a renewed interest in the property that has been sparked by the recent anime adaptation.

In the beginning of this story, worm-like space aliens fall on earth and crawl inside the heads of sleeping, unsuspecting people to take over their bodies. While the infested humans still look like before, the aliens are able to transform their heads into claws and fangs with which they prey and feast on other humans. When one of the aliens tries to take over teenaged Shinichi’s body, though, the infestation goes wrong: instead of settling in Shinichi’s brain, the alien is only able to take over his right arm. From now on, Shinichi and the intelligent, talking alien in his arm have to learn to get along, and ultimately work together to fight the other, less friendly aliens.

Despite all the gore and horror there’s also a lot of humour in this manga, and in addition to that Iwaaki even manages to insert some environmentalist messages. The artwork has a bit of an 80s feel to it, but some of the transformation sequences are downright trippy.

Scariest moment: that famous scene in chapter 1 where an alien-infested man’s head splits open, turns into a huge mouth and bites a woman’s head off.

Rating: ● ● ● ● ○


Manga reviews, Halloween edition: Limit, Sidonia, Kirihito

I don’t like horror comics. But to get into the Halloween spirit, here are some short reviews of more or less recent mystery/thriller manga:

panel detail from Limit by Keiko SuenobuLimit (リミット / Rimitto)
Language: German (translated from Japanese)
Author: Keiko Suenobu
Publisher: Egmont (originally Kōdansha)
Years: 2012-2013 (original run 2009-2011)
Number of volumes: 6
Volumes reviewed: 1-3

Pages per volume: ~170
Price per volume: € 6.50
Website: http://www.manganet.de/buch-buchreihe/limit/
ISBN: 9783-7704-7875-0

Contrary to popular belief, Japan isn’t actually overpopulated. The Japanese population is just very unevenly distributed: outside of the crowded metropolitan areas, there are vast wildernesses. This fact is what makes the story of Limit credible. On its way to a summer camp, a bus with schoolchildren crashes in a forest. Only a handful of them survives the crash, and now they have to endure until help arrives. Which takes days.

In this Lord of the Flies scenario, the greatest challenge for the schoolchildren is not to survive in the wilderness, but to get along with each other. One of the girls in particular who was always bullied in school before now sees the opportunity to take revenge. Through occasional flashbacks to their lives before the bus accident, all of the survivors are well characterised, making for a suspenseful read.

Scariest moment in vol. 3: when they find the dead body of one the girls. Somehow I hadn’t seen this coming.

Rating: ● ● ● ● ○

panel detail from Knights of Sidonia by Tsutomu NiheiKnights of Sidonia (シドニアの騎士 / Shidonia no kishi)
Language: German (translated from Japanese)
Author: Tsutomu Nihei
Publisher: Egmont (originally Kōdansha)
Years: 2010-today (original run 2009-2015)
Number of volumes: 12 so far (14 in Japan)
Volumes reviewed: 1-12

Pages per volume: ~170
Price per volume: € 7.50
Website: http://www.manganet.de/buch-buchreihe/knights-of-sidonia/
ISBN: 9783-7704-8556-7

Knights of Sidonia, which I’ve mentioned before here, is a weird mix of genres: mecha sci-fi action, harem slapstick comedy… and also space horror and body horror.  It takes some time to get used to this, particularly if you’re familiar with Tsutomu Nihei’s earlier, more homogeneous manga, but now, as the series approaches its end, it’s beginning to make sense.

The story revolves around humans in mechas and spaceships fighting against an alien race called gauna. At first, both sides look very different: humans with their angular high-tech machinery on the one hand, the biomorphic gauna on the other. But the lines become blurred when humans build mecha/gauna hybrids and the shapeshifting gauna start imitating mecha pilots.

Scariest moment in vol. 12: when a gauna engulfs an entire mecha – apparently without killing the pilot…

Rating: ● ● ● ● ○

panel from Kirihito by Osamu TezukaKirihito (きりひと讃歌 / Kirihito sanka)
Language: German (translated from Japanese)
Author: Osamu Tezuka
Publisher: Carlsen (originally Shōgakukan)
Years: 2009-2010 (original run 1970-1971)
Number of volumes: 3
Volumes reviewed: 1

Pages per volume: ~270
Price per volume: € 16.90
Website: http://www.carlsen.de/serie/kirihito/22759
ISBN: 978-3-551-79180-1

This one is a bit older, but it has only relatively recently been published in English (2006) and German (2009). Kirihito is a medical thriller about a mysterious disease that turns people into dog-like creatures. A young doctor, the eponymous Kirihito, is sent to a remote village where this disease has broken out in order to investigate and find a cure – or so he thinks. He soon learns the hard way that the disease is infectious indeed.

The pacing is off, the story has its issues (e.g. the problematic portrayal of women) and drags on for too long (even though this is only the first of three volumes) – but the art is vastly superior to that of most living mangaka. Although you could argue that his cartoonish style would be more suitable for a humorous story, the sheer amount of Tezuka’s daring design ideas is astonishing.

Scariest moment in vol. 1: towards the end of the volume when Izumi, Kirihito’s fiancée, finds out that her own parents are not quite free from blame for Kirihito’s disappearance.

Rating: ● ● ● ○ ○


Before Watchmen roundup, part 1

From "Before Watchmen: Ozymandias #1"I confess: I have read and purchased copies of several Before Watchmen issues, and plan to continue to do so. For some people, this is an immoral act, equivalent to slapping Alan Moore in the face. Other people say Moore made a mistake when he signed his contract with DC, and now he has to pay for it. In any case, I was curious to see how the Before Watchmen books would handle the unavoidable intertextual challenges that come with such a task.

In preparation, I re-read Watchmen, to be better able to get all the references in Before Watchmen. Maybe that was a mistake, because it raised my expectations towards Before Watchmen even more. Consequently, I decided to read all seven #1 issues and then select which series I’m going to follow.

The books that I dropped after the first issue were Nite Owl, Comedian, and Dr. Manhattan. With Nite Owl and Dr. Manhattan, I found the stories were too close to the original series and didn’t add much to it, whereas the storytelling in Comedian was too slow-paced to convince me that the plot was going anywhere soon. That leaves me with Minutemen, Silk Spectre, Ozymandias, and Rorschach. Ozymandias is the only book so far of which I have read two issues, which I consider the minimum for a meaningful review. (Minutemen #2 came out earlier, but due to a mail order fail I didn’t get it yet.)

Review of Before Watchmen: Ozymandias #1-2

Language: English
Authors: Len Wein (writer), Jae Lee (artist), June Chung (colourist)
Publisher: DC
Pages: 23 (+2 pages of backup story)
Price: $3.99
Website: http://www.dccomics.com/comics/before-watchmen-ozymandias-2012

The framing narrative here is that Adrian Veidt tells his life story on October 11, 1985. I instantly recognized some of Veidt’s words as Moore’s, and thought that Len Wein just wanted to flesh out Veidt’s autobiography as told in Watchmen chapter XI (“Look On My Works, Ye Mighty…”). However, reading both sequences side by side reveals vast differences: in Watchmen, Veidt’s monologue takes place much later than October 11. The wording is different – sometimes considerably, sometimes only slightly, e.g.: “Strangely, before subduing Phoenicia, he had struck north toward Gordium” (Wein) vs. “Strangely, before subduing Phoenicia, he struck north towards Gordium” (Moore). And there are inexplicable visual differences too: in Watchmen, the gravestone of Veidt’s parents is rectangular with a rounded top, whereas in Before Watchmen he is standing at two gravestones in the shape of celtic crosses. So unless Veidt is randomly dropping roses at strangers’ graves, Jae Lee or Len Wein altered the appearance of the grave, presumably to make it look cooler.

The completely new things that Wein adds to Veidt’s origin story aren’t convincing either. As Jennifer Cheng already said in her review of Ozymandias #1 at CBR, it is hard to believe that the reason why Veidt would become the masked vigilante Ozymandias is to avenge his lover Miranda. Furthermore, given the importance attributed to this relationship, what are the readers supposed to make of Veidt’s homosexuality that is clearly hinted at some pages earlier?

Then again, the selling point of the book isn’t its plot, or its unlikeable protagonist. It’s Jae Lee’s spectacular art, as several other reviewers have pointed out. The success of Lee’s contrast-heavy style depends on good colourists, and luckily, June Chung is more than up to this job. Thus, Before Watchmen: Ozymandias is a series that makes me want to read more by Jae Lee and less by Len Wein.

Rating: ● ● ○ ○ ○

As for “The Curse of the Crimson Corsair”, the backup story by Len Wein and John Higgins: while “Tales of the Black Freighter” was smartly interwoven with the main story in Watchmen, an independent pirate/horror story spread across all Before Watchmen series doesn’t make sense to me. I wouldn’t mind reading a well-written and well-drawn standalone comic book in this genre, though (and the success of the Pirates of the Caribbean films shows that this genre has market potential).


Why I stopped reading Swamp Thing

Review of Swamp Thing #7-12

detail from a panel by Francesco Francavilla

Previously in Swamp Thing: by the time I wrote my last review, Alec Holland was about to turn into the Swamp Thing, and the series was about to get really good.

Language: English
Authors: Scott Snyder (writer – plus Jeff Lemire in #12), Yanick Paquette/Marco Rudy/various (artist)
Publisher: DC
Pages: 20
Price: $2.99
Website: http://www.dccomics.com/comics/swamp-thing-2011

Back in issue #7, the series still seemed to be going in the right direction. With the help of the Parliament of Trees and his “bio-restorative formula”, Alec Holland is finally transformed and emerges from a giant cabbage as the Swamp Thing. The artwork by Yanick Paquette leaves little to be desired.

In issue #8, however, Paquette shares artist duties with Marco Rudy, depicting the clash of Swamp Thing and the army of the Rot. (For an insightful critique of that concept, see Iann Robinson’s review of #12.)

This pattern is repeated in issue #9: the first 8 pages are drawn by Paquette, the remaining 12 by Rudy. This constant back-and-forth between those two artists is annoying, but at this point, their styles had grown so similar that I almost didn’t mind anymore. A lot of mystical, epic fighting takes place in this comic book.

With issue #10, a completely different artist, Francesco Francavilla, takes over (including the colouring). While Francavilla is by no means a bad artist, his style is such a far cry from Paquette’s and Rudy’s that one cannot help but notice the difference and wonder why.

Especially since in issue #11, Rudy is back as the artist. What was Paquette doing in those 2 1/2 months when he apparently wasn’t drawing Swamp Thing? In fact, the next Swamp Thing issue with Paquette as artist will be #13, which is scheduled for October. I couldn’t find a statement from DC that explained what makes this merry-go-round of artists necessary. Apart from being irritating for the reader, I can’t imagine Eisner and Harvey award-winning writer Scott Snyder is fond of constantly working with fill-in collaborators. This situation is telling about DC’s attitude towards its authors.

The last straw came in issue #12 with the start of the dreaded Animal Man crossover story (“Rotworld”). In fact, this issue is part two of a two-part “prologue” to said storyline, the first part being Animal Man #12. Crossovers that require you to read every single tie-in issue to keep up with what’s going on are a clumsy attempt increase the sales of each involved series, and it doesn’t work with me. I have tried to get into Animal Man before, but didn’t like Steve Pugh’s art, so I don’t feel like picking it up now. Neither am I interested in seeing other characters from the DC universe make guest appearances in Swamp Thing (which will happen in issue #13).

So I won’t be reading Swamp Thing anymore. By means of crossover mania and artist roulette (which DC intends to keep spinning), DC has killed a strong series. Still, it was worth reading for most of its first year, both as a DC universe comic that does without (regular) superheroes, as well as for the intricate ways in which it refers to the pre-relaunch era. Thus the first trade paperback, collecting #1-7 and coming out this month, might be of general interest. For me, however, there are more interesting comic books being published by DC at the moment – more on those in later posts.

Rating: ● ● ○ ○ ○


Review: Swamp Thing #3-6

Language: English
Authors: Scott Snyder (writer), Yanick Paquette/Marco Rudy/various (artist)
Publisher: DC
Pages: 20
Price: $2.99
Website: http://www.dccomics.com/dccomics/comics/?cm=20705

Previously in Swamp Thing: Alec Holland is the Swamp Thing, the Knight of the Green… or is he? Scott Snyder doesn’t really answer that question, in what I assume is an attempt to both pay tribute to and at the same time break away from Swamp Thing’s backstory.

Issue #3 shifts the main focus to a new character, a hospitalized boy named William who becomes the first villain of the series. Things get more creepy from here on. In the Alec Holland storyline, we see him using his power to manipulate plants for the first time, and there’s a nice one-page flashback to happier times for Swamp Thing and his lover Abigail (i.e. a tribute to the earlier series). Although only Snyder and Yanick Paquette are credited on the cover, more than half of this issue is actually drawn by Victor Ibáñez (!), which could be the reason why I liked the art a little bit better than in the first two issues.

In issue #4, Marco Rudy suddenly takes over as penciller, and there are three different inkers now. These changes in the art team are highly irritating, but in itself the art isn’t bad. There’s some more nasty horror in William’s storyline, whereas Alec learns about the epic and mystical background of the Swamp Thing.

Paquette returns as penciller and inker in issue #5, and now I remember what I like about him: his inking is really striking. While I don’t care much for his heavy crosshatching, his outlines, which can be up to about 3mm thick in a close-up, are daring. A third storyline about an evil scientist/occultist in the Amazon Jungle is introduced here, and Alec Holland shows off some more of his Swamp Thing powers in a battle against William.

The artist carousel revolves once more and brings us Marco Rudy again as the penciller and inker for issue #6. I’m not saying Rudy is a worse (or better) artist than Paquette, but I wish they’d let me get used to either of them. Apart from that, this is the darkest, most atmospheric and probably best issue of the series so far.

Luckily, Snyder quickly did away with the idea of connecting Swamp Thing to the rest of the DC Universe (that Superman appearance in the first issue was truly awkward) and now pursues a distinct mystery/horror/fantasy tone. If only DC could resolve the artist trouble, this could be a really good comic. (The next two issues are announced with Paquette as artist, so let’s hope they stick to him.)

Rating: ● ● ● ○ ○