Tuesday, February 14, 2006

Death Note and Dragon Head

After reading much of the Comics Journal Shoujo issue (yeah, I’m behind in my reading) and getting the hard sell from Jog and my first rate retailer, Ralph (at alternate reality comics here in Vegas), I read two new (to me) manga in the past couple of days. Both are linked in having the kind of ultra high concept hook usually reserved in the US for quick 90 minute moives like “Speed” and “Phone Booth.” I only read the first volume of each, but I get the impression one of them will rise above its initial hook, while the other won’t.

The first of these is Dragon Head, by Minetaro Mochizuki, which is just out from Tokyopop, but was (apparently) previously put out in 10 volumes from Pika. The concept here is locked chamber Lord of the flies – students coming back from a field trip are trapped in a train tunnel collapse, which kills most, and seals off the survivors in the collapsed tunnel, with no idea of what’s going on outside. We follow Aoki as he wakes, and finds (so far) two other survivors, one a female schoolgirl (natch, as they say) and another possibly insane male student. Was the collapse caused by a massive earthquake that destroyed Tokyo? Maybe nuclear war? I’m guessing this will settle into a by the numbers exploration of dealing with the dark, hunger, the smell, psychosis, and human nature one has come to expect from every third rate zombie apocalypse movie. Just as long as there is “Grease 2” (or if you prefer 24 season 2) inspired “let’s do it for our country” uncomfortable mating scene, I guess this is mostly harmless, but I am not expecting too much. This seems to lack the visceral ruthlessness (had by something like, say, Battle Royale) necessary compel interest.

The more interesting of the two (if you can get past that silly looking monster who is in 90% of the panels) is Death Note. Three volumes of this are out, but I’ve only read the first. The hook here is that a student finds a notebook which kills anyone whose name is written in it. By following a series of rules (and man there are many, many rules), the manner and specifics of the death can be manipulated. The simple twist is that the kid, Light, who finds the book is not some wussy who writes a name in and must deal with the consequences of the death and his conscious, blah, blah, but is a hard core successful high school student (a gunner, in other words) who immediately sets out to make the world better by killing as many people as he can. This has the effect of flipping the genre… the situation casts him as a protagonist or “victim” in the work, but he uses this situation to become, in essence, an incredibly successful serial killer. Instead of the normal “into the mind of a serial killer” journey where we are made to approach and understand the killer from the outside, we empathize with the killer before he becomes so, which implicates the reader (I think the closest I’ve seen this approach before was in “Badlands,” but even Martin Sheen played the killer as a kind of distant figure, and we empathized more with the accomplice). The figure of L is introduced as a interpol sanctioned “sleuth” out to get our killer by any means (including setting others up for death), setting up a cat-and-mouse which is interestingly exploited, as Light begins to send messages to the mysterious figure hunting him by manipulating the events relating to his victims deaths. The shinigami death god who looks like a rejected design for the Kiss: Psycho Circus comic (I don’t even see the narrative need for this character), and a few overdone bits of silliness aside, this is a pretty good start.


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