August 14, 2016

The Drifting Classroom

Horrifically Brilliant.

The Drifting Classroom is a horror manga series by Kazuo Umezu originally published from 1972 to 1974 in Weekly Sh┼Źnen Sunday. Umezu is regularly cited as a master in the horror genre. Some of his most well-known works include The Drifting Classroom, Cat Eyed Boy, and Makoto-chan.

I only recently started exploring horror manga, and I find it fascinating. As a newcomer, I usually end up at the most popular authors, because they are the easiest to find. Since they are also considered staples of the genre, it's a great jumping-off point to see if I want to explore further.

After reading Junji Ito's Gyo and Uzumaki, I decided to seek out those that had inspired him. This led me to Umezu and The Drifting Classroom.

It was horrifying.
It was incredibly depressing.
I loved it.

The premise is pretty cut-and-dried: A Japanese elementary school is inexplicably thrown forward in time to the end of the 20th century, where the entire planet has become a desolate wasteland. The real essence of the story is how the characters live and react after said teleportation.

Their motivations and relationships are based almost entirely on survival instinct, with rational thought and reason thrown out in the face of pure desperation and fear. The fact that they are children made it even more disturbing. At first, I expected grotesque, inhuman monsters to become the huge threat. But I was pleasantly disappointed.

Everyone has a breaking point, no matter how noble or sensible they appear to be. The Drifting Classroom stresses this so well. Almost immediately, people turn on each other. The term "friend" becomes meaningless. Logic and common sense are mercilessly crucified. Psychological trauma is always the underlying menace, from start to finish. I was constantly cringing, but I just couldn't stop reading.

There is never a safe point for these kids. Every time it seemed there was a moment of calm, I found myself dreading to have to turn the page, because I knew some new horrible danger was just around the corner. Umezu's pacing is superb. There are so many unexpected hazards from both the outside world and the children themselves. There is violence, but it's only violence necessary to the story. It never turns into a gore-fest for the sake of just being gross. The focus is the writing, which is what good storytelling is all about. You really feel for these characters and their struggle to survive.

The artwork has a very intentional style. Some argue that the human characters look too cartoonish. I disagree. The fact that the future world and all its unspeakable horrors do not share the same art style works in Umezu's favor, and I would argue that it was a very conscious decision. It accentuates how displaced the children really are from everything they know and love. There is no safe zone, no time to relax even for a moment. They are totally alone and without help. Even with a simpler character style, the complete and utter torture these kids are going through is all too real, and is a testament to Umezu's artistic ability.

Volume 1 didn't really capture my attention all that much. The whole thing basically served as an extended prologue for the rest of the series. My interest didn't pique until the end of Volume 3, at which I frantically devoured the remaining volumes like a lunatic.

It was so good, and something I will be sure to lend out and recommend. It was turned into a live-action movie back in the 80s, but I just watched it on YouTube and it was pretty blah compared to the source material. It has also been turned into a TV series in Japan, but I haven't checked that out yet.

In the States, the series was split into eleven volumes published by Viz as part of their Signature Series. As with most popular series from years past, it shares the distinction of having one or two random volumes at an exorbitant price. In this case, Volume 7. The rest of them are below MSRP. If you don't need physical copies, then all of them are even cheaper digitally. I can't recommend this series enough. It's a great portal into the brilliance that horror manga can be. Pick it up!

May 22, 2016

Showcase Presents: Phantom Stranger Vol. 1

Read this book, for it is...THE PHANTOM STRANGER!

The Phantom Stranger Vol. 1 covers the character's series from 1969-1972. Early writing duties fall mainly to Mike Friedrich, and later to Len Wein, Gerry Conway, and Robert Kanigher. The character takes a while to find his feet, but once he does, the book is really good.

Once he is established, the Phantom Stranger is a supernatural being who shows up to stop evil supernatural stuff. His speech reminds me of Storm from the 90s X-Men cartoon (which is a hilariously good thing), and at times he seems to have limitless power. However, a good punch to the face takes him out more than once. This usually happens while he's monologuing to the bad guy about how they can never defeat the power of righteousness.

The earlier stories are not as interesting, as the character is simply a guy who shows up and disproves supernatural phenomenon. These stories get old fast, because there's not actually any spooky stuff going on, and the Stranger himself appears to just be a random guy who shows up and talks a lot without actually doing anything.

Later on, real stuff starts happening, and the Stranger becomes way more engaging with cool powers and abilities. There is some sense of continuity, as he runs into the same two antagonists more than a few times. Tala is a female "Queen of Evil," and manipulates mortals into performing evil deeds. Tannarak is a sorcerer who needs to steal mortal life in order to extend his own. Outside of those two, there's so much crazy supernatural stuff that the Stranger has to extinguish or send back to the abyss. It made for very good reading.

The Stranger usually comes out on top, leaving a strong moral message for those who remain after the battle, though the evil escapes most of the time.

Dr. Thirteen is a huge part of this book. He is another opponent of evil, although his ultimate goal is to disprove all instances of supernatural activity. At first, he and the Stranger are in all the stories together. This quickly becomes formulaic and overused. It's even more baffling early on when he and the Stranger are essentially the same character, since the Stranger seemingly has no powers. Thankfully, they go their separate ways eventually and have individual adventures. Of course, nearly everything Dr. Thirteen runs into turns out to be fake, and everything the Stranger encounters is real, thereby reinforcing each of their convictions.

Early artwork is a mixture of Bill Draut, Mike Sekowsky, and Neal Adams. Later on, it's Jim Aparo and Tony DeZuniga. It's all pretty great. It's interesting to note how artwork from the same period can be so lame or awesome depending on the book. Artists seemed to be given more freedom with the horror stuff, compared to the superhero lineup.

Overall, it was great. The early stuff had me wary to continue, but I'm glad I did. The Stranger is an interesting character, and I find it impressive that DC has kept his true origins and backstory a complete mystery. He truly is a phantom stranger.