A few years ago it became fashionable to complain about an insidious stylistic trend called “decompression” which was plaguing American superhero comics. Online types differed as to what decompression was, and what exactly made it so insidious and plague-y. But the common artistic credo behind decompression seemed to be this: anything Jack Kirby could do in 24 pages of Fantastic Four, we can do in 6 issues.
Or, in the case of J. Michael Straczynski’s retread of Squadron Supreme (itself a Marvel-published pastiche of rival company DC’s Justice League): anything Alan Moore could do in 8 pages of Marvelman, I can pad out to 24 issues–and counting.
In short, “decompressed” comic books were glacially paced and sparse on content. If you were lucky, in the space of six issues you might get one or two big plot events and one or two action sequences. If it was a new series introducing new characters, those new characters might not appear until the fourth or fifth issue.
Which is like a review where the title of the work reviewed doesn’t appear for seven paragraphs–cute at first, but frustrating in the long run.
Some blamed Warren Ellis’ “widescreen” Authority for the spread of decompression. Some blamed Brian Michael Bendis’ fondness for excessive sub-Mamet chatter. Some even blamed manga.
(Sadly, no one ever blamed indy stalwart Cerebus. But then, how could you fault a series that featured such thrilling issues as the one where our hero stumbles around his apartment, unable to sleep, and spends eight pages taking a piss?)
Well, stick this one in your pipe, decompression-haters. Minetaro Mochizuki’s excellent survival horror manga Dragon Head is scheduled to run for ten volumes in the English version from Tokyopop. It’s now up to its fifth. And it’s only in the latest, fifth volume that the title character appears for the first time. How’s that for decompression?
All this time, readers like myself have been assuming the title was a metaphor, meant to capture the semi-mythic unease and disconnect from reality that lie at the heart of the series.
Not so, as we now learn that Dragon Head is actually some kind of lobotomy patient with a messed-up cranium and freaky insensitivity to pain. But now that Dragon Head’s here, look out post-apocalyptic would-be rapists and looters. He’s about to open a can of whup-ass on you!
As soon as he stops falling over and getting his arm stuck in campfires.
Seriously, though, it’s unlikely that the sensational character find of 2007 (or 1997, when the Japanese version was originally published) is meant to be the protagonist of the series. For one thing, he looks like Herr Starr from Garth Ennis’ and Steve Dillon’s Preacher series, and is therefore mighty unattractive.
For another, the series already has two protagonists, Teru and Ako, a boy and girl trapped on the school excursion from hell. The first volume saw them on their way back from the excursion. Their train entered a tunnel, suddenly the lights went out and some catastrophe struck, unknown and unseen. When they wake up, Teru and Ako find themselves trapped in the train tunnel. The train crash has killed all their fellow passengers, including classmates, teachers and the general public–except for a boy named Nobuo, who promptly starts to lose his shit, Lord of the Flies-style.
The first few volumes of Dragon Head were intensely claustrophobic, as the kids struggled to work out what’s happened and how they’re going to survive. It’s spoiling nothing to say that Teru and Ako eventually make their way out into the open, where things are even worse than in the tunnel. At this stage in the series, it’s still not clear what brought on this apocalypse–probably nuclear attack, at least–but whatever it is, it’s devastated Japan. Earthquakes, mudslides, firestorms and tsunamis have wrecked the countryside, ruined cities, and left few survivors.
And as always, post-apocalypse, the biggest danger isn’t the physical environment. It’s the giant mutant bunny rabbits with laser-beam eyes.
Oh, all right, it’s their fellow human beings.
No, there’s no giant mutant bunny rabbits in Dragon Head. Not yet, anyway.
The art in Dragon Head continues to improve, or, to put it more accurately, gets easier to follow. The first few volumes, trapped in the tunnel, featured a lot of close-ups of their cramped quarters and panels of inscrutable darkness. Which was effective for establishing mood and tension, but not for telling the reader what the hell was going on. Similarly, the action in volumes 3 and 4 was often hard to read, but for different reasons. There, Mochizuki seemed determined to emphasise the smallness of our protagonists in a confusing and hostile landscape. The result was that figures got lost in an overwhelmingly detailed ground, and the sequence of action was hard to follow.
Finally, in volume 5, the characters have started coming into focus and standing out against their background–just as the characters themselves are getting clearer about what has happened to their world and just what they must do to survive. It’s a neat artistic trick, matching the epistemic and emotional states of the characters with their pictorial representation, but I for one am glad to see things getting clearer in this volume.
Mochizuki draws the characters themselves in an appealing style, different from the slick/cartoony style often associated with manga. They have an inky, loose but suggestive line that’s reminiscent of Western cartoonists like Farel Dalrymple, Jim Rugg or Paul Pope.
As for the writing, it’s as effective as ever. Mochizuki isn’t really doing anything new here, at least not in the first five volumes. He’s mostly using familiar tropes of post-apocalyptic fantasies–the struggle to find food and water, the fear of the unknown, the confrontations with other survivors. But he does this with such suspense, and such an overall unsettling effect, that originality is neither here nor there.
And with all that by way of introduction, let me start the real review…
Recommended: Strongly recommended, but start with the first volume and work your way up.
IYL: Post-apocalyptic survival horror like The Stand, George Romero’s zombie films or Walking Dead (and you don’t even have to wade through Robert Kirkman’s reactionary politics!). Also for fans of horror manga-ka like Junji Ito and Kazuo Umezu, although the tone of Dragon Head is more subdued than much of their work.
The skinny: Dragon Head 5, Minetaro Mochizuki, Tokyopop 2007. $9.99, 226 pages