The GeeksverseREVIEW | I Am a Hero Omnibus, Vol. 1 (Dark Horse Manga)

REVIEW | I Am a Hero Omnibus, Vol. 1 (Dark Horse Manga)
Published on Wednesday, May 18, 2016 by
Kengo Hanazawa offers an affecting, personal story about the zombie apocalypse in I Am a Hero.

iamherov1Publication details:

  • Paperback/black & white with color plates/$19.99
  • NOTE: Book is oriented in right-to-left reading format, as are the preview images below.
  • Due in stores 13 April 2016
  • Story & art: Kengo Hanazawa
  • Publisher’s description: A mentally unhinged manga artist witnesses the beginning of a zombie outbreak in Tokyo, and he’s certain of only two things: he’s destined to be the city’s hero, and he possesses something quite rare in Japan—an actual firearm! The Shogakukan Manga Award winner comes to Dark Horse! Contains I Am a Hero Japanese volumes 1 and 2.
  • Over 460 pages!
  • Click here for an 11-page preview.

Edited in PerfectioIn the hands of filmmakers, writers, cartoonists, and game designers, the zombie has exhibited utility time and again as an allegorical device, with the rise of the mindless undead (and the eventual “zombie apocalypse”) being used to comment on and criticize consumerism, military conflict, and every issue in between and beyond.

That said, works that singularly emphasize the non-literal reading of the zombie (“zombie-as-metaphor”) often leave one with the feeling that the use of the zombie conceit is lazily considered and lacking in horror craft. Conversely, those that highlight the literal reading of the zombie (“zombie-as-zombie”) to the exclusion of a larger thematic remit run the risk of coming off as rote and deficient in imagination. The better zombie-themed entertainments almost always strike a balance between these two approaches, and the best ones are those that are constructed such that deliberately delineating the non-literal and literal readings is largely unnecessary in order for the viewer or reader to appreciate the work—an “invisible art” of zombie storytelling, if you will.

Edited in PerfectioKengo Hanazawa’s I Am a Hero falls squarely into this sweet spot. The award-winning manga, originally launched in 2009 and serialized in Shogakukan’s Big Manga Spirits magazine, features for its protagonist a thirtysomething manga artist assistant named Hideo Suzuki. Suzuki used to write and illustrate a manga serial of his own, but since its cancellation he has had to settle for being a lowly-paid, anonymous assistant, just one member of a small team tasked with the mind-numbing work of laying down screentones and filling in backgrounds for a mangaka.

Much of the book’s first half is about Suzuki’s day-to-day life and his myriad professional and personal frustrations. He hasn’t stopped trying to get another manga serial approved for publication, but his pitches are consistently shot down by editors, rejected because of their unmemorable protagonists or unmarketable premises. His relationships with his co-workers at the manga studio are perfunctory at best, consisting primarily of one-sided conversations about manga esoterica. He is beset by neuroses and occasional hallucinations. He has an adorably cheerful and supportive girlfriend, but her progress in getting her own manga serial off the ground gnaws at his pride and her professional links with a former boyfriend (a hipster manga editor whom Suzuki occasionally comes into contact) exacerbates his already outsized insecurity. Suzuki is so caught up in the drama of his little world that he doesn’t notice the signs of an impending zombie outbreak going on all around him.

Edited in PerfectioWhen the zombie outbreak finally does make it to his doorstep (or more accurately, his girlfriend’s doorstep), Suzuki, surprisingly, takes it in stride. Maybe his already tenuous relationship with reality insulates him from the horror of encountering the undead. Perhaps because he has been in a holding pattern for so long, any change which introduces a greater sense of agency in his life’s direction going forward, even one as catastrophic as a zombie outbreak, is a welcome development.

Because of the earlier focus on establishing characterization and relationships, the introduction of the zombies in the book’s latter half is that much more disruptive, even as the reader knows that it is coming. An extended sequence where Suzuki has to deal with a zombie while his head is jammed in a door is particularly notable, as the character alternates between detachedly musing about his life and his relationships and frantically figuring out a plan for survival. It’s at once delightfully absurd and terrifying.

None of this would work without Hanazawa’s brilliant art. Like Japanese horror manga luminary Junji Ito (Uzumaki, Gyo), Hanazawa has found a tension between naturalism and caricature in his rendering of the human form that accentuates the macabre. Even his “normal” faces and figures occasionally look unsettling, hinting at some barely-suppressed madness just waiting to emerge. Worth noting, too, is Hanazawa’s use of perspective, page construction, and pacing in the service of both comedy and suspense. Beats are spaced and panels are arranged to maximize the effect of subtle gags and the comic book equivalent of horror cinema’s “jump scares.”

All in all, Dark Horse Manga’s I Am a Hero Omnibus, Vol. 1 makes for an exceptional introduction to one of manga’s most versatile auteurs. Highly recommended.

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