Black Jack volume 1


By Osamu Tezuka, translated by Camelia Nieh (Vertical)
ISBN: 978-1934287-27-9 (Tankōbon PB)

There aren’t many Names in comics. Lots of creators; multi-disciplined or single focussed, who have contributed to the body of the art form, but we don’t have many Global Presences whose contribution have affected generations of readers and aspirants all over the World, like a Mozart or Michelangelo or Shakespeare. There’s just Hergé and Jack Kirby and Osamu Tezuka.

Tezuka was born in Qsaka Prefecture on 3rd November 1928, and as a child suffered a severe illness that made his arms swell. The doctor who cured him inspired him to study medicine, and although Osamu began his professional drawing career while at university, he persevered with his studies and qualified as a doctor too. As he faced a career crossroads, his mother advised him to do the thing that made him happiest. He never practiced as a healer but the world was gifted with such classic cartoon masterpieces as Tetsuwan Atomu (Astro-boy), Kimba the White Lion, Buddha, Adolf and literally hundreds of other graphic narratives. Along the way Tezuka incidentally pioneered, if not created, the Japanese anime industry…

Able to speak to the hearts and minds of children and adults equally, Tezuka’s work ranges from the charming to the disturbing and even terrifying. In 1973 he turned his storyteller’s heart to the realm of medicine and created Burakku Jakku, a lone wolf surgeon living outside society’s boundaries and rules: a scarred and seemingly heartless mercenary working miracles for the right price but also a deeply human wounded soul who makes surgical magic from behind icy walls of cool indifference and casual hostility – think Silas Marner before the moppet turns up or Ebenezer Scrooge before bedtime; except Black Jack never, ever gets soft and cuddly.

These translated, collected adventures – available paperback and digital formats – begin with the frankly startling ‘Is There a Doctor?’, wherein the joyriding son of the richest man in the world is critically injured. The boy’s ruthless father forces Black Jack to perform a full body transplant on an unwilling victim… but the super-surgeon still manages to turn the tables on the vile plutocrat…

Each story is self-contained over about 20 pages, and the second – ‘The First Storm of Spring’ – tells the eerie, poignant tale of a young girl whose corneal transplant has gone strangely awry. Can the handsome boy she keeps seeing possibly be the ghostly original owner of the eye, and if so, what was he truly like?

With ‘Teratoid Cystoma’ the series solidly enters into fantasy territory whilst ramping up the medical authenticity. Tezuka chose to draw in a highly stylised, “Big-foot” manner (he was the acknowledged inventor of the Manga Big-Eyes artistic device) but with increasing dependence on surgical and anatomical veracity, his innate ability to render anatomy and organs realistically truly came to the fore.

A teratonous cystoma occurs when twins are conceived but one of the embryos fails to cohere. Undifferentiated portions of one twin, a limb or organ grows within and nourished by the other. As the surviving twin matures, the enclosed “spare parts” start to distend the body, appearing like a cyst or growth.

For the sake of narrative – and possibly to just plain freak you out – in this story a famous personage wishing total discretion requires the Ronin Doctor to remove a huge growth from her. Many Japanese have a frankly unhealthy prejudice against physical imperfection – for more search “the Hibakusha” – and this case is a much about stigma and position as wellbeing…

The mystery patient’s problem is exacerbated because whenever other surgeons have tried to operate, they have been debilitated by a telepathic assault from the growth. Overcoming incredible resistance, Black Jack succeeds, removing a fully-formed brain and nervous system. Ignoring the disgust of the patient and doctors, he then builds an artificial body for the stunted, sentient remnants; and calls her Pinoko.

‘The Face Sore’ combines Japanese legends of the Jinmenso (intelligent, garrulous tumours) with cases of disfiguring carbuncles and rashes to produce a very scary modern horror story – and by modern, I mean lacking a happy ending…

Pinoko, looking like a little girl (whether she’s a year old or eighteen is a running gag throughout the series) has meanwhile become Black Jack’s secretary/major domo and gadfly. In ‘Sometimes Like Pearls’, she opens a unique parcel addressed to him which leads to some invaluable back-story as the solitary surgeon travels to see his great teacher and learns one final lesson…

‘Confluence’ provides a little twisted romance as the medical maverick loses out on a chance at love when undertaking a radical procedure to save a young woman from uterine cancer, whilst in ‘The Painting is Dead!’ an artist caught in a nuclear test endures a full brain transplant just to be able to finish his painting condemning atomic warmongers.

‘Star, Magnitude Six’ exposes the pompous venality and arrant cronyism, not to mention entrenched stupidity, of hospitals’ hierarchical hegemonies in a tale satisfyingly reminiscent of Steve Ditko’s H series and J series of polemical objectivist parables before the ruthless outlaw surgeon meets his female counterpart in the bittersweet ‘Black Queen.’

‘U-18 Knew’ moves us into pure science fiction territory when the unlicensed doctor is hired by an American medical facility to operate on a vast medical computer that has achieved true sentience, leading to some telling questions about who – and what – defines “humanity.”

An annoying sidebar I feel compelled to add here: For many years broad, purely visual racial stereotypes were common “shorthand” in Japanese comics – and ours, and everybody else’s. They crop up here, but please remember that even at the time this story originated from, this was in no way a charged image; Tezuka’s depictions of native Japanese were just as broad and expressionistic. A simple reading of the text should dispel any notions of racism: but if you can’t get past these decades-old images, just put the book down. Don’t buy it. It’s your loss.

A heartrendingly powerful tale of determination sees a young polio victim almost fail a sponsored walk until an enigmatic stranger with a scarred face bullies, abuses and provokes him to finish. It also provides more clues to Black Jack’s past in ‘The Legs of an Ant’ before this first collection concludes with ‘Two Loves’ as a van driver deprives the greatest sushi artist in the world of his arm and his dreams when he runs him over. The lengths to which the driver goes to make amends are truly staggering… but sometimes Fate just seems to hate some people…

One thing should always be remembered when reading these stories: despite all the scientific detail, all the frighteningly accurate terminology and trappings. Black Jack isn’t medical fiction; it is an exploration of morality with medicine raised to the level of magic… or perhaps duelling.

This is a saga of personal combat, with the lone gunfighter battling hugely oppressive counter-forces (the Law, the System, himself) to win just one more victory: medicine as mythology, battles of a prescribing Ronin with a Gladstone bag.

Elements of rationalism, science-fiction, kitchen sink drama, spiritualism and even the supernatural appear in this saga of Japanese Magical Realism to rival the works of Carlos Fuentes and Gabriel García Márquez. Mostly though, these are highly addictive tales of heroism; ones that that will stay with you forever.
© 2008 by Tezuka Productions. Translation © 2008 by Camelia Nieh and Vertical, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Spirit of Wonder


By Kenji Tsuruta, translated
ISBN: 978-1-56971-288-7 (Tankōbon PB)

Just re-read this and it’s still great…

Despite carrying all the trappings of a blistering science fiction comedy romp, acclaimed author/illustrator Kenji Tsuruta’s beguiling fantasy Spirit of Wonder is a sweet romantic comedy with genteel, anything is possible sentimental yearning as the driving force.

Set in a charming alternate time and place so like our own world, it follows the Byzantine trials and tribulations of feisty, beautiful tavern owner Miss China and her truly bizarre, indigent and obnoxious upstairs tenants – genuinely bonkers Professor Breckenridge and his gorgeous, hunky assistant Jim Floyd

Creator Tsuruta (Emanon, Wandering Island) was born in 1961 and studied optical science, intending to pursue a career in photography before happily making the jump to narrative storytelling as manga artist, designer, book illustrator and anime creator.

A lifelong fan of “hard science” science fiction authors like Robert A. Heinlein and the comics of Tetsuya Chiba and Yukinobu (Saber Tiger) Hoshino, Tsuruta began selling his own works in 1986 after years of producing self-published dōjinshi whilst working as an assistant to established manga stars. His short fantasy serial Hiroku te suteki na uchū ja nai ka (‘What a Big Wonderful Universe It Is’) was published in Kodansha’s Weekly Morning magazine and his path was set.

Soon after, he began this enticing, enchanting scientific romance of gently colliding worlds which ran in both Weekly Morning and monthly magazine Afternoon – between 1987 and 1996 – before making the smooth transition to animated features and an award-winning TV series.

This English edition comes courtesy of Dark Horse Comics who published the first few translated episodes as a 5-issue monochrome miniseries in 1995-6.

In a comfortable faux-Victorian milieu, the exotic immigrant Lady China runs the Ten-Kai Tavern in the sleepy yet cosmopolitan port-town of Bristol. The generally peaceful burg hardly ever-changes, but China’s life is one of constant struggle to make a comfortable living, especially as she rents her upstairs rooms to a couple of crackpot deadbeats who continually mess up the place with their idiotic contraptions and persistently fail to pay rent.

The older guy is truly annoying and doesn’t care about anything beyond his latest weird invention but his assistant is a rather sweet and delightful young man who has captured China’s fast-beating heart…

The wonderment begins on another belated rent day with ‘Miss China’s Ring or Doctor Breckenridge and the Amazing Ether Reflector mirror!’ wherein the frustrated landlady is again forced to employ her formidable martial arts skills to get the insufferable scholar’s attention – if not the long-delayed and constantly accruing cash payable.

It’s really not a good time: Breckenridge is entertaining potential investors in his latest creation which promises safe travel to the Moon…

The meeting does not end well and both landlady and tenant depart unsatisfied, whilst in another part of town, Jim – whose responsibilities include doing everything and somehow finding the money to pay for it – is picking up a vital component from pretty “florist” Lily (a girl with amazing connections able to procure anything wayward inventors might ever require).

Unfortunately, China sees the object of her desire spending what should be rent money on a very pretty flower girl and goes ballistic…

Floyd adores China too, but as a typical guy is utterly unable to tell her. He can, however, thanks to his mad mentor Breckenridge and some astounding discoveries left by his own vanished father – another technological miracle man – give her the moon.

Literally…

Jim gives China a ring as a birthday present but she is too furious to care. She wants rent not trinkets from a flighty gadabout. If only she could calm down enough, she would see that the gift is carved from actual moon rock, but beaten into a strategic retreat, Jim realises he needs to make a somewhat grander gesture…

Heartbroken, China falls asleep and is much calmer when she awakes. Bringing her troublesome tenants tea, she looks up into the sky and sees the message Jim has carved into the shining luminous lunar surface…

Stunned and troubled, she moves through the days in a dream. Even with the evidence above his head Breckenridge still can’t get anyone to bankroll him and is driven to unwise acts. Soon the entire world is imperilled by his etheric meddling and the moon is plummeting on a deadly collision course with Bristol.

Luckily, the uniquely physical and practical talents of Miss China are of some use in averting disaster if not setting things totally aright…

‘The Flight of Floyd’ opens with the Mad Professor oafishly seeking to make amends by giving China a flying broomstick, before concluding that he will never understand women. The lovelorn landlady simply wishes she could make Jim pay attention to her, superstitiously wishing upon a shooting star, but the object of her infatuation is preoccupied with completing his missing father’s gravity disrupter and with off-handed tactlessness explains that she’s doing it wrong…

Once again the cause of increasing China’s woes, the hapless Floyd decides to use his Gravitation Gate to make things right – by creating a permanent rain of meteors for the lovely landlady to wish upon, momentarily forgetting that whilst pretty in the evening sky, a bombardment of incandescent rock packs a bit of a punch when hitting terra firma…

The marvellous merriment concludes with ‘China Strikes Back parts 1 and 2, or Doctor Breckenridge and the Astounding Instantaneous Matter Transmitter!’, which finds times hard in Bristol as the town shivers under a blanket of snow, and cash-strapped, customer-starved Lady China is forced to get increasingly heavy with her free-loading lodgers. She is also taking out her bad moods on the townspeople and the few customers still frequenting the inn for food and drinks.

However, when she once again busts in the upstairs door in search of her overdue payments, she finds the Professor and Jim have vanished, taking all their ludicrous junk with them.

They haven’t gone far, however. In fact, they haven’t gone anywhere at all, but simply set up a system by which China’s entrances and exits teleport her to and from an empty set of duplicate rooms, leaving the unscrupulous tinkerers free to stay at the tavern without being bothered.

Sadly, they hadn’t bothered to soundproof the floors of the upper rooms or warn black market tech dealer Lily of their latest innovation and when China discovers the scam – in the most embarrassing manner possible – Jim is forced into a fury of improvisation before he’s able to make things right…

This enchanting blend of Steampunk and gleeful science whimsy is a sharp, wry and fantastically ingenious human drama, filled with gentle good humour and warmth, rendered with such astonishing sensitivity and imagination that the most outrageous scenes appear thoroughly rational, authentic and real – although sadly some people might focus far too much on the innocent, unconscious and completely casual nudity rather than the superb story and characterisations on display.

Filled with extra cover illustrations, pin-ups and an engaging interview with the creator, Spirit of Wonder is a treat for every open-hearted, big-minded romantic and one no fantasy fan should be denied. Let’s hope it will be back in circulation ASAP…
© 1996 Kenji Tsuruta. All rights reserved.

The Book of Human Insects


By Osamu Tezuka translated by Mari Morimoto (Vertical)
ISBN: 978-1-935654-20-9 (HB) 978-1935654773 (PB)

Win’s Christmas Gift Recommendation: An Ideal Chiller to Disturb these Dark and Lonely Nights… 9/10

There aren’t many Names in comics. Lots of creators; multi-disciplined or single focussed, who have contributed to the body of the art form, but we don’t have many Global Presences whose contributions have affected generations of readers and aspirants all over the World, like a Mozart or Michelangelo or Shakespeare. There’s just Hergé and Jack Kirby and Osamu Tezuka.

Tezuka was born in Osaka Prefecture on November 3rd 1928 and, as a child, suffered from a severe illness which made his arms swell. The doctor who cured him inspired the boy to study medicine, and although Osamu began his professional drawing career while still at university, he persevered with his studies and qualified as a doctor too. As he faced a career crossroads, his mother advised him to do the thing that made him happiest…

Tezuka never practiced as a healer but the world was gifted with such classic cartoon masterpieces as Tetsuwan Atomu (Astro-boy), Kimba the White Lion, Buddha, Adolf and literally hundreds of other graphic narratives. Along the way, Tezuka incidentally pioneered, if not actually created, the Japanese anime industry.

Able to speak to the hearts and minds of children and adults equally, his works range from the childishly charming to the unsettling – and even terrifying. In 1970-1971 he produced the stark and moody psycho-thriller Ningen Konchuuki for Akita Shonen’s Play Comic, detailing the inexorable rise of a truly different kind of monster for the burgeoning audiences who were growing up and demanding more mature manga fare.

This superb monochrome 364-page hardback/trade paperback and digital delight opens with ‘Spring Cicada’ as failed and broken designer Ryotaro Mizuno ponders the incredible success of golden girl Toshiko Tomura; a bright young thing who has just scooped a major literary prize for her first novel.

Across town, a broken-down derelict also toasts her success whilst in a lonely garret a girl hangs from the end of a noose…

Mizuno confronts Toshiko in her moment of triumph, telling her failed author Kageri Usuba has committed suicide. Their tense exchange is observed by muck-raking journalist Aokusa

Convinced he’s on to something, the reporter perseveres and discovers Toshiko is a modern renaissance woman: emerging from obscurity to become a celebrated actress while still in her teens, she graduated to directing before becoming an award-winning designer. Abruptly she metamorphosed again, writing the stunning novel The Book of Human Insects. Still in her twenties, there seems to be nothing the angelic girl cannot do…

Further enquiry leads the obsessed newsman to her desolate rural home where the uncanny genius presents an entirely different, almost wanton aspect. Moreover, she keeps there a very creepy waxwork of her dead mother…

Toshiko catches the professional voyeur and agrees to an interview, but before that meeting Aokusa is accosted by shambling drop-out Hyoroku Hachisuka, a once-prominent stage-director who imparts the true story of Toshiko’s resplendent rise to fame and fortune.

Once, the universally approved-of, wholesome girl was a small, timid creature who inveigled her way into his theatre company. Once there, she attached herself like a lamprey to the star, learning her ways and mannerisms. A perfect mimic, Toshiko not only acquired the actress’s skills but also seemed to suck out her talent and inspiration. When the former star quit, Toshiko replaced her…

She performed that same slow consumption with the entire company and then turned her attentions to the director…

Moreover, the seemingly helpless waif was utterly amoral, using sex, slander and perhaps even murder to achieve her ends, which were always short-term: she had no goals or life ambitions, but merely flitted from victim to victim like a wasp seeking its next meal…

Ignoring the warning, Aosuka persists, discovering promising writer Usuba once had a room-mate named Toshiko whom she accused of plagiarising her novel…

Intriguingly, the lonely writer’s recent suicide occurred in extremely suspicious circumstances…

During a TV interview, Toshiko accidentally meets Mizuno again. Revealed as one of her earliest victims, can he possibly be the only man she ever loved?

In ‘Leafhopper’ Aosuka uncovers another of Toshiko’s secrets when he meets for the first and last time her shady associate Arikawa – a murderous anarchist who cleans ups the lovely mimic’s potential embarrassments – just as she tries to renew her relationship with the bitter and far wiser Mizuno.

Toshiko also meets war criminal and right-wing “businessman” Sesson Kabuto who immediately discerns her true nature and keeps a fascinated but wary professional distance from her…

Toshiko operates almost instinctively and according to immediate desire, but she has a terrifying capacity to clean up any potentially damaging loose-ends. After seducing Arikawa she spectacularly removes him during a political assassination and uses the affair to promote her next book…

Meanwhile Mizuno spirals further into despondency until he meets a prostitute who looks like Toshiko and finally finds redeeming true love – of a sort…

Toshiko almost overreaches her abilities when she is arrested by South Korean security forces in ‘Longhorn Beetle’ but is rescued and forced into marriage by a man every inch her ruthless, remorseless equal. This propels her to even more inspired acts of perversion and survival – which consequentially endanger the wellbeing of everybody in Japan – before ‘Katydid’ brings the unique drama to a shocking, bloody, poignant and utterly unexpected conclusion…

Murder-mystery, Greek Tragedy, trenchant melodrama, serial-killer horror story and much more, this supremely adult tale has hardly dated at all since its release and offers a chilling image of those hidden invisible predators who have supplanted vampires, witches and werewolves in the dark corners of our communal consciousness.

The beautiful maiden as lure and amoral predator possibly began with this truly disturbing tale and the story is one which will stay with readers long after the final page is turned…

“God of Manga” Osamu Tezuka died in 1989 but with ever more of his copious canon being released in English there’s plenty of brilliant material for all ages, intellects and inclinations to admire and adore, so why not start right here, right now.

Accept no imitations…
© 2011 by Tezuka Productions. Translation © 2011 by Mari Morimoto and Vertical, Inc. All rights reserved.

The Strange Tale of Panorama Island


By Edogawa Rompo, adapted and illustrated by Suehiro Maruo, translated by Ryan Sands & Kyoko Nitta (Last Gasp)
ISBN: 978-0-86719-777-8 (HB)

Edogawa Rompo is revered as the Godfather of Japanese detective fiction – his output as author and critic defining the crime thriller from 1923 to his death in 1965. Born Tarō Hirai, he worked under a nom-de-plume based on his own great inspiration, Edgar Allen Poe, penning such well-loved classics as The Two-Sen Copper Coin, The Stalker in the Attic, The Black Lizard and The Monster with 20 Faces as well as many tales of his signature hero detective Kogoro Akechi, notional leader of the stalwart young band Shōnen tantei dan (the Boy Detective’s Gang).

He did much to popularise the concept of the rationalist observer and deductive mystery-solver. In 1946, he sponsored the detective magazine Hōseki (Jewels) and a year later founded the Detective Author’s Club, which survives today as the Mystery Writers of Japan association.

Although his latter years were taken up with promoting the genre, producing criticism, translation of western fiction and penning crime books for younger audiences, much of his earlier output (Rampo wrote 20 novels and lots of short stories) were dark, sinister concoctions based on the trappings and themes of ero guro nansensu (“eroticism, grotesquerie, and the nonsensical”) playing into the then-contemporary Japanese concept of hentai seiyoku or “abnormal sexuality”.

From that time comes this particular adaptation, originally serialised in Enterbrain’s monthly magazine Comic Beam from July 2007-January 2008.

Panorama-tō Kidan or The Strange Tale of Paradise Island was a prose vignette released in 1926, adapted here with astounding flair and finesses by uncompromising illustrator and adult manga master Suehiro Maruo.

A frequent contributor to the infamous Japanese underground magazine Garo, Maruo is the crafter of such memorable and influential sagas as Ribon no Kishi (Knight of the Ribbon), Rose Coloured Monster, Mr. Arashi’s Amazing Freak Show, The Laughing Vampire, Ultra-Gash Inferno, How to Rake Leaves and many others.

This is a lovely book. A perfect physical artefact of the themes involved, this weighty oversized (262x187mm) monochrome hardback has glossy full-colour inserts, creator biographies and just feels like something extra special, whilst it compellingly chronicles an intriguingly baroque tale of greed, lust, deception and duplicity which begins when starving would-be author Hitomi Hirosuke reads of the death of the Taisho Emperor. Sadly, it still hasn’t made it into digital formats yet…

On December 26th 1926, Japan suffered a social catastrophe. The shock of losing the revered ruler reverberated through the entire nation. The trauma forced one failing writer to reassess his life. He finds himself wanting…

At another fruitless meeting with his editor Ugestu, Hitomi learns that an old friend, Genzaburo Komoda, has passed away. At college the boys were implausibly inseparable: the poor but ambitious kid and the heir to one of the greatest industrial fortunes in Japan. Perhaps it was because they looked and sounded exactly alike: doppelgangers nobody could tell apart…

The presumed cause of death was the asthma which had plagued the wealthy scion all his life and Hitomi, fuelled by self-loathing and inspired by Poe’s tale “The Premature Burial”, hatches a crazy scheme…

Faking his own suicide the writer leaves his effects to Ugestu before travelling to Kishu and immediately beginning his insane plot. Starving himself the entire time, Hitomi locates his pal’s grave, disposes of the already mouldering body and dons the garments and jewellery of Komoda. He even smashes out a front tooth and replaces it with the false one from the corpse…

His ghastly tasks accomplished, the starving charlatan simply collapses in a road where he can be found…

The news spreads like wildfire and soon all Komoda’s closest business associates have visited the miraculous survivor of catalepsy. The intimate knowledge Hitomi possesses combined with the “shock and confusion” of his miraculous escape is enough to fool even aged family retainer Tsunoda, and the fates are with him in that the widow Chiyoko has gone to Osaka to get over her loss. Of course she will rush back as soon as she hears the news…

However with gifts and good wishes flooding in, even Chiyoko is seemingly fooled and the fraudster begins to settle in his new skin. Just to be safe, however, he keeps the wife at a respectful and platonic distance. Comfortably entrenched, he begins to move around the Komoda fortune.

Hitomi the starving writer’s great unfinished work was The Tale of RA, a speculative fantasy in which a young man inherits a vast fortune and uses it to create an incredible, futuristic pleasure place of licentious delight. Now the impostor starts to make that sybaritic dream a reality, repurposing the family wealth into buying an island, relocating its inhabitants and building something never before conceived by mind of man…

Fobbing off all questions with the lie that he is constructing an amusement park that will be his eternal legacy, he populates the marvel of Arcadian engineering, landscaping, and optical science with a circus of wanton performers, living statues of erotic excess and a manufactured mythological bestiary.

He even claims that the colossal expenditure will begun healing the local economic malaise, but for every obstacle overcome another seems to occur. Moreover he cannot shift the uneasy feeling that Chiyoko suspects the truth about him…

Eventually however the great dream of plutocratic grandeur, lotus-eating luxury and hedonistic sexual excess is all but finished and “Komoda” escorts his wife on a grand tour of the wondrous celebration of debauched perversity that is his personal empire of the senses.

Once ensconced there he ends his worries of Chiyoka exposing him, but all too soon his Panorama Island receives an unwanted visitor.

Kogoro Akechi has come at the behest of the wife’s family and he has a few questions about, of all things, a book.

It seems that an editor, bereaved by the loss of one of his protégés, posthumously published that tragic young man’s magnum opus to celebrate his wasted life: a story entitled The Tale of RA

This dark compelling morality play is realised in a truly breathtaking display of artistic virtuosity from Maruo, who combines clinical detail of intoxicating decadence with vast graphic vistas in a torrent of utterly enchanting images, whilst never allowing the visuals to overwhelm the underlying narrative and rise and fall of a boldly wicked protagonist…

Stark, stunning, classically clever and utterly adult The Strange Tale of Paradise Island is one of the best-looking, most absorbing crime thrillers I’ve seen this century, and no mystery loving connoisseur of comics, cinema or prose should miss it.
© 2008, 2013 HIRAI Rutaro, MARUO Suehiro. All rights reserved. English translation © 2013 Last Gasp.

Velveteen & Mandala


By Jiro Matsumoto (Vertical)
ISBN: 978-1-935654-30-8 (Tankōbon PB)

Things have been a bit too much sweetness and light around here lately. Here’s a change of pace and taste then then needs a bit of an advisory warning. This book revels in gratuitous violence, barely-closeted misogyny and sexualised imagery. So why, then, is it so very good?

Civilisation has radically changed. What we knew is no longer right or true, but disturbing remnants remain to baffle and terrify, as High School girl Velveteen and her decidedly off-key classmate and companion/enemy Mandala eke out an extreme existence on the banks of a river in post-Zombie-Apocalypse Tokyo.

Here (with straight-faced nods to Tank Girl), using an abandoned battle-wagon as their crash-pad, the girls while away the days and nights casually slaughtering roaming hordes of zombies – at least whenever they can stop squabbling with each other…

From the very outset of this grim, sexy, gratuitous splatter-punk horror-show there is something decidedly “off” going on: a gory mystery beyond the usual “how did the world end this time?”

On the surface, Velveteen & Mandala (Becchin To Mandara in its original 14-chapter run between 2007-2009 in the periodical Manga Erotics F) is a monster-killing yarn which owes plenty to Buffy the Vampire Slayer, but there’s more than meets the eye or ballistic charge happening here.

We begin at ‘The Riverside’ with the pair awaking from dreams to realise and remember the hell they now inhabit. Cunning catch-up concluded, ‘Smoke on the Riverside’ then reveals a few of the nastier ground-rules of their current lifestyle, and especially Velveteen’s propensity for arson and appetite for destruction…

‘Sukiyaki’ finds the girls on edge as food becomes an issue, whilst the introduction of ‘The Super’ who monitors their rate of zombie dispatch leads to more information (but not necessarily any answers) in this enigmatic world, after which ‘The Cellar’ amps up the uncertainty as Velveteen steals into her new boss’s ghastly man-cave inner sanctum…

In a medium where extreme violence is commonplace, Matsumoto increasingly uses unglamourised nudity and brusque vulgarity to unsettle and shock the reader, but the flashback events of … ‘School Arcade, Underground Shelter’ – if true and not delusion – indicate that a society this debased might not be worth saving from the undead…

In ‘Omen’ and ‘Good Omen (Whisper)’ the obfuscating mysteries begins to clear as B52 bombers dumps thousands more corpses by the Riverside, adding to the “to do” roster of walking dead the girls must deal with once darkness falls…

Throughout the story Matsumoto liberally injects cool artefacts of fashion, genre and pop-culture seemingly at random, but as the oppressive horrors get ever closer to ending our heroines in ‘Genocide’ and ‘Deep in the Dark’, a certain sense can be imagined, so that once the Super is removed and Velveteen promoted to his position in ‘Parting’, the drama spirals into a hallucinogenic – possibly untrustworthy – climax for ‘Mandala’s Big Farewell Party’ and ‘Nirvana’ before the further revelations of ‘Flight’

Deliberately misleading and untrustworthy – and strictly aimed at over-18s – this dark, nasty, scatologically excessive tale graphically celebrates the differences between grotesque, flesh-eating dead-things and the constantly biologically mis-functioning Still-Living (although the zombie “Deadizens” are still capable of cognition, speech and rape…); all wrapped up in the culturally acceptable and traditional manner of one blowing the stuffings out of the other…

Confirmed confrontationalist Jiro Matsumoto (Uncivilized Planet, Avant-Pop Mars, A Revolutionist in the Afternoon, Tropical Citron) is probably best known for dystopian speculative sci-fi revenge thriller Freesia, but here his controversial yet sublime narrative gifts are turned to a much more psychologically complex – almost meta-fictional – layering of meaning upon revelation upon contention, indicating that if you have a strong enough stomach the very best is still to come…

First seen in English as a monochrome paperback in 2011, this stand-alone saga will be available in digital formats later this year.
© 2009 Jiro Matsumoto. All right reserved. Translation © 2011 Vertical, Inc.

Wandering Witch: The Journey of Elaina volume 1


By Jougi Shirashi illustrated by Itsuki Nanoa: character design by Azure: translated by Taylor Engel (SQUARE ENIX)
ISBN: 978-1-64609-035-8 (TPB)

Written by Jougi Shiraishi, Majo no Tabitabi began in 2014 as an original eBook on Amazon’s Kindle service. Initially the book struggled, but diligent politicking on message and bulletin boards built a solid fanbase and the series was picked up in 2016 by SB Creative for their ranobe (Light Novel) division. With illustrations and designs by Azure the stories of the Wandering Witch took off – with ten volumes thus far – and ultimately led to an online manga adaptation by Itsuki Nanao. That launched in November 2018 as a smartphone app and on Square Enix’s Manga UP! website. April 2019 saw the release of a paperback tankōbon collection in Japan which now comes to the English-speaking world in anticipation of a TV series slated to launch in October 2020.

Firmly entrenched in the whimsical, joyous and exceedingly popular arena of benevolent magic-users operating in comfy medieval other-verses, these are engaging episodes starring a capable young woman just getting to grips with her mystic gifts. Moreover, Elaina is a lass who loves to travel, meaning she can help folk of many interesting places…

Her peregrinations begin when she arrives in ‘The Land of Magicians’: a walled city filled with mages and sorcerers…

Elaina fondly recalls how her love of books – especially the saga of travelling witch Nique – set her own childhood ambitions firmly on following her idol’s path. Now a freshly-graduated full sorceress dubbed the Ashen Witch, her progress is stalled after an apparently accidental crash involving neophyte student Saya. Somehow, in that fateful collision, Elaina loses her potent Brooch of Office and cannot move on without recovering it. As she seeks, however, the Ashen Witch discovers that all is not as it seems…

A tone of menace and thwarted romance permeates ‘The Land of Flowers’ as Elaina encounters an eerie field of blossoms and unwisely agrees to deliver a bunch of blooms for the young maiden reclining there. Strangely, it doesn’t matter who accepts the bouquet, only that someone from the nearby city does. Even more peculiar is that no one will and that flowers have been ruled illegal in the conurbation. Ever-inquisitive, Elaina soon learns of a fantastic situation and is embroiled in a fantastic tragedy before moving on…

Smart and self-sufficient, the Ashen Witch arrives in a nondescript kingdom and faces an unprecedented crisis as ‘Raising Funds’ find her trapped in a land where runaway inflation ripples the populace and drains her of her own living capital. Struggling to meet basic expenses, she soon uncovers an incredible plot against the new king and must take dramatic action to help him and escape with her travelling cash intact…

The dramas conclude with an origin tale as she recalls her time as ‘Apprentice Witch Elaina’: a talented but naive acolyte striving to please her ferociously eccentric mentor Fran the Stardust Witch. It was quite some time before the student divined the method behind her tutor’s apparent madness…

Rounding out this jolly grimoire are brief prose vignette ‘What Would You Take to a Desert Island?’, taken from Elaina’s student days with Fran, plus a selection of short strips concerning ‘The Tale of the Muscle Man Who’s Looking for his Little Sister On the Road’, ending the fun on a suitably bizarre note…

Engaging and wry, this superbly illustrated slice of fanciful fluff will delight lovers of the genre and offers plenty of potential for developing into a true all-ages fan phenomenon. Why not check it out, if you’re looking for something light and frothy to balance life’s darker realities…
Wandering Witch volume 1 © Jougi Shiraishi/SB Creative Corp. Character Design by Azure. © 2019 Itsuki Nanao/ SQUARE ENIX CO., LTD. English translation © 2020 SQUARE ENIX CO., LTD. All rights reserved.

Pure Trance


By Junko Mizuno (jaPress/Last Gasp)
ISBN: 978-0-86719-878-2 (HB)

If you’re over a certain age or have eclectic tastes in art and music, you might feel a pang of nostalgia at this remastered work of coyly adults-only fiction: the first subversively compelling creation of iconic Manga master Junko Mizuno.

Since her emergence in 1995, the author has become renowned – more accurately, infamous – for mixing childhood innocence with grim, gory action and unwholesome or stridently clashing, wildly inappropriate content in a sub-genre now dubbed Gothic or Noir kawaii (where kawaii describes cutely drawn protagonists and subjects).

Moreover, the skewed sensibilities of such works as Cinderalla, Hansel & Gretel, Princess Mermaid, Momongo no Isshō (the Life of Momongo), Little Fluffy Gigolo Pelu and Ravina the Witch has escaped the comics ghetto to be embraced by a larger fashion-based audience with art exhibitions (Heart Throbs and Tender Succubus), art-books (Hell Babies, Collector File and Flare) and high-end designer toys for adults which include plush animals, vinyl figures, stationery, postcards, stickers, original art T-shirts and a line of condoms and erotic paraphernalia.

Her shojo-derived style (that’s “stories for girls”, in case you’re wondering) also borrows heavily from the most iconic imagery of the 1960s and early 1970s, particularly the Graphic Psychedelia which grew out of Pop Art. Her stars and support characters are huge eyed, large-headed poppet girls, drawn to look young or, more accurately, actively, innocently, illicitly under-aged: all acting in simplified environments where detail is reduced to bare minima.

The stories are always sharply at odds with her drawing style – like cartoons for toddlers, but involving unpleasant visits to the gynaecologist or being consumed by cannibals – and much of her material incorporates splashy full colour despite the overwhelming preponderance of black and white material in Japan.

Rereleased in tactilely-satisfying hardback and ebook editions, Pure Trance is strictly monochrome throughout and was the auteur’s first official book, even though it is, in fact, a compilation of a minicomics series created to be given away with CD music albums. From 1996-1998 these deeply disturbing Sci Fi adventures of hard-pressed nurses and beauticians in a dystopian future were included in Pure Trance volumes 11 to 20.

I can’t help but wonder what the blissed-out music fans made of the creepily tongue-in-cheek horror stories, but at least the work reached a more amenable audience when Mizuno revised and updated the pamphlets in 1998 for a single book edition. That was first translated into English in 2005 and now it’s back again…

I hesitate to attempt a précis of this wonderfully baroque extravaganza of sugar ‘n’ spice, unnecessary surgical procedures, creeping mutant terrors, animal antics, walk-in Eating Disorder clinics, fetish and bondage catalogues and the indomitable triumph of the human spirit over its own darkest desires, but the chilling whimsy unleashed here is a brilliant and intoxicating progression that needs some highlighting, so…

In the aftermath of WW3, Earth is a toxic wasteland and humanity has retreated underground. Deep beneath Tokyo, society carries on but is currently beleaguered by a plague of uncontrollable hunger: an unappetising condition dubbed “hyperorexia” which is caused by the life-sustaining Pure Trance pill everyone takes. In a bleak commercialised underworld, the condition is treated by dedicated clinicians in specialised hospitals…

Our story focuses on Overeaters Treatment Center 102 and its deviant director Keiko Yamazaki; an officious, drug-abusing, sadistic tyrant who makes life hell for the poor nurses under her command. Her cruel practises – such as humiliation, torture and eating any animal (artificial or real) unfortunate enough to fall into her clutches – eventually sparks a revolution, but not before some of her subordinates make a daring and desperate dash for the abandoned surface world to discover things both amazing and life-changing…

Supplemented by info pin-ups highlighting the many characters wandering about and accompanied by sidebar inserts detailing people, places, beasts, items of interest and key moments under the designation “Pure Trance Trivia”, this epic exploration of an uncanny alternate tomorrow is both splendid and terrifying.

Everything, especially the legion of pretty girls, is drawn in the style of early Playboy icons, in the brand of cartoon stylisations that featured in movie title sequences like What’s New, Pussycat? or Yellow Submarine. Anybody British who remembers the children’s animation Crystal Tipps and Alistair, or the hippo from Rainbow, will feel a frisson of nostalgia – which is of course the point. The art is an irresistible velvet trap designed to reduce readers to a receptive state in which the author can make telling points about contemporary culture.

By co-opting children’s entertainment Mizuno addresses fundamental aspects of human existence in a form designed to shock, subvert, upset and most importantly, provoke. So, if some thought on the readers’ part extends beyond our old-fashioned, but still visceral gut-reaction to innocent girls in distress and the ridiculous and idealistic spiritual purity that used to be associated with such imagery, then she’s done her job…

This groundbreaking social satire is a supremely edgy and funny fantasy with plenty to say about society, relationships and the planet we should be safeguarding – especially now, when and where we’re all under similar pressures of isolation and survival.
© 2005, 2019 Junko Mizuno. All Rights Reserved.

Sickness Unto Death volumes 1 & 2


By Hikaru Asada & Takahiro Seguchi (Vertical)
ISBN: 978-1-939130-09-9(tankōbon PB vol. 1) 978-1939130105(tankōbon PB vol. 2)

Here’s an intriguing and tragically underrated and sadly forgotten saga deftly examining the devastating effects of despair that still has plenty to say and much to offer…

Takahiro Seguchi’s gripping psychological melodrama Sickness Unto Death is a bleak and enthralling, emotionally complex tale of love, compulsion and dependency, transformed into spellbinding comics by artist Hikaru Asada.

Inspired by Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard’s treatise Sygdommen til Døden (The Sickness Unto Death – a Christian existentialist examination of the “Sin of Despair”), this extremely accessible tale began in 2009 as Shi ni Itaru Yamai; serialised in Hakusensha’s fortnightly Seinen magazine Young Animal.

This translated version opens with a Professor standing beside a student over the grave of his first case – and greatest love…

A flashback begins revealing how, as a young man, Kazuma Futaba came to the city to study clinical psychology, and how he was lucky to find lodgings in an old house. However, on his way there he encountered a young girl with white hair suffering a crushing anxiety attack in the street. Although everybody ignored the crippled creature, he rushed to her assistance and happily complied with her desperate need to be held.

‘Emiru’ was impossibly cold to the touch and although both were merely 18 years old, she seemed inexorably gripped by an ancient despondency and overwhelming gloom…

After she recovered, he hurried on to find his new digs in a vast old house, meeting the butler Kuramoto who reveals the place belonged to the orphan Emiru Ariga, a beautiful, vivacious creature who had within the last two years suddenly succumbed to a crushing ‘Despair’ so great it had bleached her hair, triggered drastic weight-loss, weakened her heart and caused her body temperature to fall to far below normal. He describes it as a “terminal illness of the spirit”. She now spends most of her time locked in her room, drawing monsters and waiting to die…

Intrigued, desperate to help but painfully aware of how inexperienced he is, Futaba examines the compliant, barely-living corpse and determines to somehow help her. At least she shows some animation when he is near. Both Kuramoto and his young mistress want Futaba to fix her…

In ‘Haunted Mansion’ the relationship develops further as the student transfers what he learns by day at school into evening therapy. Emiru seems brighter, even though she believes the house harbours ghosts…

When Kuramoto is called away for a few days, he leaves Futaba in charge, but after the frail girl spends too long in a bath, the boy panics. Breaking in, he sees her painfully thin, nude form for the first time. Embarrassed and confused, he dashes away and stumbles upon a mystery room, its door nailed shut with heavy planks.

Emiru sees ghosts: a crying, lonely child and a monster with teeth but no face…

Her sleep is perpetually disturbed, and Futaba – after learning about Night Terrors in class – agrees to ‘Sharing a Bed’, even though he is no longer certain his own motives are strictly professional. Nevertheless, resolved to save her he begins a ‘Psych Assessment’, gathering facts and personal history, but learns little more than once she was normal and then, suddenly, she wasn’t…

Emiru is increasingly time-locked in lengthy periods of despair, weeping outside the barred room; her traumatic nights eased by Kazuma’s platonic presence, although she feels the spectral presence of ‘The One in the Mansion’ whenever he goes away…

In the present, Professor Futaba and student Minami – who thinks she too can see a ghost in the abandoned dwelling – explore the deserted, decrepit mansion which housed his greatest regret. When they stop at a monster drawing scrawled on a wall, it takes him back to those troubled years…

A setback in Emiru’s recovery occurs when another ghost sighting unleashes a wave of depression and young Futaba learns of her carefree ‘High School Years’ from fellow psych student Koizumi – a former classmate of Emiru when she a healthy, happy, raven-haired ball of wild energy, fun and adventure…

Koizumi ardently believes she became burdened with some terrible secret that overnight transformed her into the frail, fading creature Futaba describes, prompting the floundering lad to confer with his tutor Professor Otsuki. The mentor responds by lending him a copy of Kierkegaard’s infamous tract…

For such a weakened patient, even a cold might be fatal, but with Futaba at her side Emiru pulls through. However, after recovering, she entices him into crossing a ‘Forbidden Line’ but neither as therapist nor lover is young Futaba assured of securing her ‘Happiness and Beauty’ until and unless he can her unburden her obsessive soul of the dark secret strangling it from within…

Beguiling and hypnotic, this exceptional medical mystery/ghostly love story is far from the familiar – to Western eyes at least – explosive bombast and action slapstick normally associated with Japanese comics. As such it might just make a few manga converts amongst die-hard holdouts who prefer sensitive writing, deep themes and human scale to their comics.

Moody, moving and far more than just another adult manga, Sickness Unto Death is that rarest of things: a graphic novel for people who don’t think they like comics…
© 2010 Hikaru Asada. © 2010 Takahiro Seguchi. All rights reserved.

The Garden


By Sean Michael Wilson & Fumio Obata (Liminal 11)
ISBN: 978-1-912634-16-3 (HB)

We’re all locked up in our own heads as much as in our homes these days, and constantly in search of solutions to ease anxiety however we can. Please allow me then – in timely fashion and most serendipitously – to get in an early plug for this forthcoming sublime gem laced with helpful suggestions on healing mindfulness.

Not only is the message calming and helpful – and delivered in beguiling imagery guaranteed to reset your outraged Alpha Waves – but it also guarantees a solidly entertaining read while helping to moderate your hunger for physical relaxation and contemplative rejuvenation.

Until recently equally at home in Britain and Japan, Scottish author Seán Michael Wilson (Breaking the Ten, The Story of Lee) was inspired to write The Garden after being asked by a comics newcomer if there were any about gardening. After taking a beat and realising the range of subjects covered in graphic novels was quite limited – and getting smaller – the writer, educator and dedicated Humanist – who has previous form on cerebral topics and non-mainstream graphic narratives – decided to create one himself…

Wilson originally took a degree in psychology, with a postgraduate diploma in clinical hypnotherapy before transferring to the Ninth Art. In comic form, besides more traditional fare, he has co-crafted political and philosophical tracts such as Goodbye God – An Illustrated Examination of Science Vs. Religion and Portraits of Violence – An Illustrated History of Radical Thinking and adapted many Western and Eastern literary classics such as Wuthering Heights, Sweeney Todd, Book of Five Rings and Tao Te Ching. This is a man with wide interests who has learned how to kick back and slow down…

His collaborator here is equally distinguished with similar antecedents. Author, educator, artist and animator Fumio Obata (Just So Happens, DC Thompson, Internazionale) was born in Tokyo in 1975, before moving to the UK at age 16. His BA Illustration degree from Glasgow School of Art was compounded with a Masters in Communication Design from the Royal College of Art before he began pursuing a comics career in Britain and Europe.

In this gloriously welcoming hardback, the classic tale of early success leading to burn-out and transformative healing through new purpose follows formerly high-flying financier Joanna who spectacularly and very publicly suffers an emotional meltdown.

Recovering in her house, a conversation with sister Samantha sets her on a path to a new life that begins with a trip to Japan and a course in creating traditional Zen designs at the Garden Institute of Kyoto.

Once there, Joanna learns that it’s not actually all about her at all…

Filled with delightful human moments and a broad cast of appetising characters, Joanna’s learning curve is a marvellously tempting invitation to combine our personal urban nightmare with a more bucolic experience that Williams was a appeal to the suppressed nature lover in us all, and the life-changing challenge even comes with an appealing Poem of the Garden to start your own verdant rebirth…

Calm, contemplative and mentally refreshing, The Garden is a seed of surprise just waiting for you to plant it…
© 2020 Sean Michael Wilson & Fumio Obata. All rights reserved.
The Garden is scheduled for release on May 21st 2020 and is available for pre-order now.

Suppose a Kid from the Last Dungeon Boonies Moved to a Starter Town


By Toshio Satou, illustrated by Hajime Fusemachi: character design by Nao Watanuki and translated by Andrew Cunningham (SQUARE ENIX)

Here’s a quick simple reading treat to cheer you up: a classic Comedy of Errors – more like misconceptions – to whisk you away from grim reality for a while.

Written by Toshio Satō (Satou) with illustrations by Nao Watanuki, Tatoeba Last Dungeon Mae no Mura no Shōnen ga Joban no Machi de Kurasu Yō na Monogatari is a series of ranobe – or Light Novels – recounting the adventures of a naïve, super-powerful innocent in the big bad outside world. Set in a traditional fantasy/fairy tale realm, the saga has generated seven prose volumes since debuting in February 2017. The popular hit has spawned the usual tranche of spin-offs including an upcoming anime TV series and a manga interpretation by Hajime Fusemachi. This last began digitally in manga magazine Gangan Online and since its start in September 2017, has filled three physical-print tankōbon volumes. This is the first to make it into English…

One aspect that might possibly grate on western sensibilities is the motif of incredibly lengthy titles. Opening chapter ‘That Day Was Like the Arrival of a Really Well-Mannered Super-Typhoon’ sees male ingenue and shy village hick Lloyd Belladonna arrive in the bustling metropolis and capital city of the Azami Kingdom. Although the weakest and most inconsequential inhabitant of his far-distant hamlet of Kunlun, the kid has finally succumbed to his lifelong ambition: to try and enlist in the mighty army of the Realm. Lloyd has no illusions of his unworthiness and inability, but he must follow his dream…

On the advice of his village Chief – a witch named Alka – the boy imposes himself on Marie, the Witch of the East Side unaware of her dubious past or the inescapable debt the urban sorceress owes Alka. There’s lots going on that Lloyd doesn’t understand, but he’s kind, hardworking, diligent and so very humble. He also knows a little magic.

He uses it to clean and tidy with inconceivable efficiency but in the civilized world it’s a rare commodity. The boy Belladonna also has one more advantage that he’s blithely unaware of. Kunlun rests at the ends of the Earth. It’s a village of heroes stretching back into antiquity standing at the edge of a region of horrors: a Bastion against evil where fighting monsters is second nature to all. Back there, he might be a feeble figure of pity but it’s only relative. In the outside world, he’s a being of incredible physical power and speed, with fighting strategies bred into his unbreakable bones from the moment of conception…

Thus, the bewildered waif and his reluctant landlady Marie set about making his dream come true, but as the boy accidentally progresses through ‘That Encounter Was Like a God Came in on a White Horse’, ‘This Stroke of Luck Was Like Finding a Wish-Granting Magic Flower Growing in Your Backyard’ and ‘This Shock Was Like Seeing a Jewel That Could Save the Realm’s Economy Flung into the Ocean’ – fixing environmental disasters, routing invading horror-beasts and even curing a cursed princess without noticing – it becomes clear that the only thing impeding Lloyd’s progress is his own crushing lack of self-belief…

Even joining the elite Azami Military Academy he attributes to luck and kindness, not the sheer power the tutors are desperate to recruit and utilise. However, as malign forces gather around the imperilled city-state, Belladonna might be the only factor capable of staving off irreversible doom if only the veteran warriors can convince him of his own worth…

To Be Continued…
Suppose a Kid from the Last Dungeon Boonies Moved to a Starter Town volume 1 © Toshio Satou/SB Creative Corp. Character Design by Nao Watanuki. © Hajime Fusemachi/ SQUARE ENIX CO., LTD. English translation © 2020 SQUARE ENIX CO., LTD.