Monday, August 21, 2006

Graphic Lit: The Drifting Classroom

Much thanks to everyone who commented, linked to or emailed me about the Gilbert Hernandez interview. Your kind words were most appreciated.

Today's post is actually from 2 weeks ago and ran in the Patriot-News on Aug. 11.

Here in America, we love our horror, as stalwart icons like Freddie Krueger and Jason Voorhees can confirm.

Our love for all things gory and gruesome, however, is perhaps surpassed by that of the Japanese. As evidenced by such films as "The Ring" and "The Grudge," scary stories go a long way to slaking audiences' thirsts in the East.

This is especially true in manga, where horror stories draw a big crowd of fans, young and old alike. And in the horror genre, no author is held in higher esteem than Kazuo Umezu.

A true Renaissance cartoonist, Umezu has penned romance stories, humor (the incredibly popular "Makoto-Chan"), been a TV personality and even fronted a rock band (their hit single was "Diarrhea Pants Rock").

But it's his horror tales that have won Umezu the most acclaim. Until recently, however, few of his works were available in the U.S.

Dark Horse stepped up to the plate recently with its "Scary Book" series, of which two volumes are currently available (a third is due in stores at the end of the month).

"Scary Book" collects some of Umezu's short stories so far, most of them early works that don't really display the author's knack for surrealism and psychological horror.

Now, however, Viz Media has come out with the first volume of "The Drifting Classroom," easily Umezu's most beloved and well-known manga. It's a series that puts to shame the safe, hackneyed material we label as "horror" here in the U.S.

Originally serialized from 1972-74, "Drifting Classroom" tells the story of an elementary school that is suddenly and inexplicably wrenched from its small town and placed into a bizarre, nightmarish wasteland.

With no explanation available for this dislocation, panic starts to set in, not just among the students, but among the teachers as well, and it quickly becomes clear to sixth-grader Sho that he and his friends will need to fight not just the alien landscape, but faculty and fellow classmates to survive.

Whereas most Western creators would pull their punches in depicting children in peril, Umezu is fearless. These elementary schoolkids are not just injured, they are stabbed, trampled, fall to their deaths and, in one stark sequence, left for dead by cowardly adults. And you know, upon finishing that first volume that things are only going to get worse.

All of this is informed by Umezu's love for comics. The way he frequently paces a sequence, starting with a mid-level shot, slowly zooming in close and then pulling back to a two-page spread, is nothing short of stunning and goes a long way in explaining why Umezu is called the "Stephen King of Japan."

Though stark and grim, "Classroom" is not without humor and remains a masterful bit of storytelling. In many ways, the series can be seen as Umezu's warning to kids. That sinking feeling you have in your stomach is right, he seems to be saying. Your parents do lie to you. Adults don't always have your best interests at heart. They're just as clueless and lost as you are.

We're all just drifting.

Other scary books

"Museum of Terror Vol. 1"
by Junji Ito

Dark Horse, 376 pages, $13.95.

After Umezu, the only other Japanese horror artist known on these shores is Ito, whose "Uzumaki" garnered some acclaim.

"Terror" is a new, ongoing series collecting Ito's work. The first volume deals solely with his "Tomie" stories, Tomie in this case being a young woman whose beauty and cruelty drive men to commit murder, usually hers.

Tomie, however, always finds a way to come back and exact revenge. This is nice, gruesome stuff, sure to send a chill through the spine of anyone foolish to read it late at night.

"Dragon Head Vol. 1-3"
by Minetaro Mochizuki

Tokyopop, 232 pages, $9.99 each.

This masterful, apocalyptic manga concerns a horrible train wreck in a tunnel that leaves only three teenage survivors, one of whom is slowly losing his grip on sanity.

As the three try to survive and find a way out of the tunnel, there are suggestions that things might be even worse on the outside. Was the crash just a random accident or part of an even more horrible catastrophe? Mochizuki's thrilling story will have you desperate to find out the answer.

Copyright The Patriot-News 2006


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