Sunday, July 15, 2007

Manga Monday: Double Take Special!

This week for Manga Monday, Patrick and I will be weighing in on a title we've both read...

Dragon Head (Volume 7)
Minetaro Mochizuki


Patrick says:

The survival horror manga Dragon Head is a good example of why I could never be a successful manga publisher or trend spotter. Reading the book, I would assume it would have found enormous popularity, rivaling that of Death Note. I’d be wrong, of course. Apparently, Dragon Head is something of a tough sell to publisher Tokyopop’s target audience ( young manga fans who frequent bookstores, presumably), but I’ll be damned if I can figure out why that’s the case.

Dragon Head is absolutely one of the most compelling, well-crafted, atmospheric, and generally creepy genre comic books being published today. Fans who’ve been wise enough to take notice of the series have been rewarded with increasingly compelling chapters detailing the exploits of two Japanese high school students (a boy, Teru, and a girl, Ako) who find themselves stranded in a post-apocalyptic wasteland following a mysterious disaster which occurred while they were on their way home on the subway from a class trip. The teens dug themselves out from the tunnel under which they’d been trapped in the third volume, and have been struggling not only to survive, but also to discover what has happened to their world, ever since. In this newest volume, it seems as though they may be closer than ever to finding the answer, as the cryptic words whispered by a strange and probably lobotomized boy, “dragon head,” and a famous painting by the Japanese artist Hokusai, lead Teru, Ako, and their reluctant allies (two young soldiers) to Mount Fuji. Instead of answers, though, they find an abyss.

One of the most frightening sequences in the book occurs when the kids fly their helicopter over the gaping maw where Mt. Fuji had once been. Mochizuki proves himself a master of his craft here, as his drawings of the tiny helicopter dwarfed by pitch blackness finally give way to a double page spread of pure darkness. This effect leaves the reader with a chilling sense of the bleak and hostile atmosphere the kids find themselves immersed in, a trademark of the series.

My only minor gripe with this volume is that I didn’t really buy some of the choices the characters made. I’m not sure the older woman’s decision to stay behind and rebuild her home was very believable. Rather, it came across as more a hurried way to get rid of a character who had served her purpose. Also, as much as I loved the helicopter sequence discussed above, and as curious as these characters would naturally be about what happened to their world, I felt that they probably wouldn’t choose to fly down into the abyss, but rather they would keep going in hopes of finding some remnants of civilization and much needed supplies. Dragon Head at its best is a gritty, somewhat realistic survival horror story, and I think survival should remain the primary motivating factor for these kids, and indeed it has for most of the series.

Still, as I said, minor gripes. All in all, this was a very satisfying chapter in one of the best (if not the best) mainstream manga series being published right now. I can’t wait for more.

Dave says:

I agree 100% that this is one of the best mainstream manga series currently being published. Now that Death Note has concluded, I would say that its only real competition out there is Nana, and the two are such different things that it’s almost impossible to compare them, and ranking one over the other would rely heavily on one’s own preferences of what they’re looking for in their manga-reading experience.

I’m also in agreement that the helicopter scene in the darkness was the most chilling scene in this volume, in a series with plenty of thrilling moments. One thing I don’t really agree with, however, is your assessment of the older woman’s decision to stay behind. You could look at her decision in a few different ways that make it a completely valid choice for the author to use to write her out of the story: One, she simply believes that they are going to die no matter what and she would rather die at home under the pretense that she could rebuild it. Two, she feels that she would only hinder them in a helicopter already carrying four passengers. Or three, she thinks that her best chance for survival is where she’s been surviving thus far, and that flying a helicopter into the heart of darkness to try to find out what happened is a fool’s errand that will get them killed. I can’t say that I would want to travel with the foursome into a cloud of ash that was responsible for the helicopter being grounded once already. It’s seems to me like she chose the safest option.

One thing that I am grateful for is that things are still unclear at this point. For awhile there, I thought that Mochizuki was revealing that the disaster was the result of a natural phenomenon after all - a volcanic eruption via Mt. Fuji. That seems very unlikely by the end of the volume, which is great because how disappointing would it be if all that we’ve seen was due to a volcano? Right now, in the series, the scariest thing about it is what we don’t see. We see darkness everywhere, destruction, and that’s just inevitably going to be scarier in a creeping dread sort of way, as opposed to an in-your-face giant lizard or whatever. And I really like how much of the darkness in the series lies within its characters and the ugly ways they react to things in these situations. It’s much more fun to travel through a world like this with characters who reflect its crooked, deformed landscapes.


patrick john said...

is the DRAGON HEAD series already completed in Japan? how many is the total volumes?

i'm really interested in it having finished Death Note and currently waiting for Monster to be completed.

This will be my first time reading a tokyopop title coz i usually find their titles not my thing. I absolutely love everything the Viz mature line publishes like the titles I've mentioned as well as Uzumaki and Eagle, so they have a pretty good track record in my book. I'm also eagerly waiting for the ominubs edition of Black & White.

Actually, I tried reading the first volume of Dragon Head thru my library and it didn't grab me that much. But after reading your reviews on the later volumes it seems the story/pacing picked-up quite a bit.

So is Dragon Head on par with Death Note / Monster?

Dave! said...

Dragon Head is actually only ten volumes long, so there are only a few volumes left at this point. I'm glad that it doesn't seem to be one of those series that was fluffed out for too long.

The series is pretty consistent from beginning to end, though it's kind of ever-changing. I think the last few volumes have been the most thrilling, but I could see someone making a case for the first few. It's all good, in the end. But one way Dragon Head differs from a series like Death Note is that Death Note is all plot with little characterization, little atmosphere. Dragon Head is pretty much the opposite of that: There's very little plot. It moves slowly and really promotes an atmosphere that's the best I've read in manga, perhaps in graphic novels period.

Ana said...

I really love Dragon Head, and as you, I believe it's one of the best out there, if not the best.
The characters are amazingly human and (even though I haven't read this last volume), they react as a normal person would, at finding out the holocaust that was besides the tunel.
I love the detail of the art.
This is an amazing title that I've recommended to a lot of people.