The November release of Jinsei Kataoka and Tomohiro Maekawa’s Livingstone provided me a nifty excuse to try Deadman Wonderland, an earlier series written and illustrated by Katoaka. Fans of Deadman Wonderland may know its complex licensing history here in the US: Tokyopop was its first publisher, releasing five volumes before going bankrupt in 2011. VIZ acquired the series in 2013, and is now just two volumes shy of the series’ grand finale, which arrives in February 2016. Whether you’re new to Kataoka’s work or have been a long-time fan, this column has something for you–so read on!
In the not-so-distant future, a private company operates a prison compound and theme park in Tokyo Bay: Deadman Wonderland. Here, the owners stage elaborate games for visitors, using convicts as contestants. Though the justification for these contests is noble–the proceeds benefit victims of a devastating earthquake that left more than 70% of Japan underwater–the circus atmosphere is not, as prisoners compete to the death in front of howling crowds.
Given how many other comics and movies have drawn from the same well of inspiration, Jinsei Kataoka and Kazume Kondou do a fine job of breathing life into this dystopian premise. They create a sympathetic protagonist in fourteen-year-old Ganta Igarashi, a newly minted inmate who’s been wrongfully convicted of murdering his classmates. The first volume of Deadman Wonderland unfolds through Ganta’s eyes, as he tries to learn the prison’s elaborate rules and avoid dying in his first competition. Though there are numerous hints of a greater conspiracy afoot at the jail-cum-amusement park, Kataoka and Kondou resist the temptation to dole out too much information in the first volume. A perceptive reader will guess the significance of some details, but enough is left to the imagination that the reader is only clue or two ahead of Ganta.
The manga’s other great strength is the artwork. Kataoka and Kondou depict Deadman Wonderland as a lurid theme park, complete with rides, concessions, and grinning animal mascots–it’s a Bizarro World Disneyland in which giant cartoon ducks preside over a lethal obstacle course of swinging blades and spike-filled pits. The character designs, too, play an important role in establishing the series’ paranoid atmosphere. Though some characters telegraph their bad-guy status with tattoos and goofy haircuts, Kataoka and Kondou have populated Deadman Wonderland with enough ordinary-looking prisoners that it’s impossible to judge who’s trustworthy. This artistic approach pays off: the tension in every scene is so palpable that we’re compelled to keep turning the page to find out if Ganta has survived his first trip to the cafeteria or his first encounter with a new cellmate, interactions as fraught with peril as an actual contest.
The verdict: Great art, smart pacing, and a sympathetic lead character make Deadman Wonderland a winner. (A note to parents, teachers, and librarians: this manga’s rating is justified.)
Livingstone is a handsomely illustrated bore, the kind of manga in which the writer has dressed up a simple concept with a profusion of fussy details that don’t add depth or interest to the story. The title refers to human souls–or, more accurately, the rock-like form that human souls take after a person dies. Sakurai and Amano, the manga’s protagonists, work together to harvest livingstones, thus ensuring that a soul is properly passed from one person to the next. If a person dies before his appointed time, however, his soul curdles into a gooey blob that oozes bad juju.
The manga follows Sakurai and Amano from job to job, as they attempt to solve and prevent unscheduled deaths. The series’ intense fixation on suicide is off-putting; none of the would-be victims are particularly sympathetic, and Sakurai and Amano’s ministrations are so tone-deaf that it’s hard to know what message author Tomohiro Maekawa is hoping to impart to readers. Sakurai and Amano’s antagonistic bickering is supposed to inject a note of levity into the proceedings, I think, but the timing of the jokes and the staleness of the characterizations do little to offset the dour tone. By the end of volume one, I found myself feeling bummed out and irritated–never a good sign for a series that’s exploring a subject as serious as death.
The verdict: Nice art, lousy script; I liked this story better when it was called The Kurosagi Corpse Delivery Service.
Reviews: At Comics Worth Reading, Johanna Draper Carlson dives into the eleventh volume of Fumi Yoshinaga’s Ooku: The Inner Chambers, which she describes as “something like Macbeth in kimonos.” Megan R. of The Manga Test Drive offers an in-depth assessment of Oishinbo, “the longest running food manga in Japan,” while Seth Hahne, proprietor of Good OK Bad, weighs in on Yamada-Kun and the Seven Witches. Feeling crafty? Vertical Comics shares some early reviews of their latest Arnazi Aronzo book Cuter Stuff.
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Johanna Draper Carlson on vols. 4-6 of My Love Story!! (Comics Worth Reading)
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Dustin Cabeal on vols. 1-2 of Yo-Kai Watch (Comic Bastards)
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PS: Our Manga Bookshelf colleague Ash Brown is giving away the first volumes of four awesome shojo titles from Kodansha Comics, including LDK, Let’s Dance a Waltz, My Little Monster, and one of my personal favorites Say I Love You. Don’t dally; the contest closes on December 2nd!