Review: Deadman Wonderland, vol. 1


Deadman Wonderland, vol. 1
By Jinsei Kataoka and Kazuma Kondou
Rated OT, for Older Teens
Tokyopop, $10.99

This tale of an innocent young man trapped in a prison that doubles as an amusement park isn’t exactly blazing a new literary trail, but the strands are twisted together very nicely, with clear art, good storytelling, and a bit of foreshadowing to tie it all together.

It starts with the first few pages, a hazy view of a boy and a girl playing together while a woman plays piano. The action is accompanied by a song lyric about a woodpecker who is poisoned by the gods and cannot touch his friends for fear he will poison them. Then a mysterious red man appears, armed guards storm him, and the apartment blows up. After which, Tokyo is destroyed by an earthquake.

(Spoilers after the jump)

Fast forward ten years, and say hello to Ganta Igarashi, a survivor of the Tokyo earthquake (and presumably the little boy in the opening sequence). Comfortably ensconced in junior high, Ganta is doing typical teenage things—goofing around with his friends and looking forward to the class trip—when suddenly, the mysterious red man appears in the window. Next thing you know, everyone in Ganta’s class has been reduced to slashed-up corpses. As Ganta stands up, still dazed, the red man advances on him and thrusts some sort of red jewel into his chest.

So, in the first 20 pages we have done the normal-life-shattered-by-unspeakable-violence thing twice, and we still have no clue why. But the book continues to rocket forward, and the creators drop just enough clues along the way to keep it interesting.

Ganta is quickly tried and convicted for his classmates’ murders, sentenced to death and sent to Deadman Wonderland, a prison that doubles as a theme park. This gives the creators plenty of scope for combining violence with goofy pop-culture cuteness, and they take full advantage of it, with a cartoony guide for prisoners and loudspeakers concealed inside super-cute roosters in prison stripes. The prisoners perform in deadly competitions for the entertainment of the spectators, who are told the whole thing is faked. In fact, the contests are just one of the highly creative ways that the prison administrators have of executing the prisoners’ death sentences.

Away from the public, of course, the prison is a brutal place, with a dominatrix of a guard, Makina, overseeing the prisoners and bullies imposing their will on the weak. All this is pretty much standard-issue prison-fantasy stuff. The twist comes in the form of Shira, a cheerful albino girl in a skin-tight jumpsuit who comes crashing into the story to act as Ganta’s protector and cheerleader. Shira is the ultimate manga girl—she is naïve, cheerful, unfailingly kind, and incredibly acrobatic. She absorbs much of the pain intended for Ganta, even taking a knife in the back at one point. She seems to be immune to any sort of physical harm, but it’s hard to tell whether she has some special power or it’s just dumb luck that keeps her from getting killed.

What emerges out of all this, and you can see it coming a mile away, is that there is Something Special about Ganta. On the one hand, he is determined to survive in a system that is stacked against him, and he wants to somehow prove the red man exists, in order to prove his innocence. At the same time, the whole thing is rigged: The prison administrator knows all about the red man (who is known as Original Sin and kept locked up in the same prison), and he has a special interest in Ganta, who saw the red man and lived. So Ganta is not going to be shrugged off and sliced into ribbons or tossed into an electrified tank of water like some ordinary prisoner.

Deadman Wonderland is an entertaining if somewhat gory read. The creators seem to delight in coming up with challenging and painful competitions for the prisoners, and Shira’s unexpected appearances keep the story from being too predictable. The test for this series will be whether the creators continue to bring in new ideas or allow it to become a simple series of battles, but the first volume shows a lot of promise.

This review is based on a review copy supplied by the publisher.

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