Let’s talk about zombies, shall we? I mean, everyone else is. The CDC even released their zombie apocalypse survival guidelines. It seems like the time is finally nigh for my brain to devote itself to the topic.
But my brain and I are scaredy-cats and don’t really go in for real-life zombie apocalypses. We prefer to stay firmly ensconced in our hidey-hole and read about zombie apocalypses. In manga form, if possible. And we can, thanks to Kengo Hanazawa!
Maybe some of you are rolling your eyes: seen one zombie apocalypse, seen them all. And it’s true that there is inevitably some overlap if only because zombies, well, they have to act like zombies, no matter who is writing the story. What really drew me into I Am a Hero is protagonist Hideo Suzuki. The story starts with him cautiously entering his Tokyo apartment. Very cautiously. In a city known for its remarkably low crime rate, this young manga artist has a security system and several impenetrable-looking locks on his front door. When he enters his apartment and the story, he does a kind of paranoia dance that is so perfectly scripted and depicted, you would swear he’s actually moving. And this dance starts with one of the things that I love in this series: a full page devoted to a moment, Hideo thrusting a hand into the air Saturday Night Fever style.
Hanazawa uses this technique to great effect throughout the series. Sometimes one page, sometimes two, he opens up on panoramas, characters, scenes and gives the reader a chance to drink it all in. These full pages don’t necessarily come at tense moments in the story, but they do always fall in places where Hanazawa wants the reader to linger a moment. And he fills these spreads with minute detail so that your eye can’t stop digging into it, seeking out all the things it might be missing.
And Hideo (which is written with the same characters as the word “hero” in Japanese, hence the title) is just as much of a scaredy-cat as me and my brain, only more so. Because me and my brain do not have an imaginary friend that we chat with about the problems we face in the day. But this is why Hideo is the perfect protagonist for a zombie story and why I spent most of Book One wondering just where this story was going. In a good way.
He spends the first night of the book terrified, awake and on guard, complete with shotgun at the ready, seeing monsters in every corner. He hallucinates all the time so when the weirdness actually does start, you can’t be sure if weirdness has started or if Hideo is just seeing things again. Possibly one of the funniest moments early on is when Hideo is feeling particularly insecure at his girlfriend’s place and he goes into the toilet where he has a conversation with his imaginary friend, Yajima. While pissing on his head. Seriously. Yajima is in the toilet and Hideo is talking to him while taking a piss. On his head. Yajima doesn’t seem to mind.
The zombies of this particular apocalypse are caused by a disease called ZQN, that kills people and then brings them back to life as flesh-eating monsters. And this is something else I really like about this series. These zombies are terrifying. Not your usual stumbling corpses hungry for flesh but unable to really take action. These zombies are fast! And insatiable! And flexible! They come in all shapes and sizes, and I haven’t quite figured out the physics of it all yet, but they don’t end up keeping the shape they had in life. Tongues swell to the size of grapefruit, heads are on backwards, and veins are always at the surface of translucent skin. These zombies are grotesque. And Hanazawa makes sure we notice, dedicating the colour pages at the beginning of each book to horrifying close-ups of the speedy undead.
Just when the story starts dropping into man-chased-by-zombies-narrowly-escapes-time-and-time-again, new characters are introduced, new goals, new reasons for the story, which allows you to continue to enjoy the eye-feast art without being frustrated by a story that’s going nowhere. But up to now, he’s largely relied on introducing new characters to save the day and I can’t really see how much further this can go. There’s no sign of a cure or a way to stop this, and I worry that the whole thing will just devolve into zombie porn. But I haven’t read Book Six yet and Book Five had some seriously interesting developments. From what I’ve read so far, I trust Hanazawa will be able to keep the rather tired story of a zombie apocalypse feeling fresh and making me want to read more. I just hope it doesn’t get dragged out shonen style and I end up having to read forty volumes of people running away from zombies just to find out how they finally manage to destroy the zombies.