Can I start with a complaint? Do you mind? I know I can get quite grumbly, which is a bit off-putting, but sometimes, there are things that need to be said. Important things like we need to stop putting subtitles on non-fiction books. I get why publishers do it, I just really dislike it. But this, this thing on the cover of Deathco, I don’t even get why it’s done. Atsushi Kaneko’s Deathco. It’s basically the most pompous thing ever. Anytime I see (artist name)’s (title of the work), I want to burn that work and slander it and pop stink bombs near everyone who was involved in slapping that title on the cover. It’s so unnecessary; the artist’s name is already on there. He’s getting credit for writing the thing. Is Atsushi Kaneko so famous that a work will just fly off the shelves if his actual name is in the title? This sort of titling seems solely designed to imply that the artist is so full of himself, he insists his own name come before the title of the work. And in this case, I doubt Kaneko is this much of a bag of hot air. I’m sure it’s just one of those unfortunate English cover things that happens with Japanese manga from time to time. Like “my lovely like a cat” as the English title on Itoshi no Nekokke. But every time I look at the cover, I want to growl at it.
That said, everything else about Deathco is pretty great! Seriously, that English title thing is my only real complaint. A minor complaint that is not really a complaint–more like a fond wish for a perfect world–is that the cover colouring that looks like glow-in-the-dark ink is not actually glow-in-the-dark ink. I really want it to be glow-in-the-dark ink.
Basically, Deathco is Kaneko completely abandoning all pretense of setting his work in the real world. His work’s always wandered into crazy town, but it’s felt a little grounded, at least in the beginning. Like in SOIL, you have actual detectives and summer heat and investigations before the whole thing spins way off into legends and magic and mumbo jumbo. Similarly in Wet Moon, things feel pretty real world at first, and then all the madness explodes in the reader’s face. But Deathco’s opening pages have two gangs, each with all their members dressed exactly the same, making a deal only to be hunted by an assortment of wacky assassins called “reapers” in a variety of bizarre ways. There’s a man dressed as a harlequin standing on top of a pole outside the window with a sword. Giant bunnies riding bicycles and wielding axes. Thanos dressed as the grim reaper. A skull-faced cheerleading squad. People of all ages and sizes and costumes swarm the complex where these gangs are making their deal, looking to “take the head” of their prey.
Including our young hero, Deathco. Or at least, she looks young. All little girl style, but like the creepiest little girl you’ve ever met. She hunts with murderous toys she fashions herself in her downtime, exploding doll heads, balloons filled with poisonous gas, dolls that open their mouths and shoot fire, and so much more. If you are disturbed and unnerved by dolls (as I am), then you will be both validated and freaked out at seeing them portrayed in all their terrifying creepiness as homemade weapons.
Once she takes down her prey, though, Deathco falls into a deep depression/sleep coma. A tiny butler/possible bat-man comes and whisks her away from the scene of the assassination since she can no longer function on her own, in stark contrast to her hyper excitement before the hunt. She holes up in her room (full of dismembered dolls) in a large and, of course, creepy castle at the top of a cliff where she appears to live with the bat-butler and an enormous woman who never moves from a sofa near a pool surrounded by empty fast food boxes. It’s a deeply weird situation that makes almost no sense.
Or rather, it makes almost no sense in the real world. But in the logic of the story, where there is a mysterious “guild” that sends out assassination packages to the many masked assassins and then pays off whoever actually makes the kill, it makes perfect sense. A little girl assassin lives in a creepy castle making weapons out of dolls so she can kill people the guild wants dead. That’s basically the story. Volume one introduces Deathco and this strange, murderous world with some brilliant action scenes and a few quiet moments that deftly convey Deathco’s state of mind before and after a hunt, while volume two explores a little more this “guild” and some of the other assassins.
Kaneko is a gifted storyteller and artist, so the story never descends into a “kill of the week” kind of feel. Even as he gives you smaller moments like a hilarious/terrifying pizza delivery to the castle, you can feel that he has a larger story he is telling, that all these little details are in service of a greater narrative than just “this world is pretty weird and cool”. His usual eye for detail is at work here too, picking just the right thing to focus on to give the scene the mood he wants. And as always, he uses close-ups to perfection, drawing the reader’s eye to what he wants us to notice, creating uncertainty and anxiety in frantic action sequences. As is his style, there’s almost no screentone to be seen here either. His blacks are blacks and his whites are whites, with essentially no grey, the perfect style for the moody, suspenseful stories he likes to tell.
Basically, Deathco feels like Kaneko just flat out having as much fun as he can in the world he’s created. It’s a pretty great ride so far.