Hideo, Hiromi and their new companion, the journalist Araki have just found a group of survivors of the zombie outbreak, hiding on top of the roof of a shopping mall to escape the grasping hands of the undead. Unfortunately they have found no safe harbour here and may only have jumped from the frying pan of zombie attacks into the fire of a freakish cult revelling in the collapse of public order. Hideo's arrival will be the final shove needed to send this unstable situation crashing down into chaos as his shotgun becomes a coveted instrument of power. Can he and his companions survive when the only thing to make him a hero threatens to kill them all?
Let's talk about shopping malls.
Anyone who has an even passing interest in zombie-apocalypse fiction will be aware of the significance that shopping malls have in them. Since one featured as the setting for George Romero's Dawn of the Dead in 1978 they've become the keystone which holds together the common political subtexts of zombie stories, and an outright cliché of the genre. To see cold, mindless, rotting hordes continue to stagger towards the maill, repeating in death the rote routines that took over their lives, is meant to be an allegory for the vacuity and desolation of modern consumerism. It's vivid. It's incisive. It's complete and utter nonsense.
What is a shopping mall? It's a mall where there's shopping. That sounds facile, but it's important to establish that there's nothing radically innovative or diabolically unnatural about a shopping mall. A shopping mall has shops, like many other places, and shops are places where people exchange useful items. This is not a particular iniquity of ravenous destructive capitalism. Peaceful eternal bucolic pre-industrial Avalonian villages from the annals of The Once and Future King have marketplaces. Glorious revolutionary workers' paradises have department stores. Shopping is not "consumerism", it is community. It's meeting and interaction (and why should "consumerism" be a pejorative, anyway? Everyone consumes, or we starve or freeze). All the shopping mall does is bring the shops where you do this a bit closer together, and puts up a roof to keep off the rain. Shopping malls, far from being the swollen tumour of unchecked materialist avarice Romero wanted them to be, are in fact representative of a healthy and active society.
Even if you're a crusty bitter socialist that reviles the shopping mall a secular temple to hated business, the fact remains that even if Romero's analysis of the mall-as-consumerism was right at the time, today it is just simply obsolete. If you read newspapers there is perennial bleating about the struggles of the high street; and the USA is currently undergoing an outright retail collapse and those malls which were regarded as symptoms of excess are now all closing down. It's not that capitalist economies are failing - people buy just as much if not more than ever before - but these days, they do it in one click on Amazon. The vehicle of modern consumerism is not driving to the multi-storey car park but a Deliveroo courier zipping about on a bicycle, which seems rather more healthy. Much like the undead that defined Romero's creative output, the shopping mall in zombie fiction is itself a zombie, a ragged and half-eaten thing that should have fallen down long ago but is kept lurching on by empty-headed referencing that doesn't understand what it means.
I bring all this up because I am disappointed in I Am A Hero. Throughout my reviews of all of the previous three releases from Dark Horse I have consistently praised the manga for its originality and invention in finding genuinely new twists in what many believed was a played-out genre. In my review of Omnibus Vol. 3 I laughed off Hideo's arrival at a mall as "paying his dues" but it was masking my reluctance to criticise a manga that I'd previously been praising, but was now repeating the same old tired statements heard a hundred times before. Hideo isn't just at a mall either, he's at an outlet strip mall, which then compounds the lazy presence of the mall with the additional weary repetitive condemnation of being "suburban" which is another way that cynical smug self-absorbed sophisticates like to virtue-signal their presumptions about modern social emptiness (never mind that Sir Ebeneezer Howard's Garden City movement which gave rise to the modern suburb was once seen as eminently progressive and egalitarian). The survivors' struggle to find supplies would have been a lot more desperate if they were sitting on top of anywhere other than a fully-stocked food hall.
I don't just dislike Hideo's arrival at the mall because I disagree with the politics of it, but also because it makes no sense within the context of the story itself. The survivor group living on the rooftops have been taken over by a bunch of psychopaths building a sex cult for their anarchic gratification while anyone who dares to challenge them is tossed off the roof back down to the zombies. The thing is though, even at gunpoint this sort of thing doesn't happen overnight and yet that is what Kengo Hanazawa demands that we accept. The zombie apocalypse is only a few days old - back in Omnibus Vol. 3 the date-stamps on the message board posts during the 2ch interlude chapters move from Wednesday to Sunday, four nights - yet from dialogue about dropping past malcontents and distant references to "in the beginning" the rooftop group give the impression that they've been camping out here for weeks if not months. Either the mall survivors lucked out with some very organised doomsday preppers who had a tribal constitution written up ready to go (and that's certainly not the case given how amateurish their outfit is) or it's just a plot hole bigger than the missing chunks torn out of the zombie victims.
Maybe Hanazawa's just getting forgetful about his plot threads seven tankobons in? Another incident is where the sex-pests who run the rooftop send one of their girls to Hideo with the hope of screwing him into submission so he'll hand over his shotgun to them - Hideo doesn't want to participate in the abuse but knows that if the girl doesn't go back with evidence of going through with the deed she'll be punished so he goes off to express his glands and supply the girl with the necessary discharge for her to apply. In isolation this scene is wonderfully, comically absurd - striking a confident thumbs-up pose of hardiness and determination while his otaku background saves the day for honour and dignity with the determined industrious training of browsing Sankaku Complex. It has echoes of the glorious, stirring patriotic fanfare that accompanied the blowjob scene in Team America: World Police. The thing is though, Hideo is actually not that pathetic a virginal otaku stereotype - remember that before the apocalypse he did have a girlfriend, and he was sleeping with her too. Hanazawa looks to be just slinging in random scenes here even if they don't fit.
Hanazawa also seems to have forgotten about poor old Araki, who's been really badly mistreated in this omnibus. Now that he's served the purpose of delivering Hideo & Hiromi to the mall he's been discarded as irrelevant and barely gets a line throughout the entire two tankobons' worth of action, before he's tidied away in a narrative housekeeping chapter at the end of the omnibus as if Hanazawa belatedly remembered that he needed to tie off his plot thread. It's at this point in I Am A Hero that the narrative bolts and seams are starting to show.
There's much I dislike about the scenario of I Am A Hero Omnibus Vol. 4 then but Hanazawa has done well up to now and so a misstep from him would still be well above expectations for most other mangaka. Even if the inventiveness in plotting is lacking, Hanazawa does show it very well in the execution. This omnibus features a long action sequence where Hideo accompanies the rooftop group to raid the food hall and find more supplies - this is done in a very distinctive and effort-intensive way with a whole chapter drawn in the first person - but not quite like Doom as the characters struggle to see around the paintballing masks and American Football helmets that are all the protection that they can muster. The power of the shotgun is finally demonstrated here and even if it's somewhat unrealistic watching zombies get smashed and bodily flung like a godly backhand swipe is quite an awesome sight to behold - while it may have been more courageous and complex writing from Hanezawa to keep Hideo's shotgun largely irrelevant as in previous incidents and just sneer he's just lapsed into simplistic blockbuster spectacle here, I can't deny that I found it thoroughly exciting and enjoyable all the same and it was just plain great to see Hideo actually be able to honestly say "I am a hero" - if he just got relentlessly put down throughout the entire manga then it would have gone sour with over-exaggeration. Also, while I compared I Am A Hero unfavourably with George Romero's ...of the Dead movies earlier on in this review, there is one instance where Hanazawa does it substantially better. Romero's big-budget misfire Land of the Dead had very many problems and one of them was the risible walkout-inducing insistence that "zombies are people too". Scenes like those where a zombie band are spasming at tambourines like a defective Chuck-E-Cheese's animatronic were ludicrous and laughable; but in I Am A Hero's take on the idea zombies replicating the routines of their life retains an awful and terrifying horror edge, the mangling gears of an unfeeling machine as a zombified cleaning lady wrenches and stuffs heads down chutes while a zombified athlete continually flinging itself at the concrete in high-jump practice ends up tossing itself over the survivors' barricade.
I Am A Hero is the weakest volume thematically, with plenty of character and plot problems. Nonetheless I am still interested in following Hideo's adventures because we broke out of the boring rut of the zombie shopping mall with some superb high-energy action that should propel us to a new situation and return to what made this manga great.