Zombies - is this horror genre as reeking and rotten as the undead shamblers themselves? We've had slow zombies in Night of the Living Dead, and we've had fast zombies in 28 Days Later. The world of anime has also eagerly devoured the zombie concept down to the gristle and bone - we've had zombies as philosophical treatise in Sunday Without God, zombies as action-adventure in Resident Evil: The Marhawa Desire, zombies as social commentary in Life is Dead, zombies as comedy in Space Dandy, zombies as romance in Sankarea: Undying Love... and Highschool of the Dead has the signal achievement of zombies as sex objects. With vice-like jaws zombies have clamped onto anime right up into the present day, featuring in recent and current shows like School-Live! and Kabaneri of the Iron Fortress. Many people have been saying that zombies have become old hat again and that it's time to reinter the cadaver for some worm-eaten sleep to be revived for a later generation - but zombies are nothing if not durable and they've shrugged off all attacks to spread the infection to new releases like Seven Seas' Hour of the Zombie and our topic for today, Dark Horse's release of I Am A Hero. Is the zombie apocalypse truly dead and buried, or do these monsters still have teeth?
I Am A Hero is a well-established manga, published since 2009 and still ongoing with twenty original tankobons to date, by Kengo Hanazawa in the Big Comic Spirits magazine. His earlier works, boxing manga Boys on the Run and the otaku romance Ressentiment have never reached the UK but I Am A Hero is already widely translated in multiple languages and it's a comparatively late arrival in English, (although Dark Horse plans to catch up quickly with the 2-in-1 omnibus format for its releases as this first volume collected together the first two Japanese tankobons). Coming in late though has given I Am A Hero time to increase its presence with numerous plaudits, including being a multi-million seller in Japan that's popular enough to support a spin-off manga I Am A Hero In Osaka which started last year. In addition to that I Am A Hero has won the prestigious Shogakukan Manga Award and is getting adapted into a live-action movie slated for release later this year.
The manga tells the tale of Hideo Suzuki - a thirty-five year old artist in modern Japan, and all-round deadbeat loser. Working as a drawing assistant for an ecchi harem manga, his life is a long boring round of twelve-hour days pasting censor mosaics over cartoon vaginas in an unsociable grind that means the figments of his imagination offer better conversation than the indifferent grunts of his colleagues and his anonymous, empty life back in his cramped bedsit. He's realised too late that his lame attempt to be zany and distinctive with his "Apple Booger" pen-name is just weird and off-putting to readers, and his own manga pitches are blown off by his editor as the unimaginative dross of someone with no life experience. He has a girlfriend, but he's riven by suspicious jealousy that she's still hooking up with her former partner. The only thing that Hideo has to set himself apart from the herd is that he owns a shotgun - a notable rarity in Japan, a country with heavy gun control - but work has been slamming Hideo with so much crunch that he hasn't had time to attend the range sessions he needs to keep his license up-to-date so he may soon be even losing that. All-in-all, Hideo feels acutely that he is no more than a bit-part supporting character in the manga of his own life, and his self-assurance that he's the hero of this story is ringing increasingly hollow. The problem when you compare your own life to a manga, though, is that you leave yourself exposed to plot twists - and the ground under Hideo's feet has a sudden shift as a zombie apocalypse begins to erupt over Japan. Each night before bed Hideo sits with his shotgun and tells himself that he's the hero - but maybe being a background extra wasn't so bad after all.
What immediately stands out in I Am A Hero from the very first page is the quality of the artwork. Tangible, believable realism is a strength of I Am A Hero and it succeeds in making the zombie apocalypse very immediate. It's a very highly detailed manga with photorealistic backgrounds throughout, with a clear level of care that's apparent in both the accuracy of close-in technical detail as much and the busy scenes of cities and workshops. While the backgrounds are detailed for verisimilitude the characters are detailed for an almost incredible, absorbing ugliness - everyone is drawn with realistic proportions and no big kawaii eyes (at least not until the bulging staring buboes of the zombies appear) but that doesn't mean that you'll be seeing any of them on the cover of GQ anytime soon. Women are plain and dumpy, men are either pinched husks or have fat bursting out of their collars and belts, and even Hideo could stand to lose a bit of podge in his cheeks. Watching Hideo eat his girlfriend's cooking with a wide toothy gulping maw is actually pretty stomach-churning... although it does have the strange effect for setting you up for the zombie attacks. The zombies themselves are genuinely frightening - while the first close-up of a zombie is sadly spoiled by the big double splash page sinking all of the lurid detail into the book's spine, in future encounters we see them twisting their limbs around like spidery pedipalps, giving them an unnatural agility; while stark blue veins make them look like unhealthy cadavers without having the rotting characteristic that would make you think they'd fall apart with an afternoon in the sun.
Hideo is also something of an unbalanced person, regularly conversing with imaginary friends, or inventing delusional scenarios in his head which aren't playing out in the reality around him. While this is pretty obvious in scenes where he's alone, with obvious cartoon faces around him, it's a great and genuinely blindsiding effect in scenes where he's with other people, where a scene plays out entirely ordinarily, only for a sudden cut of Hideo's partner telling him to stop talking to himself to set you back to reality. Hideo's not the only person who writes letters in his head but never writes them, feels anger and frustration but lacks the energy or the wit to express them, and his inarticulateness with his girlfriend or his fear of showing himself up by being unable to handle responses from his colleagues is very relatable. The figments of his imagination drop off in the second volume - his mind's rather more preoccupied with avoiding getting bitten - but in the first half they are an interesting and not overplayed feature.
Another striking element of I Am A Hero is that its plot is a definite slow-burn. I can understand why Dark Horse made this an omnibus release because even though I Am A Hero is widely advertised as a zombie manga and has an enthusiastic endorsement of "the greatest zombie manga ever" on the back blurb, it takes a very long time for the undead to rise. For the first half of this omnibus outside of a couple of small scenes you could very easily mistake I Am A Hero for a more downbeat and pessimistic version of Bakuman. Hideo has entirely domestic problems, and he and his colleagues (and the figments in his head) talk extensively about both the business, art and craft of manga from arguing over its status as a countercultural movement to merchandising strategies and matter-of-fact statements on what screentone is best for pubic hair barked out by aggravated assistants up against a 5AM deadline. It's actually legitimately interesting stuff that engages you in its own right, and while you might be imagining that a long wait for the zombies might just make readers impatient the level and depth of colour to these civilian incidents keeps you engaged throughout, with enough blood-drops of background trauma to give you a trail that leads you through. While a lot of these hints of the coming disaster are fairly obvious - news reports glimpsed during channel-surfing, office staff complaining that their colleagues are "off with the flu", some of them are presented in an intriguing, creeping way - for instance when one infected character is gradually succumbing, you have to be paying proper attention and peer closely to notice his increasingly bloodshot eyes and when he coughs blood into his hand he momentarily grins at it as if the trembling incipient madness wants to bite off his own wet palm.
Once the zombies are finally unleashed there's a paradoxical appeal to I Am A Hero in that the action is excellent because it's terrible. There are no slickly-choreographed cinematic money shots framed in this manga - and that's a great feature, as it's interesting to see in contrast the sheer clumsiness of the combat in I Am A Hero. The first direct encounter with a zombie is not a madcap chase, a sweeping onslaught of undead hordes or a powerful close-quarters grapple but a protracted, awkward and somewhat unedifying and embarrassing tangled scrabble around a cheap chipboard door. while Highschool of the Dead opened with a character boasting that he was a karate expert and the protagonists were a prodigal crack squad of operational operators operating operationally, the characters in I Am A Hero are fat suburbanities who wouldn't say boo to a goose and it shows with fumbling, flailing, flapping fighting that's all knocking knees, scraped elbows, swings and misses and trying to sprint only for your flabby unfit self to wheezingly collapse with a stitch; and while you'd imagine that Hideo's shotgun is an invitation to enjoy some lusciously gruesome headshots, not only does it never get used in this entire book Hideo doesn't even remove it from its carry-case throughout the entire second volume. Fascinatingly though the unvarnished nature of the action actually means that it shows a great deal of originality and invention; the untrained amateurishness further enhances the quality of realism seen in the art, and it reinforces just how congested dense Japanese cities are - when a zombie attacks Hideo's studio, a place so stuffed of clutter and kipple that there's barely room to swing a cat let alone a baseball bat and the viewpoint needs to flex into a fisheye lens to fit itself inside, not only does there have to be some lateral thinking for taking down an enemy (Hideo's told to flank the monster, and he has to do it by squeezing through the crack of a gap between the desks and the wall) but it enhances the sense of danger in that there's nowhere to run - and having your escape thwarted not by a brick wall or a slavering mob but that box of scrap paper you forgot to move out of the way of the fire escape makes it all the more compellingly awful.
Hideo's shotgun is itself an interesting feature that sets I Am A Hero apart from other zombie titles. Highschool of the Dead provides another stark contrast - the kids there were tooled up like a SWAT team with bayonets, laser sights and automatic rifles and very rapidly acquired expert skill in using them (the otaku in the gang was trained by a Blackwater mercenary, amongst other implausibilities) but in I Am A Hero not only does Hideo only have a basic and unsophisticated two-shot firearm but he's very reluctant to use it for fear of falling foul of the gun laws and being arrested once normalcy has been restored. His hesitation over his shotgun sharply emphasises, more vividly and believably than you get in any other zombie story where even the most common person acquires a gloss of heroism and the hidden talent to survive that he's not a gung-ho elite commando finding glory but just fundamentally ordinary person just struggling to survive; ironically the gun's existence also raises the stakes and creates more danger as it's the exception that proves the rule about Japanese weaponry, as you know the characters won't just be able to raid a convenient gun store or find a pistol in an old biddy's handbag. The presence of Hideo's shotgun a great feature of this manga and more than just a gimmick to separate it from the also-rans. Hideo's hang-ups about his shotgun also resonated me on a personal level. I'm a shooting enthusiast myself as someone who is monumentally fed up of people treating me like a latent spree killer for my sport (listen, jackasses - Dr. Harold Shipman killed more people than thirteen Dunblanes. Think about that next time you get a flu jab from your GP and give me a break, okay?), I can wholly empathise with Hideo's fear of intolerant gun laws casting him as a villain rather than the hero. His attitude was definitely very believable.
I've used the word "believable" a few times now and that might seem to be a bit of a tall order in a zombie title - even medieval peasants understood the concept of quarantine during the Black Death but 21st-century medicine and organisation can't cope with the concept - and I Am A Hero still needs a bit of similar Idiot Plot lube to get the gears turning and the motor of the story running. Also, while I appreciate that socially-inept otaku who don't understand common social boundaries can come out with inappropriate remarks which might be fine on an online chatroom but in person just sound embarrassing and awkward, the repeated cringeworthy outbursts in I Am A Hero really go beyond making a point and just get wearing and annoying towards the end of the book. Nonetheless everyone goes into a zombie title with a certain suspension of disbelief and it holds up here too.
The manga is called I Am A Hero but Hideo Suzuki is an ordinary guy - an actual ordinary guy of understandable hang-ups and fair incompetence, unlike the many "common folk" you see in other media who are actually latent superheroes with a prolier-than-thou attitude. I Am A Hero and its spin on the zombie apocalypse feels new and fresh because of that, and while the gross-out otaku cringe is rather overdone Hideo remains interesting past that greasy rind. I'm also confident that a sense of novelty and originality in a well-worn genre will continue - I'm cheating a bit here because I've read ahead in foreign editions but there's more going on in I Am A Hero than just your common-or-garden zombie apocalypse and things will start to get very surreal in future volumes so it's worth staying on for that.