The mere mention of a young hero trying to survive in a post-apocalyptic world is enough to make most manga readers yawn and turn away. Which is just as well, because Apocalypse Zero is one variation on that theme that no one should ever read—unless they want to see what really bad manga looks like. Some say that Japan takes whatever America does and pushes it to new levels, and such is the case with bad comics. This exercise in tasteless violence, worn-out plot, and uninteresting characters is the ultimate primer on How Not To Draw Manga. If this series had any point, it would almost
be okay to have people's guts forced through their mouths, monsters vomiting out humans after eating them alive, and "
Bullets of frozen man juice!" being a legitimate attack. As for scatology, well, this isn't the only
volume in the series ...
For all its crimes against good taste, Apocalypse Zero commits equally grave offenses against storytelling. At the end of every chapter is a "cliffhanger" pulled straight from the hardcore shounen book of clichés. Might as well spoil the plot now, since no one is going to find this surprising. Kakugo's armor suit is inherited from his deceased father (gee, didn't see that one coming), who was a WWII war criminal trying to build the ultimate human weapon. Shocking much? Yeah, shocking that this tripe managed to get past a manga editor. And of course, Kakugo's arch-nemesis is his ill-tempered, gender-ambiguous older brother, which is revealed with such contrived sensationalism that you can only laugh. Maybe shounen clichés were fresher back in 1994 when this was first published. Or perhaps the manga-ka is secretly laughing at everyone because he managed to pass it off as something serious?
The hackwork doesn't stop there, either, as character traits are copied wholesale from existing stereotypes. Just to emphasize his noble ideals, Kakugo declares several times that he really doesn't want to fight
. Of course, this doesn't stop him from being totally violent and disgusting, even though he could walk away at any time and agonize over the consequences of his cowardice, which might be far more compelling. His supporting cast also flaunts its own predictable brand of stupidity: love interest Horie is impossibly sweet and gets attacked by monsters all the time, while dimwitted bully Haoka keeps insisting that Horie is his girl, even though no one really cares about the ensuing love triangle. The monsters, although shocking at first, have no depth to them. The seven-ton fat naked woman "makes love" to her victims by eating them, but what point is there to that except showing the ugliness of excess? The same applies to the old man who fights not just with crystallized saliva, but also with his snake-headed penis (I swear I am not making this up), except he keeps referring to it with juvenile euphemisms. Whether it's the good guys or bad guys, there's just no one here worth caring about.
Manga-ka Takayuki Yamaguchi demonstrates his mastery of the grotesque in the artwork, which succeeds in grossing out the reader—but only through superficial shock tactics. Internal organ loss, mutated private parts, and being skinned alive are just some of the forms of "extreme" imagery within this book. Yamaguchi knows his anatomy well enough to draw Kakugo's lean but extremely muscular body, yet the supporting characters are simplified and exaggerated, looking like rejects from decades-old manga. Horie, in particular, looks like a long lost 70's shoujo heroine with her sparkly eyes and permanently windblown hair. Pretty things clearly aren't Yamaguchi's strong point, and so he directs his effort into making ugly things as ugly as possible; detailed inking emphasizes gruesome textures like vomit and intestines. If there were any point to all this, it might be excusable, but to be shocking for the sake of being shocking is a waste of artistry.
Why would anyone willingly bring such a horrific and distasteful manga to English-speaking readers? The answer becomes clear on the inside back cover, where an advertisement shills for the anime version of Apocalypse Zero. Regardless of the work's merits or marketing tie-ins, Media Blasters does its job with cleanly printed art and a clear, readable font for whatever hackneyed dialogue happens to be on the page. However, sound effects are left untranslated, although it's doubtful that you'll need much of an audio guide to imagine the sounds of sickening violence.
Apocalypse Zero is the kind of manga that people should only read as a dare, to see if they can stand the disgusting imagery contained within. And even if they do, they'll still have to contend with a brainless plot and zero-dimensional characters that are the lowest form of the shounen action genre. It's true that disgusting and ugly things can be artistic, but only if presented with a message or purpose. The problem with Apocalypse Zero is that it has neither, except for the message of "Hey! Look at this! Think you can read through it without your stomach turning?" The correct response is to say no thanks, look away, and move on to something that's worth reading.