Reviewby Carlo Santos, Mar 25th 2010
Detroit Metal City
Soichi Negishi is a mild-mannered young man whose musical tastes lean toward acoustic indie pop. His dream is to make it in the music world as a folksy singer-songwriter ... and yet he has found his greatest success in the role of Johannes Krauser II, frontman for the death metal band Detroit Metal City. Negishi just can't seem to tear himself away from the dark world of metal—especially now that DMC is headlining the Satanic Emperor music festival and competition. To become undisputed kings of metal, DMC will have to out-rock groups such as "scat metal" band Deathism and the cult-like Norwegian band Helvete. But Helvete has a secret that will shake Negishi to his core ... and make him start to question where his true musical destiny lies.
Of all the lies and scams in modern popular music, none is as great as the Myth of Authenticity: the idea that you get special musician bonus points for being your own lyricist, your own composer, your own arranger, your own wardrobe coordinator. The idea that lo-fi and do-it-yourself are somehow morally superior to polished and professionally produced. If music is the language of emotions communicated between performer and audience, does it really matter what is real and what is manufactured, as long as the emotions comet through? To lip-sync or not to lip-sync? To auto-tune or not to auto-tune? To wear your heart on your sleeve with sissy-chord platitudes about love and cake shops, or to put on full make-up and scream rape and murder as a harbinger of hell?
It's that last part, maybe, that scares Soichi Negishi more than anything.
And therein lies the real drama in Detroit Metal City's fourth volume. Not the battle of the bands at the Satanic Emperor festival—although, yes, the tournament format helps to keep the plot focused—but the battle inside Negishi's head. The more he tries to tell himself he's a soft-pop crooner, the more his Krauser persona acts out. And here's the scary part: he actually seems to be enjoying it. The pure-hearted young man who would dare fight with monsters is becoming a monster himself.
Of course, the storyline would never point that out specifically. It's too clever for that, and besides, everyone's having too much fun laughing at the bawdy humor (the entire Deathism sequence gets a surprising amount of mileage out of poop jokes). But for those who are observant, Negishi's gradual character shift is a frightening, beautiful thing—especially in the final round against Helvete, where an unexpected turnabout sets off a new level of rage in Krauser. For this entire series, we've been led to believe that Negishi's soft-pop side is his true form, and that his death metal act is just a veneer that pays the bills. But what if ... Negishi were actually bad at acoustic pop? And what if his role as Krauser turned out to be the thing he was best at? The band's commercial success speaks for itself: could the monster really be the hero?
Still, such existential thoughts don't stop DMC from delivering its usual quota of gross-out humor, with wanton acts of immorality, boneheaded misunderstandings, and the unending quest to be the most shocking, the most obscene, the most metal. Yet there are also times when the jokes become strained, trying too hard to be funny: the pointless "prophecy" battle with Helvete just doesn't deliver, and a couple of stand-alone chapters dole out the usual flying-off-the-handle Krauser sequences that were already formulaic two volumes ago.
Strained humor, however, is still a positive when compared to this series' true weakness: the artwork. Too many times, a punchline or action scene is ruined when an awkward character pose or poor staging makes the moment all but incomprehensible. Worse yet is when we're expected to read the expressions on the characters' faces and guess whether they're shocked, or angry, or amused—good luck with that one, because every expression looks the same. Even the rectangular-paneled layouts have a stilted feel to them: some scenes pack too much action into too small a space, while others leave the page too wide open, resulting in an awkward narrative pace. Only at the end of the Satanic Emperor arc do the visuals truly shine: Krauser in full demonic rampage, the crowd going completely wild, and the stage collapsing in flames. Truly, a chaotic climax is the only thing that befits the chaotic art style.
Then there's the chaotic language, which is far more bearable than the art and often times the most amusing part of the series. The entire script is translated with wild, gleeful abandon, but in a good way: swear words left and right, plus countless references to bodily functions and genitalia, just the way the hard-rock scene likes it. In fact, the only thing more hilarious than hyperbolic sentiments of death metal are the sickly-sweet indie pop lyrics Negishi loves to croon; how ironic that two ends of the musical spectrum are evenly matched in emotional vapidity. If there's one area where the translation trips up, however, it's in the sound effects, which are typically big, brash, and too widely spread out across the page to be readable. It may have worked in Japanese, but in English it's just random letters scattered over the scenery.
As it turns out, there is a method after all to the madness of Detroit Metal City. This volume still has the usual social deviancy, broad humor, and so-so artwork, but bubbling underneath is a much darker story, one that has been brewing ever since the first time Soichi Negishi painted his face white and wrote the kanji for "kill" on his forehead. The events of the Satanic Emperor festival bring this storyline to a turning point, forcing Negishi to come face to face with a shocking truth about his musical career that he may not want to admit. It's a daring move for a series that, just a few chapters ago, seemed to have lost it way. With Negishi's soul and sanity now hanging in the balance, it looks like things could remain interesting for quite a bit longer.
Overall : B-
Story : B+
Art : D
+ An unsettling shift in Negishi's personality suggests new plot developments up ahead, and yes, the exaggerated gross-out humor still earns some laughs.
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