House of 1000 Manga
by Shaenon K. Garrity,
One of my all-time favorite pieces of comic art is a two-page spread from Jack Kirby's gonzo Planet of the Apes riff Kamandi, The Last Boy on Earth. It's a four-color map of Kamandi's postapocalyptic world, packed with detail and such intriguing labels as “Wild Human Preserve,” “Island of the God-Watchers,” “Orangutan Surfing Civilization,” and—my personal favorite—“Kangarat Murder Society,” formerly known as Australia. It's a blend of visual imagination, childlike enthusiasm and nuttiness which, for me, embodies comics. (For this and many more vintage comic-book maps and diagrams, the blog Comic Book Cartography—http://comicbookcartography.posthaven.com—stopped updating years ago but has an archive of Golden and Silver Age treasures to pore over. Only visit if you want to see a cutaway of Perry White's dentures crossing the fourth dimension.)
I get some of the same feeling from the illustrations that grace the inside covers of Kazuo Umezu's Cat Eyed Boy, published by Viz during its brief, beautiful infatuation with the child-emperor of horror manga. Instead of Kirby's sprawling world of adventure, Umezu diagrams a house of horrors, with each creature helpfully labeled. SMOKE LADY! MAN INSECT! TSUNAMI SUMMONER! THREE-EYED SPLIT MOUTH! MAN IN THE WALL! Between the monsters, Umezu crams drawings of screaming children. And where the logo on Kirby's map promises “Earth A.D. …The World of Kamandi!!!”, Umezu's declares, in plus-size scrawl, “Even Your Blood Will Freeze!” Each map is a box of Turkish delight, beckoning the young with the promise of irresistible pleasures. Just pleasures of different types, is all.
Before Cat Eyed Boy, Viz published Umezu's masterpiece, The Drifting Classroom, which pushes past the limits of horror and nihilism commonly acceptable in children's entertainment and into the realm of the uncategorizable. Cat Eyed Boy seems tame by comparison, hewing closer to the spooky-thrills formula familiar to anyone who's read an issue or seen an episode of Tales From the Crypt. Cat Eyed Boy, a demonic little boy with a wicked grin, acts as both central character and Cryptkeeper-style host. “Whenever I appear, something frightening happens,” he explains directly to the reader in the opening pages. “It must be that terror summons me. …My name? My name is…Cat Eyed Boy.”
From there, our host ushers us into serialized horror stories featuring Umezu's trademark blend of violence, surrealism, and stream-of-consciousness storytelling, which often seems to follow the dreamlike logic of the subconscious rather than any standard cause and effect. A mad scientist swaps a man's brain with a dog's, a boy who collects insects is stalked by a giant moth, a man promises his son to a snake, and even Kannon, Buddhist goddess of mercy, turns into a bloodsucking thousand-armed monster in one energetically gruesome story after another. Some of Umezu's creations are downright Lovecraftian, like the Tsunami Summoners, brain-shaped stones that wash up onshore and turn into hairy creatures with gaping mouths. Others are traditional oni or yokai, or, you know, a guy with a lumpy head or something.
But even the most straightforward Umezu stories are a little too intense to be standard Vault of Horror fare. A little intense and a little… off. “No one gets revenge or learns a lesson,” points out the Publisher's Weekly review of the book on Amazon, “and the monsters' inner lives are just as evil as their outward grotesque appearances.” The stories are often structured as familiar horror-story morality plays—someone misbehaves, evil descends to deliver a comeuppance—but innocent people get punished, or the moral system at work is askew, or Cat Eyed Boy loses patience and gives up on the whole business. The stories aren't funny or self-mocking—on the contrary, Umezu comes off as intensely sincere no matter how outlandish the material gets—but there's a wicked glee to them. Umezu drew gag manga during his long career, most notably the hit series Makoto-chan, and once explained, “If you're doing the chasing, it's a gag manga. If you're being chased, it's horror.”
Umezu shines in the two longer stories in the collection, which give him room to go spectacularly off the rails. “The Band of One Hundred Monsters” is an irresistible title for an irresistibly grotesque saga about a monster gang that goes around mutilating people to make them as ugly on the outside as the Band believes them to be on the inside. Cat Eyed Boy is cool with this and even considers joining them, until he finds out they aren't monsters, just severely deformed human beings. “You're just humans who call themselves monsters. That's so arrogant!” Horror highlights include doppelgangers, severed body parts coming to life (not just the usual possessed hands, but brains, intestines, the whole magilla), and the Band carrying out its grim vengeance upon a horror manga artist, identifiable as a manga-ka by his Tezuka beanie. His crime against the Band? Drawing its members, of course.
Where “The Band of One Hundred Monsters” is so cheerfully wicked you can hear the cackling, the other long story, “The Meatball Monster,” has a haunting intensity. A family is haunted by a monster called Meatball, which appears as a man made of gloppy ground meat. As (perhaps) unintentionally funny as lines like, “I pray that I never see Meatball in my lifetime,” come off to English readers, the meatball monster is really friggin’ creepy. It's oddly reminiscent of an old R. Crumb comic, “Meatball!” in which people who are randomly hit by a mysterious flying meatball receive enlightenment… but when Umezu's meatball visits you, it's a portent of doom. And then Meatball and his meatball minions shove tentacles of meat down their victims’ throats, and a limbless, prehensile-tongued creature that looks like something out of Like a Velvet Glove Cast in Iron shows up, and I don't know exactly what primal vein of dread Umezu tapped into here, but he hit something.
Umezu's art is, as always, stiff and almost charmingly awkward—some of the humans look like magazine drawings, others like doll-eyed shojo manga characters—but that awkwardness makes the horror scenes all the more disturbing. And the man is a master at drawing monsters. Insect creatures, reptile creatures, women with arms growing out of their heads, things that look like the Eraserhead baby, things with big staring eyes, things that are all hair and teeth: when it comes to monsters, Umezu's imagination seems bottomless. THE RED SPIRIT! THE DREAM CROSSER! THE LAUGHING CHILD! THE ONE-LEGGED MONSTER OF OUDAI! THE HAG ON YOUR BACK! You get the picture.
As best I can determine, the Viz edition doesn't collect the entirety of Cat Eyed Boy; it's the English edition of a Japanese best-of collection. But Viz did right by it, putting out two gorgeous volumes with all the bells and whistles: color pages, French flaps, high-pulp covers, and an afterword by writer Mizuho Hirayama. The editors were so dedicated to spreading the gospel of Umezu that they even included recommendations for Umezu manga by other publishers at the end. (At the time Viz had published Drifting Classroom, but IDW had Reptilia and Dark Horse had Scary Book. And my eternal gratitude to anyone who can find me a copy of Reptilia.)
Cat Eyed Boy isn't Umezu's greatest work. That'd be Drifting Classroom, or maybe one of his later, graphically violent manga for adults like Fourteen, which is unlikely to ever find an American publisher foolhardy enough to translate it. But it delivers on the old-school chills, and man, are those chills fun. Have trouble digging up a copy? Have hope. As the manga says, “Maybe the next place the Cat Eyed Boy appears… will be your home.”
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