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Jason Thompson's House of 1000 Manga: Devilman

by Jason Thompson,


Episode V: Devilman

Patrick Macias (http://patrickmacias.blogs.com/), my ex-roommate in San Francisco, contributed a lot to my otaku-ization. Perhaps more than anything, he introduced me to Go Nagai. I'd seen a little bit of the Devilman anime, but like many American anime fans, I had little awareness of Go Nagai's other creations which revolutionized anime and manga in the late 1960s and 1970s. One day, not long from the day that I accidentally left the bathtub running while I was asleep and flooded the apartment, I discovered Patrick's cardboard boxes full of already-musty, yellowed Go Nagai tankobon: Violence Jack, Devilman, and many more. Thus began my descent into a world of madness, violence and giant robot toy tie-ins, and my discovery of one of the great classic mangaka.

Go Nagai came to fame in the late '60s with Harenchi Gakuen ("Shameless School"), one of the first hit manga in the then-new Shonen Jump. A slapstick comedy about a high school where the students are constantly conspiring to peep at girls in their underwear, or do other harebrained and not always sexual schemes, Shameless School was tame by today's standards, but the Japanese PTA complained anyway, forcing the series to an early end. But would any artist other than Nagai have drawn an ending in which the PTA attacks the school, forcing the students to die as rebels, fighting the forces of censorship with machine guns and grenades?

Nagai's early works go straight for the id, full of rascally, antisocial, hyperactive sex and violence. (There's an old manga industry rumor that Nagai's editors forced him to remain a virgin as long as possible so that all his creative energy would go into manga production.) His work is porn and horror, comedy and action—stories about violence, bodies (frequently naked, whatever their gender) and power fantasies, but never the sanitized, happy power fantasies of American superheroes. In the giant robot manga Mazinger Z, the hero doesn't just control a gleaming robot from afar, like in Mitsuteru Yokoyama's Tetsujin 28-go. Instead, for the first time in a manga or anime, Nagai's hero sat inside the robot's head, like a brain in charge of a massive, unruly body, which (in the first few chapters) disobeys his commands and causes destruction just for the hell of it. His heroes, in stories like Violence Jack and Devilman, are not just muscular and angry; they're raging monsters of teeth and hair, creatures whose violence (generally justified by the evil surrounding them) comes straight from their core. And his sexuality, whether teasing as in Cutie Honey or blatant as in Hanappe Bazooka (written by super-perv Kazuo Koike), is exploitative and crass but undeniably happy. It really is shameless.

Nagai's art is crude—his characters' eyes rarely seem to be looking in the same direction, their limbs look like pipe cleaners, and the women are like blow-up dolls with apples glued to their chests. His best images are sometimes his simplest, when action scenes and startled expressions are drawn in ragged brushwork, surrounded by lightning bolts, speedlines or wells of darkness. But what Nagai lacked in polish, he made up in vigor and productivity. Now that Nagai is in his mid-60s, his works have spun off into countless sequels and retreads (Devilman Lady, Mazinger Angels, etc.), and Nagai himself has minimal involvement—credit instead goes to his ever-faithful studio, "Dynamic Production." (Trivia: Dynamic Pro and Nagai's recent works include a short-lived manga adaptation of the "Hard Gay" comedy act.) All the remains is Nagai's oldschool faces, sitting like cartoon cut-outs on the tops of often incongruously realistic, detailed bodies.

But in the early years, Nagai was not just a Stan Lee-esque manga merchandiser/huckster, he was a hardworking young artist who dreamed of conquering—and judging from his manga, of destroying—the world. In 1972, already a manga megastar with an eye for licensing, he worked with Toei Animation for the simultaneous anime and manga release of a new series, Devilman. Nagai had previously experimented with horror in MaoDante ("Demon Lord Dante"), which combined elements of Christian mythology with giant monsters and, in a sense, the giant robot formula (instead of piloting a giant robot, the hero is consumed by and fused with the body of a giant monster). Devilman, in contrast, was more of a horror/superhero fusion, about a boy whose secret identity is that of a brawny muscled devil-creature. In the TV series, Devilman is basically a hero who fights a different monster in every episode. But the manga version was something much more original, much more crazy, much more Nagai.
The opening of Devilman goes like this: Akira is a mild-mannered high school student. He and his female friend Miki are being bullied by punks outside school when suddenly they are approached by Akira's friend Ryo, a blonde guy with huge sideburns who looks like an extra from "Scooby Doo". Ryo ignores the punks and tells Akira he needs to talk to him privately. The punks tell him to get lost. Without changing his expression, Ryo pulls a shotgun out of his trenchcoat and shoots as the punks' feet, sending the punks running and proving he is the coldest motherf*cker in manga. Leaving Miki behind, Ryo takes Akira back to his lonely house in the woods where he reveals that his archaeologist father recently went insane and died a horrible death after finding a stone mask in a Mayan temple. Ryo forces Akira to wear the mask, which gives him visions of the prehistoric past, when the Earth was ruled by a race of monstrous demons. Nagai's conception of the demons draws as much from dinosaurs as it does from demonology; in Akira's sanity-zapping visions, he sees a demon world "red in tooth and claw," with tentacled, birdlike and lizardlike creatures constantly eating each other, like some kind of parody of Darwinian Evolution. Furthermore, the demons can fuse with each other and grow stronger, which makes sense according to the same six-year-old logic as the characters dabbing animal blood on themselves to gain an animal's powers in Axecop. Ryo reveals the horrible truth that he alone has discovered: the demons never really died out, but merely went into hibernation (shades of H.P. Lovecraft's Cthulhu Mythos and its imitators), and now they are reawakening…coming back to reclaim the Earth and destroy the human race!

Ryo's revelation is confirmed when he and Akira are attacked by demons, including a woman with a fire-breathing mouth in her crotch. In a wild, shotgun-blasting car chase, they flee to another house where they take refuge in a bomb shelter, barely ahead of the demon hordes. There, Ryo tells Akira his plan. They must allow themselves to be possessed by demons, thus gaining demonic powers, while somehow mustering enough willpower to keep their human identity. "To fight demons…we must BECOME demons! Will you go with me…TO HELL?" Ryo asks his friend. "Yes! I'll do it!" Akira replies.

At that moment, Ryo slams open the door and reveals that the bomb shelter is connected to a dance club, where headband-wearing, body-painted, half-naked 1972-era hippies are dancing and boozing it up under psychedelic wall paintings. Akira is confused, but Ryo explains: "This is the same conditions as the ancient Witches' Sabbath! An orgy of sex, drugs and fleshy, wild abandon! You must lose your rationality!" A hippie chick drags Akira off to go dance, and he sweats nervously as he takes a few swigs of booze. But he's only playing around compared to Ryo. There's a scream, and Akira turns in horror to find Ryo, with a wicked leer, stabbing a woman in the chest with a broken gin bottle. "I forgot to mention the final key to demon summoning. Demons love BLOOD!" Ryo starts randomly slashing people, and the angry hippies understandably turn on him and Akira, kicking the crap out of both of them. But it's too late. Suddenly, people scream and writhe and begin to mutate into hideous monsters! As the clubbers divide up into demonic predators and screaming human prey, Akira, too, is possessed! But not just by any demon -- Akira is possessed by the great demon Amon, and his willpower is great enough to match Amon and form a new being, Devilman! Devilman turns the dance club into a lake of blood, killing every demon and possibly every human, before transforming back into human form. The last scene in volume 1 is a repentant Ryo standing naked and alone in the blood-soaked club, cradling the body of his unconscious friend Ryo, crying "Ryo! Don't be dead! Don't leave me alone in this Ashura hell!" (http://www.onmarkproductions.com/html/hachi-bushu.shtml)

The next thing we see, Akira is back in school like before, but he's transformed into a total punk with an open-chested school uniform, a bare chest, and a grin that says "I am the world's biggest bad-ass." Miki is intrigued by the change in his personality, and they flirt, but there is little time for human hijinks before demons start showing up around the city, attacking Akira's friends, his family, and just random people. To save them, Akira must transform into Devilman and wage gory battle. Among the demons is Sirene, Amon's ex, a birdwoman with claws and bare breasts and a mouth full of fangs that runs from ear to ear; a horde of spider demons who possess Akira's classmates; and a demon turtle who keeps the heads of its victims fused, alive but helpless, to its shell. As things get wilder, we start seeing other vignettes in which Devilman isn't involved: a child's parents turn into demons and eat him; a hapless teenage girl, one of the lucky/unlucky possessed souls able to keep her human mind, grows an acid-spewing face on her torso, as if puberty wasn't hard enough already.

But all this is just the beginning. Devilman is a story of eschatology—the end of the world—and a little over halfway thorugh the series, it turns into a true apocalyptic manga. All around the world, random people start transforming into monsters, causing chaos. Zenon, a four-faced giant demon lord, hundreds of feet tall, reveals himself and flies above all the world's capital cities, proclaiming the end of humankind. Armies are called out but destroy themselves as soldiers (and government officials) transform into demons, slaughtering their former comrades. Nuclear bombs destroy whole cities. Amidst this madness, Akira/Devilman tries to save Miki and her family…but can he? Which race will survive: humans or demons? And what about Ryo? The story jumps around towards the end, but on the way we see some of the most imaginative and over-the-top scenes of carnage and chaos ever drawn in manga, like a visualization of a child's nightmare.

Devilman is old-school manga at its best, and if you can look past Nagai's old-school art and into his excellent panel-to-panel storytelling, it's an unforgettable end-of-the-world horror manga. And despite what my endorsement of manga like Bride of Deimos may suggest, it's not just great schlock, either; it's genuinely emotionally powerful. One of the major points of the story, both emotionally and visually, is the nebulous line between humans and monsters (a theme which Nagai would explore again in Violence Jack). Nagai's simplistic artwork helps illustrate the point unlike many manga artists who draw cute girls, heroes and bad guys as if they were all drawn by different people (and maybe they are), his "look" is consistent throughout. Cute girls change into monsters, guys into monsters, guys into girls; everything changes in Devilman. Appearances are deceiving. The only constants in the world are change, and anger. In the case of Devilman, the wheel of karma actually carries beyond the end of the series and into Nagai's other works, which recycle elements from Devilman in different ways. In part this is just because Devilman was made into various unnecessary spin-offs (such as Devilman Lady), but Nagai goes a step farther by connecting his stories behind the scenes, so that each of them fits together into a sort of Nagaiverse, even after the world has been destroyed. Long before CLAMP drew Tsubasa and xxxHOLiC, Go Nagai mixed characters from different series in Violence Jack, combining almost all his manga in one dusty, postapocalyptic crossroads. The spoiler-packed Wikipedia entry for Violence Jack explains it all, but nothing will ever beat the thrill of discovering The Truth after sitting for 48 hours reading Go Nagai manga out of a cardboard box. The Grand Unifying Theory of Nagai is a mind-blowing trip, even more shocking than opening a door in an underground bunker and finding a sweaty orgy at a Three Dog Night concert. 

Devilman was adapted into a 2004 live-action movie, but it's never had a really faithful anime adaptation; the closest was the 1990s OAVs, but it only covered a small part of the story. The Devilman manga has been published around the world, but never in English, despite the fact that it's only 5 volumes long. The sad thing is, it's not like Nagai didn't want to get published in America. For much of his career, Nagai had an active interest in the Western market, encouraged perhaps by fans such as Jo Duffy, a Marvel Comics editor (and, for a brief time, the rewriter of Viz's Naruto). In 1983 Nagai drew an original color short story, Oni, for Marvel's Epic Magazine (a Heavy Metal-like fantasy/sci-fi/adult comics magazine). That was about as much as a manga artist could hope to get from Marvel, but the mid-'80s was a time when black-and-white, small press comics were on the rise. The anime of Mazinger Z, Nagai's other shonen manga epic, was released on American television in the censored but still-recognizable form of Tranzor Z in 1985. Perhaps thinking the time was ripe, in 1986 Nagai self-published the first volume of Devilman in America under the Dynamic Productions label. The resulting manga, "Devilman: The Devi's Incarnation", was a gloriously uncut, faithful translation, a 200-page black & white book, with only left-to-right mirror-imaging and an American comics trim size as concessions to the American market. Sadly, for whatever reason (Too long? Too weird? No marketing? Americans like more polished art?), it sank like a stone, leaving no impression on the world of American comics, which just one year later would see the launch of Viz…who, unlike Nagai, chopped up their manga into American-size 32-page chunks. Today, Devilman: The Devil's Incarnation is one of the rarest manga ever produced for English. One copy is sitting boxed up somewhere in the Viz offices; I've never seen another copy anywhere. It's a sad proof of the fact that you can publish an awesome-looking graphic novel with a great translation and still, no one will buy it.

Not one to give up, in 1988 Nagai created a new work specifically for the American market, a very (emphasis on very) loose adaptation of his giant robot epic Mazinger Z (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mazinger_U.S.A._Version). A 58-page standalone work, with color art in left to right, it was published by Viz's then copublisher First Comics. It must not have sold well, because Nagai published no more works in English until the late '90s, when two small publishers, Studio Ironcat and Verotik, picked him up. Sadly, both publishers treated Nagai's work as badly as, or worse than, the English localizers who chopped up Tranzor Z. The tiny Studio Ironcat released a few issues of New Cutie Honey, an adult spin-off of Nagai's original magical-girl series Cutie Honey, but their dismal translation and print quality made the result hardly appealing. The Verotik story was even sadder. Horror/Goth rock musician Glenn Danzig (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Glenn_Danzig) had long been a fan of Nagai, and when he launched his publishing imprint Verotik (whose original characters were clearly Nagai-inspired, to put it kindly), he sought out the rights to Devilman. But instead of starting from the beginning, Danzig went with Shin Devilman, a disposable Devilman spinoff in which Ryo and Akira travel through time meeting people like General Custer and Adolph Hitler. The choice of Shin Devilman was presumably to sell the story better in self-contained comic book issues, but the true terror of the Verotik Edition was not the story, it was the coloring. Verotik's Devilman featured the worst digital coloring ever inflicted upon any black & white manga, with the whole thing soaked in muddy mid-90s Photoshop greens and reds and browns. Not only that, the colorist "enhanced" the original art by adding extra details. That's right: HE GAVE THE CHARACTERS NOSTRILS. Rumor has it that Nagai himself didn't see the book until the 1995 San Diego Comic-Con, when he was invited as a guest of Verotik, and he was not pleased. The book switched to a different colorist with issue #3, removing the nostrils and making the whole thing look marginally acceptable, but it was too late and the third issue was the last.

And so, the attempts at publishing Devilman in English came to an inglorious end. Except, that is, for Kodansha themselves, who in 2003 released the entire series in an awesome bilingual edition in five volumes. This edition is still fairly easy to find, and very much worth reading. But for me, it's time to put away my dusty copies of Devilman and move on to something newer.  But something better? That's not so easy.

NEXT WEEK: A manga that's not from the '70s!

Jason Thompson is the author of Manga: The Complete Guide and King of RPGs, as well as manga editor for Otaku USA magazine.
Banner designed by Lanny Liu.

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