by Caitlin Moore,

Dai Dark GN 1

Dai Dark GN 1
Word around the universe is that if you have the bones of Zaha Sanko, your greatest desire will be granted. The problem is, Zaha Sanko is a 14-year-old boy who is very much alive and intends to stay that way. Luckily for him, he has a few tricks up his sleeve: a garment called a dark hide that grants him impenetrable defense, an axe that strips the living flesh away from the people it wounds, and a living skeleton named Avakian for a travel companion. Together, the two wander through space, trying to stay away from those who wish him harm… which is almost everyone!

There's really no one working in manga quite like Q Hayashida. Her first manga released in English, Dorohedoro, gained a cult following for its grimly chaotic, dystopian worlds filled with brutal, thoughtless murder, populated with lovable characters, and written with warmth and humor. Her newest series, Dai Dark, follows in much the same vein, but this time using sci-fi space travel instead of wizards and magic.

The premise is a simple one: for some reason, if you get your hands on Zaha Sanko's bones, your greatest wish will be granted. However, Zaha Sanko is still using his bones and doesn't really want to give them away. Ever since he's been a child – and he still is one in many ways at the age of fourteen – he's been on his own except for his skeletal buddy Avakian. He defends himself using his dark hide, a garment that makes him invulnerable to attacks, and an axe that strips away the flesh from the people he wounds. So when they try to take his bones, he gets theirs instead. How ironic.

It's the kind of concept that sounds a lot like something out of an ultraviolent OVA from the '80s, the kind that Central Park Media released here on VHS in the U.S., where the teenage protagonist looks and acts like a 40-year-old instead of a teenager and all the women are constantly being menaced sexually. However, that is not how Hayashida writes, for which I thank each and every individual star in heaven. Dai Dark may be ultraviolent and the characters may occasionally have their tits out, but it's also goofy in the best possible ways.

It's unclear just what happened to Zaha Sanko's parents and why his bones purportedly have the power to grant wishes, but that doesn't seem to have affected his development too harshly. He's not angsty or angry; he's a big goofball who loves spaghetti and meatballs and has a grand old time doing things like jumping into black holes with his buddy Avakian, who seems to be a combination between guardian, friend, and sentient backpack. He befriends Shimada Death, a seemingly-immortal specter who eats the flesh of death and has absolutely no interest in getting wishes granted because they already have everything they could possibly want. There's an inherent silliness to people yelling, “Give me your bones!” as they attack Zaha Sanko, and it is just delightful.

All that screwy charm is wrapped up in the kind of gooey, gory body horror aesthetic that Hayashida has made a name for herself drawing. This is no clean, sterile stainless steel-and-plastic future. It is uncomfortably organic, even biological in design. The spaces the characters inhabit look like innards, as if what we think of as “space” is actually the insides of some giant creature and they're akin to the bacteria that inhabit the human body. Whether symbiotic or parasitic, the host is barely aware that they exist, if at all, and unconcerned with what's happening to them. At times, it can even be grotesquely cute.

Despite its messy, chaotic look, the art is fairly easy to follow, even during crowded action scenes. Hayashida avoids crowding her panels with unnecessary action lines, using camera angles and the characters' physicality to create a sense of weight and motion instead. While I wouldn't call it beautiful by any traditional definition of the word, there is a kind of harmony between the chaotic art and quirky storytelling.

The sense of fun comes through most strongly in the character writing. The characters have an easy, natural chemistry that really sells their relationships. Zaha Sanko is a sweet kid who tends to get along with everyone who isn't trying to steal his bones, and his relationship with each of his friends and allies is distinctly characterized. Sure, he's more than willing to murder and take the bones of anyone who threatens his life, but that's more or less just the nature of things in Hayashida's worlds.

The volume's greatest weakness is that the stakes don't really fully come through in the story quite yet. It's not until about two-thirds through that Zaha Sanko makes the resolution that will drive the plot forward, and up until that point, it's mostly table-setting as he frolics through space with Avakian while trying to stay alive. Even once the stakes are set, they're rather basic: he wants to find the person who set a bounty on his bones and kill them so he can be free to live his life. A final-page cliffhanger ups the ante a bit, but the sense of forward momentum still feels rather vague by that point. As fun as it is just hanging out with the characters, I can see things wearing thin rather quickly without a kind of progression.

Dai Dark isn't as immediately grabbing as Dorohedoro, but it still has a lot of the same elements that made it so successful: boundless joie de vivre in a universe that in most creators' hands would be nothing but grimdark despair. Hayashida is truly a singular artist, and Dai Dark is worth seeking out for anyone who wants a one-of-a-kind manga experience

Overall : A-
Story : B+
Art : A-

+ Q Hayashida retains her one-of-a-kind art, humor, and storytelling; quirky in the best way possible
Stakes make the first few chapters feel a bit aimless

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Story & Art: Q Hayashida

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