Reviewby Rebecca Silverman,
Devilman: The Classic Collection
Akira Fudo is a normal high school boy, more interested in academics than fights and sports, much to the disappointment of Miki, his female friend. All of that changes one day when his best friend Ryo shows up and tells him that demons are not only real, but out to take back the earth from humans. He asks Akira to help him stop them, and Akira agrees. Soon Akira has been merged with Amon, one of the greatest demons – but with Akira's soul in control of Amon's power. Now Akira and Ryo work together to stop the demons from eradicating humanity as the fearsome Devilman!
If you've read any dark shounen or seinen action series written after 1973, you've probably seen the influence of Go Nagai's original Devilman manga. While it may not be the first of its kind, it certainly has been a major tone-setter for grim horror/action hybrids featuring heroes with definite anti-hero tendencies, and reading through this first omnibus collection from Seven Seas it's easy to see shades of Jojo's Bizarre Adventure, Berserk, and other similar titles in its pages. It is also very much of the time when it was originally created, which may not make it particularly appealing to readers who aren't interested in the history of manga as a storytelling medium – while certain elements are simply Go Nagai doing his Go Nagai thing, others are rooted in the popular entertainment styles of the 1970s and haven't aged particularly well.
Chief among the latter is the general attitude taken by the characters towards what it means to be masculine. When we first meet protagonist Akira Fudo in chapter two, he's the kind of guy who today would be cast as the appealing hero: quiet, kind, and of an academic bent. He's not a fan of violence and is invested in doing the right thing. All of this diminishes him in his friend Miki's eyes, however: she consistently berates him for not being tough or violent and for being too bookish; none of those things make him “manly” in her eyes. This attitude appears to be shared by almost everyone Akira encounters, steering him towards what today we'd call toxic masculinity. That this is remedied when his best friend Ryo shows up and gets Akira possessed by the great demon Amon, making Akira a much tougher, more violent guy, highlights the issue in a way that's a good indicator of changing attitudes towards what it means to be male over time. What's more interesting is that Akira is fully in charge of his and Amon's merged self, and his kindness is still very much in evidence over the middle chapters in the 600 page volume; it's just that now it's acceptable for him to be nice because he can also rip a guy's throat out with his teeth.
That's perhaps the one thing Devilman doesn't do as he's fighting for humanity's continued survival/supremacy on the planet. Devilman as a series is as violent as it can get away with being, but most of this is in the vein of 1970s schlock entertainment: over the top and vaguely ludicrous. It bears the mark of Nagai's more interesting tropes as well, such as female demons whose breasts are fanged mouths or who have literal vaginas dentata. There is a fair amount of male nudity as well, and we do see some penises in the opening color pages of intersex angels descending to a dinosaur-filled planet, but for the most part the guys are just not wearing clothes rather than being presented as sexual, appealingly or otherwise. Perhaps that's what makes it so noticeable when, in the last third of the book, Akira and Ryo are spending a lot of time hanging on to each other, both clothed and unclothed – there's a definite homoerotic vibe to a lot of their late interactions that makes for some interesting reading of their relationship.
Primarily that's reserved for the time travel chapters, which honestly feel a little random. That's likely because they're not part of Devilman's original five-volume run: they form a book called Shin Devilman published in 1979. It is often included in Devilman manga collections, although its placement here feels disconcerting because it happens so randomly after a couple of very serious chapters wherein Akira faces terrible consequences for his partnership with Amon. (Chapter five, about an old friend of his, is the strongest one in the book and can be read as a standalone if you're not interested in the more exploitative chapters.) In Shin Devilman Akira and Ryo track demon activities through time, coping with devilish interference in Samothrace, Paris, and Austria (France gets both a Revolution chapter and a Jeanne d'Arc one) and trying to keep history on track. Of these the French Revolution story is the most interesting simply because it attempts to explain the (mythical) actions of Marie-Antoinette as her having been a scared child possessed by a demon, and it makes a good post-Rose of Versailles case for a woman reviled by history while still keeping within the basic structure of Nagai's story. The Austria chapter is the most problematic: it features a young Adolf Hitler and attempts to explain his extreme anti-Semitism as encounters with a demon masquerading as a Jew. It doesn't seem to mean to be uncomfortable (unfortunate big-nosed iconography aside), but as someone with a personal history with the Holocaust, it was not an easy read.
The hook-nosed Jewish characters and a couple of people of color thrown into other chapters are the most unfortunate aspects of the artwork. Otherwise Nagai has a very dynamic style that doesn't necessarily adhere to anatomical norms (arms seem to grow depending on the panel) but absolutely gives a sense of motion and action. His use of both panels and white-on-black imagery is impressive, and it really feels as if the pages are moving rather than static drawings. As I mentioned before, there is a lot of nudity, and humorously we always see female nipples but very rarely male. (Also it takes Miki four panels to take her underwear off for the bath, which is impressive in its own way.)
Nagai originally wrote Devilman as an anti-war story, and while that comes through most clearly in the Shin Devilman chapters, it is a theme that we can see lurking beneath the surface of the entire book. That Akira doesn't lose his good, kind heart even though he acquires the anger and power of Amon makes him a force for humanity, one who regrets each casualty that he has to deal with. Although it's very firmly rooted in the 1970s in terms of its sensibilities, Devilman is still an interesting piece of manga history to read, if only to see how it still influences writers today.
Overall : B-
Story : B-
Art : B-
+ Dynamic art, interesting use of anti-war themes, beautiful publication
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