by Rebecca Silverman,

I am a Hero [Omnibus]

GN 1

I am a Hero [Omnibus] GN 1
Hideo has a hard time with reality. He has an imaginary friend he talks to, long conversations with himself, and a failed career as a mangaka that he can't seem to get past. He spends his days trying to break back into the industry, hanging out with his girlfriend Tekko, and working as an assistant to a successful manga creator. But there's one special thing about him: Hideo is one of the few Japanese citizens who has a permit for a hunting rifle. As a zombie apocalypse slowly forms around him, Hideo has to learn where the line between dreams and reality is and to seize his chance to stop being a side character in his own life. After all, there are zombies and he's got a gun – this could be his chance to be everyone's hero.

What sets I am a Hero apart from all the other zombie manga and novels out there? I would say that it is the realism of it. Not realism as in the cause of the outbreak is particularly convincing or that the story and its world are especially well explained; I am a Hero's base strength comes from the way in which the actual zombie apocalypse is handled by the characters. There are no quick-thinking heroes who charge in, guns blazing. No one stops short at the sight of an emergency news broadcast. People simply go on about their normal lives, not putting two and two together until they can't ignore it anymore. When the zombies come, the world is utterly unprepared for it, both because it is so far outside of their normal experiences and because everyone is too wrapped up in their own lives to pay attention to the rest of the city.

Protagonist Hideo Suzuki is a prime example of this. A thirty-five-year-old loner/loser, he often has what he calls “hallucinations,” typically of a rotund man he calls Yajima, and has a difficult time telling what's going on in his head from what is actually happening. He is deeply jealous of successful manga creators, having once had a brief serial of his own called “Uncut Penis,” which ran for two volumes before the editor pulled it, saying that the protagonist had no affect. That's essentially what Hideo feels about his own life – that he's just being pulled along, a side character in his own story doomed never to be the hero. He largely keeps his anger and resentment inside, imagining huge blow-ups and fights with others that he never gives voice to, and in fact may not even realize are all in his head to begin with. While I don't generally like the term “man-child,” that is a fairly good descriptor for what Hideo is: a grown man trapped somewhere emotionally in his adolescence, unable to break free.

Ultimately it seems that that is what the series will be about against the background of a zombie outbreak, although it is difficult to tell because there are no actual zombies until the very end of volume one. Dark Horse has decided to publish this series in English in two-book omnibuses, and this introductory volume may be a large part of that, because the first half is mostly setting up Hideo as a character. While this will doubtless be important later, at this point it makes for a very slow burn. In part that is because Kengo Hanazawa goes to great lengths to establish how unsettled Hideo is as a person. It is interesting, but it is also difficult to read, as it requires you to immerse yourself in the inner thoughts of someone fairly unlikable who still thinks that singing “The Pussy Counting Song” is an appropriate thing to do in public and in general behaves poorly and, in some instances, creepily, without understanding why it is wrong. (As a clarification, the issue with the song is not the subject matter so much as the way it is used.) It is deliberately uncomfortable, which seems to support the theory that the zombie apocalypse will be a major factor in Hideo growing up as he learns to be an active participant in his own life, but again, for the subject matter for two hundred pages, it gets to be a bit much and can cause you to overlook the excellent seeding Hanazawa has done in the background – comments about the huge number of people with the flu and news stories about an increase in biting incidents speak not just to what is to come, but also to how wrapped up Hideo and the others are in their own lives that they never suspect what's coming.

The actual zombies, when they enter the picture, are a combination of gross and terrifying, which really works with Hanazawa's more realistic art style. The slow but inevitable approach of the first zombie Hideo comes into close contact with is a perfect depiction of this, with three two-page spreads devoted to the encounter in increasing close-ups. Interestingly the story uses both fast and slow zombies, which increases the fear for both the characters and the readers, as we never know which any given zombie is going to be. It takes an impressively long time for Hideo and the rest of the people of the story to figure out that people are, in fact, being turned into zombies by a bite that breaks the skin from an infected person. While that seems a little ridiculous to us, or at least to me, it seems important to consider that perhaps most people don't read or watch as much zombie fiction as the kind of reader likely to pick up this series, and therefore might not grasp what's going on quickly. Hideo, for his part, seems more fixed on ero manga or moe tales, which could, perhaps, make him slower on the uptake. For example, he doesn't realize that he's carrying around his gun until the very last page of the book, where most people in zombie stories would have been shooting like mad already; not only does this indicate his state of panic, but also an unfamiliarity with zombie fiction in general.

Dark Horse does not tend to slap ratings on their books in the same way that other companies do, apart from “explicit content” stickers, but were it published by anyone else, this would be an M. Largely this is due to the really gross zombies; Hanazawa really doesn't hold much back when he's drawing misshapen heads, toothless gums, and gaping wounds. The language can also be very crude, intentionally so to demonstrate Hideo's frame of mind and those of his fellow assistants. Between that and the slow build to the zombie part of the story, this is not a book likely to appeal to readers with short attention spans or a low tolerance for multiple kinds of crudeness. Whether it remains thus throughout the series, well, we'll just have to wait and see.

I am a Hero's first volume is an intense but slow-starting look at what might really happen if a zombie apocalypse hit a community not saturated with zombie fiction. This is enough to set it apart from its brethren even without its combination of zombie speeds, emotionally troubled protagonist, and slow build. Connoisseurs of the genre should definitely check it out, as well as people who are just looking for something serious and a little different.

Overall : A-
Story : A-
Art : A

+ Detailed and semi-realistic art helps the story to pack a punch, interesting examination of the way a real community might react to a sudden outbreak of zombies. Nice combination of zombie lores.
Very slow start, may be too crude for some readers. Hideo is difficult to like as a protagonist.

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Story & Art: Kengo Hanazawa

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