Welcome, ladies and gentlemen, to the most important Dark Horse manga release of the year. Why is that? Well, let me ask you something: When was the last time you saw Dark Horse release a new manga that wasn’t a) from an established creator, b) a spinoff from a popular anime or videogame, or c) a license rescue? It’s been a while and other companies are even encroaching on “a)” with Hiroaki Samura and Kosuke Fujishima’s latest titles being released by Kodansha USA. So the bottom line is that if you want to see the company get back to releasing new, weird, and interesting original manga then you owe it to yourself to pick up a copy of this.
The good news is that “I Am A Hero” would be worth reading even if I wasn’t trying to spark a movement behind it. It’s a slow-burn approach to a zombie story that takes its sweet time setting things up before unleashing a gushing river of terror and chaos. Yes, it feels a bit slow in parts, but that’s less of an issue with this two-in-one edition as we get to see more of mangaka Kengo Hanazawa’s ambition on display here. There’s no doubt about it, whoever at Dark Horse decided to package the series in this fashion deserves a goddamn medal because I don’t think it would’ve read as well in a single-volume format.
Though zombie stories are a dime-a-dozen these days, “I Am A Hero’s” protagonist helps set it apart almost from the get-go. Hideo Suzuki is a somewhat failed mangaka. By that I mean he had a series, “Uncut Penis,” that ran for two volumes before it was cancelled. Now he’s working as an assistant for another mangaka while he prepares his next series. Hideo has a girlfriend, Tekko, who’s adorably quirky when she’s sober and unbelievably mean when she’s drunk. That might not seem like the greatest lot in life to have, but our protagonist also has something more troubling to deal with. Mental illness.
It’s never specified what he suffers from. However, the hallucinations, manic mood swings, obsessive-compulsive tendencies, and responding to internal stimuli makes it look like Hideo suffers from paranoid schizophrenia with psychotic symptoms (this is a rare instance where my work experience helps inform my hobby). Hideo’s illness is not presented in a quirky, funny Hollywood-type way where he says something hilariously inappropriate or utilizes his symptoms to be hyper-capable in some way. No, he’s presented as a genuinely disturbed individual. The kind who, if the story had gone in another direction, would likely use the gun he owns to take out his co-workers, girlfriend, and then himself.
That’s another thing which sets Hideo apart: He’s one of the very few people in Japan to own a gun. Japan has probably the most strict gun control laws of any nation, to the point where enduring the paperwork and regulations necessary to own one isn’t worth the hassle for most of the population. That Hideo owns a dual-barreled hunting rifle is kind of a big deal considering where he lives and helps further distinguish his character.
Now, before you go, “That must be handy, being a guy in Japan who owns a gun on the eve of the zombie apocalypse,” the story doesn’t hit the z-button right away. In fact, the threat really doesn’t become real for our protagonist until the end of the first volume. If you went into this series knowing nothing about it — which would be rather hard since it has “The greatest zombie manga ever,” as a pull quote from Jason Thompson on the back cover — then you’d be inclined to think that this is a slice-of-life series about a mangaka slowly going insane as the pressures of work and life start to mount on him.
This is what the first volume is like and it actually works pretty well on those terms. We get to know Hideo intimately as he struggles through the quiet times when paranoia grips him, deals with the people he doesn’t like (and don’t like him) at work, suffer through patronizing support from his editor and fellow mangaka, and enjoy the few moments of bliss he has with Tekko. Yet Hanazawa keeps piling on the tension as the volume progresses as work and personal stresses mount on the character. Even when the telltale signs that the zombie onslaught is about to begin start showing up, one may be tempted to write them off as products of Hideo’s mental instability. It’s a very effective approach and if Hanazawa had chosen to keep the story grounded in the real it’d probably still be worth reading.
That’s not the case and things really start going to hell once the second volume begins. All of the effort that was put into establishing Hideo’s life and all that surrounds it is put to very good use here as everything is steadily stripped away from him. Our hero finds himself in unreal situations forced to make unthinkable choices just to survive as the stakes keep escalating throughout the volume. Hanazawa turns out to be really very good with the action here, first embroiling his protagonist in an intensely small-scale and very personal struggle before sending him out to the city where all sorts of random craziness awaits him beyond every corner. You really do get the feeling that society is coming undone in these scenes of people falling off buildings, chasing and eating each other through the streets, and fleeing their attackers with all the strength they have. This is absorbing, kinetically entertaining stuff.
Even so, some may find that the pace of this series leaves something to be desired. While I appreciated the slow-burn approach of the first half as it eventually catches fire, Hanazawa really does take his time setting everything up. Also, as action-packed as the second half is, remarkably little actually happens during it. It’s really a very well-executed chase scene. Some may also find the fact that Hideo has yet to break out his gun somewhat ridiculous given the current circumstances. I feel it’s worth pointing out that the world of “I Am A Hero” appears to be like “The Walking Dead” in the sense that this is a world that never got “Night of the Living Dead,” “28 Days Later,” or “Shaun of the Dead.” Unless people’s knowledge of zombies is being hidden really well, then we’re dealing with a population that has no idea how to deal with them. The sooner you can accept that, the better shape you’ll be in to enjoy this series.
It’s also worth mentioning that the zombies of this series appear to be of the “fast” variety as seen in “28 Days Later.” They’ve also got a kind of crazed strength and, as Hideo finds out firsthand, are also pretty limber as well. One thing that Hanazawa does to set apart his zombies from others is that while they can’t actually communicate, they will gurgle out a few words based on their last thoughts while alive. It’s effectively creepy (and quite Japanese to boot) and makes Hideo’s first real encounter with them all the more tragic.
Had this series been released in a single volume format, the review you just read would be less enthusiastic. While my praise of Hanazawa’s approach in setting things up would still apply, I’d also express frustration that the first volume ends just as the zombie outbreak starts. All setup, no payoff. With this two-in-one volume release, we get the setup and the payoff all in one go. That makes enduring the six-month wait for the next omnibus (currently solicited for October) a lot easier. So yeah, the pace might be a little sluggish, but “I Am A Hero” is still a very entertaining read that approaches your usual zombie story from an interesting perspective. I want to see it succeed so that Dark Horse will bring us more titles like it in the future, yet it also deserves success on its own merits as well.