Writer/Artist: Hideshi Hino
Publisher: Cocoro Books/DH Publishing
One of the major side effects of the manga boom (manga being Japanese comics), along with bringing new readers to comics and revitalizing the medium for thousands of teenagers who would have otherwise abandoned it and left the comics industry barren and hollow in another decade, has been the widespread availability of high-quality Asian horror comics for North American audiences.
The biggest horror success to arise from this boom so far has been Junji Ito’s Uzumaki, which has taken the comics blogosphere by storm and seems to have been many people’s gateway work into manga. Other top-quality titles have also been given a chance to flourish.
And it’s not only new series that we’re seeing, but the strength of the manga wave is also washing older works ashore.
Junji Ito’s key influence (outside of Lovecraft, that is), Kazuo Umezu, has had one volume of his work brought into English. And now, the man who appears to be the major bridge between Umezu and Ito in horror manga, Hideshi Hino, is seeing his work translated and made available in English.
One book of Hino’s, Panorama of Hell, had previously been published here, but that was nothing compared to the 16-volume Hino Horror series that Cocoro Books has just begun releasing.
The books are coming out two at a time on a monthly schedule, packaged in the small, sub-$10 format that TokyoPop has made so successful. These little editions are great introductions to Hino’s bizarre, macabre world.
The first two books in the series are The Red Snake andThe Bug Boy. Though The Red Snake is far stranger and more horrific, The Bug Boy is somehow the more appealing of the two.
The Bug Boy, put in simple, high-concept terms, is Kafka’s The Metamorphosis if Gregor Samsa hadn’t given up and died, but had instead become a crazed killer.
The story follows Sanpei, a bullied, weak, strange boy whose best friends are worms and slugs and stray animals, whose family doesn’t like him and whose classmates hate him.
One night, after a particularly difficult dinnertime browbeating from his father, Sanpei heads to his room, but doesn’t make it before he vomits. In his vomit is a bizarre red bug.
Sanpei picks the bug up and it stings him, causing the story’s events to really get underway.
Sanpei soon becomes violently sick, unable to leave his bed. Then his skin and body begin to rot, his fingers and then his limbs fall off, eventually leaving him a quadriplegic, confined to his bed and tended to only rarely by his family.
As if things weren’t bad enough, Sanpei soon awakens to find himself transformed into a giant red bug, a much larger version of the one that bit him. His family casts him out of their house — after trying to kill him — and he is forced to live in the sewers and eat rotting dogs and bodies to stay alive.
As Sanpei spends more time as a bug, he becomes less human and more evil. After growing a sharp horn and stinging tail, he realizes own power for violence and revenges himself against the bullies who wronged him in school.
Finding the thrill of killing too much to resist, he begins killing anyone he can find.
This leads him to a climactic confrontation with his parents, from which only one side can survive.
The Bug Boy is an interesting story not in that its plot is unique or so unusual, but in its statements about Sanpei and in its art.
The bug that Sanpei becomes seems almost certain to be an externalization of how he feels about himself, how he sees himself after years of bullying and abuse from his family. No doubt, Sanpei saw himself as less than human, as a freak – not as a boy, but as a thing.
But there’s a darker side to this as well. Sanpei only becomes the bug after he vomits a bug up. The thing that transforms him comes from inside him. Sanpei’s transformation into a killer monster, therefore, isn’t the result of external malevolence, but is instead a radical self-actualization, an achieving a status he could only wish for as a mere boy.
(To this end, the story recalls Frank Miller’s take on Batman’s true genesis in The Dark Night Returns, as well as David Fiore’s excellent exegesis of that story.)
Given Hino’s art, it’s not hard to see why Sanpei feels like a freak — like Jessica Rabbit, he’s drawn that way.
Hino’s art is deeply unusual, characterized by people sporting huge, bloodshot, bugged-out eyes, twisted spines, hunched shoulders. His heavily inked style flirts with the clean-line school exemplified most familiarly to North American readers in the works of Chester Brown, Seth, and Jason Lutes and, at times, it seems almost cute. But his focus is relentlessly on the grotesque, the bizarre, the strange.
It’s a surprising mix of style and subject that takes some getting used to. But once you’re used to it, it pays dividends.
Though neither The Red Snake nor The Bug Boy blew me away the way my first encounter with Hino’s successor, Junji Ito, did (my first Ito was the terrific Tomie. I’ll be writing about Tomie at some point), both are strong, creepy books that bear a read by any horror fan, and especially those that enjoy horrors stalking children.
And the Hino Horror series, as well, bears watching. Though the books are printed on a cheap-feeling stock that warped pretty severely after sitting on my floor for just a week or two, the books are worthwhile. They’d be even better if they were printed on better paper.
Nonetheless, here’s hoping for more quality work from Hino and Cocoro Books.