I Am a Hero is Scott Pilgrim plus Shaun of the Dead with the breadth of the Akira manga. It is a full-fledged, one hundred percent work of art that is both awesome and gut wrenchingly bittersweet. I woke up in the middle of the night two nights ago with a particularly beautifully rendered sequence swimming in my head and felt so achingly sad that I wanted to cry.
Kengo Hanazawa takes his time building the world through the eyes of his hero Hideo, a failed manga artist with aspirations of greatness who is now working as an assistant, churning out what seems to be mediocre manga. He’s is slightly disturbed, hyper sensitive, and neurotic – but completely harmless and lovable. He sees things – ghosts, visions – he even has full-on conversations with one. He’s told his inability to connect with readers is because he’s never experienced anything as a person. This gives him insecurities with his girlfriend Tekko who fawns over the brilliant achievements in manga of her ex-boyfriend. Kengo spins this story with more intelligence and empathy than I’ve seen in a manga, or any comic for that matter, in recent years. If he just decided this was the story he wanted to tell, I would have been on board.
Enter the zombies, eventually, and when they begin popping up, Hideo is uncertain if they are a part of his mental delusions or reality, creating a landscape of surreal hijinks that feel like set pieces created by the greatest of vaudeville masters. In all of this, Kengo never loses sight of his characters’ point of view, which makes the book that much more obsessively intriguing. I want to reread this just to experience it and break it down again.
The artwork is breathtakingly beautiful. The humanity, the emotional depth that lies in every pencil stroke adds so many other layers of story. We fall in love with Hideo and Tekko because they genuinely love each other – you can see it in their eyes, their smiles, and the way they play together. Despite Kengo digging into these characters within a zombie story, there is nothing cynical happening here. Hope and passion rise to the top, which only adds to the value of story events later on.
The book waxes artistic philosophy which, at times, becomes close to self-deconstruction, but avoids it by letting the characters drive the narrative themes.
“I don’t need to be the hero, but I’d as least like to be the main character in my own life,” Hideo tells himself in one vulnerable moment, and that’s why we care. These aren’t characters simply written so they can die, these are characters written so we can see them live.