The zombie genre has been fighting to stay relevant for some time now, often endlessly repeating the same tropes, drawing the same conclusions about humanity, and – when in desperate straits – resorting to empty, gruesome violence. There’s been very little truly original in the zombie genre since George Romero’s seminal films which not only kicked off the craze but stayed ahead of the curve and continue to put most attempts to shame. Aside from the occasional television or cinematic victory, eventually, all genre fare falls into this cycle, struggling to find an original voice. Without something to drive the story forward that isn’t zombies, you can expect standard biting and chewing of human flesh. All of that has its place, but as a reader (viewer), I like to be excited, surprised and thrilled. The Walking Dead swings back and fourth dramatically from one end of the spectrum to the other, Shaun of the Dead mattered because it poked fun at all of those tropes while finding its own emotional center, and World War Z (the book) grounded the zombie apocalypse in a real-world setting with real world consequences.
All this zombie talk brings me to Kengo Hanazawa’s masterpiece, I Am a Hero. I tend to reserve the word masterpiece for seminal works like Seven Samurai, Akira, 400 Blows, Lord of the Flies, and Watchmen, just to let you know what playing field I’m working in. I Am a Hero follows the journey of Hideo Suzuki, a mentally ill, wannabe manga artist who witnesses the outbreak of what appears to be a virus that turns people into mindless, cannibalistic creatures who, like a record skipping, are stuck in an emotionally relevant moment of their life. This is Volume 3, so some crazy stuff has already happened and continues to happen.
What makes this book so special? It’s unique vision that, for me, captures a person and world that literally has no idea what’s going on even as it’s happening. This is a world in which people don’t understand what zombies are, and they are inclined to react to it in such a way: mostly confused. As the situations become more absurd, the opposite reactions of what you’d expect makes everything that more surreal.
Hanazawa stages his scenes as if they were comedies. Blake Edwards keeps coming to mind, even though the stakes here are much higher and oftentimes tragic, even if the characters don’t always know that. The battle between Hideo and his girlfriend in volume one, as they struggle with each other on opposite sides of a door, is epic and personal, high comedy and high tragic. Every panel is deciphered down to its purest emotion. Every moment fluidly builds to the next until your mind is boggled at the dance that is occurring right in front of you.
Hanazawa’s artwork is simply beautiful, especially when it’s at its most deranged. The details and depth of emotion he brings to his story resound and capture both a real-world feel and something that is assuredly askew from the real world. This is a zombie story at its most Dali-esque. Reality is unraveling for Hideo, and he’s just starting to understand that he may not be able to return to the previous life he was living. What that means for a character like this and who wants to be seen as a hero and what he’ll be willing to do remains to be seen, but the allegory of a society so easily swayed by rumor and innuendo while unwilling (or unable) to see the danger right in front of it is far more prescient than you’d expect these days.
I highly recommend everyone read this series. For me, finishing volume three and knowing that volume four is still months away is the worst thing about reading I Am a Hero.