*Also out tomorrow, and inadvertently uncovered in yesterday’s listing of stuff, is the latest issue of The Comics Journal (#273). As always, there’s stuff online; fittingly, much of it this time around deals with the Journal’s ongoing (and, as of this issue, concluded) series on internet comics journalism, with reactions from a trio of online personalities (Comicon’s Rick Veitch, Lying in the Gutters’ Rich Johnston, and ICv2’s Milton Griepp) collected in a final edition of the series itself, plus a highly critical analysis from Tom Spurgeon on the series’ prior installment, presented as a letter to the Journal’s Blood and Thunder section, with a response from series writer Michael Dean. Some really great interview subjects this time around too: the ever-cogent Eddie Campbell takes the cover position, with Junko Mizuno included as well. Excerpts from both are provided.

Dragon Head Vol. 1 (of 10)

Sometimes, when push comes to shove, I’m all in favor of 200+ pages of non-stop tunnel-walking action. If you’ve got tunnels, and characters that can walk, you just might have the makings of a satisfying comic book experience. It really is that simple. Dragon Head, a 1995-1998 series from Minetaro Mochizuki, has all of the dripping water and rocks and dirt and ominous baths of blackness that you can possibly process. And according to Bryan Lee O’Malley, we still have at least two solid volumes of dank passages and sparse lighting to go! Oh, my cup runneth over!

I’m horsing around here because this book works, almost against the odds. I can imagine no other manga tome on the US market right now that embodies that classic characteristic (stereotype?) of Japanese comics consumption: it’s all read very quickly. Yes. Dragon Head all but demands you blow through its supple width at top speed - I can’t really call Mochizuki’s art style ‘minimal,’ since he doesn’t exactly give himself an environment that lends itself to detail-laden feats of visual acrobatics, but the dominant setting of wrecked mass transit interiors and crumbly boulders and ceaseless, gnawing darkness, forces the reader’s attentions onto Mochizuki’s always-sweating, bleary-eyed character art (sort of Taiyo Matsumoto by way of Kazuo Umezu, if I may), and their constant exclamations of distress, or sometimes their simple wanderings, off into ruin and the absence of light. This is the only book I can think of where a main character spends no less than 70 pages talking aloud to himself, yet never trips the heavy-handed exposition alarms in my head. It’s because he’s as lost as we are, his sight as limited as ours - he can be an easier reader surrogate, and he says what we imagine we might if trapped in a similarly cataclysmic situation.

Speaking of which - the plot concerns a train full of high school students coming home from a class trip. As the train enters a tunnel, Something Bad happens. Is it an earthquake? Is it a terrorist attack? Is it full-scale nuclear exchange? We don’t know, but the train is thrown around in the tunnel by mighty shockwaves, and finally wedged into a small passage, closed off at each end. Everyone dies horribly. Almost.

So we follow young Teru, who wakes up in the middle of a literal hall of horrors, pieces of glass and metal everywhere but the basic form of the train fortuitously intact, the seats and halls festooned with the corpses of his friends, enemies, and passing acquaintances (and if only that opening double-page panorama of hell had been left in color, as it was originally intended!). He freaks out, desperately searches for sources of light, attempts to explore the surrounding area for survivors or some means of escape, or even simple contact with the outside world (a radio provides only tantalizing bits of some sort of emergency situation going on). He regretfully visualizes his broken relationships with his parents and sister, occasionally tumbles through an aftershock or two (or are they… something else?), and wonders why it’s getting so damned hot as time passes by. Eventually, he runs into some apparent survivors, although one of them seems locked in perpetual unconsciousness and the other, a grasping and nervous bullying victim, appears to be losing his grip on sanity, envisioning his tormentors rising from the ground, debris extending from their chests, coming to rip even this tiny bit of accidental social superiority away from him.

Yes, this is violent stuff, with blood and dead flesh on nearly half its pages, but you’ll get used to it. That’s because Teru is us, and he gets used to it - as the non-stop visions of the dead lose their initial kick, Our Hero becomes used to the decoration (where else will he go?) and concentrates on other things, like finding food, or lighting fuel (as if the darkness itself will devour him should he allow it any dominance). He's eventually casually discussing setting up a standard bathroom spot with a fellow survivor, as these are his new concerns. And sometimes he curls up on a glass-sprinkled floor and shivers in a fetal position.

And that’s the whole book.

It’s ‘survival horror’ in its most basic, unpretentious form - these characters want to survive, and only themselves and their environment can kill them, though those two forces have the odds in their favor. I can only imagine how maddening this must have been to read in serialization (though, as we must always keep in mind, it was accompanied by a big number of other serials each issue to keep the reading experience going); even after this whole book is done, I still felt like I’d barely been introduced to this world, and these characters. There isn’t all that much in the way of personality development either, not in this volume - we see desperate reactions, and the paranoid delusion of one of the characters, and the remembrances (imaginings?) of another. But this book is about ‘action,’ by which I mean scrambling for understanding, and eking out an existence.

It’s good. Not for fans of upbeat adventure or pulpier monster horror, and I presume the claustrophobic status of the setting might prove unnerving for some readers. But I assure you that all the tunnel-crawling is never boring, and that’s credited to Mochizuki’s talent for exploring the logical implications of the characters’ situation, while stringing us along with plenty of mystery and offering just the right amount of progress in his fixed setting. And the art really serves the experience, pushing us through the blackness with minimal distraction and occasionally zeroing in on trickles of grue and that unceasing outpouring of sweat and nerves. This is a shuddery book, not a jumpy one. And if it ultimately feels like an extended act of exploration, you’ll enjoy the procedure and look forward to what’s eventually uncovered. If anything.