This one's for the kids!!

*Save for the bits in this week's column, which is about recent news stories involving comics. Yeah.

*Genre Revival Dept: Oh boy oh boy! I’ve got to confess folks, there’s few things that get me more excited than seeing a grand old genre, especially one long feared irrelevant, getting a nice wide airing before a hopefully appreciative crowd. So you can just imagine my delight when I opened up the printer-fresh new issue of Entertainment Weekly (#864 - a Natalie Portman cover hyping V for Vendetta, with a feature article on the shoot, including a sympathetic sidebar covering Alan Moore’s view of the project), and realized that one of my absolute favorites was back in the business - the ‘sensitive writer-on-film fears for our morals whilst viewing a horror flick with a audience’ genre of movie criticism. I think we all have fond memories of that one.

This time it’s Final Destination 3, which critic Owen Gleiberman saw with “a mostly young preview audience” - the Final Destination series, for those of you who aren’t up on your contemporary horror cinema, is a strange, stripped-down little line of shockers, each installment essentially the same, concerning a bunch of young people who narrowly (and often through the aid of some kind of psychic phenomena) avoid some kind of disastrous accident. It might be a massive plane crash, a fatality-loaded highway pile-up, or (as in this newest edition) the charnel house that is an amusement park thrill ride gone hopelessly awry - regardless, the unwitting survivors are then inexplicably coveted by Death itself, and find themselves prone to dying in increasingly elaborate, absurd accidents, all of them happily keyed to poke at the common concerns of everyday life (garbage disposals, trips to the dentist, standing in the middle of the street). Unlike many theatrical horror franchises (and all of these films play theaters - no direct-to-video yet), these movies are purportedly (I’ve not seen any of them) quite unapologetically gore films, in the drive-in mode, with gleefully extreme sequences of bodily violation surrounding the generally unpleasant characters therein.

They’re also pretty popular (Final Destination 2 made over $90 million worldwide in theatrical grosses alone, on what couldn’t have been a terribly large budget), and their R ratings hardly prevent the wider arena of teens from laying down the cash to see a whole lot of obnoxious actors and actresses transmogrify into goopy special effects. “Why stop there? Bring on the gladiators!” thinks Gleiberman upon encountering his young audience’s enthusiasm, though as it goes with many revived genres, this one too has become self-aware - he also cites the similar appeal of The Omen and its descendants, and even remarks upon how he’s used to “teenagers getting pumped at horror films,” not that this excuses the awful something-or-other this apparently inspires in the youth of today! “But where is the grand mysterious force of evil coming from? At a horror roller coaster as breezy in its blood thrills as Final Destination 3, it almost seems to be coming from the audience.” Flawless victory, Owen! FATALITY!!

I was planning to telephone my teenage sister and ask her about all this, but it turns out she had already left with her friends to see some horror film - not Final Destination 3, but last weekend’s competing shocker, When a Stranger Calls. Oh well, at least I got to relive part of the magic of the vintage horror landscape. And since I just recently read a manga that also was apparently meant to appeal to young folks, and does have the word ‘horror’ on its back cover, and does happen to go a little crazy, I’d like to dedicate the following review to all the critics out there still fighting the good fight. Strive forward! Guts!

Apocalypse Zero Vol. 1

Why did I buy this? I guess I got curious. The anime adaptation of this thing, a manga series by Takayuki Yamaguchi begun in 1994, is kind of infamous for being absurdly over-the-top in its violence and ridiculously deficient in all other creative aspects, which naturally caught my attention. And then I saw a bunch of volumes of the manga (released in the US by Anime Works, which also distributed the anime) sitting around, festooned with Parental Advisory warnings and 18 and Up ratings, and yeah - I wanted to find out what was inside. Hey, the special power of the $9.95 price point is that it makes jumping on these things easier.

What Apocalypse Zero actually is, now that I’ve read it, is something far more interesting than a simple parade of grue - it’s a shounen manga, originally serialized in Weekly Shounen Champion, which (according to circulation numbers released for 2004) is the best selling shounen-centered manga anthology in Japan not published by one of the Big Three of manga (Shuueisha, Shogakukan, and Koudansha). Shounen manga are targeted at boys in late elementary and junior high school, which does naturally raise the question of why this book is covered in shrinkwrap and dotted with content warnings. All I can do in response is to cite that legendary scholarly tome, Even a Monkey Can Draw Manga (by Koji Aihara and Kentaro Takekuma) - there’s a chapter in that book in which the authors explain the set-up of children’s manga, how the content in each title must be equally balanced between exactly what kids (the readership) want and what mothers (the parties carrying the money) want. An example is provided as to what a comic comprised exclusively of what kids want to see might look like, and predictably it’s utter bedlam - giant monsters taking dumps in the middle of cities, snot and dirt jokes everywhere, etc. etc.

Apocalypse Zero is that manga, only the shounen version.

It’s a wildly derivative book - a very serious, mysterious young man transfers to a school in a post-cataclysm, mutant-infested territory, and uses his secret powers and amazing battle armor to fight monsters and save the lovely female lead and a cast of dopey 'friends.' Of course, the lead villain is Our Hero's older brother, and there’s tons of colorful henchmen, and fights in every chapter. Even a reader like me who isn’t all that immersed in manga can piece together some of the obvious elements: aside from the plain influence of superhero-like costumed adventurer tropes, perhaps most specifically to me the ’80s monster-smashing ways of Bio-Booster Armor Guyver (the costume itself looks a bit like Kikaider, though), there’s the over-the-top aesthetic of Go Nagai, and the body-twisting exotic fighting of Fist of the North Star. And I’m probably a little off-base, as I don’t know all of the classics - yet I can still name a whole bunch of books that seem quite a lot like this.

But it’s not particularly boring, or rote - oh no, it really can’t be. This book stakes its success on driving everything up to the highest volume imaginable, and this actually does help it attain a certain identity - it certainly covers for Yamaguchi’s art (and that of his three assistants - they are all credited by name too), which is sometimes quite disjointed and sloppy, though he appears to be intentionally mixing a wide variety of cartooning styles into one patchwork display. The muscular lead character reminds me of Keisuke Itagaki’s character designs for Baki the Grappler, though other characters veer from the sparkly throwback shoujo stylings of the female lead (that huge bow she wears seems to have slipped through a time rift) to the outright foolery of some of the supporting cast - a sinister school administrator actually has evil pointy ears. It’s a somewhat disconcerting mash-up style, yet strangely fitting for the set-up of the story.

And of course, that story works to flatter the feelings of its purported young boy audience - the hero has virtually no character definition, remaining all-action, all-guts, all-hero with no time for silly things like girls or schooling. And good god, can I not imagine a book more soaked with anxiety over adult sexuality - the target audience of the book is going through changes, after all, big bodily changes and strange feelings, and that can be a cause for alarm. This story pumps that alarm up to a firehouse wail, especially with the villains. There’s an awful, bloated adult woman who hugs girls so hard that their eyes pop out and their guts spill from their mouths. She’s very jealous and affectionate, and she kisses young men until their faces rip off, then she wears those faces on her naked breasts and devours her unwilling lovers. Our hero defeats her by kicking the brain out the back of her head, and then the still-living contents of her belly literally ascend to Heaven (or some sparkling non-denominational realm in the sky). Another baddie is a filthy old man with a giant head and his genitals hanging out from the bottom of his costume (don’t worry - he has a bandage on his penis, so it’s Not Explicit!). Eventually he gets an erection and his appendage transforms into a living dragon which spews razor-sharp bullets of semen at Our Hero, the villain’s testicles swinging around like twin spherical iron bludgeons - guess which parts of his body wind up getting ripped off?! And that’s not even cover Our Hero’s brother, who appears to be a transsexual - but the book isn’t really hateful of alternative sexualities or whatever, it’s just horrified of the implications of adult development, and whatever it might mean.

There’s no sex at all in this book - all of the instruments of sex are reduced to weapons of violence or creepy jokes (like the school principal licking photographs of the female lead). Even the obligatory nudity in the girls’ changing room is largely subsumed into the concerns of the developing body. I haven’t even covered the references to Japan’s WWII atrocities, inserted as backstory into the hero’s origin, balls of iron (a translator’s joke?) literally shot into his and his brother’s body by their mad father, as they practice fighting in shoulder-high snow in their underwear. It’s bananas, an utterly insane book, but valuable. Not just as a peek into the derivative corners of the shounen world, but as a look at the forms of what (nominally) kid-targeted entertainment can assume, which times and conditions are just right. Did kids really read this in Japan? America won’t let them read it here. It’s just folks like me going over it, and I have to say I was not at all bored with the book.

The kids still have the movies anyway. Right?