What was the best zombie series of the last 15 years? No, it wasn’t the fucking Wanking Dead. Anyone who knows anything about comics knows it’s hot (cake) garbage but the power of marketing, merch and a duff TV show led to unfortunate things. Like a virus, it spread and infected people into thinking it was more sophisticated than it actually is-was. It’s an unplotted pile of shit that’s thankfully ended and been buried, despite continuing to spray AMC and smartphones with piping-hot liquid excrement. If it had been a carefully crafted series with an endgoal in sight, I would look at it more kindly in hindsight. When it was a mere comic series, the first 20-30 issues were seen as a revelation for being brave enough to print in black and white, the brash pronouncement it would never end, and the twists that now seem tired like a stunned horse. As a persistent stench upon popular culture, it opened the doors to the comic dross that is now inescapable on streaming services that I don’t have the interest in wasting my time on when there are real books waiting to be read. The past is a treasure trove if you’re willing to dig deep enough to find the strands, not the Xeroxed copies of brief successes and excesses.
I AM A HERO is the antithesis to the shite yank Zombie fad of the 00s-?? and was wonderfully tied up in 22 volumes by Shogakukan and my much missed friends and colleagues at Dark Horse Comics, who finished the English translation and publication in 2019.
Just before a real pandemic forced its way into the world.
When the series reached its conclusion in Japan, I drove through long, dark, winding roads at 4am to buy a copy of BIG SPIRITS to devour the final chapter and its huge colour double-page spread of its poignant conclusion. It was, and still is a monumental piece of storytelling and cemented in my mind that mangaka Hanazawa Kengo had finally realised his ambition to tell a GREAT horror story for adults which was concise, violent, obscene, outrageous and tender all at the same time. TWD could never achieve that due to its inexcusable overwriting, 200 word monologues, the same narrative voice for all the characters (that being the grossly obese Robert Kirkman who I saw sweating and panting heavily at NYCC 2012)… need I go on? No. Let’s not.
In fact, I feel it’s insulting to Mr. Hanazawa’s talent to even compare his work with anothers as it stands tall as a work of art, rather than a media monolith that leaves most people cold.
I AM A HERO span out into four volumes of additional stories by new and major Japanese talents like Ito Junji, and a live-action movie in 2016, supported by a brief late-night mini series on TV that acts as a prelude to the movie (but to be honest, all good stories start small and we don’t need to know the origins of literally fucking everything; this is my major criticism of the dire Disney+ Star Wars spin-offs).
Now, let’s bite into the juicy meat of the brain. The movie. I’m a huge fan of Oku Hiroya’s GANTZ series which came out around 2008/9 in English translation, but the live action movies were failures in terms of narrative but not casting and design. The movies share the same director as IAAH, I only recently found out. Many manga gets optioned and turned into movies before the series is completed so the creators are leaving their work in the hands of studio writers with no idea how to turn in a satisfactory conclusion. The second GANTZ film was based on aspects of the manga but sadly unsatisfying (I do however highly recommend the GANTZ: O movie, which is the closest you will get to a truly satisfying fusion of manga and movie).
The same rationale can be directed at the I AM A HERO movie, however there are so many things RIGHT about it, I can forgive truncating 22 books totalling thousands of pages into two-hours. The cast is spot on, the costumes exact, the scenes in the first 30 minutes are ripped from the pages of the manga itself as if they were storyboards. Suzuki Hideo is a 35 year old manga artist who had won a newcomer award in his twenties but never managed to capitalise on this initial spurt of success. He becomes an assistant to another mangaka who is churning out a series he’s not interested in, nor does he raise his voice to question why he’s even doing what he’s doing (this doesn’t do you any favours in making real comics or books by the way, because you always get shot down by people with no interest in the medium who think they know better than you). The work relationship breaks down when a spate of attacks across Tokyo turn out to be (possibly?) a zombie/virus/mutation that causes people to attack and infect each other. Yes, sounds familiar. So what makes it fresh? The POV of the protagonist, without doubt. Instead of going gungho with his shotgun (gun use is not legal in Japan, except for hunting or sport in which case you thankfully need a license, unlike some countries where you can shoot up schools), he is constantly at odds with himself about using the weapon, the ramnifications of violence and his own destroyed confidence.
Later, he meets high-school student Hiromi, who has been infected partially and exists in a semi-infected state that comes into play at various points in the manga series. While the movie doesn’t quite expand on her role like the manga, she still provides a welcome counter-point to the on-screen excessive gore. The movie covers the bulk of the earlier volumes, but doesn’t make it to the final volume as it had yet to be published. However, what you do get is a concise, action-packed and faithful live-action event that deserves more than a single viewing.