Posted by Don MacPherson on February 19th, 2007
Mail Vol. 1 original graphic novel
Writer/Artist: Housui Yamazaki
Translation: Douglas Varenas
Editor: Carl Gustav Horn
Publisher: Dark Horse Comics/Dark Horse Manga
Price: $10.95 US
Though I initially found it difficult to glean what this book was titled, reading it turned out to be a great diversion on a slow afternoon. Mail Vol. 1 proved to be one of those rare manga publications that actually appealed to me. If there’s one thing that Japanese creators seem to do well, it’s horror storytelling. Mail is really an anthology of horror stories, with the common thread of the same medium/ghostbuster turning up in each disparate, creepy tale. There are flaws in some of the choices that writer/artist Housui Yamazaki makes at times, but overall, he manages to offer up some fun but chilling stories of the supernatural without resorting to gratuitous, gory imagery to do it. Another reason these eerie ghost stories are so entertaining is that the creator never takes things too seriously. There’s an irreverence to the storytelling that helps to offset a couple of the more derivative or convenient elements. The biggest problems with the book have little to do with the craft of comics, actually, but rather with design and marketing.
In a small Japanese town to an apartment complex in a sprawling, crowded metropolis, ghosts hide in plain sight. They haunt the site where their remains have gone undiscovered for years. They scratch at the walls of their former homes, waiting for someone from the other side of the veil to connect with them in some small way. And there are ghosts that pose great danger to the living. Fortunately, there’s a supernatural investigator with special abilities who’s able to intervene on our behalf. But his means to ultimately saving the day and repelling attacks from the land of the dead aren’t his skills or intuition, but a special gun with enchanted bullets.
Thanks to films such as The Ring and The Grudge, the image of a young girl with stringy, black hair cascading across her face has become synonymous with Japanese-influenced horror. To be honest, I think the motif is being overused, so I was disappointed to find it implemented in this book as well. Still, there’s no denying the effectiveness of the image. A young, wide-eyed, girl whose face is partially and unnaturally obscured by her hair has an impact. Where Yamazaki’s art really succeeds with his juxtaposition of realism and surreal distortion, used to achieve an unsettling effect. I was thoroughly disappointed that the first image that meets the reader once s/he delves into the stories is a naked woman; it contributes nothing to the story. But once I got past that point, the book seemed to stop wallowing in gratuitous visuals.
Also disappointing visually is the cover design. It’s almost impossible to discern the actual title of the book from the cover if one isn’t already aware of it. The rough, pixilated quality of the simple cover image tells the reader nothing about what kind of storytelling is to be found within, and the same holds true of the logo design. The book derives its title from the notion that the dead send messages to the living, but Mail is such a generic, non-descriptive and unmemorable name for the book. Why not tell readers this is a horror book? Why not reach out to an audience that would be interested?
The main character, private eye Reiji Akiba, is at times as slick and confident as an action-movie hero, and at others, he’s weird, awkward and bookish, and I rather liked the divergent and unusual take on the hero. The notion of bullets with some kind of incantations scrawled on them is a clever one, and the sleek and unique look of the luger maintains a balance between a realistic weapon and something with a slightly unnatural and distinct quality.
The character’s off-the-wall attitude helps to bring an important balance to the scary side of the book. The horror scenes achieve a wonderfully tense atmosphere, and the book provides some fun frights. But there’s also an acknowledgement of the almost ridiculous nature of the over-the-top ghost stories as well. The plotting doesn’t pretend to provide realistic behavior and flow to the action. The secrets of hauntings and murders are uncovered through all-too-convenient means, but because the script doesn’t take things so seriously at all times. There’s no pretension of deeper meanings of morals to these stories. It’s just about the experience of a good scare and how it can be as entertaining as a good joke. 7/10