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Boomark it!: ‘Manhole’

By Danny Contreras

The medium combines the drawings of comic books and the writing of traditional books. Yet, many consider them to be just “comics” and not actual literature. There are many examples that contradict the paradigm with Alan Moore’s Watchmen, Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns, and Art Spiegelman’s Maus.

Well, regardless of the medium, a good story is a good story. One of the most disturbing and creative graphic novels come from the Land of the Rising Sun, Japan in Tsutsui Tetsuya’s Manhole.

The short lived publication was originally serialized in the Japanese manga magazine “Young GanGan,” from Square Enix, publishers and developers of Final Fantasy. It ran for 29 chapters and was compiled in three volumes. Although short lived, the story will forever change the idea of realistic horror.

The story is fairly simple. After being inspired by an African tribe a crazed doctor creates a program to radically change human civilization into productive, thoughtless beings with the use of a unique parasite. Taking a page directly from Aldous Huxley, Tetsuya’s story doesn’t necessarily pit good and evil against each other, rather it presents the conflicts of an apathetic civilization that seeks the easy way out.

Manhole opens with a crazed, disfigured man exiting the sewers and crying for his mother. The police is called over to investigate and come across the sewer from which the man escaped. After carefully analysis  examining the makeshift room inside the sewer, Detective Ken Mizoguchi determines that the person responsible for the atrocious death of the man must be brought to justice.

It is through the course of his investigation that we discover the radical idea of Dr. Hiroshi Kurokawa, a man who travelled to Africa years prior to the series and found a tribe which infected their population with a parasitic worm that eats parts of the brain associated with basic human emotions. These parasites effectively render the host incapable of feeling anything but hunger. Kurokawa’s plan is to introduce the worm to the masses in Japan, but must try out test subjects which leads to his discovery by the police.

Yet, the police must not only catch the doctor, but they must deal with the threat of an epidemic of the worm across southeast Japan.

The art is quite unique in that it features graphic drawings of the human body amorphously destroyed by the larvae of the parasite. While emotions are sometimes hard to discern, they remain fairly realistic with many characters experiencing some kind of ambivalence.

Manhole works as a graphic novel because the pictures take care of imagining for the reader. The graphic scenes are morbidly disgusting, leaving them open for interpretation would probably turn people off.

The writing is not necessarily the best in the world; yet they only work with Tetsuya’s style. Had this story been written by anyone else, the piece would not be as powerful and creepy. Tetsuya keeps a fast pace throughout, and the whole story takes place over the course of a couple of days, yet it’s so painfully realistic, the graphic torture feels elongated into weeks and ages.

By far one of the best graphic novels to ever come from Japan and one that American readers will greatly enjoy.