Also, look! It's another Overlooked Manga Festival!
Today's manga isn't totally overlooked. At least, it got a nice writeup in Publisher's Weekly a while back. On the other hand, it only has a stub on Wikipedia, and that's totally wrong for a series of this stature. Besides, Halloween's around the corner. Time to enjoy screaming, mutilated children!
Kazuo Umezu is one of the most renowned and influential manga artists, best known for a) bizarre, graphically gruesome horror stories, and b) the hilarious gross-out humor of Makoto-chan, Japan's scatalogical answer to Dennis the Menace. It's easy to write this off as the kind of one-two punch that could only work in wacky old Japan, but think of all the EC horror artists who went on to draw for Mad magazine. Whose national comics culture is crazy NOW, huh? Nonetheless, Umezu is by all accounts a pretty nutty man-child, and a lot of his horror work suggests a slightly unhinged mind. His most recent series, Fourteen, for example, takes place in an ecologically devastated dystopian future where humanity is threatened with destruction at the hands of a mutant half-man, half-chicken named Chicken George.
But I'm not here to talk about Chicken George.
Umezu's work is slowly seeping into the English-language world. Viz published one lonely volume of his series Orochi, and Dark Horse has begun publishing a bunch of his short stories under the title Scary Book. You should definitely read these creepy-ass manga, but I'm devoting special attention to The Drifting Classroom, published by Viz, because it's generally regarded as the quintessential Umezu horror manga. First published from 1972-1974, it was immensely popular, solidified Umezu's reputation as a manga master, and influenced a ton of other manga. As you look at the following pages, keep in mind that they first appeared in Shonen Sunday, a magazine aimed at grade-schoolers. (The lighthearted comedies of Rumiko Takahashi would debut in the pages of Shonen Sunday just two years after the end of Drifting Classroom).
So. As our story begins, an elementary-school building is suddenly and inexplicably teleported to a bleak, lifeless wasteland, leaving behind only a crater and a lot of distraught parents.
The series then follows resourceful sixth-grader Sho and his classmates as they struggle to survive in their strange new surroundings. The action begins at a fever pitch and doesn't. Let. Up. I am helpless to explain any of it; I can only invite you to observe some representative moments from the two volumes currently available in English, while maintaining the appropriate level of shock and awe:
SHO REALIZES THAT THE SCHOOL IS SURROUNDED BY A BLASTED WASTELAND!!!
THE STUDENTS PANIC AND RIOT!!!
TEACHERS LOSE THEIR MINDS!!!
(Get used to that crazy laugh. You'll be hearing it a lot in Umezu comics.)
A TEACHER (who looks uncomfortably like my dad) RESTORES ORDER BY STABBING A KID IN THE ARM!!!
THE KIDS FIND A GUN!!!
(The kid with the gun looks like Shovelhead from my comic Li'l Mell. And, yes, I do plan to model Li'l Mell upon Drifting Classroom from here on out.)
(Where was I? Oh, yes...)
A CAFETERIA WORKER HOARDS FOOD AND KILLS ANYONE WHO GETS IN HIS WAY!!!
THE KIDS ORGANIZE A COUP!!!
THE TEACHERS START TO KILL THEMSELVES!!!
AND EACH OTHER!!!
KIDS GET RUN OVER BY A MADMAN IN A SENSIBLE FOUR-DOOR SEDAN!!!
There's also some plot, as the kids begin to figure out where they are and try to find some way to contact the world they came from, but whatever. Read the manga.
Everyone who's read the entire eleven-volume run of Drifting Classroom says the same thing: it's stunning in its ability to sustain the same level of intense, claustrophobic horror from beginning to end. Umezu sucks the reader into his weird world and doesn't let go, and it's only made more disturbing by the fact that everything is filtered through the viewpoint of a child. It's a deeply unsettling reading experience. Personally, I've only read the first two volumes, so I can't confirm all of this. Maybe things start settling down in Volume 3. Wait, here's the Coming Next Volume page:
Yeah, maybe not.
So that's The Drifting Classroom. A total horror classic and world-class freakout.