Sunday Slugfest: Devil #1

A comic review article by: Thom Young, Danny Djeljosevic, Charles Webb, Jason Sacks
A vampire virus is sweeping through Saga City, Japan, and it’s up to a no-nonsense, tough-talking, gun-toting "Dirty Harry"-type to stop the infection from spreading through any means necessary. However, he's suddenly saddled with a liberal-minded female detective who believes the infected citizens should be cared for--and eventually cured, if possible.

Danny Djeljosevic:
Charles Webb:
Jason Sacks:
Thom Young:

Danny Djeljosevic:

Aside from popularity there are hardly any notable differences nowadays between Western comics and Japanese manga, and the notion that they are separate forms needs to end. Torajiro Kishi’s generically titled Devil is a Western-styled comic book made specifically for the American market by a Japanese manga-ka in collaboration with Madhouse Studios (in what capacity, I have no idea). This book alone reveals that Western comics and Japanese manga are actually one and the same.

For Kishi, Devil is a departure from his usual subject matter into more conventional territory. His most famous work, Maka Maka, is a series of vignettes about two otherwise heterosexual women having casual sex with one another. His other manga, Colorful, is another series of short vignettes--this time about men trying to sneak looks at women’s panties. The work is better known as a surprisingly funny anime with some seriously cool, experimental animation.

Devil takes place in Saga City in the year 20XX (how much do I love that detail? Let me count the ways)--a world in which a global pandemic turns people into vampire-like creatures who suck the blood of the uninfected. They may also turn into glowing creatures before they die of the infection. Inspector Takimoto is a cop who does not care for the rights of these creatures. Thus, he blows off their heads indiscriminately.

By page four, Takimoto gains a partner--the bleeding-heart Detective Migiwa. Devil #1 is all about style; it's ight on depth. However, it doesn’t seem like it’s trying to be anything else, and that’s perfectly fine because it has monster rape and people exploding. It might be an effective gateway drug for the uninitiated westerners, but more well-versed manga readers will probably find it old hat.

Aesthetically, Devil looks like a manga with its easy to read layouts, good composition, and well-directed action. From what I’ve gleaned from Maka Maka(for the record, I read the first two chapters for research and five other chapters for reasons that are none of your business), Kishi has a very clean style as far as layouts are concerned--with every rectangular panel fitting together quite nicely. We see that same approach to layouts here--perfectly rectangular panels composed within perfectly rectangular pages.

However, it’s in the pacing that we see the Western style at work as Kishi displays a surprising amount of traditional comic book compression that we don’t actually see very much these days (considering how many of our mainstream American comics resemble more popular manga in terms of decompressed storytelling).

Page one is the Western-styled splash page that depicts a sole character, Inspector Takimoto. The narration tells us that he’s a cop while his physical appearance is a set of personality signifiers:
  • Well-dressed

  • Loose tie

  • Huge machine gun

  • Unkempt shaggy hair

  • Sparse chin curtain beard

  • Long drag on cigarette
By page seven, we’ve been introduced to our two police protagonists and the world they inhabit. By page 10, we have been told the conflict and our heroes are on the case. By page 11, we’re ready for the big action set piece. The first case is closed on page 22, and the final two pages give us a denouement along with a couple of questions to be answered in the next issue . . . and we’re done.

If you’d like to know more about the world of Devil, wait for the next issue. If you were put off by the violence . . . well, at least it was a full story of cops fighting virus-vampires.

Charles Webb:

There’s an old joke, apparently dating back to WWII, that involves two old men talking after dinner. The first says, “Boy, the food was terrible,” and the second says, “Yeah, and such small portions, too.” That’s the feeling I get with Torajiro Kishi’s sci-fi action comic, Devil where the content on display throughout its 24 pages is bland beyond belief. At the same time, it felt dreadfully truncated, as though it had absolutely no room to breathe.

I was initially suspicious that this was merely a slice from a volume of manga, perhaps repackaged for the West. However, the solicitation on Dark Horse’s Web site assures us that it’s a Western-styled action comic designed for Western audiences. While the attempt to reach out to a foreign audience is laudable, the execution is thoroughly unremarkable. It’s a book laden with crusty old clichés and rote characterizations with a perfunctory sci-fi/horror angle. It’s actually less than the sum of its parts.

In the world of this story, virus-infected people who suck the blood of others are called “Devils” or, more scientifically, sufferers of SCBS (Serious-Injury Chronic Bloodsucker Syndrome--a fairly unwieldy moniker). Both terms seem unnecessary when the word vampire is sitting around unused.

The Saga City police even have a special unit to handle the infected--the boldly-named Devil Investigation Section. Perhaps something is lost in either the translation or the adaptation of the work, but it feels like the push and pull between the mystical and scientific nature of vampires for this world went unresolved in the final script.

The lead characters are the weary, big gun-toting, grizzled Inspector Takimoto (perhaps more succinctly thought of as “the guy in this funny book”) and the prim, uptight Inspector Migiwa (“the girl”--as you can tell by the inexplicable frilliness of her shirt). He wants to kill all vampires while she would rather capture and compassionately contain them. The contents of this book would seem to side with him.

I’m sure future issues will further flesh out the characters’ motivations but, as it stands, there’s not much here to make me want to come back next month. The visuals by animation studio Madhouse (Paprika and Ninja Scroll) are very good, but they’re above-par visual concepts in service to a narrative that really has none.

If you liked this review, be sure to check out more of the author’s work at Monster In Your Veins

Jason Sacks:

Wow, this comic kicks ass!

Devil is an exciting, hard-boiled action/detective story set in a Japan in which the vampire virus SBCS is epidemic. Those who contract the disease are called "devil-possessed" and face rapid death--but not before they infect others with their disease. The protagonist of our story, Investigator Takimoto, has no mercy for the poor devils who have the virus raging through their system--which puts him in opposition to Detective Migawa, who has compassion for the victims.

It's an interesting enough setup for a story that is quite well executed.

The most striking aspect of this first issue was the artwork and coloring by the Japanese Madhouse Studios. Their depiction of the devil-possessed is unlike any other take on vampirism I've ever seen--with victims' bodies glowing with a kind of translucent energy. It's not clear whether the glowing energy of the devil-possessed is merely a stylistic decision by the artists or if it provides clues to the disease itself, but the glow definitely provides a unique sort of eerie feel to the story.

The first panel on page 19 is a good example of how the glow and the palette of dark colors combine to present a memorable moment. The panel shows a devil-possessed man standing atop a small bridge tower. The background of the scene is colored in dark grays and blues--emphasizing the nighttime setting of the scene--but the man is presented in a glowing, almost shockingly bright, white with light blue edges.

The juxtaposition of the glow against the darkness gives the panel a real sense of spooky energy. There's an element of an eerie, unresolved mystery in this panel, a feeling that this man represents horrible events that may never be fully resolved. It symbolically represents both the chase scene of which it is a part, and the larger dilemma that the detectives are facing.

The first panel on page five presents an equally interesting scene. That panel concludes a sequence in which Inspector Takimoto and Detective Migawa confront a devil-possessed man in a high-rise apartment. The man has lunged away from his attackers and has dived through a window. On page five, we see the devil's head splattered with a giant BANG as his remaining body is silhouetted against the cityscape and a setting sun.

Takimoto has succeeded with his immediate task, of course, since the devil-possessed has been slain. However, the setting sun presents an unsettlingly ambiguous image of the moment. The sun seems to have deeper significance. Is the sun setting on the plague of vampirism in the city? Or is the sun setting on the attempts to stop the plague in the city? Japan's flag represents the rising sun, so a setting sun seems to have deeper meaning in this context. Does it present a foreshadowing of the futility of battling Serious Injury Chronic Bloodsucker Syndrome in Japan?

At least one major story element seems to back up that last interpretation. In one scene, a devil-possessed rapes an uninfected woman. Inspector Takimoto speculates that the rape may have been an attempt to impregnate the victim. However, as Detective Migawa points out, there seems to be no reason for the devil-possessed to reproduce. Nevertheless, the rape represents an expansion of the battle against the disease. If the rape is intended to impregnate women, the incident becomes the beginning of a terrifying new threat that makes the disease far more potentially dangerous.

Why would the devil-possessed want to reproduce if they will only be facing a lifespan of a year at the most? What would a devil-possessed baby look and act like, and what would the ethics be of killing a baby with the disease? There's an interesting moral dilemma created in this scene--a dilemma that I hope the creators of this comic will explore in future issues.

However, I did mention that this comic kicks all kinds of ass, didn't I?

It's not just made up of odd moral dilemmas and wonderful art. We also get some wonderful pure action scenes in this issue. My favorite was the chase and subsequent destruction of a lovingly drawn Mini Cooper, which is one of my favorite cars. I really enjoyed seeing such a detailed drawing of the car in this comic. Its inclusion made me want to join this special police force. If they get to fire cool guns and drive awesome cars, their mission can't be too bad.

Devil gives us awesome guns, cool cars, nice artwork, and a story with some pretty interesting depth. Not bad for a vampire comic.

Thom Young:

I can't really disagree with anything my fellow reviewers have stated in their respective pieces. They are all correct, and their individual rankings for Devil #1 are more of a reflection of how much they were entertained by this story of clichéd concepts that really is beautiful to look at (and which contains very good action scenes). Thus, rather than re-hash what's been stated above, I want to focus on the narrative technique that was used in this first issue.

As with the concept of a virus-infected population (which I will discuss near the end of this long discourse), the narrative technique in Devil is also neither original nor innovative. Still, the narrative technique used here is not one that we often see in Western superhero/action-oriented comic books--so it was refreshing in that regard.

Essentially, there are two ways to begin a narrative (or a story), with some variations on how those two approaches are handled. One way is to set up the story with an introduction that give the reader some expository information and that then leads into the story. Examples of this approach can be seen in such works as Fyodor Dostoyevsky's Notes from Underground, Raymond Chandler's The Big Sleep, and Jack Kerouac's On the Road.

While this introductory narrative is quite common among first-person narratives (as well as the rarely used second-person narratives), it can also be found in a few third-person tales--such as Charles Dickens's A Tale of Two Cities, George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four, and John Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men.

The other way to set up a story is by dropping the reader immediately into the action without bothering to lead into the story with an introduction. First-person examples of this approach can be found in William Faulkner's As I Lay Dying and Kerouac's The Subterraneans. However, this start-in-the-middle-of-the-action approach is more common in third-person narratives--with examples being Faulkner's Light in August and Ernest Hemingway's A Farewell to Arms.

From those two narrative approaches (and two points of view, not counting the rarely used second-person point of view), a few variations can be created. One popular variation that is currently found in television dramas and American superhero/action comic books is to begin the story in the middle of the action (whether first person or third person) but then use the second scene as the introduction.

I was initially impressed when this approach first began to be used on television and in comic books 15 or 20 years ago. Of course, this method is essentially an expansion of the concept of the comic book splash page that dates back to at least the late 1930s--with the first page of the story showing a bit of action that will happen later in the story (or that at least symbolizes later action).

However, the expansion of that splash page into an extended scene that then cuts to an expository flashback scene was an intriguing twist. Unfortunately, it's now used far too often--thus, we now have such narratives as Len Wein's current Human Target #1 that DC Comics published about a week and a half ago.

Wein's Human Target #1 (which is based on the TV series, not on Wein's original comic book series) opens with a two-page action sequence on the Eiffel Tower that ends on a cliffhanger (almost literally). The second scene then jumps back to Los Angeles "46 hours earlier" in order to give us the introductory set up.

The reason for this hybrid form of beginning a story with an action-filled scene and then flashing back to an introduction is obvious. It stems from the longstanding dictate in commercial writing that the first order of business is to grab the attention of the audience and then keep them with you through the slower parts of the work--regardless of whether the work is a novel, a short story, a television drama, a comic book, an essay (if there are any longer such things as "commercial essays"), or a review.

For instance, look at the reviews in this very slugfest to see how three of us tried (and hopefully succeeded) in grabbing your attention:
  • Danny began his review by pointing out that there is little difference between Western comics and Japanese manga, and he wants people to stop thinking that the two forms are distinct. For readers who think comics and manga are distinct forms, Danny's opening is an attention grabber.

  • Charles opened his review with a joke (which is always a good attention-grabbing technique) that he then connected to his views on Devil #1.

  • Jason immediately demanded your attention by stating emphatically, "Wow, this comic kicks ass!" Bold declarative statements demand attention.
Of the four reviews, mine is the one that does not exactly open with an attention grabber (which means there are probably very few of you who are still with me at this point). I'm a professional editor who edits for commercial publications (including this Web site, of course), so I should know better than to open my review with something that doesn't want you to read more.

However, I'm also an academic who writes boring old scholarly analyses of narrative techniques (even more boring than the one I'm writing now since I'm aware that I'm not presently writing for academics sequestered in English department offices).

Nevertheless, I sort of followed the grab-the-reader approach before bogging you down with other things. My first paragraph is actually about Devil #1--but then I have given you 16 paragraphs that seem to have nothing to do with the comic book under review (this paragraph being the 16th).

At this point you may well be wondering, "Is he ever going to actually review Devil #1?"

The answer is, "Yes. Yes I am."

However, I have also just folded a review of Wein's Human Target #1 into this review of Devil #1. You see, I have grown to really hate the approach of being dropped into an opening action sequence in the first scene and then flashing back "46 hours earlier" (or however long) to be given the introductory set up. It's one of the reasons that I would give Human Target #1 only three bullets (it's an average comic book that isn't terrible but isn't all that good either).

On the other hand, Devil #1 is a slightly above-average comic book.

Torajiro Kishi begins his story by dropping his readers into the middle of the action without bothering to set it up for us. I enjoy that approach; it's what Faulkner does in all of his stories (even if Faulkner's action might be slow).

I don't mind the introductory narratives that we see in such works as Dostoyevsky's Notes from Underground, Chandler's The Big Sleep, and Kerouac's On the Road, but I really enjoy it when authors just drop me into the middle of the events and force me to figure out what's going on. In most instances, it's the way real life works.

When we meet a new person--say a person of the opposite sex to whom we are attracted (or of the same sex for some people)--we are rarely ever led into that first meeting with an introductory exposition that tells us who the person is and what we might expect:
Mary is a fiery redhead who loves soccer. She listens to hiphop music, is not religious, and enjoys hanging out with her friends. She also has an annoying propensity for procrastination and failing to keep appointments.
Well, I guess with sites like we actually do now have those types of introductory first meetings, but it's not the way that real life is supposed to work, and I enjoy stories that drop me into the middle and make me work to figure things out.

For the most part, that's the approach that Kishi takes in Devil #1--though he does give us some unwieldy exposition on page six:
The virus known as SCBS Serious Injury Chronic Bloodsucker Syndrome, rages through the world. There is no cure for the disease. Patients die in a few days, sometimes in a few months. The infected are referred to as "Devil-Possessed," and are secured in special institutions by "The Devil Investigation Section."
However, apart from those four sentences, this issue is an exposition-free comic book, and I appreciate that approach.

In fact, those four sentences aren't needed. Other than the name of the "syndrome" (the SCBS), all of the information can be discerned from the action and dialog in the story (and I'm sure a way could have been found to insert the name of the "syndrome" into the action or dialog as well).

So, yeah, I mostly like the narrative structure of this issue--save for the four sentences of exposition. Additionally, as Jason indicated in his review, the visuals and the action sequences are very well executed.

Unfortunately, the story itself is a bit cliché-ridden. There's part of the 1976 movie The Enforcer in this comic--with Detective Migiwa in the Tyne Daly role and Inspector Takimoto fulfilling Clint Eastwood's role as Inspector "Dirty Harry" Callahan. However, the biggest cliché is the Chronic Bloodsucker virus itself.

Okay, so tell me if this sounds familiar: A deadly virus that can be spread through bodily fluids--saliva, blood, semen, and vaginal secretions--is reaching epidemic proportions and causing panic among the healthy population.

Yes, Devil's SCBS virus is an analog for HIV infection as it was viewed by the public 25 years ago--and the "Devil-Ridden" essentially have AIDS (albeit, a form of AIDS that compels them to infect others and allows them to glow in the dark).
By the way, a virus does not cause a "syndrome"--as in "Serious Injury Chronic Bloodsucker Syndrome." Instead, viruses cause diseases. Regardless of what your standard dictionary might state, a syndrome is a collection of symptoms that are likely to be related but which is not attributed to any obvious pathogen or specific physical ailment (I used to work as a health newsletter editor).

However, a disease may be initially identified as a syndrome when the cause is not known--as in Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome not immediately being connected with the Human Immunodeficiency Virus. Thus, the disease, AIDS, still contains the title "syndrome" in its name even though it no longer is actually a "syndrome." The name should have been changed to Acquired Immune Deficiency Disease (AIDD).

Similarly, the name of what ails the "Devil-Ridden" should be "Chronic Bloodsucker Disease" (the "Serious Injury" part of the name seems superfluous).

Additionally, a syndrome can be a collection of symptoms or signs that can develop into a disease if not addressed--such as metabolic syndrome developing into the disease type-2 diabetes if a person doesn't start eating properly and exercising regularly.
Anyway, had this comic book been published 25 years ago, it would have been an obvious exploration of the fear of HIV infection in the general population--with Inspector Takimoto advocating the killing of all HIV-infected people as a means of controlling the disease while Detective Migiwa took the more liberal view of institutionalizing the patients to prevent the spread of the disease. In that regard, Kishi's story is similar to the 2007 Nicole Kidman film The Invasion, which reinterprets Jack Finney's The Body Snatchers as a metaphor for HIV infection.
(The original film adaptation from 1956, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, is more frightening in that it allows the pod people to be interpreted either as Communists trying to subvert our wholesome American society or as Conformist Mainstream Americans trying to quash all forms of individuation--playing, respectively, on the fear within the camps of both McCarthyism and the Bohemian Beat Movement of the time).
Finally, I tried to discern some reason for this story to be set in Saga City rather than Tokyo (and in the Kanzaki District of Saga City for the most part). However, I didn't come up with any obvious symbolic reason--such as a higher incidence of AIDS in Saga City than in the rest of Japan, et cetera.

I suppose it's no different than an American superhero story being set in Chicago or Los Angeles rather than in New York--just an interesting change from the norm (or perhaps Kishi hails from Saga City and wanted to set the story in his hometown).

Anyway, I could do without Devil's out-of-date allegory on HIV infection, but it's still a visually appealing, action-filled story that many readers will enjoy.

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