guttergeek the discontinuous review of graphic narrative

January 2008

Housui Yamazaki, Mail (Dark Horse Comics); 3 Volumes, $10.95.

by Matt Dube

Housui Yamazaki’s Mail reads like the dream-pitch DC is waiting for to revive their Phantom Stranger series. Detective Akiba, the comic’s star and hero, introduces stories in his chipper way, then passes the baton to characters who are being haunted to death; when he resurfaces, it is to quickly dispatch the malevolent sprits with magic bullets fired from his gun kagutsuchi. For this reason, Mail is almost an anthology title of stories where you know the end in advance. But the stories themselves are wonders of fright and visual invention.

Most of the stories work similarly to “Seabed” from the third volume. First, Akiba addresses the reader directly, in a pithy, flip manner indebted to Rod Serling or Alfred Hitchcock on their signature television programs, then the story switches to Yumi Iwahara and her friends, three gamine twentysomethings visiting an out of the way beach. Yumi fears the ocean because as a child she found a message in a bottle that said, “I’m in the ocean. Come find me.” The thread of tension effectively introduced, it is heightened when Detective Akiba calls to tell Yumi he’d like to meet with Yumi as part of an investigation concerning messages found in bottles. Waiting for Akiba to arrive, Yumi is lured into the water and attacked by the ghosts of dead WWII veterans. When Akiba makes his stylish arrival, it is on a jet ski, his gun kagutsuchi blazing as he intones a traditional blessing, this comic’s version of “ashes to ashes,” here expressed as “from drown, to drift, to sand.” Akiba always gets in a strange line like this when he dispatches his unruly opponents of the afterlife.

The plots of most of the stories are very similar, but feature compelling characters and situations, usually concerned with young women who confront some embodiment of the fears of young adulthood: what should I do with my past, what can I expect from my future, who are my friends, and does anyone know I am here at all. The settings vary wildly, from the beach of the story above, to a dilapidated bathroom in a municipal park, an apartment complex, or a stretch of nighttime highway. Yamazaki sidesteps the problem of Akiba’s near omnipotence (he does, after all, introduce the stories, standing effectively outside of them from a vantage of safety) by utilizing a split narrative perspective. When he appears, Akiba is large and in charge, as shown in the panel above. But the rest of the time, we are stuck with the unknowing victims of the hauntings, as this woman is trapped in an out-of-control car, about to be menaced by the demon whose fingers peek into the windshield in the last panel. The terror of the circumstances is transmitted to us through Yamazki’s tight, cramped panels, making us crave the widescreen safety of Akiba’s appearance.

The series apparently only ran three volumes in Japan, and the third volume was released here by Dark Horse in May of this year. It lacks the kind of resolution that people tout as one of manga’s selling points; in fact, a new character is introduced as a helper and possible romantic partner for Akiba in the third volume, his childhood sweetheart Mikoto, literally stitched back together and re-animated into her pre-pubescent body. This plot twist is so strange and creepy that it’s hard to believe that there wasn’t more planned for these two characters, but apparently those stories are not to be. That said, though it is loosely categorized as horror manga, Akiba’s adventures are a lot like superhero comics, albeit slightly off ones. Dark Horse’s trade dress for the series is impressively jarring, so that the book stands out from both other manga and superhero comics. It might be that this distinctiveness quashed the chances this title had for success, given that the pleasures it offers are so immediate and familiar. Whatever the reason for the book’s low profile, it remains a creepy read, and highly worth looking at as one way to revive horror comics in a world that knows the
Sixth Sense and the Saw movies as exemplars of the horror genre.