Bizenghast vol. 1

Bizenghast vol. 1
 Chad Clayton  rates it:    

Author/Artist: M. Alice LeGrow
Format: Paperback
Price: $9.99

I’ve reviewed both Japanese manga and Korean manhwa for Anime Jump in the past, but this is the first time I’ve ever reviewed a manga-influenced American comic (I’ll call it “Western manga” for convenience; the term “Amerimanga” can rot as far as I’m concerned) for the site. In my view, a good story is a good story regardless of where it comes from, so I don’t have any particular complaint with that.

However, in my past experiences with Western manga, I’ve noticed a few problems that seem particular to this little corner of the comic pantheon. The first is that many of these Western manga know a little too well who their audience is, and they tend to pander way too flagrantly to that audience in some form or other. The second is that too many Western manga creators are so obsessed with copying the minute conventions of Japanese manga – like huge eyes, sweatdrops, catgirls, fanservice, speed lines, reading direction, and so on – that they actually sabotage whatever personality or originality their style might have otherwise had. The third, and perhaps most prominent, is that many creators tend to range from “competent” to “really freaking impressive” as illustrators, but have yet to master the art of telling a story.

Now, I’m not saying these issues are present in every Western manga, but they are common enough that they have led people to stereotype all Western manga in this way. In her creation Bizenghast, M. Alice LeGrow makes a valiant attempt to break away from these three stereotypes. Does she succeed? In order: yes, yes, and not quite.

Bizenghast instantly distinguishes itself from typical manga by taking on a distinctly European flavor in both the artwork and the storytelling. It’s the story of a girl named Dinah, a girl tormented by ghosts, who lives in a fictional German town called Bizenghast. She becomes bound to a contract requiring her to set tortured souls free – or die pretty damn horribly. So along with her friend, Vincent, she has no choice but to go about it. If the images and plot synopsis haven’t clued you in yet, Bizenghast is heavily steeped in the gothic tradition, so the people most likely to take to it are the people who are fans of the gothic, macabre, or Gothic Lolita-type stuff. But you needn’t worry too much if you aren’t much into the whole gothic thing; though Bizenghast is a very gothic-styled comic, it’s accessible enough for those of us who don’t sleep in coffins, listen to the Sisters of Mercy and the Cult, or subsist on a diet of fried bats and Count Chocula cereal.

Since “gothic” has become a nebulous term with multiple meanings, for this review I’ll use it in the literary sense: fiction that tends to emphasize the grotesque, mysterious, or desolate. As such, the emphasis in Bizenghast seems to be on developing this kind of atmosphere. Fortunately, LeGrow mostly succeeds in giving the comic a dark, eerie tone and some genuinely creepy moments, which I’d like to see more of. I found myself wishing the individual chapters were longer and more deliberate so that better scares and more tension could be developed, because while I really enjoyed the atmosphere that was there, I often felt like the short chapters kept everything moving at too fast a pace. It seemed like the chapters had to start winding down as soon as they began in earnest.

But what really struck me about Bizenghast is its visual style. I really enjoy the way this comic looks. Bizenghast certainly can’t be accused of simply trying to copy the so-called “manga style”; it successfully develops an inventive visual style all its own. It seems to owe more to classical art, gothic comics, and even artists like Edward Gorey than it does to manga. The artwork manages to be sufficiently macabre and creepy without having to resort to being gross or relying on shock value. The architecture, art, and fashion of the comic are all rendered in loving detail by LeGrow, and it looks great. I also very much appreciated the use of news articles and such for plot exposition that would have been clunky and obtrusive had it been included in the main plot.

But in spite of its good qualities, Bizenghast does still show the symptoms of Early Effort Syndrome. It contains some problems common to young storytellers. The action tends to rely on happenstance and coincidence in some chapters; it’s as though the story drives the characters, rather than the other way around. For that matter, characterization seems to take a fairly low priority in the writing; the characters aren’t the most vivid or personable, which I thought took away from some moments (particularly the big decision at the end of the volume). But the most unfortunate of these, however, comes in the volume’s final chapter, when this odd little character comes up and lays some ground rules for the protagonists. The problem is, these rules sound exactly like a pitch for a videogame: forty rooms, receive a new “item” every ten rooms, later rooms are much more difficult to complete, etc. Granted, we’ll have to see how LeGrow handles this concept before it can be called a fatal error, but I had hoped for a slightly less artificial way of going about the story.

I enjoyed Bizenghast, far more than I expected to and probably a little more than I should have. I won’t deny that the comic has its share of warts, but it has a certain weird charm that somehow hooked me. But more than that, I think LeGrow has done something that every “Western manga” artist ought to do: rather than try to conform to some imaginary standard set by Japanese manga, she has taken influences from manga and made them her own. She’s proven that she can create eye candy in this debut effort; time will tell if she’ll someday concoct some equally tasty mind candy to serve alongside it.

Added:  Monday, August 08, 2005

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