May 19, 2010

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Nightschool Volume 1

Written by Svetlana Chmakova
Illustrated by Svetlana Chmakova
Yen Press

Alex is a young woman who lives in a world where the supernatural is everywhere--if you know how to look for it. Her sister helps run a "Nightschool" where people with special abilities learn their lessons but she is stuck being taught at home instead. When Alex decides to take a powder and her sister gets into some serious trouble, the many characters we meet along the way all seem to be drawn into a fate that could cause the world to end. Is it better for Alex to visit or stay away from..the Nightschol?

I read a lot of supernatural-themed comics, and I also read a lot of comics that have high schools as their backdrop. Unfortunately, the two don't always go together as well as I'd like (see Rosario+Vampire). So I admit, I was a little gunshy about this one. However, I am pleased to say that this one manages to get things right on a lot of levels, from a large cast of intriguing characters to a distinct lack of fan service.

Like a lot of first volumes, this trade has a lot going on. We have to meet everyone who is going to be important later, from Alex to her ditsy, chronically late sister (props for making an adult act like a typical shojo girl) to the hunters, a group of people who seem dead-set on eliminating magical creatures. There's also the need to set up the world and the possible threat, which just may come from a source we don't want to hate.

It's a lot to pack in all at one time, and I'm sure that other writers would likely have spread it across the first dozen chapters. I think Chmakova manages to make it work, but she does walk a thin line in the process. The key, I think, is that while there is a definite aura of mystery about the whole thing, she is not being purposefully obtuse about what we're getting to see here in these opening pages. If we didn't get a good picture of Alex or what a magical hospital can do, I'd have probably been upset at the number of concepts tossed out there for later use. As it stands, I could live with it--if we start to settle down as the volumes go on. I don't think I'd want to read a series that constantly shows good ideas and do nothing with them. Your mileage may vary, so be aware that if you don't like a lot of balls in the air from the early going, this may not be the best manga for you.

I think the most interesting thing we saw in the early going is the idea of the hunters. They appear to be led by a Blade-like guy who is teaching students outside the classroom to go after the very people that the Nightschool is training. I was not expecting there to be such a counterweight, but I think it's a great idea. While I am of course rooting for the supernatural folks, because I always want the monster to win, it makes perfect sense that not everyone would be so happy to have vampires, witches, and other things lurking about. The idea that there's some kind of treaty between the two sides--and yet problems still occur--really intrigues me. I hope we get some time in future volumes for this part of the story.

The neatest trick that Chmakova uses this conflict for is a semi-comic, semi-serious scene where a human girl is haunting a cemetery with her vampire boyfriend. Filled with what I can't help but think is a bit of Twilight-skewering love for vampires, the girlfriend is verbally abusive to the hunters even as they're saving her life. There are several other moments like this that dissolve the tension built up across the more serious parts of the book, such as a cute astral that loves cookies and making a mess.

Alternating between building scary tension, actions scenes, and comic relief is part of what makes any horror story or book work. Even if you're planning to lean more heavily on one trait or the other, you need all three to craft a story that keeps the reader interested. I'm very impressed that Ms. Chmakova recognizes and uses it, as it seems a lot of horror these days is all about the gore, to the expense of story. You can be horrible and bloody, no question--but make sure that there's a build up for that payoff. By keeping the mystery going, giving us enough action to whet our apatite for more, and adding little comic bits, Nightschool uses this classic horror formula to good effect.

If there's one problem I had with the structuring of the narrative, it's that we spent a lot of time on Alex's sister here, even though she doesn't appear to be someone that's going to show up a lot in the future. (I could be very wrong on this, of course.) She's used to help explore the world, but if we aren't going to keep her around much, I'd rather see someone else do that. It's a minor complaint, however.

Artistically, Ms. Chmakova manages to make her style look like a blending of manga styles. She's got the long, flowing lines of something you might see from CLAMP, but also uses looser facial construction that reminds me more of some of the western superhero comics that I've read. Chmakova is not afraid to cartoonize her characters if the situation warrants it, but like Ai Yazawa, she doesn't overdo it. With the exception of the battle scene, which was a little weak visually and had too much crowded together, I really like the artwork seen in this manga.

It's a blending that I guess should have tipped me off to the fact that this is an OEL manga, but I was completely fooled until I researched it later. This is by far the best OEL manga I've read (I don't count Blue Monday or Scott Pilgrim, and I didn't like Empowered and never finished it), because while it's clearly written in the style of a Japanese comic, Chmakova doesn't try to shove in every manga trope she can find. Instead, she uses them when needed, just like any other manga-ka would do. It reads more like a person who started with a story and opted to use eastern styles to create it than someone who set out to write a manga and came up with the plot later. I'd happily read more OEL that works like this.

Nightschool was a great find for me. It's a horror manga that's focused squarely on the story, not cheap thrills or violence, with characters who make me want to learn more about them. I think I owe Deb for this one, though I'm not quite sure. Regardless, I loved the first volume of Nightschool and look forward to reading more of it. If you like horror stories that aren't all blood and guts, give this one a try. I think you'll dig it.