October 25, 2013

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Halloween Horror: Museum of Terror Volumes 1 and 2

If you love horror,you've come to the right place! It's another entry in Panel Patter's Halloween Horror 2013! You can find all my entries by following this Halloween Horror tag.

Written by Junji Ito
Illustrated by Junji Ito
Published by Dark Horse Comics

A teen's affair with her teacher turns deadly--for her. But when she returns, madness envelops all who come into contact with the mysterious Tomie in this collection of thematic short stories from manga horror master Junji Ito.

I'm a huge fan of Ito's classic series Uzumaki, which features a town slowly going insane due to increasing obsessions with the nature of spirals. In addition to quality dialogue and insane plotting, Ito's visuals on that series are unbelievably creepy and detailed. It's just about the perfect horror comic.

The same quality holds true for his "Tomie" stories, which are collected in these first two (of three) volumes featuring his shorter horror work. Over the course of nearly 800 pages of comics, Ito brings this horrific force of nature back time and again to ruin the lives of anyone she comes into contact with.

At first, there's good reason. Tomie is the victim of a teen acting rashly upon hearing that she's sleeping with her teacher. She's not a nice person, but he death is compounded by a decision from the collective students to each take a part of her body and bury it somewhere, so that the crime is covered up. When Tomie returns, she haunts the teacher into madness and drives some of the kids insane as well.

It's a great revenge plot. Classic stuff.

Then things gets weird.

An example of Ito's amazing linework.
Starting with a story set in a hospital, we learn that Tomie has the ability to build herself back together from any part of her own body. Lost your liver? That's okay, it will grow a head. Cut off fingers? They'll become Tomies, too.

The idea is incredibly disturbing, and Ito's visuals will definitely reach the level of "creep out" for some readers. This is not a series for the faint of heart. His ability to make you squirm in your seat as you wonder how he'll depict her gruesome dismemberment and resurrection is part of what makes these stories so good.

An example of this is the story "Hair." Tomie is considered to be extremely attractive and desirable, and when a father steals a lock of her hair, of course it grows. Soon two girls are using it for the most exotic hair extensions around and eventually we discover they're being taken over by Tomie--from the scalp down.

The idea is positively chilling. In another story, a person tries to eliminate Tomie by chopping her up and pouring the remains into saki vats. Instead of keeping her apart, Tomie ferments herself into an alluring brew that no man can resist.

Or there's the tale where an elderly couple takes Tomie in, and she uses their fears and jealousy to kill them both off so she can take over their estate and live comfortably. Another version of Tomie forms from chopped-off fingers that are slightly scarred in a fire, so her resurrected forms are created accordingly. Perhaps the worst is a girl who is tricked into a house of horror, where the goal is to experiment on her to see how she melds with Tomie's genes. The prior experiment failed miserably, and ends up bringing the story to a climax worthy of a Poe-penned gothic tale.

Ito's horror chops on display.
All of this is illustrated in the most graphic ways possible, that would make Gaines blush. The worst EC Comics I've seen have nothing on Ito here, as he works to come up with the most horrific images imaginable and tell a story around them.

It's the detailing that makes this such a compelling read for me. The horror and gore is nothing new--I've been exposed to it for ages--but the way it's presented it amazing. This is just as violent as the things that people get mad about in Western comics. The difference, fortunately for the reader, is that Japan's cultural warriors don't care, which means those of us who get to read these translations win.

Stories aren't stopped short for gore or nudity; they're as violent as the the author wants and the audience is willing to purchase. When a version of Tomie forms out of plastic carpeting insulation and explodes in a fountain of blood, it delights me because that's what I was looking for.

Ito understands this, and crafts his stories accordingly. The fact that Japan doesn't force all comics under the misconception that they're written for children (or worse, that comics can only be written for adults, which seems to be the DC mindset right now), the results are good stories that are aimed at a specific market.

The only problem with reading these stories collected together is that it gives the false impression that they tell an overarching storyline. While pieces do connect here and there, by the time you get to Volume 2, you have to accept that these stories aren't meant to tell a narrative. They're just designed to use a creature to horrify you with her evil nature. Think of it more of a collection of vampire stories, where the attacks are going to be similar but the stories don't bear much relation beyond that, and you'll be fine.

Dark Horse's manga line may be smaller these days, but the fact that they put these horror stories into print is something I'm eternally grateful for. If you can find these, definitely pick them up. I know I'm going to be on the lookout for the final collection. These stories are a horror comics' dream, especially if you like old pre-code Western comics. They're better drawn and edited, and with even less regard for public opinion. Find them if you can!