October 3, 2018

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Halloween Horror: The Promised Neverland Volumes 1 and 2

Story by Kaiu Shirai
Line Art by Posuka Demizu
Translated by by Satsuki Yamashita
Published by Viz

Halloween Horror? Rob, did you miss the memo? Those kids are smiling and laughing! The sky is blue! What's that got to do with horror? Well, if that's your reaction--it certainly was mine at first--you're in for a great surprise once you start reading.

Emma is the red-head on the cover. She's an orphan, living at an orphanage with a cast of quirky kids ranging in age from babies to those headed for middle school. They're cared for by a loving matron, praised for their education, and given free reign--within reason--across the entire grounds. Each of them lives for the day when they are adopted off the farm. It's idyllic, almost too good to be true.

Not-so-spoiler alert: It IS too good to be true.
While the back text hints at something wrong, it's still a visual gut punch when these pretty damned innocent kids realize that they're actually living in a Twilight Zone episode, serving only as fodder for monsters who enjoy the flesh of young children. Escape looks all but impossible because there's a huge wall surrounding the grounds. Revelations come fast and furious once the big secret is revealed, and it looks hopeless. Or is it? Emma and her friends Norman and Ray are three of the smartest kids at school. If anyone can find a way out, certainly it's them.

So now the story is a heartwarming horror (ala Stranger Things) about kids doing all they can to save the day, right? Not so fast! This is when Shirai adds the twist that boosted this comic into one of my favorites of the year: Ray makes it clear that there's no saving everyone. 

In order to escape, the oldest kids must, in his opinion, sacrifice the rest. It's a ruthless, but realistic, position: With the youngest among them unable to walk, let alone run, the inability to learn anything about the world outside the walls, and the inability to get everyone outside at the same time, there's no way to leave as a group. In addition to trying to find a way out, the trio must first agree on who gets to go!

That's a great twist that takes this from being a cool story to one with multiple complex layers. Emma and Ray clearly don't share an agenda, but each needs the other to survive. Now that the kids know the House is evil, they have to pretend, while also learning the weaknesses of "Mom" in order to exploit them. A second authority figure with her own agenda, Krone (drawn a bit unfortunately as a stereotypical black matron), enters the mix. More kids must be added in order to help, but can they be trusted? And how much does "Mom" know, given the kids are, well, kids?

Oh, and what if one of the children is betraying them all to Mom in the first place?

Look at how happy all this food is!

What starts as a gentle comic then gets its visual horror legs to set the premise. Once we have that established (with some really cool, horrific-looking monsters by Demizu), things move more into the realm of psychological horror. Who can be trusted? What's normal operations, and what's a sinister attempt to keep the kids trapped until they can be shipped off? Why aren't Krone and Mom on the same page, or is that all an act.

And oh yeah, what's it like to be 11 and think seriously about leaving children to die? 

The walls, the monitoring, the sneaking out in the middle of the night all leads to making this story feel very claustrophobic and does an amazing job of making it clear these kids are in deep shit. It's helped by the line art of Demizu. Look at how happy the kids are in the pages above. Now look at them towards the start of Volume 2:


Even without knowing the plot from Volume 1 to Volume 2, we can tell just by looking at the figures that circumstances have changed. Emma's bright eyes are still just as piercing as her first appearance, but instead of feeling full of joy, they show she's determined. The body language of the kids has shifted, too, and Mom and Krone look like they're posing for an Evil Nannies calendar. It's great work from Demizu, who really powers the story along with a combination of solid panel work, the ability to communicate unsaid emotions (important when we have a story with hidden agendas), and provide details that might not always feature in manga, where backgrounds are often supplemental to the story instead of an essential part of the contents.

Here's an example of the details and panel work:


You can tell this is from early on  because of the joy on the character's faces. But looks a how we can see posters on the wall, rungs on the back of chairs, individual floor boards, and the contours of Emma's shoes. That's a lot of little touches that come in handy later, because the more lines on a single page, the more we can see these kids are backed into a very specific world. 

I also like the framing we see here, such as the mirror image of the boys in their jumping and smiling, the use of speed lines (something we see throughout the comic) and the fact that Emma steps right out of one panel and into another. There's a lot going on in just one page, and the entire first two volumes are like this. It reminds me a bit of Urasawa in terms of using Western techniques, but the art itself is extremely patterned off of shonen tropes, especially in the use of sound effects-as-art.

The Promised Neverland is a dark story layered in light, and the choices made by the characters really show depth and desperation. I'm really looking forward to reading more as my library gets them in. Definitely don't sleep on this one if you're a horror fan. It's one part Rod Serling, one part Stephen King, and all good.