By Leroy Douresseaux
August 8, 2006 - 21:22
American manga, also known as “Amerimanga” (or the petty “nissei comi”) can be a mixed bag. Some are good concepts with poor execution. Some are well written, but have average art. Some capture the look and feel of comics produced in Japan, but the stories just aren’t there. However, some really stand out as exceptional comics, period. AFTERLIFE, written by Sam “Stormcrow” Hayes and drawn by Rob Steen, is one of the exceptional American manga published by TOKYOPOP.
After humans die, they go to The Afterlife. It’s neither a Boschian Hell (with its imaginative contraptions of damnation) nor a Christian Heaven (eternal bliss with the creator). It’s a barren, rocky landscape suddenly overpopulated and beset by earthquakes. Something is happening on Earth, and people, in increasing numbers, are dying and arriving in the Afterlife, which is itself disintegrating. The Guardians, who keep order, are dead humans whose bodies are covered in armor made of the same stuff of which the Afterlife is made. The Guardians fight the demons that suddenly appear out of the landscape looking to destroy the dead. The Guardians also fight the dead who would bring even more chaos and disorder to the torment that is the Afterlife.
Our protagonist is Thaddeus, a philosopher trying to find meaning in this seemingly meaningless world. Although he refuses to think of his former life, he keeps a journal about his new life, and Thaddeus does believe in doing his job. His closest friend and associate, Mercutio, is Thaddeus’s opposite. A pragmatist, Mercutio has hope that he’ll find his betrothed, Arrabella, the woman Mercutio was to marry, but he died a week before their wedding. Thaddeus meets Nyoko, a young woman who refuses to spend eternity or who knows how long in the Afterlife, and she has plan…
Both individually and as team, Stormcrow and Rob succeed as storytellers. Although a horror story, Stormcrow’s tale is a mystery that engages the reader to follow both the shifting landscapes of the Afterlife and variable corridors of the narrative. Stormcrow grabs you where it hurts – the inevitably of death and the question of an afterlife.
Rob’s art reminds me of Richard Corben and Frank Quitely, with the texture of the former and the line work of the latter. Being that the environment of The Afterlife is so sparse, Rob smartly gives everything that he can draw character. From the bio-gunk that forms the Afterlife and its demons to the emotive facial expressions to the subtle body language, physical gestures, and body types, Rob visually defines the characters and settings in a way that both embellishes and moves the plot forward.
Stormcrow and Rob make a grand team. Joined at the hip of sequential graphic narratives, they’ve given us one of the most ambitious visions of the afterlife that American comics have ever offered. I hope they can keep it up in future volumes.