Thursday, January 3, 2013

Manga Review: Skull Man Vol. 1

Shotaro Ishinomori is a legend among many fans of manga, anime, and tokusatsu. Not only did he create the Cyborg 009 manga, released in 1963, but he was also the creator of the original Kamen Rider series from 1971, and the original Super Sentai series from 1975 (called 'Himitsu Sentai Gorenger' for you historians out there). These titles and many others helped shape the foundation of what a Japanese superhero consisted of. Kamen Rider is especially worth noting at this point in time, because the Skull Man was Kamen Rider's very inspiration. While Ishinomori was developing the plot for the Kamen Rider TV series with his producer, he wrote this manga as his own personal envisioning of the character. Because the original story was considered too dark and violent for children, the producers had to change a lot of the content in order to make it more appropriate for television. The manga itself (Ishinomori only released one volume) ended up being a huge success. It featured one of the first known antiheroes in manga, as well as a story that was considered quite edgy and gruesome for 1970.

To this day, the one volume of Skull Man has never been released in print form in the US. I was able to read it however, thanks to the power of (legal) digital distribution. Comixology, a well known site/app for digital comics and graphic novels, recently released multiple series put out by Ishinomori. This includes Cyborg 009, Kamen Rider, Kikaider, Inazuman, and of course, Skull Man; all translated into English.

So is this volume of manga and toku history really worth all of the hype behind it? By today's standards, it may not be quite the controversial piece it was at the time, but I do still feel it made for an interesting action/drama/revenge story. It opens with some wonderfully drawn scenery, followed by some quick action to paint the scene, all without any dialogue for the first few pages. Unlike Kamen Rider and other Japanese heroes, the Skull Man only goes out to fulfill his own goals, and has no remorse for killing anyone who gets in his way. It's finding out what motivates him in such a way that makes this read so compelling, along with his always-confident and cocky attitude. Even if some of the plot points come off to be cliche in this day and age, it's still good enough writing on its own merit. It also has an ending that, while quick and unsettling, is definitely sensible, as well as a good topic of conversation.

The artwork is simple, but artistic at the same time. It's reminiscent of Osamu Tezuka (Astro Boy, Nextworld, Princess Knight, and many others), and for good reason. Tezuka was Ishinomori's mentor, and had asked Ishinomori to be his assistant when working on the Astro Boy manga. Small world, isn't it?

One more important thing to mention about this single volume is it's length (or lack thereof). It's a total of about 94 pages, almost half of the length you'll get in manga books today. While the story itself did not suffer because of this, the abrupt nature of the ending will likely leave you feeling that things finished up a bit too quickly, and could have been drawn out more. Some would argue that this issue was rectified in the 90's when Ishinomori asked Kazuhiko Shimamoto to create a remake of his work, with a longer, more complex story. The remake spanned a total of 7 volumes, fleshing out many more plot details that were otherwise left out of the original. There was also a 13-episode anime series released by Studio Bones with a similar goal in mind. All of these projects are worth looking into if you find yourself enjoying the original volume.

As it stands now, I have a bit of a hard time recommending this volume to people who aren't normally interested in manga, or classic manga for that matter. The book is short, and may not seem very special to anyone that isn't already a huge fan of action anime/manga and tokusatsu (especially Kamen Rider). To those who are fans however, this is an essential read to what was a very historic moment in manga and toku history, and it's great that we're finally getting the chance to read these once iconic stories legally and with English translations.

7 Out Of 10

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