Comic Review: Gantz by Hiroya Oku. The innovation within Manga.

Writer(S): Hiroya Oku

Artist(s): Hiroya Oku and studio

US Publisher: Dark Horse

The Plot:

If you die in an accident in the subway, and you awake in a room full of people who just died unexpectedly like you, and there is a big black ball in the center of the room that prompts you to start hunting down monsters in the middle of Tokyo.. .would you leave the room?

How about if we throw in the mix a power suit that gives you inhuman strength and resistance, and a sack full of cool weapons??

The Review:

I’ve been following Gantz since 2002 or so. Before it was being published in the US, I picked it up in Japanese from a friend, and albeit I couldn’t understand a thing, I was mesmerized by the art.

I’m a sucker for realist art.

Let me regale you with a true anecdote:

“Long time ago, when I was a young one still dreaming of being an artist, I was practicing my craft day and night, in class and out of classes, everywhere. Years passed and I was getting better, and they took us to a museum exhibit of Pablo Picasso. Now, this exhibit was focusing on his cubist period. I wondered around, appreciating the art, but it didn’t make much of an impact on me. Everything was … MmhhOkay.

Suddenly, in a corner of the exhibit, I saw two drawings, one in charcoal, and another in India ink, rendered in a very realistic style. One was a self portrait, I think, and the other was that of a grandparent. Suddenly it all clicked for me:

I needed to understand and see that Picasso had gone through the paces, and grown, and excelled at anything he tried, had studied other styles, before he had come up with his own thing. RIGHT THEN HE BACAME ONE OF THE GREATEST ARTISTS IN THE WORLD FOR ME.

My epiphany allowed me to separate him from a clown with a brush who does strokes on a canvas and wants to call it “Relevant Art”, because I had witnessed he had gone through a process too. Sadly that is my take on most modern art to this day. If you are talking about impressionism, abstract, cubism, ect, I need to see the artists evolution. Otherwise I can’t appreciate the end result. Particularly, someone like Pollock. “

End of the anecdote.

That’s why I always express such an affinity for Alex Raymond, Neal Adams and other realistic-style artists. Without any margin of error you get to know that they honed their skills and worked hard at achieving, and bothered learning conventions. Some art is so stylized nowadays that you don’t know if the artist is taking shortcuts and that’s the only style it bothers to do. If you are in this category of an artist, the one that didn’t bother to learn the techniques and crafts of other styles, then you have to be engaging in a style that is ground-breaking and earth-shattering in order to get a compliment from me.  The easy way out only leads to mediocrity.

How does this rant relate to Gantz?

Gantz has 3 things going for it:

1) It has an imaginative and complex story

2) It introduces inovative art techniques

3) It achieves a balance between good story and good art.

When Darkhorse finally translated Gantz into English by 2007, I was among the first ones buying it. And was not disappointed.

Gantz is for a Mature Audience, but I would qualify it further by saying that young mature people will enjoy more than mature mature people, because of the gore, violence, and cheesecake.

Gantz excels in both levels, in the story being told, and the art used to tell it. And readers of my blog will know by now that I always try to break down the graphic novel in those two components to make sure they are well balanced against each other, or should I say “with each other”?.

The story is engaging and creative. I dare someone come up with the off-the-wall elements that the author came up with, without the aid of illegal (or legal) mind altering substances. Within the storytelling, Hiroya Oku did something quite daring: He slowed the pace of the narration to a crawl.

That is something typical of manga, paying attention to every reaction, every conversation, every second of the story. But when you are telling a story that has no sense, a story that begins when you get killed, and whose context defies all boundaries of physics, a story whose narrative flow doesn’t fit well in standard conventions, then you are taking a huge (and I mean huge with CAPS) risk. Well, I think he pulls it, and does so brilliantly  because he uses the engaging and hyper-realistic art to engage and carry the audience in the pages where the script momentarily makes no sense and tries our patience. It helps us stick with the story till we turn pages till get later on to the explanation that give us an “AHA!” moment, and that makes it twice worthwhile.

Hiroya Oku does not offer ground-breaking angles, nor panel layouts that are out of this world. His visual-narrative style is pretty straight forwards, and some may say he overuses straight mid-range shots. Well, once you get past that and read the epilogue and closing remarks of the first volume, where he spends a few pages explaining how he made the graphics in the comic, you will have a chance of revising your appreciation for the man.

Hiroya Oku has demonstrated already he is an exceptional artist, in previous series, such as Hen, his first magna that ran for 13 volumes with great success. But in Gantz he experimented with background photography and conversions from 2D to 3D and viceversa, and the hyper-realistic style shines throughout the production.

At the end of the day, this is what we, as comic book aficionados, are craving: good stories and good graphical storytelling.

Now, I am not a hard-core proselytizer of the Hyper-Realistic school of art. One of the artist I admire most for his technique is Neal Adams, and even I remain silent when I hear critics about his crappy storytelling in the latest product Batman:Odessy.

I mean, I bought it and still am buying it just to see Neal’s art, but you have to start with a strong comic book story, and then let your art enhance that story and that plot and dialog.

That is where Hiroya Oku excels, and could teach a few things in technique to a few western artists.

I also responded well to the balanced portrayal of adult themes in this manga. Lots of the characters are yakuza wannabe scum, and they behave like such, thugs and abusive misogynists. Other characters are just shy and developing adolescents and they behave like such. And in between, in Gantz’s room, sometimes these two worlds collide, and the bullies take advantage of the meek, as it happens in real life. But is that the center of the story? Is the fact that a teen-idol have a stalker the focus of the narrative? Is the girl who almost got raped sitting around moping and demanding psychological treatment? In Gantz’s world you don’t have time for that, and the ones who make time, will likely not live to play the next game.

And that is not fair, that is not how things should be, and that is certainly not to be used as a role model of how we want to live our lives, but sometimes… Gantz happens. And these characters are just you and I, and the felon next door: People living their lives, and dying their deaths however they know.

Darkhorse published this manga remaining faithful to the Japanese style of lecture, Left to right, and that has proven to be a blessing for the page composition, once the reader gets used to it (if the western reader ever gets used to it). In other experiments in publishing manga in the US in the past, where the traditional Right to left had prevailed, the publishers notice that the panel composition usually lost a lot in terms of visual narrative in the translation.

Recently Gantz has been licenses in animation and in a Live Action Film.

The animation seems to remain very faithful to the manga, while the action film is being received with mixed reviews.

One last warning: Gantz deals with mature themes, violence, gore and sexual situations.  On the sexually explicit area, I should note that Hiroya Oku seems particularly fond of something called Bakunyū, which refers to ladies with exceptionally large breasts. Thus every few pages (the ones that mark the separation between the issues as they were published in Japan) the readers are indulged with cheesy pinups of the ladies in the comic, in scantly clothes and provocative poses. But extremely cheesy.

And for dealing with mature themes, violence, gore and sexual situations in a brilliant, innovative and superb manner

on my Critics rating, Gantz Vol 1.  gets

8 1/2 STARS

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