Dragon Head and X-Day

Minetaro Mochizuki’s Dragon Head (Tokyopop) has been getting a lot of attention, and deservedly so. It’s a compelling piece of disaster fiction with well-developed characters, moody art, and a suspenseful scenario.

High-schooler Teru Aoki wakes up in darkness. The last thing he remembers is riding on a train back from a class trip and entering a tunnel. Now, he’s surrounded by corpses and destruction. Something awful has happened.

How awful isn’t precisely clear. Was it an earthquake or something even more destructive? Is anyone searching for survivors? Are they even able to conduct a search? And what can the handful of survivors do, surrounded by the dead, trapped by who knows how much rubble, with dwindling food and water? What kind of world would they escape to if escape is even possible?

Mochizuki plays on primal anxieties – enclosed spaces, darkness, the prospect of starvation or asphyxiation. But he’s also mindful of the little indignities and necessities that go on, disaster or no. The little horrors help to humanize the story and give it layers.

Aoki is an instantly sympathetic central figure. He’s an average kid, and he’s trying to do what he thinks people should under the circumstances. He’s resourceful, looking for sources of light, checking for other survivors, and finding food. But he isn’t superhuman. His mind drifts to the mundane, remembering average moments with his family. If he didn’t have these distractions and immediate concerns, you wonder if the gravity of his situation might be too much to bear.

Nobuo is much closer to the edge. A constant target for bullies, he was very likely emotionally unstable before the accident. Now, surrounded by the corpses of his tormentors, he’s even more unbalanced. Again, though, he’s just a kid, not a monster. His pain and his terror are palpable.

Ako might best embody the counterpoint between terror and indignity. There’s something heartbreaking and entirely believable about her need for modesty, even in these circumstances. There’s an extra layer to her anxiety, and Mochizuki plays it with care.

Mochizuki also takes full visual advantage of the circumstances. There’s blackness and carnage, but it never lapses too far into the grotesque, except for specific effect. The moments where he juxtaposes the present with Aoki’s memories of family life have particular impact. (I’m torn between wishing they’d translated more of the sound effects and being happy that they didn’t, as it would clutter the composition of Mochizuki’s pages.)

The best thing I can say about Dragon Head is that I have no idea where it’s going. Will the disaster worsen? Will the scale stay small, focusing on the interactions of the survivors? It could turn in any number of directions, and I’m eager to find out which one Mochizuki chooses.

High-schooler Rika is headed for a different kind of tragedy in Setona Mizushiro’s two-volume X-Day (Tokyopop). Entrance exams are looming, her boyfriend has dumped her, and she’s been supplanted on the track team after an injury.

One day, in a chat room with classmates, she blithely suggests a solution to the complaints of her fellow chatters: why not blow up the school?

Most dismiss it as a joke, but a handful of the participants take to the idea. They form a quartet based on alienation and a shared desire to blow the school sky high. They don’t want to hurt anyone; they just don’t want to have to go to that place any more, where they have to deal with loneliness and stress and humiliation.

It sounds like the foundation for a suspenseful thriller, but X-Day turns out to be more of a character study. Mizushiro goes deep into Rika’s inner life, paying careful attention to the contrast between her pretty, composed façade and the anger underneath. Her emotional reality imposes itself on the art in interesting, unexpected ways, and Mizushiro has a way with an illustrative fake-out.

Unfortunately, the rest of Rika’s co-conspirators aren’t developed as well. (Maybe it just seems that way because Rika’s torment is so palpable.) Polaris is a weekend Gothic Lolita, and Jangalian is a withdrawn nerd. They provide somewhat predictable (and slightly creepy) comic relief. Handsome, secretive Mr. Money’s story is more moving, but it’s moving in a rather Lifetime Movie Network kind of way.

X-Day is oddly paced as well. At times, it seems to be building towards something suspenseful or some crisis point, but these threads either stop abruptly or deflate. The plot tends to meander, and I found myself wishing the whole thing could have consisted of Rika wandering the halls, smiling blandly, and hating everything around her.

It’s an interesting work, and I’d like to see more of Mizushiro’s work. Ultimately, though, the inconsistencies keep it from being truly gripping.