Once a month, Nick Hanover educates himself on manga by going on Adventures in the Floating World, learning about series he has missed out on over the years. This month, he digs into the bizarre sci-fi horror series Gantz, which debuted in Weekly Young Jump in Japan in 2000 and has been reprinted in North America since 2008 via Dark Horse.
Title: Gantz (Primarily volumes one and two)
Writer and Artist: Hiroya Oku
Publisher: Dark Horse
Purchased at: Austin Books and Comics
I think my interest in weird comics grew out of my interest in weird horror movies. When I was a little kid, my favorite movies were the Critters films, a franchise I conned my way into watching thanks to my grandparents’ confusion over whether it was a horror flick or a series of merchandise-ready cuddly creature adventures. I didn’t really care about the slasher films that were still ruling the box office during my adolescence, I was into whatever low budget masterpiece had the best VHS art at the local video store, stuff like Chopping Mall and Basket Case and House. I was the perfect audience for these movies because I didn’t care about plot or characters or even consistency, all I cared about was imagination and these weirdo works had that in spades, with innumerable monsters and head explosions and ample viscera. It wasn’t realism or suspense that drew me in and I was too young to be seduced by the titillating anti-eroticism of the slasher films, it was this gonzo embrace of horrific surreality, and comics, with their lack of technological restraints or budget concerns, were able to go even further than anything ever attempted by the pioneering horror auteurs of the ’80s. All this is to say that if Hiroya Oku’s Gantz had been available to me when I was younger, I’m certain I would have been manga obsessed immediately.
Gantz begins in a misleading fashion, introducing sort of protagonist Kurono Kei as a stereotypically hormonal jackass teenager, self-obsessed and cocky, confident he’s better than everyone else and will live forever. Kei’s arrogance, unsurprisingly, is what gets him in trouble. After former classmate Kato Masaru hops onto some subway tracks to help a bum who has fallen down, Kei refuses to let him get all the glory and decides to help out too, but the pair are a bit too slow and wind up butchered by the incoming subway car in an over the top display that sends their heads flying off onto the platform, still blinking. Oku’s eagerness to show every gruesome detail of these kinds of death scenes has made Gantz one of the most popular series in Japan, but beyond all the gore and shocking developments is a surprisingly self-effacing tone.
Like those campy ’80s horror films, Gantz never takes itself too seriously, even when Oku is using state of the art digital imaging techniques to present the gore in precise anatomical detail. That’s partially because death in Gantz isn’t always fatal. Kei and Masaru died in spectacularly gruesome fashion, but their deaths were merely the beginning of their particular stories, simply a means of landing them in the ultimate narrative of Gantz. After their subway fates, Kei and Masaru are mysteriously transported to a room with several other “dead” people (and a dog), many of whom are convinced the whole thing is some kind of extreme reality show prank. The situation is too bizarre for anyone to fully process, and it’s complicated even further when a nude young woman is teleported into the room, piece by bloody piece, after she had apparently killed herself in the bathtub.
The formerly dead characters are eventually given instructions by the weird black orb in the middle of the room, which communicates instructions in the fashion of an online commentator, complete with insults and haphazard slang. The gist is that the orb, named “Gantz,” wants them to kill aliens for points. The first target is nicknamed “Onion Alien,” a being who looks like a humanoid onion and whose “favorite phrase” is “Just onions will do fine, thank you!” Oku masterfully balances the absurdity of the situation with the horror, as the characters aren’t given much time to process their deaths or what the fuck is going on before they’re warped into the mission, alien weapons and armor in hand. Gantz, despite its titillation and often crude sensibilities, is a complex series, and the self-effacing humor ultimately serves to escalate the horror. Oku uses the cheekiness to mask the bleakness of the narrative, which subtly raises the tension and forces the reader to be caught off guard when the shit really hits the fan.
By the end of the first volume, there are a ton of dead bodies and most of them are dead as a result of the ineptitude and confusion of the resurrected characters. Oku spends the bulk of the first and second arcs getting the concept across and then establishing rules and stakes, but once he switches into horror mode and begins killing off characters, things are decidedly less funny. Like a true gore auteur, Oku delivers the goods, crafting incredibly imaginative death scenes, most of which are built around the complicated weaponry Gantz gave the characters without any instructions whatsoever. That point is especially important to keep in mind, since the reveal of how simple those tools actually are, and how powerful they can be, illuminates the deaths of the first arc in a newly tragic light.
Oku also manages to flip some of that humor into horror, including the formerly comical “Onion Alien,” whose gigantic big brother is decidedly less cute and harmless. Horror has long been a staple of Japanese comics but Western audiences tend to be less aware of it than its more action and relationship-oriented counterparts. Gantz features a lot of manga cliches– the casual perversion, for instance– but it’s a decidedly unique twist on Western oriented horror and sci-fi tropes, from the brutish, hulking monster closing out the first arc to the body horror elements of the teleportation and weaponry, all delivered with the gleeful gonzo flair of ’80s low budget horror. If Lone Wolf and Cub is a classic example of the timelessness of samurai epics, Gantz is its futuristic horror descendant, a little less serious but no less unflinching in its presentation of brutality.
For a guy who’s still a horror kid at heart, Gantz hits a lot of perfect notes and effortlessly expresses how beautifully weird manga can be and its popularity in its homeland makes me imagine a bizarro timeline where Basket Case and Chopping Mall were bonafide box office sensations.
Recommended? Yes, but only if you’re a horror fan who can handle extreme gore.
Up next: Detroit Metal City
Nick Hanover got his degree from Disneyland, but he’s the last of the secret agents and he’s your man. Which is to say you can find his particular style of espionage here at Loser City as well as Ovrld, where he contributes music reviews and writes a column on undiscovered Austin bands. You can also flip through his archives at Comics Bulletin, which he is formerly the Co-Managing Editor of, and Spectrum Culture, where he contributed literally hundreds of pieces for a few years. Or if you feel particularly adventurous, you can always witness his odd .gif battles with Dylan Garsee on twitter: @Nick_Hanover