Sure, I’ll throw out the word Kafkaesque to get things started here, because that’s what you’re supposed to do when you’re writing a review about a protagonist who enters into a nightmarish world after being absurdly convicted of a crime there’s no way he could have possibly committed.
But did Kafka have beautiful young girls in nude-looking body suits that would magically appear? Did Kafka have prisons run like game shows? Did Kafka have giant pendulums swinging to and fro, unleashing death upon those below?
No. (Though E. A. Poe had some of that pendulum action, while Kafka just had Beetleman, the first proto-Vertigo fan fic ever written.)
“Deadman Wonderland” is a crazy concoction of the nightmare uncertainty of Kafka, the prison theatrics (and spectator sport) of “Running Man,” and the gratuitous titillation of, well, plenty of manga on the shelves of your local Barnes & Noble.
The protagonist, Ganta, is just a kid — a kid who saw his entire class slaughtered by the “Red Man,” a mysterious apparition in armor, chains, helmet, and tattered cloak. The fact that he’s colored red seems to have some kind of significance in the series, because they keep mentioning it, even though it’s a black and white book. Though with the moments of gore in volume 1, the lack of color is probably for the best.
Ganta gets falsely accused for the brutal murder of his classmates, and he ends up with the death sentence, a sentence that will be carried out in Deadman Wonderland, a madhouse/amusement park of a prison where credit points are used to get the antidote that keeps you alive, as the collar around your neck poisons you every day.
It’s a great concept for a series, and it was enough to get me to give the first volume a try, but the scenes seem too discordant, the characters thrown into the fray without much depth of characterization. When the enigmatic Shiro appears, a petite girl ghost and/or crazy person, it’s just another layer of mystery that feels like excess. The whole volume is sickeningly excessive, not in a too-gory way, a too-action-packed way, but in a way that feels piled on. As if there wasn’t enough at the story’s core to make for compelling reading, more details were added on top. In that way it reminds me of the atrocious quality of some of the mainstream superhero comics of the mid-1990s. Those often felt hollow and overly flashy, but in an ultimately ugly way.
This isn’t quite that bad, but it left behind a vaguely similar feeling.
Volume 1 looks great — Kazuma Konduo is an artist who can go big and small, who can capture pathos and spectacle — but it’s overstimulated. Overindulged. Or the story is too thin to keep up with the pace of the visuals.
There’s almost enough here to get me to come back for Volume 2, but just barely. And unless the tightly-wound world of “Deadman Wonderland” opens up a bit and lets some life inside, I don’t think I’ll make it much beyond that.