It's not often that a manga publisher drops a 536-page book with cover-flaps onto the market. For that alone, I sat up and took notice when the first volume of "Cat Eyed Boy" landed in front of me. Its creator, Kazuo Umezu, is probably best known in North America with the recent translation of his "The Drifting Classroom" epic, a bizarre story about a school that is whisked away to an apocalyptic future where the fight for survival is against both the unforgiving landscape as well as each other. It's a traditional enough story, though, focusing on the continual shocks of what people, as well as the desolation of the future, will do next.
"Cat Eyed Boy", on the other hand, is anything but typical. It reminds me a little bit of his book "Orochi: Blood", in that "Cat Eyed Boy" plays with the idea of the hosted horror anthology. You've certainly encountered that sort of book before; comics like "Tales from the Crypt" where the Crypt-Keeper comes out and introduces a blood-curdling tale for you to read. At a glance, that's what "Cat Eyed Boy" seems to be like, with the titular character (an outcast because of his cat-like eyes and claws) hiding in the attic of a mansion and noting that wherever he goes, terror soon follows. At first, he's merely our guide through the first story, spying on the people who live in the mansion and giving us a running commentary.
It's about halfway through that first story, though, that things begin to change. Suddenly, Cat Eyed Boy is pulled into the story itself, and anyone who's read or watched something like "Tales from the Crypt" or "The Twilight Zone" will certainly be taken aback. Umezu has deliberately broken the normal rules of this kind of story, and for the better. By making his narrator an actual character of the story, he's opened the book up to all sorts of new possibilities.
The stories themselves are nicely creepy. Some of them involve vengeance on past wrongs, others revenge for imagined reasons, still others have innocents tormented by society. It's the society angle that we see the most in "Cat Eyed Boy" and it works quite well, sometimes making the outcast the hero, other times the villain. Umezu isn't afraid to also stop about halfway through the book and give an origin story for the Cat Eyed Boy himself. It's an important step, not only because he is ultimately the protagonist of the book, but it's the point when "Cat Eyed Boy" really deviates from the idea of bad things happening to people who deserve it. By having some victims in "Cat Eyed Boy" be genuinely innocent of their fate, it keeps a high level of unpredictability throughout its collection.
The final story, "The Band of One Hundred Monsters", actually will be continued in the next volume, and that's after taking up 200 pages in this first book. The amazing thing is that it doesn't feel bloated or overly drawn out at all to me; that's when I knew that Umezu had completely pulled me into the book. His art is the strongest I've seen here as well; stories like "The Band of One Hundred Monsters" lets him get really imaginative with a never-ending stream of different-looking monstrosities, each stranger and creepier than the one before.
"Cat Eyed Boy" Volume 1 may look a little daunting at first for a casual purchase, but I was really impressed with it. It's a sharp-looking package (I really love the cover stock as well as the nice touches like the end-flaps), runs in slightly larger dimensions than most manga (six by eight inches), and gives you quite a bang for your buck. I'm definitely interested in getting the second, concluding volume. The stories in "Cat Eyed Boy" may be 40 years old, but they're creepier than most horror comics being published today. We could learn a lot from Umezu. In the meantime, though, I'll just keep enjoying the books of his that are being translated. More, please.