Friday, October 26, 2012

Review: Skull Man

I apologize for being absent this month. Real life and school kept me busy. But I couldn't go without making some sort of Halloween post this month, so here we are.

Skull Man
Created by Shotaro Ishinomori 

Created in 1970, Skull Man may not seem so special today, but Skull Man made a huge impact on the manga industry. He was one of manga's first true anti-heroes, a character who would kill anyone in the name of vengeance. Skull Man was to be the original premise for Kamen Rider, another of Shotaro's most famous works, but it was considered too dark and violent for children. You could look at this as a darker version of Kamen Rider, but it works well to establish itself from its tokusatsu brethren.

Our story begins with a long sequence of a shapeshifting monster that takes the form of a giant bat, wolf, and crocodile killing several people. In a normal superhero story, the Skull Man would step in to stop this creature, but he's too busy killing people at a research facility. Some scientists were inventing a 3D television and hoping to make a fortune off of it (boy, isn't that a laugh to hear now), but the Skull Man quickly ends their dreams by destroying the plans and burning down the facility. We cut back to the police, baffled by the appearance of the Skull Man and the murders, when suddenly a young man named Kagura Tatsuo appears before them asking to help with the investigation. I won't spoil the rest of the story, but you'll probably figure out what happens pretty quickly.

At its heart, Skull Man is your basic revenge story and there aren't too many surprises aside from a very sudden ending that may leave readers confused. What's important is how cool Ishinomori makes it seem. The opening sequence is just beautiful, a true example of great sequential art. No dialogue, just pure action and good artwork. That's not to say the characters don't have anything interesting to say. The Skull Man himself is a fun character despite being a mass murderer. He's almost always smiling, always smug and laughing at his enemies, because he knows he will win. Again, this all changes at the climax, where we see the character remove his figurative mask and we see his true intentions. You can almost sympathize with the character. On a deeper level, there's a constant theme of old vs young. Tatsuo is the young brilliant but bored man who joins the search for the Skull Man who clashes with his older superiors, and the Skull Man has a bone to pick with the older generation as well. There's a clash between desires of the two generations, and while it's not very profound, it does make for a more engaging revenge story. There's also a character named Garo (no relation whatsoever to the Golden Knight of the same name), who is the aforementioned shapeshifter. He has nothing interesting to say, but I can't help but smile at a man who can become both a wolf and a crocodile.

Skull Man is a short one-shot story, only 100 pages. It has no pretense of having a sequel and is tightly paced, so you should get through it pretty quickly. Those wanting more Skull Man might want to track down the 1990's manga remake by Kazuhiko Shimamoto or the 13 episode anime by Studio Bones, both of which expand on the story greatly and change many details. The remakes are more complex and long, and if that's more your speed, check them out. But there's something endearing about simplicity such as this. It is an enjoyable read with engaging action and dynamic art that doesn't speak down to its audience, and as a piece of manga history it is worth reading.

Buy It!

For the longest time, The Skull Man was sadly not available in the US. Fortunately, the great people at Comixology have released The Skull Man for digital distribution and plan to eventually release all of Shotaro Ishinomori's manga on their site. No plans for a physical release just yet, but Ishinomori fan should be happy to hear that they will be able to legally read all of his works in English soon. The anime adaptation known as The Skull Man is currently available from Section 23 Films and is recommendable despite being very different from the manga.

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