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New Manga Thursday

It’s been almost two hours since I took my antibiotic, which means in another hour or so when I’m ready to lie down the horrible taste will start. It’s a side effect 7% of patients get, an awful metallic, chemical taste in my mouth that makes my mouth wet and itchy. I wake up at night (this is only day 3 of a 14-day regimen, after 3 weeks of awful sinus infection or something) and the taste keeps me from falling back asleep. I mention this not because I’m begging for sympathy. This is a small inconvenience, though a consuming one for me, and I’ll be done with it at the end of the two weeks. Instead it’s that I’m thinking about the indescribable, that I’m basically necessarily obsessed with this horrible taste I can’t describe or overpower with my mind. I just finished reading today’s manga haul, Death Note and Dragon Head and both of them deal with situations that are trying to humanize suffering in a way that’s easily readable.

Dragon Head, by Minetaro Mochizuki, was recommended indirectly by Bryan Lee O’Malley in the lovely interview> conducted by David Welsh last week, which I very much appreciate as I would have assumed it was not my thing otherwise. In this first volume of Dragon Head, a boy wakes up on the train bringing him home from his class trip only to realize that an apparent earthquake (it’s too early in the story for me to accept much outside as certain) has forced the tunnel to collapse and destroyed the train. He is the only survivor in his class, though he eventually finds another boy and a girl who have also managed to stay alive. What impressed me tonight was the way it portrayed trauma without unnecessary exposition, so while no panel is complete without shattered glass and blood, the survivors don’t talk much about what’s happened to them. When Seto awakes after being unconscious for several days, her first thought is that she needs to find a tampon, to deal with the blood flow that doesn’t threaten her life. (My immediate thought was yargh, toxic shock syndrome!, but perhaps she started her period while unconscious and hadn’t been wearing a tampon the whole time. Is this why manga’s considered comics for girls?)

None of the three can talk about the accident in terms that affect them, only explanations of what was heard on the radio. Or maybe they can talk, but not to each other. Lead character Teru has flashbacks or maybe just flights of imagination to life with his family, and after at first remembering nothing later claims he saw something just before the train entered the tunnel. Yet no one mentions what hurts, despite their many visible cuts and Seto’s sliced up knees. The third companion, volatile bullying victim Nobuo, at one point returns to them drenched in blood and what could anyone say? This is a wonderful representation of the unspeakable because it is so spare, so full of emptiness and shock. The students scream in their sleep, but all they can do for one another is acknowledge those screams without asking the reason. They understand their predicament, but can’t express how it feels to them not only because they’re with strangers but because they don’t have words for the feeling that there might be nothing out there for them but death or to dare express the pain they feel when thinking of all that might be lost to them forever.

Death, unsurprisingly, figures heavily in Death Note, too. Written by Tsugumi Ohba and drawn by Takeshi Obata, this is the story of teen genius Light, who finds a notebook dropped by a death god. By this third volume, he’s learned many of the rules of how to use this notebook to bring about the deaths of anyone whose name and face he knows, although he restricts himself largely to criminals in an attempt to form a better world. Now, though, he’s finally literally met his match, the young strategist who goes by the name L, as both become friends of a sort when starting college. Light knows L suspects him of being Kira (”Killer”), as this mysterious criminal-killer is known, and L has to be open about his suspicions in hopes of trapping Light into confessing. I’ve gotten to see death gods less motivated than Light’s now-constant companion who sit around playing cards and gossiping, paying no attention to the human deaths they inevitably bring to pass. What’s interesting is the extent to which Light (and, to some degree, L) have become equally callous, though still canny and alert. Death is little more than a line in a notebook to Light — at least if it stays far enough away from him! — and more compelling are the ways he uses deaths to get to L, whom he hopes to kill eventually, I suppose to preserve his freedom.

Here, too, the elisions are noteworthy not because they denote trauma so deep and intense that it can’t be expressed but instead its opposite, a world in which the only pain that matters is one’s own and even that can be worthwhile if it brings about a success in the power struggle between Light as Kira and L and the other members of the task force (including Light’s father) who hope to catch him. Finally in this volume we get to see something nagging at Light, when his own father has a heart attack that those outside (and Light in his public persona, convincing L of his innocence) think may have been the work of Kira. It’s not yet a vile taste in his mouth that he can’t shake, but suddenly death is something more than words on paper, more than cosmic justice. This is a manga I’d first picked up only in the last month or so, and I’m glad there was another volume available for me so soon, although now I’ll have to wait like everyone who got on at the beginning. I’m really looking forward to this entrance of ambiguity, if that’s what’s really happening. Is Light becoming a death god who can casually eat apples while thinking about the death he causes? There’s such a difference between this and the numbness of Dragon Head’s characters, and yet I wonder if they do come from the same instinctive recoil from the thought of death.

And here I am, not deathly ill, and thinking in meta terms not about death in my life or for me, but how it affects the paper people whose lives I follow while I’m in the bathtub. Is that proof of more of this trend? I can think about nausea and this taste that creeps up on me, but when they’re not there and I’m not hurting otherwise, my mortality doesn’t hang so heavily in every muscle. But this sounds so melodramatic, when my point is that neither manga is that. Instead they’re compelling looks at, well, looking at and looking away from the big human questions, but more than that too. They’re stories about young people figuring things out slowly and thinking they understand more than they do. Maybe there, too, I’d like to think this is something that interests me at their level because I’m not doing it enough myself.