Required Reading is DoomRocket’s love chest, opened twice monthly to champion a book that we adore. This week Arpad recommends ‘I Am a Hero Omnibus’ volumes 1-7, available now from Dark Horse Manga

I am a Hero Omnibus

Cover to ‘I Am a Hero Omnibus’ Vol. 1. Art by Kengo Hanazawa/Dark Horse Manga

by Arpad Okay. I Am a Hero is a zombie book. It is all zombie books, because it has the time to put you through every undead nightmare ever conceived. Hideo wishes his life was worthwhile, something more than backgrounds and fill-ins making manga. Something more than a girlfriend who is out of his league. A few minutes pass, a lifetime, as many head shots as there are bullets, and Hideo gets his wish. It takes forever to get there. And from there, no return.

And I mean forever. The first zombie encounter takes up about a hundred pages, roughly half the second book. It’s five minutes, maybe ten, but I’m sure internally it felt like hours. This is a twofold feat of scripting that I think is just pure genius, and shockingly absent from most horror comics. Moments that could be expressed in a single panel will take up chapters, trapping the reader in the time dilation of suffering, the slow run of leaden nightmare feet. When you crave speed, to escape, Kengo Hanazawa’s storytelling brings things to a grinding halt.

It’s an informed play on horror pacing. The book nails that push and pull, long periods of tension with sudden bursts of violence. Thing is, I Am a Hero warps all of it. This series (seven two-in-one volumes translated so far) has time to take forever with the tension, and really lean in hard to the violence. Six or more pages for violence that take two or three seconds. It’s wild.

And for every panel of danger, there are two of Hideo freaking out. It might sound like reading this book is frustrating, but quite the opposite. It has an intimate understanding of the pleasure of a knotted stomach, the black joy in watching things fall apart. In the midst of ferocity, establishing shots. The rain. The neighborhood. The mundane everything that lies at rest while the individual is consumed by chaos.

The atmosphere is as key to the story as the sickness, the survivors, the horror, the struggle. And the atmosphere is sinister.

That said, I Am a Hero has the time to play with many different feels. Though the zombie genre has been around for decades, there aren’t that many zombie epics. Most can rarely tell more than one story, whether it’s a matter of time (you can only fit so much into a feature film) or inclination (even with the hours, days, weeks we sink into seasons, serials, and video games, most choose one or two ideas and develop them).

So you get the anguish of the outbreak. In close quarters, the chances of you getting eaten by someone you have a personal relationship with is the highest: the one you live with is the one who kills you. Parents, partners, coworkers, neighbors. Past that, the urban crush. Imagine being trapped on public transportation during an outbreak. Imagine fleeing to the countryside and getting stuck in a huge pedestrian exodus when the sick start biting.

And who survives the zombie apocalypse? Self-centered sadists. And Hideo, of course. But the colonies of survivors who thrive in safe house and on mall roof are cutthroat. When all the villains are the same, one big, gaping mouth, it is allies who become the worst. Unpredictable. Evil.

The reader gets to follow Hanazawa as he explores all of these situations and more. And all the while, we are travelling with the same core group. The same Hideo. I Am a Hero gets to play in every evil zombie sandbox in turn, but to subject the folks we know, care, and fear for to the all of it? That’s virtually unprecedented.

Equally fresh is the moral dilemma the zombie apocalypse puts on Hideo and company. Hideo is the one guy in Japan with a real gun. But to use it outside a firing range is to risk breaking heavy regulations and having one’s license revoked. And Hideo is the kind of guy who pays the cab fare to his dead driver when the car is on fire.

So Hideo is concerned with what happens after. The zombies can talk, they ape the repetitive actions of their old lives, they swarm together under the quasi-influence of long haired, clear-minded zombie kings in tighty whities (no, seriously), they mutate and problem solve. Maybe there will be a coming back from all this, a cure. Maybe that makes Hideo a murderer.

Or he could be a savior. The zombies who can think and dream (which we get to see, and yikes) might be worth saving. If they can be survived. They imply a plan. Whose? What? Who knows. We spend so long with the same few people, any hope Hanazawa feeds us of an after sews little but anxiety and doubt. We want Hideo to survive no matter what the plan is. And the greater height climbed, the closer we come to sense or stability, the deeper the pain is when luck runs out.

I Am a Hero is one long mindfuck and we are its victims. Volumes upon volumes trapped in a car, in a room, a tent, a mad world. Some survivors are benevolent. Some of them volatile. Some faceless behind masks that never come off. You can’t help but feel for them. That’s being human. Then Hanazawa breaks that bond, sharpens it to a point, and stabs you with it.

I Am a Hero is a nerd’s playground, for sure. A tribute to every type of horror, check. Story so good it will haunt you cloaked in the guise of genre fiction, check. Then watch Hanazawa roll out a laundry list of meta-manga concepts. How I Am a Hero is illustrated is just as experimental and innovative as how it’s written. What is modern manga but cartoony characters juxtaposed onto super realistic, hyper ornate settings?

After the tightening noose of urban drama is the haunted woods. After the day is the night. The bloodshot eye, broken face, map of black veins standing out against the skin becomes the brush, the tangle of branches overhead. Instead of resting once the sun goes down, Hideo is lost in a fog of texture tone layers. Obstruction is anxiety.

This all comes together in the hunt for food in an infested strip mall. The entire sequence of masked gunmen (air rifles) is told from the first person perspective. Each mask has a different grill that obscures the vision, bars over the eyes, a texture tone that exists for reader and the read. It can’t be easy to see. It isn’t.

Hanazawa loves to draw mouths in this biting book. Mouths and faces, grotesque and uncanny. The gaping maw is danger. The body is transformed by death into nightmare. Maggots, bloat, beaten features, broken bits, eyes peering out from where no one should ever see.

And the next beat is the reactions. As terrible as the dead are to look upon — and they are, there are scenarios that I could see with closed eyes for days after reading — the disquiet on the faces of the living is just as bad. It is painful to watch anyone experience what Hideo goes through, paying the price of wishes granted.

Dark Horse Manga/$19.99

Written by Kengo Hanazawa.

Illustrated by Kengo Hanazawa.

Translated by Kumar Sivasubramanian.

English Adaptation by Philip Simon.

Lettered by Steve Dutro.

You can buy all seven volumes of ‘I Am a Hero Omnibus’ here


Check out this 11-page preview of ‘I am a Hero Omnibus’ Vol. 1, courtesy of Dark Horse Comics!

More Required Reading…

‘Mirenda’ a fantasy tale of unlikely characters meeting at even more unlikely crossroads

Leong’s ‘Prism Stalker’ a beautiful, turbulent vision of resistance and individuality

Humor and happiness inform ‘About Betty’s Boob’, a story of strength in the face of defeat