One of manga’s heavy hitters is finally available and it rules
(Contains spoilers for both the original manga series and this year’s Crybaby, also some seriously iffy phone captures)
OK so technically Devilman has been translated and published in English before, though not in its entirety in the United States, so this is the first time I can go to a bookstore and walk out with the complete run. Anyway, 2018 marks Go Nagai’s 50th year as a manga author, and in the last 11 months, we’ve gotten new iterations in several of his most well-known franchises in celebration. A new Cutie Honey show seemed to come and go without much of a fuss, a Mazinger Z movie ran in US theaters, but the one to make the biggest splash was undoubtedly Masaaki Yuasa and Science Saru’s searing remake, Devilman Crybaby. In what felt like mere hours after launching in the middle of the night on Netflix, Devilman had exploded all over the internet. Critical analysis, charged fanart, the run, that hard slapping update of the original TV show’s theme song; Devilman had arrived in the modern Western consciousness in a big way. And the Year of Devilman had only begun, with Discotek Media reissuing the 1980s OVA series (complete with the old endearingly foul-mouthed English dub) and Seven Seas Entertainment releasing several manga iterations, most importantly to the subject at hand: the original series in two handsome hardcover books under their new “Classic Collection” line.
First up, let’s get the biggest potential barrier for entry out of the way: Devilman is 46 years old. Beginning its publication in 1972 in the pages of Weekly Shonen Magazine, home of other massively influential titles as Tomorrow’s Joe and GeGeGe no Kitaro, both of which have also seen modern reimaginings just this year. With older works, especially ones as formative as Devilman, come questions like, “is this still relevant or even enjoyable to modern eyes?”. Not everything stands the test of time as entertainment, often transforming into more sterile museum pieces. I recently revisited the original Halloween, a movie of unassailable importance to its genre and far beyond, but I found it to be a pretty dull watch. This isn’t a drag on the movie; its contributions are plainly visible in nearly every minute, I just can’t help but think on how much has changed, both in audiences and films, in the years since its release, rendering much of its intended horror almost inert. So to bring it back around, the answer to the question “can you crack open Devilman in 2018, regardless of prior experience or knowledge of its influence and get something out of the experience?” is a hearty “yes”. I’m happy to say Go Nagai’s tragic, monster mashing, emotionally fraught series is both a wildly entertaining ride for a relative newcomer like myself and an illuminating piece of manga history.
So after that nearly 400 words of introduction, let’s get into what Devilman actually IS. Opening in prehistory, a grim tone is almost immediately set with glowing androgynous angels descending to Earth, only to be met by a nightmare carnival of snarling indigenous demons. The swirling violent spectacle on display immediately recalls the Eclipse event from Kentaro Miura’s Berserk as the angels find themselves in an environment where the flora and fauna are competing in equal measure to tear them apart. The wordless prologue escalates to the point where the angels and demon have pooled their forces for a final confrontation when some treachery appears to be afoot, and time jumps forward to the very future-sounding year of 198X. Here is where doe-eyed and innocent protagonist Akira Fudo enters the picture, with Nagai painting him as kind and carefree, but lacking decisiveness and assertion. During an exchange with some bullies after school, in walks his old friend Ryo Asuka, sporting a dangerously cool trench coat and legendarily detached smirk on his face, ready to set Akira on The Dark Path.
It hasn’t been very long since Akira saw his best friend after switching schools, but Ryo has been going through some changes in the last month. Driving using a falsified license, waving a pistol around with reckless abandon, smoking. Pretty heavy stuff. Also, his dad was killed as the result of a possession and Ryo fears this is just the beginning of a full-fledged demonic comeback. To counter this, Bad Influence Ryo plans to have both himself and Akira become possessed with the hopes of their pure human hearts winning over the invading demonic force, giving them supernatural powers. So after a brief skirmish with some monsters, they head down to Ryo’s basement, which houses the perfect demon catching environment: a drug-fueled rave. There’s a wonderfully flexible sense of reality to Devilman. Demons perfectly rebuilt Akira’s home after an overnight rampage? Roll with it. The title being what it is, amid a storm of debauchery and slaughter, Akira’s pure soul wins over the demon champion Amon and he is transformed into the monster with the heart of a human: Devilman. Setting out with Ryo, who failed to become a host, Akira uses his newfound powers to try to put an end to the rising demon menace.
Entering into the second act of the story gives me the strong impression Nagai hadn’t planned out where Devilman was going or how it would get there. The initial setup feels purposeful and runs along at a brisk clip, but once over, things settle into a wobbly series of semi-isolated stand-alone episodes. They tend to begin with Akira going about his normal life, only to be pulled into another horrific demon’s rampage of death. The individual stories themselves leave strong impressions; the harpy Sirene’s bloody, twist-filled battle of attrition with Devilman is the single longest sequence in the series and once it finally reaches its surprisingly poignant climax, I felt like I had been through the wringer along with Akira. And Jinmen The Worst Turtle’s vile personality positively oozes right off the page and his gooey demise is fittingly gross. There’s just a distinct sense that the thread of overarching propulsion had been severed and that these encounters could go on indefinitely. Devilman isn’t the tightest story, which might turn off might turn modern readers looking for a succinctly told tale, but in place of firmly developed arcs and themes, there’s a relaxed sense of freedom Nagai uses to explore a broader swath of styles and ideas than the premise might imply.
Cold War tensions along with mankind’s tendency to fall into paranoia and demand that the “other” be destroyed at all costs makes up a solid chunk of the second volume. A misguided escalation of police powers giving rise to authoritarianism and ultimately self-destruction, coupled with a strong anti-nuclear weapon stance, feels right at home in 2018. Akira’s discomfort with his overtly masculine, more well-defined body and its unfamiliar urges is a blunt but honest feeling depiction of puberty and blossoming sexuality. His sense of isolation and fear of losing hold of his old self within a new, forced upon version is deeply relatable. And it’s pretty much impossible to ignore the queer theming in Ryo and Akira’s relationship with a chapter cover page like this introducing their tragic final confrontation; made even more clear cut in the Shin Devilman stretch (see below). Many of these ideas come up quickly and fade into the background just as fast, seemingly as topics Nagai was mulling over during a particular couple of weeks and then dropping, but it cannot be denied that he wasn’t throwing around a lot interesting and still resonant decades later ideas in Devilman.
Nagai’s often stunning visual artistry goes a long way to infuse Devilman‘s scattershot writing and pacing with a powerful immediacy and is really the strongest aspect of the series. He may not have been sure of what Devilman was going to be about, but dammit, he was going to be intense about it. From Akira’s explosive first transformation to a breathless final parting of friends as the inevitable apocalyptic finale approaches, Nagai shows a level of flare and consideration for scorchingly intimate moments that had me stopping dead in my tracks to soak in what was playing across the page. These images still burn bright nearly 50 years later. Time has not diminished Devilman‘s sheer power to be felt. Engaging with Devilman is done primarily with the heart and Masaaki Yuasa clearly recognized this with Crybaby, opting not to retrofit a too densely plotted narrative on top of these aching scenarios, only focusing and modernizing them.
I was concerned going in there would be too much of a focus on action, as the series is well known for its violent clashes and the original TV series (a concurrent sibling production) took a notably tokusatsu inspired approach, and I found myself pleasantly surprised at how much space is devoted to slowly building tension and dread. Many times, page after page went by as Nagai delicately layered in growing darkness as backgrounds gave way to worried faces surrounded by a hostile abyss. And when it comes, the violence is never easy to swallow; he doesn’t hold back on the casual, uncaring brutality of this doomed world. That being said, I know it’s more or less a trademark of his, and it’s probably an “uh yeah” to anyone even remotely familiar with his name and body of work, but Nagai’s repeated use of sexualized violence towards women is always salacious and unwarranted. If that is an issue you cannot look past, which is entirely understandable, Devilman is not a welcoming comic. For all its forward pushing ideas, treatment of women in almost all cases as tools of tragedy and hostages was not one of them.
While he does fall into floating heads yelling at each other when it comes to exposition, they carry a bouncy cartoony energy that never fully brings the momentum to a halt. Not to mention the many dramatic expressions that made the rounds on the Internet in the wake of Crybaby‘s popularity. They work both in context, as emotions only run on high in Devilman, and as reaction comedy gold. Nagai’s bit player demons at first glance look dated and more than a little goofy, but I found myself going back to their flurry of teeth and claws and finding his mishmash approach to their physiology subtly disquieting. The placement of familiar facial features where they don’t belong is nothing new but is none the less effective here. Add that to there frequently being a massive cloud of them tearing helpless victims apart, and yeah, that’s appropriately nightmarish. The center stage villains, on the other hand, are more firmly defined, each having their own distinct gimmicks and page presences that quickly establish their personalities. In particular, I’m a fan of the odd, almost cuddly-looking Psycho Jenny, who despite a very limited presence, leaves a noted impression with her microwave hallucination ability and at once iconic mystifying eyes.
The experience does come with another what I would consider to be a minor but noteworthy hiccup in the flow of the books: the decades-long, Blade Runner-style tinkering with chapter arrangement and placement of side stories and new artwork done years after the original publication. These aren’t invisible shuffles only those familiar with older Japanese editions would notice either. Things jump from a bloody encounter where a demon mercilessly mocks Akira with the screaming faces of his victims to a dramatically lighter-toned multi-part time-traveling adventure with no warning. These are side stories, originally published as Shin Devilman in 1979, and written by Nagai and his brother going under the pen name Hiroshi Koenji. Even better, the chapter ushering in Akira and Ryo’s wacky temporal shenanigans is placed as the second story in this arc. After several of these visits through time, think Bill and Ted but way bloodier, in which the duo meet historical figures like Jeanne d’Arc, Marie Antoinette, and uh, a young Adolf Hitler*, they are unceremoniously dropped back into the present. I suppose these being written as side adventures years later meant there wasn’t much a need to elegantly integrate them into the main storyline at the time.
I don’t want to come down too hard on these extra chapters, as they’re a fun oddity and I see their inclusion as a key part to the weird appeal of the collection. You have these slow-building moments of horror capped off by brutal standoffs where Akira is forced to confront hideous monsters doing unspeakable things and situations rarely end well; Devilman is very much a series of painful wounds and losses. And then there’s this lighter-hearted, occasionally outright comedic interlude where Akira and Ryo hang out in the Old West and get enslaved in ancient Greece. I just can’t find it in my heart to dismiss material that gave us one of the greatest spreads of all time or a trip to the beach haunted by the specter of an intensely jealous Ryo. It may not have been The Devilman Experience reading week to week in 1972, but it is in 2018, and I’m glad to have them. Less jarring but still somewhat awkward is the occasional insertion of more recent artwork in the middle of the original run stories. A good example being several fights transitioning from very stark, heavy black favoring images common to the majority of the series to a sweeping, softer painterly look during the climaxes. Looking over some sparsely maintained fan wikis has helped to sort out these alterations, and while I understand this was likely the version mandated by the original publisher to match the current Japanese editions, notes or an essay to help contextualize these bumps would have been a welcome extra.
Devilman is an easy recommendation from me; provided you can handle its problematic content, grim look at humanity, and occasionally jumbled storytelling, you’ll find a great mix of fun, horror, and raw emotive power that earned the series its place as a classic.
* While Go Nagai quickly earned a reputation as an envelope pusher, and in many ways, Devilman still feels boundary-defying, the blatant anti-Semitism seen through ugly caricature and clunky origin to Hitler’s hatred is just plain bad. A disclaimer like the one Discotek put in front of their recent Angel Cop release would have been appreciated.