When it comes to Japanese zombie series, most people think of Highschool of the Dead. However, in today’s case, we are covering the other big zombie series in Japan, I Am A Hero. It has sold over 4 million copies and has won plenty of awards.
Let’s give it a look and see if it lives up to the hype. Is it good?
I Am A Hero Vol. 1 (Dark Horse Comics)
Written and Drawn By: Kenzo Hanazawa
Translated By: Chitoku Teshima
Hideo Suzuki is not in a good place in his life. He’s stuck working at a low-paying manga artist assistant job, suffers from insecurity issues and hallucinations of strange figures, and has a rocky relationship with his girlfriend. He basically feels like a supporting character in his own life story and doesn’t know how to escape it. However, life is about to change for him as a series of mysterious incidents and deaths start taking place around the country.
The Initial Impression
Going into this manga, I wasn’t sure what to expect since I haven’t really heard much about the series. Then reading the first chapter, I was felt unsure about the whole experience, given how strange the story was playing out and the behavior of the main character. However, the more I read, the more the manga grew on me and now, after reading the first omnibus collection, this has easily become one of the best new manga series to debut this year for me.
Story-wise, I Am A Hero starts off is a slowburn and build before kicking it into overdrive. Any and all zombie related activities are merely hinted at or alluded to for the first half of the book. Sure, you catch a glance of one in the sixth chapter, but given Hideo’s psychological issues, it’s hard to tell whether or not that may have been real at first. Frankly, if you were to walk into this manga without reading the backcover and knew nothing about the series, the whole zombie outbreak might have more impact and surprise to it than other series due to how it was built up.
The first half of the manga is generally more about establishing our lead, Hideoi, and his state of mind instead of dealing with anything creepy or scary. It really works to series’ benefit, since you get to spend time getting to know, understand, and care about Hideoi; while most other zombie series just want you to care about the protagonist right away with saying too much about them. He suffers from some bad delusions and hallucinations, which can range from him seeing monsters around him, to being overly paranoid at times, to even holding full conversations with people around him in his head. While he has some odd opinions about female reporters, as the story goes on, you can’t help but sympathize with him. He’s at the end of his rope, barely keeping it together, and still wanting to be successful and happy. He wants to be friends, or at least hold a conversation with the people he works with, but it all just plays out in his mind and just ends up with him talking to himself. He loves his girlfriend, Tekko, a lot and cares for her deeply, but he feels so inferior since he’s not a success like her ex-boyfriend and is even jealous of him. By the time the zombies do show up, you really care for him and hope he survives, since the guy really needs a break.
The second half of the story is where the pace picks up and the story gets more exciting. The outbreak itself is really well constructed, due to the masterful subtlety: brief news reports happening in the background or the small conversations about an illness going around and people calling in sick to a surprising shooting at a hospital, which wouldn’t be any real indications of zombies on their own. As such, when the zombie outbreak finally happens on a massive level, it feels more impactful and even more realistic. You can see easily when people were caught off guard by it and why some don’t even know anything is wrong until it’s too late.
Hideoi gets dragged into the epidemic when he discovers that his girlfriend had become infected and tries attacking him.. He runs away from zombies, checks in with co-workers, and tries escaping the city. This is where I Am A Hero starts acting like other stereotypical zombie series, with the protagonist going from place to place looking for safety, but this doesn’t really hurt the experience since the creator Kenzo Hanazawa has built the character up so well and you are invested in what happens.
Hanazawa’s writing in I Am a Hero is overall excellent. The guy does a great job on storytelling, being able to shift the speed and pace of the story without things feeling uneven. Even if the beginning is slow, you don’t feel it at all since you’re learning more about the characters and witnessing the onset of the plague. The characterization is wonderful, especially the development of some characters in particular, like Tekko and Mr. Mitani (his slow breakdown is well-handled). Sure, the entire supporting cast is dead by the end of the collection, but I do appreciate how real and human everyone felt. Also, I really like the zombies and what Hanazawa has done with them: they are super quick, super strong, and super durable (these things can fall several stories and can just get back up) — making them very threatening. However, what definitely adds to their creep factor is that they partially still remember their past lives. They make references to things they’ve done (a deliveryman returns to an apartment complex mumbling about people there having subscriptions and orders they need), they recognize people from the past, and will even do things they did frequently when they were alive. For instance, one female zombie who really got around with her coworkers and other men actually starts sucking off a baseball bat when somebody swings it at her. It’s very creepy, but also very effective.
The artwork in I Am A Hero is fantastic. Hanazawa is especially great at drawing people; they’re very expressive with their faces and bodies and every single individual looks distinct from one another. From faces to hair styles, height, age, and even body physique… not one person looks the same in the manga anywhere. The locations and settings are also highly detailed and the panel and page layouts are excellent. The big highlight of this is where Hideoi sees a zombie for the first time at a car crash site and he watches the scene unfold slowly as the zombie rises and walks away from it with a broken neck. Speaking of which, the zombies look incredible I Am A Hero as well. They look human enough, but off model in their faces and usually have these pulsating veins all over their bodies (one zombie is all black and extremely bloated with their tongue filling their entire mouth and eyes about to pop out). The artist also goes to painstaking detail to show every bit of damage and injury delivered to these things, like part of their skulls caved in from blunt force. They are nightmarish looking, even if their skin isn’t rotting away like in typical zombie series out there.
Complaint-wise, all I have are nitpicks for the story and something big aimed at the physical volume. The first one is with the story: the slow-pace and lack of zombie action for a good half of the book may not work for others like it worked for me. I can see people wanting the story to get moving sooner than it did and get to the horror. Then there’s the fact that the zombies and infection are a tad inconsistent. The rate at which a person goes from alive to undead seems very quick at points, but then very slow. How much damage a zombie can take varies as well, with some surviving 3 story drops to others going down from several whacks with a baseball bat. It doesn’t ruin the manga or anything, but it’s noticeable when you think about it.
My major problem with the collection is its actual size. While it’s as wide as your usual manga volume, like with One-Punch Man or Assassination Classroom, it’s a lot shorter in height than most. And from what I can tell, it’s because, for whatever reason, Dark Horse cropped the top and bottom of each page. It’s very noticeable, since the bottom and top panels look like they should contain more image. It’s even more obvious when the cropping cuts into a word balloon, causing the text to be shoved further down in the balloon instead of in the middle of it. I just can’t fathom why Dark Horse would do this, especially since didn’t seem to have done it with their other series like Oh My Goddess! or Planetes. I would say it may be different with a digital version of the book (the images I’m using are from a preview Dark Horse released and the pages in it are not cropped there), but unfortunately, there is no digital version. So, if you want this book, you’ll have to get it cropped I’m sad to report.
Is It Good?
I Am A Hero Vol. 1 was a great first outing for the series. While I have no idea what Dark Horse was thinking with cropping the artwork and volume size, they delivered to us a truly captivating and thrilling new manga series. This is easily one of, if not, the best zombie series out there right now. If you are not sick of zombies yet or you want a new undead series to read instead of The Walking Dead, definitely give this one a chance.
I Am a Hero is available from Dark Horse Comics. The next omnibus edition, collecting the third and fourth volume of the series, is schedule for release this coming October. A live-action movie based on the series is supposed to be coming out at some point this year.