Ningen's Nightmares says "From the creator of 365 Samurai and a Few Bags of Rice" right on the cover; but what I didn't realize when I picked this up — and what it doesn't tell you on the cover — is that Ningen's Nightmares is actually a sequel to 365 Samurai and a Few Bags of Rice.
Does this make a difference? I'm not sure. But I hope so. Because the story in Ningen's Nightmare is so disjointed, so random, that I figure the only way for it to make sense is if I'm missing some vital clues by having not read the first volume. In that case Dark Horse kind of did readers a disservice by not putting a "Part 2" on the cover, because people expecting this to be a complete, independent story are going to be disappointed. The only other option is that J.P. Kalonji is a talented artist who can't really put a functioning story together, and reading 365 Samurai and a Few Bags of Rice won't help at all, because it is equally disjointed and random. I guess I won't know until I read the first volume.
First the good stuff: J.P. Kalonji's art is fantastic. He has a heavily stylized, exuberant style that I took to right away. His artwork is part Jeff Smith, part Stan Sakai, and part Samurai Jack and Samurai Champloo. He strikes a wonderful balance between the cute and the grotesque, like the witch Hannya's skeletal head and plushy doll avatar. Kalonji's art is dynamic. It's all about slashing lines battling each other on the page, and angular faces juxtaposed with fleshy circles. All of those elements really work for a story like this, not trying to emulate Japanese styles but instead creating an internally consistent world that strengthens the subject matter.
In short, Kalonji draws kick-ass samurai and ninjas.
Storywise is where it doesn't hold together. Ningen's Nightmares comes at you rapid fire and stream of consciousness. There are pages filled with boxes and boxes of exposition text that would make old school Chris Claremont proud. I actually laughed at one page where the text boxes were so huge and fighting each other for space it looked like a joke page on "how not to make comics."
And there are SO many characters and plot elements for a comic a little over 100 pages. I saw that 365 Samurai and a Few Bags of Rice was over 400 pages long, and maybe Kalonji intended that size for Ningen's Nightmares but couldn't get it. Instead of letting go of precious plot, he crammed everything in to the existing size, and I admit I really don't know what happened even after I finished the last page.
There is a page towards the end, where the Kokujin Kami ("Black Guy God." Really.) tells the titular Ningen "No, you didn't dream it all up," which made me laugh because it was so appropriate. That's how disjointed this story is, that one character has to assure another that it actually happened, and thus assure the reader. Because the story makes as much sense as a dream, flowing randomly from page to page following no logic or path — and not in a good way.
All of that is too bad, because with Kalonji's art and the basic plot of Ningen's Nightmares you have the seed of a really great comic. Kalonji really should have brought in another writer to help him sharpen and develop the story he wanted to tell. The art — beautiful as it is — is not enough to compensate for the story.
And to finish on another good note — Kalonji did a good job handling the aspects of Japan and Japanese folklore. I cringed at some of his names; "Ningen" just means "Human" in Japanese, and makes for a stupid character name to anyone who actually speaks the language. But the rest of it, the witch Hannya, the kitsune assassins, even the main antagonist Akuma (Another stupid name, just meaning "Demon") were all done remarkably well. Props for that.
Zack Davisson is a freelance writer and life-long comics fan. He owned a comic shop in Seattle during the '90s, during which time he had the glorious (and unpaid) gig as pop-culture expert for NPR. He has lived in three countries, has degrees in Fine Art and Japanese Studies, and has been a contributing writer to magazines like Japanzine and Kansai Time-Out. He currently lives in Seattle, WA with his wife Miyuki. You can catch more of Zack’s reviews on his blog Japan Reviewed or read his translations of Japanese ghost stories on Hyakumonogatari Kaidankai.