I'm going to say something nice about Akaneiro #1 to start off with — great cover! Seriously, that's a pretty cool cover. Well done, Shu Yan!
And … that's about all the good things I can say about this comic. The rest of it is poorly written, poorly drawn, poorly researched (and there saying "poorly" is giving it too much credit), poorly paced, poorly… wait, now that I look at it again, the coloring and lettering is pretty nice too. No troubles there. It's just everything else.
I was really curious about Akaneiro. I don't know much about American McGee other than seeing some Alice designs, but the ad copy for Akaneiro sounded really cool. I love the concept of mixing and matching folktales, combining the German Little Red Riding Hood with Japan's yokai mythology. I could see that working out really well. I knew I was going to be a bit of a hard sell — I am something of an expert on Japanese folklore — but I was willing to cut them some slack in the interests of a good story.
I was also really curious about Vasilis Lolos' art. I HATED his work on Conan the Barbarian. But I wanted to see if that series was just a bad fit for him; maybe I would like his art better when for a different, more cartoony character. Maybe Conan just didn't give him a chance to shine.
The story in Akaneiro is a mess. It jumbles everything together, and fires too much at you rapid-fire. It's hard to grasp any sense of story or character. Within 10 pages, we are introduced to the Order of Akane — some gang of yokai hunters from what I have gathered — to Kani, the spunky half-Ainu girl who is an outsider in her own tribe, to magical Karma Crystals with appear from the bodies of dead yokai like coins in Mario, and then suddenly Kani joins the Order of Akane, because of course she does.
What this really reminds me of is those opening segments of old '80s cartoons where they had to feed you the set-up as quickly as possible so you could dive right into the action. He-Man; Thundarr the Barbarian; Blackstar; they all had this quick preamble explaining the ridiculous circumstances that lead to an American astronaut fighting evil with a magic sword on some distant planet or whatever the set-up was.
The rest of the comic goes like that. It is just Bang! Bang! Bang! without any chance to develop the story, or give the reader a breath to relate to the characters. And the times that there are pauses between the action, well — I'm just not buying it. The scenes are too contrived, it feels like it wants to imitate too many better works (Brave, for example). And the whole things feels like a comic book adaptation of a video game that it is (Collecting "karma crystals" after a kill? Really?) . Maybe there is a certain segment of the low-attention span crowd that appreciates this, but I like a little nuance with my storytelling.
Vasilis Lolos' art — I was all set to be surprised, and to give his art a second chance. But now I know; whatever he is serving it isn't my cup of tea. He does some things decently, but his main character Kani looks like a Bratz doll, and that's an aesthetic I just don't appreciate. His "yokai monsters" look like mutated versions of Jeff Smith's Stupid, Stupid Rat Creatures from Bone. Actually, a lot of his art looks like Jeff Smith's. So imagine Jeff Smith's backgrounds populated by Bratz dolls. And really, Lolos' eyes — there is just something not right about them. They seem to float oddly on the head, and are never quite in the same place twice.
And now the stuff that only I will care about — this comic was advertised as being "Japanese folklore," but there is no Japanese folklore here. I'm not sure who to credit for this, "creator" American McGee or writer Justin Aclin, but the absolute minimum level of research was done on this comic. They didn't even go to the depth of skimming the Wikipedia articles — it looks like they never got past the titles.
This is something I get really sick of, the idea of using Japan as a decoration. McGee/Aclin created an entirely original story, along with a 100% original mythology, then sprinkled Japanese names on things in an attempt to gain a little relevance. Seriously, they live on the "Island of Yomi?" That is Hell in Japanese folklore. And not a cool Hell — it is the underground land of decomposing corpses and worms. And their "yokai" — yokai are really cool, and they could have done something cool with them, but these yokai have zero similarities to their namesakes.
I've never understood why people bother doing that. You could have had this same comic and called these "yokai" something like "fillygigs" and it would have been better. Or an homage name like "yokyoi," At least then it would acknowledge that they are original creations. But no — cultural appropriation is alive and well.
I know this annoys me because of my particular circumstances — I lived in Japan, I speak Japanese, my wife is Japanese, blah blah blah … but come on. Japan is an actual country, with an actual, authentic folklore and history. Not just a decoration for your bad comic.
Akaneiro #1 will be in stores Wednesday, May 22, 2013.
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.