Pop Culture Gadabout
Tuesday, July 01, 2008
      ( 7/01/2008 07:04:00 AM ) Bill S.  

"TO CURSE SOMEONE IS TO DIG A DOUBLE GRAVE." Horror tales devoted to darkly ironic revenge have long been a comics staple, but few have been as theologically what-th? as Miyuki Eto's Hell Girl (Del Rey). The shoujo manga series, a spin-off from a popular tv animé, centers on a cast of massive-eyed (even by manga standards) young girls who've been brought to the brink of despair by unscrupulous evildoers. In each of the first volume's five independent stories, these girls take their revenge on their tormenters by logging onto a website which only appears at midnight, entering their enemy's name and thus damning them to Hell.

The agent of all this damnation is the title character (in no way related to Mike Mignola's proletarian Hell Boy), a seeming schoolgirl named Ai Enmasan. Ai first appears to each aggrieved party to offer her prospective clients a chance to back out of the deal. But in the first volume, at least, no one takes her sensible advice. She then goes off to enact her clients' vengeance, which essentially consists of sending the miscreants to Hell where they're forced to be on the receiving end of their misdeeds for all eternity.

Thus, for example, an unscrupulous veterinarian who has bilked his human clients out of money while doing nothing to actually care for their sick pets, finds himself caged and tortured by animal-headed demons in lab coats. A wicked baker who has stolen the recipes from a former student and spread malicious rumors that her pastry shop is bug-infested, is himself trapped in a man-sized sheet of flypaper. A young girl who's been blackmailing another student who she framed for shoplifting is herself jailed in Hell for stealing some jewelry.

When their former victims hear of their oppressors' mysterious "disappearances," their individual reaction is primarily one of smiling satisfaction. "I'm going to Hell, but I'm happy coz I got my revenge," the former blackmail victim says. "I'm going to recover," the wheelchair-bound victim of a scheming actress states in another episode, "and live my life to the fullest. Until the day I go to Hell."

It never seems to occur to any of Ai's clients that each of their victimizers would most likely be sent to the fire down below in their own due time, anyway. "You hurt others," Ai tells the greedy vet just before she sends him to the underworld, "and now you have tainted your mortal soul." What matters is the sense of satisfaction each aggrieved heroine feels as the engineers of each villain's destruction. They've taken justice into their own hands – even if it ruins their own afterlife.

In terms of its central gimmick, the aged 16-plus rated manga can perhaps be viewed as a distaff version of Death Note. Though where that pulpish horror noir ruthlessly charted the moral disintegration of its note-bearing protagonist, Hell Girl leaves its consequences in an unseen future. This oh well, I'm goin' to Hell someday theme makes it truer to its readership's own adolescent fantasies, I suspect, though its repeated use adds a sense of incompleteness to the proceedings. Perhaps future volumes (or the animé series?) portray at least one character who manages to turn away from the temptation that the Hell Girl offers, but I wouldn't be surprised if they didn't. "People are such sad creatures," Ai tells us more than once in the first volume.

Eto's art is true to shoujo manga conventions, which won't be surprising to readers familiar with other distaff-focused horror manga (Pet Shop of Horrors, for instance), but may be a bit off-putting to newcomers. When a demon rips off his face to freak out that blackmailing schoolgirl, the overall effect is more cute than anything. When Ai sends her assignments to eternal damnation, the panel fills with flat floral shapes like something out of a kitschy sixties bathroom pattern: not very frightening, but the design is interesting.

Hmm, I think I just found my critical tagline for this series. Feel free to use it on the back cover of future volumes, Del Rey.


# |

Pop cultural criticism - plus the occasional egocentric socio/political commentary by Bill Sherman (popculturegadabout AT yahoo.com).

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