Pop Culture Gadabout
Sunday, September 19, 2010
      ( 9/19/2010 11:21:00 AM ) Bill S.  

“I’LL MAKE YOU A GHOST AT THIS SCHOOL!” Collecting all three volumes of Queenie Chan’s Original English Language manga, The Dreaming Collection (Tokyopop) is a hefty and largely satisfying gothic graphic novel aimed at teen readers. Set in an Australian boarding school isolated in the middle of the Outback, The Dreaming is one of the first OEL manga to be released in America -- and, arguably, one of the most successful, with a 3-D feature adaptation reportedly in the works. Chan, an Australian/Chinese manga creator who has also worked in collaboration with Dean Koontz, is a skillful visual storyteller, capable of slathering on the atmosphere. She utilizes her bushland setting effectively, incorporating pieces of aboriginal folklore into her supernatural storyline, and at the end of the first volume even includes an appended overview of her setting for us egocentrically ignorant Yanks. Clearly she knows her audience.

The book centers on twin sisters, Amber and Jenny Malkin, who are sent to Greenwich Private College presumably because their Aunt Jessie is headmistress there and can watch out for them. Yet as soon as the twins arrive, their aunt tells them she has to leave for three months, after warning the pair to not let the school’s creepy vice-principal, Mrs. Skeener, know that they are twins. “I told her you two sisters were born a year apart,” she explains, which right away ought to set off some warning bells, though our girls go along with the deception.

While Aunt Jessie seems a friendly enough sort, the actual teaching staff at Greenwich proves to be a harsh crew, tossing off demerits for the slightest rule infraction. Part of the reason for their strictness appears to be rooted in the school’s history: planted in the middle of nowhere, the old Victorian school has periodically seen a rash of schoolgirl disappearances, young students inexplicably wandering off into the bush. When the twins begin having shared dreams that appear to be about these missing students, Jenny, the more extroverted and less sensitive of the two, begins to investigate the school’s history.

There is no shortage of clues in the place: a mysterious locked room, a dressmaking dummy with a blood-red Victorian dress on it, a series of paintings showing young girls up to something in the woods, not to mention crone-like Miss Skeener’s strange antipathy toward twins. After one of the students goes missing, only to reappear dead and floating in the water like Ophelia, the need to unravel Greenwich’s mystery becomes even stronger.

Chan paces her story deliberately -- perhaps a bit too much so at times – and if occasionally the story construction seems a bit rickety (that absent aunt never does reappear: the better to keep our two girls isolated), in omnibus form Chan is able to keep our attention. In visual tone and style, The Dreaming is like one of those black-and-white Old Dark House flicks from the thirties and forties: overly talky in places but confident in its moody setting’s capacity to hold our attention. With her isolated outback school, Chan has the right place, all right: so far away from any civilized lights that “for some reason, moonlight never seems to penetrate the school grounds.” The artist is particularly strong in the silent something’s gonna happen moments.

In an afterward to the first volume, the writer/artist claims to have been partially inspired by Picnic at Hanging Rock, the novel and Peter Weir movie about the disappearance of three Australian schoolgirls, though I also caught a trace of Dario Argento’s Suspiria in places (sans the Italian director’s bloodier giallo moments, of course). Watching Jenny snoop down Greenwich’s dark and sinister corridors, I could almost hear Goblin blaring on the soundtrack of the upcoming 3-D movie. Though that’s probably just some horror fannish dreaming on my part. . .

(First published on Blogcritics.)


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

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