When I was younger I used to play creepy games with myself where I’d pretend that everyone else except me was an alien. Eventually the fun wore off and I turned to reading SF and comics to get my share of those kinds of thrills, but the idea stayed with me: What if I am not like everyone else? Worse, what if that guy over there isn’t like anyone else except me?
This is a big part of the appeal Parasyte has held for me through its first two volumes — the idea that something can look like a human, behave like a human, and yet somehow be completely alien underneath. Rather than stop there, though, each successive installment of Parasyte has expanded on the idea. Assume that there are humans among us who have been invaded with alien beings — what then? How do they mingle among us undetected? What happens when some of them merge incompletely with their hosts?
That last twist is the dilemma faced by Shin: after playing host to the creature he now calls “Migi”, he’s discovering that his human side is progressively losing out to the cold-blooded alien side. A beautiful example of this comes right near the front of the story, when Shin comes across a dog that’s been hit by a car. It’s too badly injured to survive. Shin gives it what comfort he can in its dying moments … and then, to the disgust of his girlfriend Murano, dumps the corpse into a trash barrel. Alive, the dog appealed to his human side; dead, it’s nothing more than an inert pile of meat. Shin realizes his error in judgment, and buries the dog at the base of a tree — but even then, the slightly colder side of him shows through, when he rationalizes using the tree as a grave marker by telling himself the dog’s corpse will serve as nutrition.
Not long after this, another human/parasite hybrid shows up at Shin’s school. It calls itself “Shimada”, and — as much to our astonishment as Shin’s — it wants to be friends. Why? Shimada is forthcoming with an answer: he wants to learn how to live among humans without preying on them, as an experiment of sorts. And if he can do it, what’s to stop other parasites from doing the same thing? After all, preying on people has all kinds of downsides: you can’t keep it a secret forever, and after a while other humans tend to come along and kill you for your trouble. So why not coexist, especially it’s not even clear what your ultimate reason for existing is? (The same could be said of the rest of us humans, come to think of it.) This is startling, to say the least, since Shin hadn’t expected anything from his fellow (?) parasites except for violent competition and possibly a messy death.
Tensions ratchet up all around. Shin’s fearful for the safety of not only Murano but another girl, Kana, who can sense the presence of parasites and doesn’t fully understand the implications of her powers. Rumors about the parasite monsters turn up on prime time TV. A pair of police detectives show up asking Shin’s dad some touchy questions about his deceased wife, and the younger sister of one of the two (a student at the same school) begins to show an uncomfortable level of curiosity with the stony-looking Shimada (“Is that really his face, or just a mask?”) The accumulated tension is played off across the last third of the book when the sister character tries to wage a variety of homebrew chemical warfare against Shimada, chaos breaks out in the school, and the authorities close ranks to keep word of the parasites off the street.
I admit that I have been worried about how Parasyte would handle the inevitable moments where word gets out. What’s admirable is how the author and artist, Hitoshi Iwa’aki, doesn’t assume that everyone is going to be either wholly credulous or skeptical. Rumors circulate, weird stories better suited to X-Files knockoffs make the news, and then after a while people get on with their lives. In other words, it’s a lot like the way things actually happen in the real world, and it gives Parasyte that much more sly gravity.
Speaking of sly, there’s a truly hilarious line near the end where a concerned cabal of Japanese scientists ask about a data analysis from an American team. The reply: “We doff our hats to Japan’s love of comics.”
Art: Iwa’aki’s designs are fairly straightforward and realistic — his character designs are closer to someone like Katsuhiro Otomo (widely-spaced eyes, relatively little comedic distortion, etc.) than most anyone else I can think of offhand. He saves the detail for when it matters — i.e., the intermittent gore and the quirky monster designs — and the contrast works nicely to further the aims of the story. This underscores something made clear in the previous volumes, too: the story is in the characters and their decisions, not in the violence.
Translation: Parasyte was originally released in a left-to-right formatted edition by TokyoPop, which I confess I haven’t seen. This version, by Del Rey, restores the original right-to-left formatting and has been completely retranslated from scratch; like most Del Rey products, the translation is spot-on and never has a stumbling block. Effects have also been subtly and undistractingly annotated. The front of the book has some notes about Japanese honorifics, which are also left intact, and in the back is a quick callout glossary of some cultural pointers that don’t lend themselves well to Western analogizing (such as red string, a detail I myself knew about way beforehand). There’s no sneak preview for the next volume, though. Note that as with volume 1 and 2 you’ll be paying $13 for this book, but it’s worth it — it comes in at almost 300 pages.
The Bottom Line: Parasyte’s been on my radar of comics to pay attention to for a while now, not just because of its promising first and second volumes but because it was published once before in English and is now getting a second shot that it richly deserves. If you liked where it was going, you’ll definitely like where it heads this time around.