At the tender age of ten, Johannes Krauser II picked up a boning knife and slashed the throats of his hapless parents, leaving their lifeless corpses bathing in pools of gore. Prison’s puny walls couldn’t hold a specimen of pure evil like him forever, though … and while locked in his cell, he realized the only music that could keep him from killing again was the violent sound of DEATH METAL. And so after his release, he formed blood bonds with two other madmen (Jagi, bass; Camus, drums) and created the most terrifying onslaught of evil-core death metal ever to sweep the face of this undeserving earth … DETROIT METAL CITY!
Except that his real name is Soichi Negishi and he’s really a demure young man who loves his mom, folksy pop ballads, and a nice comfy sweater (not in that order). But put him on stage and wrap him in a costume that Gene Simmons would find gaudy, and lo’n’behold he turns into an earsplitting underground devil of blood-sucking sonic blasphemy. “I am a terrorist from hell!” he bellows in Detroit Metal City’s opening panels. (The rest of the lyrics to that song sound like what you’d hear from the mother-rapers and father-stabbers [and father-rapers, and mother-stabbers] that shared the lockup with Arlo Guthrie when he got picked up for littering and creating a public nuisance.)
And so we’re off and running in one of the most hotly-anticipated and also utterly whacked-out manga titles for 2009. Half of it is tender love comedy and that ever-touching yearning for your dreams, and the other half is biting the heads off bats and songs about rape. (Sample DMC lyrics: “RAPE RAPE RAPE RAPE / RAPE THAT GIRL!” I’m not leaving out much here.) It’s the sort of humor that Mel Brooks was talking about when a woman called The Producers “vulgar”, and he replied, “Lady, it rises below vulgarity.” I’m tempted to compare DMC to filth-fests like Shin-chan or Ebichu Minds the House (which, if you haven’t seen, makes Shin-chan look like a Miyazaki movie), but the foul language and antisocial mayhem are the punch line, not the whole reason for the comic’s existence. That might even make it all the funnier, depending on your tastes.
One definition of comedy goes something like this: it’s when people attempt to apply logic to situations where it doesn’t belong. That’s all too true of Soichi, now stuck with the label of Grindcore God. It’s not that he’s no good at it; in fact, Soichi is entirely too good at it. He’d rather go on dates and make friends in social circles he isn’t horribly embarrassed to be caught dead in. But get him riled up — or, better yet, put a few drinks into him — and he shreds the competition, both literally and figuratively. He may regret the whole escapade in the morning, but tell that to his screaming fans who don’t even recognize him on the street when he’s out of his makeup. I’m pretty sure nobody recognized Klaus Nomi or GWAR when they were just walking around, either.
“All I want to do is play something my mom can listen to,” Soichi frets. Trouble is, he’s a virtual hostage to the band and its crazed manager, a booze-swilling woman for whom the success of a song is proportional to the dampness of her underwear after hearing it. She’s prepared to do anything — up to, including and beyond ruining Soichi’s life — to get DMC signed to a major label. When she gets bored with Soichi’s usual tongue-waggling and guitar-chewing, she throws a genuine masochist on stage for him to beat on. She sets DMC up on a show where they are contrasted with a sweet, folksy, They Might Be Giants-esque threesome that Soichi secretly adores; DMC’s mission is to trash the band in mid-set, a free-for-all that includes people’s face pushed into camera lenses and a tambourine being raped. Not making this up.
None of this would work if it wasn’t funny. It is, riotously so, and I confess I laughed at nearly every other page. Most of the big laughs are obvious, but hilarious anyway, as when Soichi “accidentally” molests a female cop (Eyewitness: “His cape was blocking the view, but I’m fairly sure there was penetration!”). Other gags are actually fairly sly, as when Soichi chows down on fake bats and stage blood for a music video while his mother’s words ring in his ears: You eating enough, hon? I also smiled at an episode where Soichi gets handed the crown to the death metal throne by the reigning king of musical evil, “Jack Ill Dark”. Bad taste abounds: the latter has a song entitled “F — ingham Palace”, comes within inches of sodomizing Soichi backstage (when the latter is out of costume and looking appropriately meek), and the two of them ultimately go neck-and-neck in a competition to spit out the most F-bombs on a single lungful of air. “I was just counting out loud the number of chicks I’ve [banged],” Soichi sneers after piledriving his predecessor into submission.
The funniest thing about DMC is how the band’s antics, lyrics, imagery and chaos are scarcely that far removed from the real thing. This Is Spinal Tap gave us the first (and probably best) dose of this kind of satire, a fake documentary about an awesomely wretched heavy metal outfit — but who were arguably no worse, and in many cases a sight better, than the very bands they were lampooning. Small wonder Messrs. McKean, Guest and Shearer kept up the act and took the “band” on “tour” for a “reunion”. A decade or so later Rusty Cundieff did the same thing with rap music in Fear of a Black Hat; again, the fake band’s music was comparable to the real thing, and a good deal (intentionally) funnier to boot. Now comes DMC — and from Japan, where just about every heavy-metal act of repute goes to die after wearing out their welcome overseas. One wonders where DMC will go when their star burns out. Seattle?
Art: Oddly enough, Kiminori Wakasugi’s art reminds me a bit of the designs Mike Judge came up with for Beavis and Butt-head and King of the Hill — a bit stiff and stagy, but also direct and appealing. Come to think of it, better art might have simply been a distraction since the real appeal of this story is in the humor and the situations.
Translation: Flip to the back and the translation credit reads “Annus Itchii”, which I would bet my last paycheck is none other than the Anne Ishii who used to grace Vertical, Inc.’s hallowed corridors. She’s since moved on, but continues to translate on a freelance basis, and she clearly dove into the profanity-splattered pages of DMC with both sleeves up. I don’t have access to the untranslated original (something I’ve been trying to get into the habit of since I started with Black Lagoon), but by all accounts it was every bit as gleefully nasty as the English end result.
Another key decision, which I’m not upset about, was to translate as much as possible directly on the page. It makes sense here: DMC’s one of those titles with a higher-than-average chance of crossing over to the non-manga readers out there. To that end, everything from signage to product packaging has been re-rendered in English, albeit cleanly and elegantly. They did keep a few things that are crucial, like the character for “KILL” (殺) on Soichi/Krauser’s forehead — especially since he changes it to the English equivalent later in the first volume, which in itself garners big laughs.
Viz did draw the line at optically flopping the pages, though; this one reads right to left. Gripe about it, however, and Krauser will kill you in your sleep.
The Bottom Line: Hilarious as Detroit Metal City is right from the git-go, I do worry how it’ll hold up on repeat readings, or where the story can go from here except in circles. From the outside it does look like there’s only so many ways they can milk the underlying premise. But part of the fun is, indeed, seeing how long they can keep it up before running totally aground. Detroit, here we come.