In looking over my (rather small) manga collection, I noticed a tendency for me to gravitate to books with bold and creative cover designs. Of course, there’s a handful of notable titles that I bought because of great reviews or word of mouth, but when it comes to making the occasional impulse buy (or in this case, Amazon wishlist add), I’m always looking at covers for something to grab my eye. In the case of Deadman Wonderland, just a passing glance at the bookstore was all it took to pique my interest. The art and design on these covers, alongside the vague but intriguing title, grabbed my attention almost immediately.
Deadman Wonderland tells the story of Igarashi Ganta, a middle school student who’s wrongly accused of murder when his class is slaughtered by a grim (and possibly supernatural) figure that Ganta knows only as “the red man.” Ganta meets a swift conviction at his trial and is sent off to the notorious Deadman Wonderland prison, which also functions as an amusement park open to the public. Deadman Wonderland’s “attractions” include regular races between inmates on a deadly obstacle course and the famous “Carnival of Corpses,” which pits two inmates against each other in a fight to the death. If only that were the least of Ganta’s troubles: each inmate is fitted with a collar that continually delivers a lethal dose of poison, which can only be countered by medicine that must be purchased with inmate “cast points.” Needless to say, this prison is far from ordinary, and as Ganta soon finds out, neither are its inmates.
Despite being a “prison manga,” with all the grisly expectations that we’ve come to anticipate from “prison movies” or any story set behind bars, Deadman Wonderland isn’t the dark or depressing tale that we might expect. The prisoners are given a surprising freedom to roam, which Ganta uses to his advantage as he spends most of these three volumes exploring Deadman Wonderland and meeting some of its most unusual inmates. Despite his naive nature, he quickly makes friends with a handful of inmates, including Shiro, a cheerful, friendly girl, and Yoh, a thieving prisoner with extensive connections and a hidden agenda. And just when things couldn’t get any stranger for Ganta, he discovers something in himself that changes everything.
Deadman Wonderland is Jinsei Kataoka and Kazuma Kondou’s follow-up to the hugely successful Eureka 7 (which I haven’t had the pleasure to read or watch just yet) and should look familiar to any reader who’s even casually familiar with that series. I love how Kondou draws his characters: very expressive and emotive, with lots of detail in the finer aspects of their appearance (hair and clothing, especially). The characters radiate charisma, and coolness, and are a pleasure to follow.
Ganta makes for a simple but likable lead character. He’s not the overly-precocious protagonist that so many characters his age commonly are; not particularly bright or gifted, he’s understandably overwhelmed by the situation he finds himself in but still displays flashes of bravery and determination when it counts. The gallery of supporting characters are colorful and interesting enough in their own right, making the world of Deadman Wonderland bizarre and often absurd, like a nightmare that could be terrifying if only it weren’t so funny and strange.
I don’t know if I’m completely hooked on this story or not yet, but with the release of volume 4, I feel like I’m in too deep to quit. With the secrets of Deadman Wonderland slowly revealing themselves, I’m looking forward to reading more.