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Drifting and Traveling: Jeff Looks at Vol. 6 of Drifting Classroom

Jeff Lester

I’m a fan of Cormac McCarthy–I have this nerd dream of somehow getting Garth Ennis to read Blood Meridian, after which he considers me a fellow of impeccable taste rather than a sweaty tool who can’t handle his liquor–but when I finally got the chance to sit down down and read The Road recently, I was surprised by how nonplussed I was. 

I mean, yeah, The Road is a good book, and McCarthy is better than any author I’ve ever read at conveying what it’s like to subsist on the bottom rung of the ladder where one slip means oblivion, but his book about a father and son struggling to survive in a horrific post-apocalyptic future just didn’t instill in me that sort of desperate, anxious, near-religious panic and awe I got from Cornelius Suttree’s hallucination, or The Judge’s pursuit of The Kid, or even that kick-ass knife fight in All The Pretty Horses (now that I think about it, isn’t there also a kick-ass knife fight in Cities of the Plain?). I just figured my lackadaisicality was because I read The Road far too leisurely, pacing it out over some commutes, a few lunch hours, etc., and thus missed the same harrowing experience critics raved about.

But halfway through reading Volume 6 of THE DRIFTING CLASSROOM this morning, my new theory is that The Road left me more or less nonplussed because I’m getting all the post-apocalyptic hijinks I could ever need in Kazuo Umezu’s brilliant ongoing nightmare. I mean, in this volume alone, you’ve got children setting each other on fire, stoning one another, dying by plague…and that’s all by page 31! (I don’t want to spoil this volume’s feel-good ending but let’s just say there’s both a decapitation and someone’s arms being ripped off in the last three pages).

Adding to the good times, Umezu spends a good portion of the time in modern-day Tokyo, as Sho’s mother seeks to find a way to get medicine to her son: Sho’s panicky mother shoves another mother into the street, starts a riot at a baseball game, and is punched by a pharmacist(!), among other highlights (by which I mean, a pretty alarming scene with a butcher knife). There’s no mouth-wateringly baroque word choices like you might find in McCarthy, but I do wonder if five volumes of Umezu’s unrelentingly bleak view of civilization stole some of The Road‘s thunder for me. The Road is arguably far more naturalistic, but The Drifting Classroom dips right into the well of fairy tales and myth and gave me a strangely enjoyable feeling of dream-like dread.

That said, I’m not sure how I feel about the scenes with Sho’s mom. Although they underline Umezu’s belief that civilization is a very thin mask covering the face of a terrified, dangerous beast (and so, really, the hysteria and the violence the kids in the school resort to would probably occur even if adults had ended up in their place), they’re nearly as high-pitched and melodramatic as the scenes with the kids, dampening the power of the childrens’ predicament. And yet I’d be loathe to cut these scenes: not only did a couple of them literally make me flinch, but the cartooning on them was top-notch. I think I mentioned in a review of an earlier volume that Umezu reminds me of Chester Gould, and I thought that again here during some of the scenes of Sho’s mother running through rain-swept streets of a city at night–really stunning stuff.

Although I think your average superhero reader might be put off by the anachronisms and some of the cartooning tropes (when the little kids run, they look a lot like Silver Age Flash), the ones who bitch about manga being too decompressed would feel right at home at Umezu’s modified eight panel grid. If that sounds like you, and you’ve been looking to dip your toe into manga, this may not be a bad place to start. Even if it’s unlikely to make Oprah’s Book Club anytime soon, this volume of The Drifting Classroom is VERY GOOD material that already has me rubbing my hands in anticipation of the next installment.

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