This review appeared in The Comics Journal a while back.
Paranoid splatter horror has to be one of my favorite sub-genres. In movies like Romero’s “Night of the Living Dead,” or Cronenberg’s “Shivers,” a loathing of the human body serves as a not-very-suppressed synecdoche for a general loathing of humanity. People transform into monsters, devouring each other in an orgy of bloodlust, betrayal, and Freudian wet meat. The apocalypse is us.
Hitosi Iwaaki’s •Parasyte* does the tradition proud. Monstrous, slimy, ravenous, shape-changing critters of ambiguous origin are eating our brains, manipulating our bodies, and then messily dining on our friends and family. This hyperbolic plot is put across with a pulp intelligence that rivals Alan Moore’s — once Iwaaki gets the basic premise down, he starts to push it, prod it, see where it will go. What happens when a parasyte accidentally inhabits a dog? What happens when two parasytes decide to use their human bodies to mate? Can parasytes transfer from human to human? Why do they want to eat people, anyway? The answers are uniformly smart and surprising — they pull you into the work rather than making you close the book in disgust, as super-hero plot twists tend to do.
It doesn’t hurt that Iwaaki has an absolutely masterful visual style. Iwaaki’s art is, by manga standards, realistic, non-cartoony, and unembellished. His bodies and faces look like mundane, boring bodies and faces — so when he starts to twist them, the result is viscerally unnerving. One of the earliest sequences in the book is a tour de force. A newly embedded parasyte checks itself out in the mirror, twisting its host’s face in subtly disturbing ways. The creature then turns to its host’s wife, and, over the course of three panels, its face cracks open revealing a star-fish like interior of floating eyeballs and razor-sharp teeth. It then closes, completely severing the woman’s head, leaving the neck a ragged and bloody stump. The parasyte’s skull as it clamps down is distended to the size and shape of a watermelon, its ear and hair stretched out to comical extremes. What makes the scene though, is the creature’s hand, which is entirely normal — the fingers grasp the wife’s shoulder naturally, as if holding her still for a moment to speak to her.
Iwaaki’s tale doesn’t have the millenarian adrenalin rush of its filmic peers. Instead, his story unfolds at a leisurely pace — intense violence alternating with sequences devoted to characterization and reflection. The hero of the story is Shinichi, a young high school student whose right hand has been taken over by a parasyte he calls Migi (“right-hand” in Japan.) Migi is a kind of shape-shifting, homicidal Mr. Spock; an emotionless blob of eyeballs and razor-sharp blades devoted to self-preservation and self-improvement through reading, more or less in that order. At first, Shinichi is a fairly standard-issue Japanese schoolboy protagonist — if he has any distinguishing features, I missed them. But the transformation of his hand, and the existence of other parasytes, prods him to ask some fundamental questions about himself. The (partial) loss of his own humanity makes him try to be more human by being braver, kinder, more empathetic. And yet the people around him are hardly more likable or friendly than the thing on his arm. Indeed, in many ways, Migi (who is smart, unvindictive, and weirdly thoughtful) is a much more human character than, say, Shinichi’s dad, who is a bland emotional cipher.
For those who read the old Tokyopop edition, this new Del Ray version offers a new, more careful translation. It also presents the artwork with original sound-effect and in right-to-left order — thus solving several plot burps caused when the flipped art put the parasyte on Shinichi’s left hand. Del Ray also gives you more bang for your buck, reprinting about the first volume and a half of the Tokyopop series in a single book. In whatever format, though, this is a stellar series. Every volume is worth buying.