Blame comics blogger Jog for this 'un. It was his review that piqued my interest in Kazuo Umezu's The Drifting Classroom (Viz Signature), a mature horror manga originally (as the helpful selected bibliography tells us in the back of the book) run in 1972-4.
Like Minetaru Mochizuki's Dragon Head, Umezu's series tells the story of a group of schoolchildren who suddenly and inexplicably find themselves trapped in a space far from home. While Mochizuki's Dragon Head works hard at deliberately conveying a believable sense of doom and dread, Classroom bounds into energetic outlandish melodrama. This difference in approach is suited to the ages of each series' leads. Where the hero of Dragon is a teenager, Umezu's Sho is a somewhat hyperactive sixth grader.
My suspicion, based on just one volume of this series, is that Umezu is by nature a much louder cartoonist than Mochizuki. The first book opens with a series of boisterous arguments between our hero, Sho Takamatsu, and his overly serious mother. Sho rushes off to school with the fight (in part spurred by the fact that his mother has tossed away a drawer full of childish toys) unresolved.
"If it weren't for what happened next," Sho tells us in narration, "the whole fight would have been quickly forgotten… just another part of our daily lives." Instead, catastrophe strikes. With a large sonic boom, the entire Yamoto Elementary School grounds disappear, leaving nothing but a large gaping hole. We're shown this from the perspective of one of Sho's schoolmates, who is late for class. Sho, the rest of the student body, and their teachers, have disappeared with the school, gone to who-knows-where, an object lesson in why you should never leave your loved ones on a harsh note.
Yamoto Elementary has mysteriously shifted to a dark and desolate alien landscape. Cut off from family and the rest of the outside world, Sho and his classmates are on the verge of panicking. Their adult teachers don't seem to be faring much better, struggling to maintain order over a group of children that run the gamut from first through sixth grade.
In one memorable moment, a teacher grabs his own son and cuts him on the arm with a piece of broken glass in order to shock a group of freaked-out kids into calming down. When once the lines 'tween teacher and student were more routinely friendly and forgiving (just before the catastrophe, we see the sixth grade teacher excuse those students who didn't bring their lunch money to class), the school setting has immediately become more polarized.
To make matters worse, our unwilling castaways seem to be stranded inside the school. When one of the students makes a dash across the foreboding landscape, he collapses just out of sight and doesn't appear to get up. There's only a limited amount of food since lunches are delivered daily, and Sho – who raced to school after an unresolved fight with his mother, remember – didn't even have breakfast.
Desperate to reach his mom, Sho attempts to reach her by phone (a thought that doesn't appear to have occurred to any of the adults yet). He run, run, runs to the teacher's lounge, but to no avail since the phones are out of order. To keep the rest of the school from panicking, Sho's teacher convinces him to act as if he was able to get through to his mother. The rest of his classmates don't buy it, in part because reluctant liar Sho does such a poor job.
In this you can see the seeds of a conflict between students and teachers already brewing. The adults are willing to say and do anything to maintain some semblance of order, even if it doesn't really help the situation, even if it's at the expense of one or more of their charges.
While the American publication is rated for a "Mature" audience, Umezu's art is beautifully keyed into capturing a pre-teen point-of-view. Though relatively realistic in his figures, cartoonish expressions and physical movements are largely the order of the day. Even during the violent moments (and there are several of 'em), I found myself thinking of the sardonic horror art of Jack Davis & Johnny Craig. (There's a two-page panel of the school principal holding his bleeding head that looks like it could've been a cover to The Vault of Horror.) Just the sort of comics that a sixth-grader like Sho would've dug, I bet.
A promising horror series, methinks: between this and Monster, Viz' older readers Signature series looks to be one to watch.