Part Battle Royale/part '70s prison exploi-flick (Leon Isaac Kennedy in Penitentiary, say), Jinsei Kataoki and Kazuma Kondou’s Deadman Wonderland (Tokyopop) is a violent dystopian actioner about a garishly malevolent 2023 prison. It’s the kind of setting a wide-eyed innocent like 14-year-old middle school Ganta Igarashi seemingly doesn’t stand a chance surviving, though of course that’s exactly where our hero winds up after he is wrongly found guilty of the bloody murder of his classmates. His fellow students have all been killed and gutted by a monstrous figure called the Red Man, with Ganta left behind as the sole unconscious survivor. Naturally, our hero is charged with the murders, though how the little guy is supposed to have managed to overpower all of his classmates is never established.
He’s sentenced to death at Deadman Wonderland, a combination maximum security prison/amusement park where prisoners are made to engage in Death Race competitions and put on shows for the rubes. Each prisoner is forced to compete so they can earn enough credits to buy a temporary antidote for the poison that’s being pumped into their system through their prison collar. (Snake Plissken would empathize if he were capable of it.) So in addition to the requisite gang of sadistic prison bullies, ear-severing snitches, and a sociopathic warden who gets way too much pleasure out of watching his charges buy it, our boy must come out on top in the park’s deadly contests.
He’s aided in this by a childlike albino girl named Shiro, who has the unexplained capacity to move around the prison unobstructed. Ganta himself appears to have abilities that he barely recognizes — connected in some way to his survival of the schoolhouse massacre, as well as the murderous Red Man, who we learn is also named Original Sin. The creature’s corporal form is being held somewhere on prison grounds, though that doesn’t keep it from regularly escaping to wreak bloody havoc, of course.
With its occasional shots of severed body parts, rough language and pulpishly overwrought artwork, the “Older Teen”-rated Deadman Wonderland is unabashedly outlandish but still fun for the type of reader capable of making their way through the entire Battle Royale series without ever once wondering how its school-kid “Most Dangerous Game” set-up was actually supposed to work. Writer Kataoki tweaks genre clichés just enough to both keep ‘em interesting without letting his story spin out of control, while Kondou’s artwork neatly plays darkly filigreed Death Notey imagery against Ganta and Shiro’s fresh-faced innocence. How long the two can maintain this balancing act before even the most tolerant reader’s credulity snaps is an open question, but after reading the first volume in this new manga horror actioner, I know that my drive-in heart is warmed.