Though its title gives the impression that March Story (Viz Signature) is a tale for early spring, it truly is one for the Halloween season. A horror manga with a suitable tinge of period gloominess, Hyung Min Kim and Kyung Il Yang’s “mature” rated series is set in an 18th century Europe bedeviled by malicious demons called Ills. These creatures hide in collectible works of art — jewelry, masks, tiny glass figurines — waiting for some poor sap of a human to touch them. With physical contact, the victim’s deepest yearnings are awakened until they “lost all sense of reason” and become possessed by the murderous Ill.
Combating these creatures is March, a young tracker for Ciste Vihad, who either exorcises or kills the Ill’s host, depending on far gone they are. March possesses some of the Ills’ power and is capable of wielding great thorny tendrils to imprison the demons. Ill victims spout horns on their heads as a sign of their altered state, but if these horns are still white, it means they haven’t yet taken a human life and are still salvageable. In the four pieces featured in the series’ first volume, March has to take on Ill possession of both degrees. It’s the fully subsumed who provide the darker stories, of course.
Thus, in the opening entry, March has to save a young circus girl whose deepest desire to be an aerialist instead of a clown. This yearning leads to a near-tragic accident, but the results prove nowhere near as creepy as the full-blown possession depicted in the second story. In it, a young mask maker takes over a village, forcing its inhabitants to all cover their faces; if they don’t, he pulls them into the sky to “dance” with him, then drops them to their death when he’s finished. No way is this second challenge gonna be a simple exorcism, we realize.
Volume One’s stories alternate between lighter and bleaker fare, the better to highlight the latter entries’ more tragic elements. In the third story, with its echoes of the hotel sequence in Ghostbusters, we’re introduced to two more series regulars: Jake, the amusingly oversized old lady fortune teller (she looks like she could’ve come out of a Miyazaki anime) who keys March into the whereabouts of dangerous artifacts, and Rodin, the unscrupulous antiques seller. Jake plays a major role in the book’s fourth episode, which depicts March’s tragic origin, and what in first appearance comes across as a somewhat comical figure acquires a measure of grandeur in the series. “Personally, my favorite part of the story is Jake,” writer Kim says in a cartoon afterword. “She’s so strong and overflowing with charisma.” This reader agrees.
The fourth tale centers on a Countess Bathory figure who slaughters most of the child March’s village and hangs their blood-dripping corpses from hooks in her castle, is the book’s most out-and-out horrific. (There’s a moment where March has to crawl over a mound of dead bodies which reminded me a similar scene in Stephen King’s The Stand.) It’s an intense piece but not a gratuitously splattery one. Still, this and the occasional flashes of female nudity firmly place March Story on the shrink-wrapped books category.
Korean artist Kyung Il Yang’s handling of this material can be both explicitly detailed and atmospherically suggestive, though doubtless the panels that receive the most attention will be the m-rated ones. He’s particularly skilled at portraying the series’ imaginary 18th century setting. There’s a full-page panel in the second tale showing a character being dropped from the sky over her village that’s especially breathtaking, while some of the more phantasmagoric scenes like a two-page nightmare flashback to March’s past beautifully capture more than just the look of horror. Yang’s rendering of the androgynous looking March appears a bit light in the book’s opening, but our series lead and the storyline gain both more emotional heft as the book progresses.
This is an impressive debut volume that definitely provides the goods to lovers of dark fantasy.