Reading about the recent brouhaha in China surrounding the horror manga series, Death Note, you might get the impression that it's an ultra-violent and disturbing series. Not so. While the ideas and lead character in Note are clearly meant to push against familiar pulp vigilantism (as repped by, say, a mainstream American comics protagonist like the Punisher), the series itself proves fairly bloodless when it comes to depicting its anti-hero's acts of violence. For truly unnerving – both conceptually and visually – horror comics, we need to look elsewhere: at Eiji (Kurosagi Corpse Delivery Service) Otsuka and Sho-u Tajima's MPD Psycho (Dark Horse), for instance.
Now, this is some seriously out-there material (one sign of its psychotronic twistedness: Takashi Miike directed a TV mini-series adaptation of it). Dark and grisly, MPD centers on a detective with multiple personality disorder. When we first meet him, this disturbance hasn't fully manifested itself, though our police detective hero Kobayashi has been having dreams hinting at what is to come. The big stressor which pushes nice guy Koba (we can tell he's a decent type since he wears eyeglasses and looks about as threatening as Harold Lloyd) over the line occurs when his girlfriend is kidnapped and dismembered by a serial killer who claims to have a kinship with our hero. ("You and me," the killer says during a rooftop showdown with the detective who's been pursuing him, "we're on the same side.") Koba's core personality "dies" during that confrontation to be replaced by a series of alternates: one, named Amamiya, claims to be the dominant persona, but it's as yet a third personality that our hero ruthlessly shoots his quarry in the head.
For this act, Koba/Amamiya is jailed on a charge of "professional negligence resulting in death." Scripter Otsuka (or at least the translator) fudges when it comes to our hero's sentence – at one point, a character indicates that Amamiya's sentence could be reduced if it could be proven that he really had MPD, but not long after we learn the guy only has a month to go before parole, anyway. In any event, when he's released, an ex-cop named Machi Isono is waiting to offer him a job at a private criminal research lab. Because of Amamiya's unique perspective into the minds of the truly twisted (he has, we're told, a real-life perspective that put him far ahead of book-learned types like the ineffectual federal psychological profiler, Mr. Sasayama), he's able to identify a cannibal killer even while still locked up in prison.
Amamiya's first case as an outside consultant proves sufficiently disturbing in its own right: a serial killer has been planting women's bodies in the ground with the tops of their heads taken off and flowers growing out of their brains. (Even more distressing: the flowers were planted while the victims were still alive!) Physical dismemberment provides a recurrent motif in MPD. In addition to the cut-up murder victims, ex-cop Machi is missing two fingers from a letter bomb explosion, while a free-lance reporter named Toguchi, who has a suspicious knack for showing up ahead of the police, wears an eye patch. We're particularly attuned to noticing the patch, since several of the murderous types in this series prove to be registered at the same mysterious eye bank. At the base of one of their eyeballs, unbelievably enough, is a bar code! Now that's some darn fine craftsmanship.
Sho-u Tajima's art primarily aims for brightly lit procedural realism, though occasionally (as in a darkly comic moment when a doofus office worker realizes that the bit of "pork" he's eaten from a co-worker's lunch box is indeed another white meat), he sneaks in a quick cartoony image. He's generally unstinting when it comes to illustrating the series' most horrific acts – the most lingering moment from Volume One undoubtedly being the room of naked living human flowerpots all trussed up in bondage gear. MPD Psycho has some pretty severe imagery, and it's delivered in all seriousness. I was given a galley proof of Volume One for review, but if it's not released with shrink-wrapping when it hits the bookstores this month, I'll be heartily surprised.
Though the first book focuses on "realistic" serial murderers, there's a hint – largely due to that outlandish eyeball bar code – that the series will be heading into mad scientist territory soon enough. What this ultimately means for our damaged diagnosable hero is something most of us can probably guess (the big reveal at the end of Volume One will surprise no one who's been paying attention). But on the basis of its opener, the trip along the way should be Twin Peaks (back when the show was good, of course) intense.