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Cromartie High School Volume 1
posted February 23, 2005


Creator: Eiji Nonaka
Publishing Info: ADV Manga, 168 pages, $9.99.
Ordering Numbers: 141390257X

This is a funny comic book.

Unlike most comedic manga I've read, Cromartie High School isn't a slick re-working of a situational comedy set-up, or a soap opera with a high concept twist, but a bizarre, self-referential, and sometimes brave-in-its-convictions wallow in stupidity distinguished by an inappropriate drawing style and waves of dialogue. Cromartie High is the worst and toughest high school in the local system, maybe the world. Its students look like adventure manga's common visual shorthand for thugs and criminals, cut huge across the shoulders with tiny eyeballs, sporting bad hair and featuring mouths given over to exaggeration against otherwise stony faces. Nonaka plays his characters just as serious and self-absorbed as average high school students in a standard drama. These "teens" worry in almost furious fashion about status and the way they're viewed by their peers. But the milieu is almost always violence and the characters stay viciously dumb at all times, making the book a series of humorous riffs on incredibly distorted values.

A few of the stories are based on simple tweakings of this combination of fragility and idiocy, like one where a henchman befriends another student and the pair try to figure out tough-guy nicknames for one another. In other stories absurd elements are added to the mix in more overt fashion. This includes a robot student most are too dumb to figure out is a robot, a gorilla smarter than most of the students and a bizarre over-muscled Freddie Mercury look-alike who kind of wanders in and out of the classroom, mute and hairy-chested. Nonaka also knows how to draw out a situation until the humor becomes more and more ridiculous, my favorite being a story about one student tough-guy who suffers from massive car sickness and then gets lost in a cab ride on the way to the rumble, too paralyzed with nausea to act.

Having seen a preview, my suspicion is that Cromartie High may actually play better as manga than its anime version will play on TV and DVD. With the manga, readers can establish their own tone and rhythm, which vary greatly in the translated cartoon where voice actors and music is involved. The broader moments play pretty well when they move, and the more absurd lines may hit a bit more effectively, but the subtle interplay is kind of lost. Nonaka subverts action by making it talky and ill-designed; in the anime, the need for movement works against the dialogue-heavy scenes and crude designs are a common Cartoon Network shtick. I'll just stick to reading the comic for now.