One great aspect of manga’s continued growth in the English market is that more and more decades-old classics are getting localized. This extends even beyond shonen and into other genres, to include the works of shojo manga legend Moto Hagio. Her vampire (or vampirnella, as they’re referred to here) series The Poe Clan is being brought over in two giant hardcovers published by Fantagraphics, the first of which is already out. Does the work live up to Hagio’s towering reputation?
Plot-wise, these collected tales of the Poe Clan feature recurring characters and story beats but they’re presented out of chronological order and they vary considerably in focus and setting. The main conceit is that the family members are all vampirnella who must try to conceal their monster status lest they be persecuted, and so they frequently move between different villages. A young boy named Edgar is at the center of most of the stories, with other major figures including his younger sister Marybelle as well as Alan, a young boy whom Edgar personally converted.
Artistically, Hagio is a titan. Virtually every aspect of this series’ visuals is both aesthetically pleasing and impressively crafted. There’s a fluidity to the line-work befitting the story’s paranormal sense of possibility and the characters’ tendency to vanish with the wind. The black inks stand stark against the whites of pages, which in turn often utilize negative space intelligently to deliver stellar compositions. The juxtaposition of the otherworldly characters with more natural (i.e. rivers and vegetation) or man-made (i.e. architecture and vehicles) elements sells both the world’s beauty and the Poe clan’s status as being distinctly separate from it.
If level of detail at all reflects artistic interest, then Hagio must have adored drawing the characters here. There’s an abundance of excess in design that persistently grabs the eye, from wavelike curls of hair to elaborate clothing adorned by intricate patterns and folds upon folds. The clothing designs also reflect the importance of class in the Poes’ lives as they endeavor to fit in as upstanding members of society beyond suspicion.
All these details and others combine to deliver the manga’s most engrossing aspect: its heightened sense of melodrama. The characters’ expressions, both facial and bodily, are very reactive and there’s never a moment where any of them are boring to look at. Hagio also considers weather and season, resulting in depictions of rainfall and thunder that feel as powerful and above mere humanity as the vampirnella themselves. The buildup and flow of momentum throughout is extraordinary, and from a visual storytelling perspective there’s almost nothing wrong.
Unfortunately the actual plot and character arcs aren’t as expertly executed. As the stories hop around in chronological order, so too does the quality of their characterization. Because characters shift in and out of the narrative so frequently they often don’t receive depth or exploration which fully maximizes their potential. Some of the most compelling concepts and characters are shuffled off-panel in record time just to be replaced with less remarkable settings and developments. There are also many scenes that lack basic clarity in dialogue, and when combined with the fantastical visual presentation this can result in events being difficult to follow.
Additionally, many of the character arcs feels stunted. In some instances this works, as the difficulty of unending adolescence for Edgar and co. is one of the manga’s chief themes. With that said, the most poignant interpersonal relationships are underserved by the choices made with regards to the ordering of the stories. Alan’s arc in particular suffers from this problem. To be fair however, perhaps this feeling will be somewhat abated upon reading the second volume. These stories weren’t initially published in such massive chunks, and so the reading experience differs considerably from how it would have felt at the time of original publication.
Overall, The Poe Clan is the sort of manga that reflects its prolific creator’s talent and reputation but isn’t fully polished unto itself. While the artwork throughout is absolutely gorgeous and there are intriguing themes at play, issues with clarity and stunted character growth result in a reading experience that often feels unsatisfying from a narrative point of view. Nonetheless, if you’re fond of Hagio’s artistic aesthetic or if you’re interested in old school comics that were pivotal in shaping the artform, then this collection is worth checking out.
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