When Words Collide

Wed, February 25th, 2009 at 2:28pm PST | Updated: February 25th, 2009 at 4:58pm

Comic Books
Timothy Callahan, Columnist/Reviewer

TERROR IN THE CLASSROOM

Sho and the Landscape of Despair

In his essay on the incomparable Donald Barthelme's short story "The School," the also-incomparable George Saunders describes fiction as a "series of these little [Hot Wheels] gas stations." The writer's job, says Saunders, is to "give the reader a series of pleasure-bursts." Barthelme's story, according to Saunders, "can be seen as a series of repetitions of one event: the reader leaves a little gas station at high speed, looking forward to the next one." Propelled along by the whirring wheels of narrative, the reader zooms from place to place -- from pleasure burst to pleasure burst -- like a Hot Wheels car on a plastic track.

Sounds like something we might want from serialized comics as well, doesn't it?

But Saunders isn't done with Barthelme's story -- and my effort to link it, and pretty much everything in life, to comics doesn't stop there. He addresses the ending. How is Barthelme going to stick the landing on the final page of the story? "Barthelme understands," says Saunders, "that what he has to do in this last page is keep doing what has worked so far in the story: he has to escalate. The story has, so far, been captivating us via its nervy continual progress along the axis labeled: Deaths, Increasing."

Saunders explains that Barthelme's story -- which is a brief tale about a series of deaths that revolve around a single, seemingly-innocent classroom -- reaches the end of its axis of escalation. Parents have died. Students have died. The Korean orphan the class "adopted" through the "Help the Children" program? Dead. Barthelme can't go any further in that direction, without killing the entire class and ending the story with a whimper. And thus, says Saunders, the author "understands that, to continue escalating, he has to leap to another axis. He seems to intuit that the next order of escalation has to be escalating escalation."

"The School" builds, surprisingly, to a love story. The pattern of death left hanging in the air, suspended, as the students -- shockingly, out of nowhere -- "request that [the narrator] make love with Helen," Saunders explains. "Suddenly there is death in the room, but also life, and love." Will they have sex right in front of the children? Will the narrator decline? Will their immediate romance become something more? "But Barthleme," says Saunders, "being great, abides long enough to produce from his sleeve one last escalation which, Barthelme being Barrthelme, arrives in the person (?) of a gerbil."

A gerbil.

As Barthelme writes, in the closing lines of "The School," "Helen came and embraced me. I kissed her a few times on the brow. We held each other. The children were excited. Then there was a knock on the door, I opened the door, and the new gerbil walked in. The children cheered wildly."

Monstrous Threats
Saunders explains, "It is ambiguous, and it is funny, and somehow perfect: this little expectant rodent, politely waiting for its knock to be answered, all set to die, or to live. We, like the children, 'cheer wildly.'"

The little creature turns the characters' attention away from their own desperate hopelessness, away from what might be the forced mockery of love, and toward a sliver of life. This tiny little gerbil means something, even if it's just a brief distraction from the overwhelming despair. Even if it's merely the possibility of hope.

It's a fantastic little story, and Saunders approaches it with a sharply critical, but celebratory, eye. And the whole conversation about the story makes me think of another story of escalating conflict, another story in which the graph of "Deaths, Increasing" reaches its boundaries, another story which may or may not suggest the possibility of hope.

A comic book story.

In Kazuo Umezu's eleven-volume manga series, the endlessly disturbing "The Drifting Classroom," there is no gerbil.

"The Drifting Classroom" features a premise that should be familiar to Western audiences, with a foundation built on "Lord of the Flies" and supernatural phenomenon that would be at home in some of the darker episodes of "Lost." "The Drifting Classroom" begins with the disappearance of Yamato Elementary -- the school becomes mysteriously transported to a desolate wasteland, while all that remains in its place is a wide hole in the ground, as if some cosmic force scooped up the school with a giant ladle and poured it into some abysmal future. Imagine the horror of being a small child trapped in an unfamiliar, uncaring environment with nothing but your peers and your teachers to provide for you. Image the horror of being a teacher, trapped in a hostile environment with a school full of children. Imagine being a parent, with your child suddenly missing and no hope for answers.

Umezu asks us to imagine all of these things, and then he heightens the terror through escalation. Then, like Barthelme, he uses his virtuosity as a storyteller to build escalating escalation into something more than a series of mere pleasure bursts.

Yamato Elementary Vanished

Originally serialized in "Shonen Sunday" from 1972-1974, "The Drifting Classroom" feels startlingly new even today. While nearly all American horror blanches at the thought of a child murdered (except in the most gruesome examples of American horror, small children always survive the killer's rampage), Umezu doesn't hesitate to kill off his young characters. What begins as a realistic-minded mother/son domestic drama -- Sho Takamatsu, sixth-grader, bickers with his mother in the opening sequence -- becomes something far more tragic. Although, even throughout its eleven volumes, Umezu maintains the connection between Sho and his mother, first by flashing back and forth between them, and then what seems like preposterous coincidences, then through a supernatural link.

It's also notable that Umezu escalates slowly, or I should say methodically, building from a realist base and adding the more fantastic elements piece by piece. The school disappears in an earthquake -- caused by an explosion, apparently (and we find out more details about the explosion by the end) -- and although the hole in the ground is strangely localized, it's not until page 68 of the first volume that we see where the so-called "drifting classroom" has landed.

As the teachers stand at the gate of the school, looking out wordlessly, protagonist Sho peers between them to see a barren wasteland all around. He screams and rushes back to tell the other children, and it's at this point that the series whips into focus. From this moment on, it's about the boys and girls of Yamato Elementary, trying to survive in a harsh, unfamiliar landscape. The adult influence lingers throughout "The Drifting Classroom," but after the first few chapters, the adults play a much less significant role (with the exception of Sho's mother, still back in Tokyo, longing for her son to return, and Sekiya, a delivery man transported to the wasteland while inside the cafeteria -- a man who continually reappears as a threat to the children, insisting that the Americans will come and save him).

I don't know if the original Japanese title -- Hyôryu kyôshitsu -- translates literally as "The Drifting Classroom," but it's worth pointing out that the English title features a present participle ("Drifting") which implies a continuous action on the part of the "Classroom." In fact, Yamato Elementary moves only once, from contemporary Tokyo into some god-forsaken distant future version of Tokyo. It's a single temporal shift, even though the word "drifting" indicates something still moving through space. Yet the "drifting" of the title could be interpreted metaphorically, as the students spend the bulk of the series trying to define their reality in the ever-changing landscape. Their future world is so strange, so full of new horrors, that they can't quite seem to grapple with what it's really all about. And because some of the strange creatures and strange organisms which appear are actually psychic manifestations -- through latent powers, or through a connection with this future world -- the landscape literally changes based on the emotions of the children. They drift through that reality as best they can.

Getting Everyone's Attention

To give you an indication of the kinds of horror "The Drifting Classroom" presents, let me just highlight a moment from the series. By the end of volume 1, most of the faculty has been rendered useless -- they are more set in their ways than the students, less able to adapt to the radically different reality around them -- but Umezu gives us a scene on pages 101-110 of the first volume which shows the frantic attempts of a single teacher to try to control the situation. In an attempt to keep the children from risking their lives by heading out into the possibly dangerous wasteland, Mr. Arakawa breaks his own glasses, holds a boy hostage, and then stabs the youngster in the arm. Such a shocking display of violence -- and such a clear violation of the protective nature of the teacher/student relationship (even in a series which has shown teachers slapping students to get them to pay attention) -- embodies the kind of horror that "The Drifting Classroom" abounds in. Mr. Arakawa means well, surprisingly (and we find out that it's his own son he victimized, just to try to keep the other children safe), but his misguided attempts at shocking the students into submission only helps to amplify the horror of the larger situation: the rules of normal behavior have broken down. Faced with the unfamiliar, everything tends toward chaos.

Umezu loads each of the eleven volumes with scenes like that, propelling the reader from one whirring, Saunders-esque "gas station" to the next, as we wonder not only what will happen next -- How will the kids survive? Where are they? Will they ever get back home? What horrible threats will they face? -- but also how far Umezu will go. It's bad enough to show little children jumping from the top of the school building to their death, but does Umezu really have to show them land on the concrete ground? He does, if only to demonstrate that we, like the children of Yamato Elementary, cannot look away. We are trapped in "The Drifting Classroom" too, and we are not spared its horrors.

By volume 5, Umezu has amplified the terror so much -- the adults are basically all dead, children have killed themselves, turned on each other, vicious monsters have attacked the school -- that it's hard to imagine how much farther he can go. But the plague -- the black plague -- that hits the school in Volume 5 turns "The Drifting Classroom" to full-on mania. When a boy falls into the pool (the last main source of drinking water for the children, who have been cut adrift from any life-support system beyond the boundaries of Yamato Elementary) and ends up manifesting black spots all over his skin soon after, the children realize that their water supply has been contaminated, and anyone who has had contact with the boy -- or the water -- is at risk. The factions that had already begun to develop -- not as distinctly or as rigid as Golding's tribes in "Lord of the Flies," but similar -- turn more violent towards one another, and the makeshift spears and implements of violence are used against their peers.

It's not the violence that's so disturbing, it's the way Umezu shows the violence. These aren't children playing as soldiers, fighting a turf war amidst a bleak landscape. These are children lashing out as children. Unorganized, full of panic. Thrusting their pointed sticks at whoever seems threatening, and so irrationally fearful that they won't listen to reason, even from Sho, who has become a clear leader within the school.

The Final Volume

To make "The Drifting Classroom" work, to make it more than just a sequence of escalating terrors (and to make it more than just a series that feeds off sadistic readers), Umezu must make the children act like children. Not Hollywood precocious children. Not the children playing as adults like the failed reality show "Kid Nation." But children who have trouble distinguishing fantasy from reality. Weird children who can't cope mashed together with mature kids who can. Children who represent our best and worst impulses, but still remain slightly removed from the adult world. Not that adults would fare any better in Umezu's universe -- he's already shown how their inflexibility leads to their downfall -- but by focusing on the kids, and by making the kids act more out of impulse and intuition than on rule-oriented logic, he makes "The Drifting Classroom" even more terrifying. More haunting. More "true," even as it expands far beyond what we could ever imagine happening.

In Volume 11, the series ends on a hopeful note, or at least with the possibility of hope. Not from a gerbil, but from a group of students who have seen what their new reality has to offer and have turned and faced it with whatever dignity they can muster. And I've barely scratched the surface of the kind of horror that's inside the eleven volumes. I could have gone into much greater detail on the way it explores childhood anxiety, the way it layers in an environmental message, what it seems to say about family and society. But I'll let "The Drifting Classroom" do most of the speaking for itself. The pleasure comes from reading its ever-escalating escalation, and from sticking with the students of Yamato Elementary throughout their unbelievable tests and trials.

And at the end, we, like the children in Barthelme's story, can't help but cheer wildly.

In addition to writing reviews and columns for COMIC BOOK RESOURCES, Timothy Callahan is the author of "Grant Morrison: The Early Years" and editor of "Teenagers from the Future: Essays on the Legion of Super-Heroes" anthology. More of his thoughts on comics can be seen every day at the Geniusboy Firemelon blog.

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TAGS:  when words collide, drifting classroom, kazuo umezu, don barthelme

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