The Dreaming Vol. 1
Currently set to hit stores in December, Queenie Chan's three-part tale The Dreaming marks the debut of Australian OEL manga from TOKYOPOP, and if the first volume is anything to go by, she will be doing a favor for her nation.
The book opens with a rather harrowing personal account of the event that led to a large amount of the narrative’s inspiration, and a selective introduction to certain aspects of the country that are of interest to the book’s overall story. Slip a little further in, and the story itself opens up on a postcard from Sydney.
Set in dense bushlands somewhere in Australia, The Dreaming opens with twin sisters Amber and Jeanie moving from Sydney to a prestigious and very remote boarding school. A scattering of small dialogue and facial-expression panels over a tilted double-page spread makes this scene very clear, and as the girls arrive at the front gate, both display mixed emotions towards boarding at the school. The first chapter picks up directly where this prelude ends.
A variety of curiosities are thrown onto the table quite quickly as the tale begins to unfold, and various others trickle along as the pages keep on turning. Why did these twins have no choice but to come here? Why is it so important that the aunt who got them into the school lied, and said that they were born a year apart from each other? What are the rumors and superstitions that she mentioned? What is the overall concern of the Vice Principal? And why are Amber and Jeanie suffering recurring and identical dreams, dreams that seem uncomfortably connected to the school and its surroundings?
The overall pacing of the plot is well handled, revealing aspects of the story in a consistent and even-handed manner. It's very selective about what it does and doesn't reveal, making solid use of the different ways that the two girls see and respond to things. It's a story set in a closed-off world with an open bend towards horror, one that takes on a very ghostly and ethereal atmospheric approach, thus causing the story to work more with an uneasy vibe than with straight-out scares or gross-out scenes. It might be due to having a stretch of bush outside my window, but I found there to be a genuine uneasy and creepy feeling that came with reading this manga. Given that I've felt genuinely uneasy about twice in the past decade (as far as movies go), this is no small feat.
Hidden underneath the attractive and atmospherically accurate cover is a continued streak of solid illustration. Granted, the artwork isn't perfect, but it has a very strong grounding. It never feels incomplete, and it displays a high level of willingness to play with visual dynamics and perspective. The only flaws of particular significance were the odd moment of disproportion, and faces that often look as if they've been painted onto a flat (although shapely around the edges) surface, rather that being a fully bodied part of an actual, physical structure. Facial expressions are subtly expressive, however, and the visual depiction of the school is often mesmerizing. In fact, the walls and corridors of this building may be where the true expression in The Dreaming can be found, as a variety of different angles, atmospheric shots and gentle curved distortions convey the sense of suppressed menace much more effectively than any of the numerous eye close-ups. Detail abounds, and to top it all off, the usage of tones never skips a beat.
Outside of the immediately obvious illustration, the book also excels in its panel layouts, an important component as the panel layouts ultimately affect the overall lucidity of the reading experience. The panels are quite numerous, often flying over the top of each other, and they are laid out in a way that is generally quite effective at stimulating motion. This arrangement and focus on visual motion prevents the pages from becoming over-crowded with written text, and the overall reading experience flows more consistently because of it. The book closes off at a cliffhanger revelation that is also something of an epitome of the images as the driving force beyond the story flow and pacing.
Overall, this is a very strong entry into the professional manga scene, one that is well presented, effectively creepy at times, and one that actually has an ending in sight. The Dreaming is very easily recommended to almost anyone willing to read a non-Japanese manga, and particularly for those who appreciate a good comic design.