PTSD Radio Omnibus Vols. 1-3

PTSD Radio Omnibus Vols. 1-3

Masaaki Nakayama, translated by Adam Hirsch & Kevin Steinbach

Kodansha Comics

PTSD Radio, a formerly digital-only manga translation now published as three Omnibus volumes by Kodansha, is less a cohesive story than a narrative locus. The source point from which the premise emerges is the deity Ogushi, whose idol unleashes supernatural bodily horrors upon the largely-unsuspecting citizens of a fictional Japanese town following a failure to pay their due tributes. From this point onwards, the action is fairly loose - dispensed, for the most parts, in brief vignettes, most of them wrapping up within five pages or less (though the occasional story can go up to 20 pages).

Please note that the lettering and translation of the newer, print edition of PTSD Radio, differs from the earlier digital edition. Adam Hirsch is credited as translator of the digital edition, while Kevin Steinbach, beginning with the second Omnibus volume, is credited as translator of the print edition. This review proceeds from the print edition, and all images are photographed from it.

For the most part, there is no real resolution or narrative rigidity; typically the protagonists will remark, either in narration or in dialogue, on a figure evident only to them, and the story will conclude on the revelation or the assertion of this phenomenon as real, stopping right before any explicit confrontation to make it clear that there is no real chance for them, no playing field even resembling level. Ogushi can't be accurately described as an active organizing or orchestrating force; the deity may serve as a starting point or a framework, but author Masaaki Nakayama's tendency is to treat it as almost extra-narrative: to be remarked on, but perpetually out of reach.

The impact, then, is double-edged. The brief propulsions of narrative, moving around and coming as they go without any resolution, carry a haunting effect in their saying, this is how the world is, everywhere, all the time; it can happen to anyone, and it does happen to everyone, and the world around you will not notice or care. On the other hand, its selection and prompt discarding of protagonists does not allow the author, or at least does not compel him, to develop his characters outside of their relationship to the overall plot, prompting the reader to ask if they should, in any sense beyond the aesthetic, care or be engaged in any active way.

The horror of PTSD Radio is distinctly bodily, but it is not, strictly speaking, "body horror" - at least not in the common perception of body horror as revolving around the body as the thin, often blurred or outright broken line between self and surroundings. No, the bodily anxieties here are inherently othered, existing either as an entity external from the get-go or emerging from the internal only to underscore its externality, e.g., isn't it totally fucked up that mass of flesh came out of your mouth? There isn't supposed to be a mass of flesh coming out of there, especially flesh that is not connected to the rest of your flesh.

Yet, even though it lacks the analytical metonymy inherent to body horror as genre and consequent aesthetic, PTSD Radio certainly does engage in a bodily anxiety, albeit an anxiety of estrangement. The horrors and monstrosities in Nakayama's work assert themselves as almost skeuomorphic: their components recognizable as commonly found in one's own body, but not clearly serving their usual purposes. Eyes, mouths and hair are most commonly depicted, but detached from their human biological purpose. The body is warped to such a degree that it begs the question of whether or not it actually functions as a body.

And it works, that skeuomorph-horror, in great part because of Nakayama's cartooning. His people take on a too-smooth, almost rubbery non-texture with a uniform line-weight, a broad and blank baseline complemented by background modeled with a sharp, grounded naturalism. By associating this too-clean nature with the human or the natural, Nakayama provides himself with a convenient and effective platform for the rendering of the unheimlich; his not-quite-human monstrosities are meticulously hatched and toned, allowing them to bear much of the visual weight and impact.

But there is an evident limit to how far Nakayama can stretch these likenesses. At 97 installments, most of them obedient to the vignette formula with its page-turn reliant structure, the series eventually starts to buckle under its own pressure, belaboring its own point. The author indexes each chapter with the numbering style of radio frequencies, allowing him to denote occasions where plotlines carry over from previous installments, but this narrative succession struggles to add depth to the actual scenarios.

The third and final book of the recent Omnibus series does change up the formula somewhat by including Nakayama's True Stories Edition, first-person diary-style comics drawn in a cleaner, looser cartooning style (some faces end up looking positively Hergésque), providing context for the creation of the series' final chapters. I don't know how this was framed in the original Japanese publication, or how Nakayama himself intended for it to be used, but there's something to be said about the importance of presentation: discussed in various online circles as the comic so scary its creator had to abandon it, PTSD Radio comes with the grating implication that its author's external troubles are to be viewed through the prism of the art. The English edition plays right into this narrative, documenting what Nakayama experienced as 'real' supernatural encounters, including several bouts of a mystery illness. Nakayama himself keeps an open mind, asserting on the page that his illness is, in fact, a result of supernatural phenomena, but he nonetheless continues to make horror comics today - prompting one to wonder if the series’ discontinuation wasn't a side effect of a larger, more traumatic health crisis.

From a True Stories segment.

"Far away is drawn close," says the interstitial narration offered after every chapter of PTSD Radio, or "To seek shelter from the sky, one cannot hide." These ominous, elliptical statements are representative of the book itself: novel at first, and often incredibly entertaining, so long as you ignore the compulsion to search for patterns. One suspects that the vignettes would be better off in their original form of publication, sandwiched among the dozens of other manga serials, but over the better part of its 1,000 collected pages, repetition makes itself all-too-evident. But, at the end of the day, Nakayama uses his own expectations to construct his own page. The reader turns the page to turn around, and there is nothing there - just a shadow.