popcultureshock.com | 28 May 2009 | Grant Goodman
Cirque du Freak is an excellent offering from Yen Press. Takahiro Arai’s strange-but-lovely character designs and a second half that rushes forward at a breakneck pace make Darren Shan’s tale a standout title among the glut of standard shonen manga.Despite some initial hiccups in dialogue and characterization, Cirque du Freak quickly turns around. Young Darren Shan (the same name as the author’s) is best friends with Steve Leonard. They share a love for soccer, but their true bond is over their devotion to odd hobbies: Darren is fond of spiders, while Steve is a walking compendium of monster knowledge. While this results in some stilted conversations, it leads both of them to attend the Cirque du Freak—a freakshow filled with monsters, giants, and a trained spider. The story destroys any notion of continuing its puerile, best-friends hanging-out theme when the Wolfman act goes awry and an audience member loses an arm. At the show’s conclusion, Steve stays behind to speak to the spider trainer. Darren, of course, happens to eavesdrop on their conversation, in which Steve identifies the trainer as the famous vampire, Vur Horston.Vur Horston’s character design is a standout. His towering, sleek frame is stretched out even further by a striped top-hat that should look ridiculous, yet fits his character perfectly. A flowing, tri-clasp cape, and sandals make him a vampire with a unique sense of fashion.After Steve demands to be turned into a vampire, he fails Vur Horston’s blood taste-test and is rejected. In a moment of misguided curiosity, Darren steals Vur Horston’s spider, which serves as a vital plot catalyst. Days later, when Darren fails to control the spider, Steve is bitten and paralyzed. Vur Horston appears before Darren and makes a proposition. He will give up the antivenom if Darren agrees to become his apprentice vampire and leave behind his life as a human.This puts Darren in a terrible bind and he realizes it. While considering making the deal to save his friend, one question in particular echoes through his mind: “Have I done something so horribly wrong that I must give up everything I hold dear to correct my mistake?”This question should resonate with every reader. Furthermore, it should provoke an additional question of how far one would go to save a friend. Darren is fully aware that by becoming a vampire, Steve will only grow to hate him for being chosen. This conflict plays out beautifully in the second half of the volume, leaving both Darren and the reader to wonder if the sacrifice was truly worth it.The very end of this release contains a sample chapter from Darren Shan’s original young-adult novel. Reading it left a bad taste in my mouth, as it was along the lines of a Goosebumps novel. This graphic novel adaptation, however, ditches the juvenile narration, which in turn makes the story’s tone far more sinister.There are, of course, many nagging questions remaining at the end of this volume. Why does Vur Horston desire an apprentice who is so young? Will he continue to travel with the Cirque du Freak? What plan does he have in store for Darren—will they simply wander across the land or is there some greater task to be completed? All of these leave me eagerly awaiting the second volume.
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