Yen turns in another quality release with the first volume Cirque du Freak. The cover is printed to look black and textured like leather, with the Cirque du Freak novel logo in the center. Above and below it are two pieces of manga art. On top, we see main characters Darren and Steve near their hometown in the light of day, and below we see the mysterious theater in the moonlight. The back cover gives the rating and synopsis, and features half of a silhouette of a spider. Printing is Yen’s usual high quality, with bright white paper and dark black ink.
In the author’s notes at the end of the volume, mangaka Takahiro Arai mentions that Cirque du Freak is his first major series, and his art was selected by Darren Shan himself. While Arai’s art is much more Western-looking than some manga fans would like, his talent is obvious. During the day, and in normal situations, his art seems fairly standard, if unusually fluid. Characters seem to go off-model in a few places, and squash and stretch more like cartoon characters than tends to be expected in manga. When the moon comes out at night and the Cirque du Freak arrives, the fluidity of the world finally spills over into the purposefully bizarre. The effect is very similar to the art and design of Soul Eater.
Since Cirque du Freak was written originally in English, the translation seems incredibly natural. The introduction and first chapter of the Cirque du Freak novel is included in the back of this first volume, as well.
I have not read any of the Cirque du Freak novels or seen the movie, so this volume served as my introduction to the franchise. It is not possible to discuss this volume without mentioning some very big spoilers, so those who wish to keep the plot a secret should skip to the summary section of this review.
The series begins with author and main character Darren Shan introducing himself by mentioning that his favorite thing in the world is spiders. Darren feels that nobody understands his odd love for spiders except his best friend Steve, himself a horror movie nut. Thus, from the first page, you can feel the young adult novel influence, and sense that the series was written for young boys who love creepy crawlies.
Aside from his love for spiders, Darren seems to be a nice, normal kid. Steve, however, immediately starts giving off creepy vibes: His stated wish to become a “monster” and dagger eyes give an immediate sense that the boy’s destined to grow up and be a serial killer. Thus, when Darren receives a flier for the mysterious Cirque du Freak on the way home, it’s not hard to imagine that several somethings wicked are on the way.
Darren and Steve manage to get two tickets to the Cirque, and are spellbound by what they see. Darren is especially taken by the powerful and deadly spider, Madam Octa. Steve soon starts to grow impatient and bored, and after the show ends, he tells Darren to head on home. Darren gets worried about his friend and returns to the deserted theater to see what Steve’s up to.
Steve has discovered that Madam Octa’s owner, Mr. Crepsley, is a vampire, and begs for Crepsley to turn him into one as well. Crepsley initially tries to laugh Steve off, but when he insists, Crepsley tastes his blood to see what kind of a person Steve really is. Crepsley recoils in horror and tells Steve that his blood is evil. Having just witnessed his best friend called an evil monster by a vampire, Darren runs away, but not before Steve realizes he witnessed what just transpired.
Darren and Steve soon grow suspicious of each other, and it seems as though Steve wants some manner of revenge. He suggests to Darren that Madam Octa, the spider Darren had admired, might be able to be controlled by anyone. Darren is tempted by this idea, and sneaks back into the circus to steal her. Darren manages some control over Octa, but when the spider is surprised by Darren’s younger sister, it bites Steve. With Steve paralyzed and slowly dying, Darren returns to the Cirque du Freak and Mr. Crepsley and begs for help to save his friend’s life.
Crepsley agrees to help Darren, but only on one condition: Darren will have to become a vampire and Crepsley’s assistant. Of course, Darren agrees.
Up to this point, Cirque has been fairly standard, if stylish, by-the-books horror. The story has all the standard tropes: The mysterious carnival comes to town, the freaks there are more moral and ethical than seemingly “normal” people, temptation wins and someone is put in danger because of it. Finally, a deal with the devil must be struck in order to return things to their normal state. While younger readers would certainly be enchanted by this, older readers know completely what to expect.
The very end of the volume, however, raises my expectations. Having agreed to become a vampire, Mr. Crepsley and Darren speed off into the night after delivering an antidote to Steve’s hospital room. Darren changes his mind about everything, lets go of Crepsley, and decides to go home. He begins to struggle with his newly awakened vampiric powers, and interestingly, Steve notices, and seems to be growing jealous.
After he has to hold himself back from drinking his younger sister’s blood, Darren returns to Crepsley, defeated. Crepsley and Darren decide to fake Darren’s death and once again leave town. The way Darren allows his parents to find his apparently dead body is incredibly dark and surprising.
The most promising development comes just after Crepsley digs up Darren’s grave and retrieves his slumbering body. Steve, furious and feeling betrayed, attempts to stake Darren, accusing him of conspiring with Crepsley and denying him his rightful vampirehood. As his final act of revenge, Steve promises to become the greatest vampire hunter the world has ever known, and to kill Darren and Crepsley. The idea of the moral vampire and an evil, vengeful hunter appeals to me, and I’m very curious to see where Shan and Arai will take this in future volumes.
Cirque du Freak seems to be a faithful recreation of the popular Young Adult series, and fans are likely to be incredibly pleased. Younger readers, who perhaps haven’t read horror stories of this type before, are also likely to be enchanted. More experienced readers might want to give this series a look as well, though. Three-fourths of the way through the book, I thought I could have guessed the end, but the final transgressive twists the story took caught me off guard. If Shan and Arai can stir up the formula just enough to keep all readers on their toes, this could be a very promising series indeed.
Content Grade: B
Art Grade: B+
Packaging Grade: A-
Text/Translation Grade: A
Age Rating: 13+
Released By: Yen Press
Release Date: June 9th, 2009