While The Heart of Thomas was the manga that made Moto Hagio a legend, The Poe Clan was her breakout work. While it struggled to find success in its original 1972-1976 run, it’s become one of her most acclaimed works. The Poe Clan has inspired everything from live-action television dramas to audio dramas, and even now Hagio is still writing sequel chapters. Thanks to Fantagraphics, the English-speaking world can at long last experience this shojo classic for themselves.
I suspect that Hagio’s relative inexperience explains why the first third of this volume feels so unfocused. The earliest chapters follow a similar formula: a young man stumbles upon the ethereally beautiful and mysterious Poe clan. While they find themselves drawn to young Marybelle’s beauty and innocence, they are increasingly distressed by the family’s strange customs and Edgar’s harsh reception. Inevitably they stumble upon the family’s secret: they are vampires (here called “vampirnella”). After they eventually escape, their encounter haunts them for decades to come, sometimes over generations. It’s a spooky formula to be certain, but it’s one that puts too much focus on boring aristocrats with little to no bearing on what The Poe Clan eventually becomes.
It’s only in the second segment where The Poe Clan finds its focus, turning to the tragic backstory of Edgar and Marybelle. Their story is a never-ending chain of tragedy, starting with their abandonment as children. Edgar is first traumatized by the discovery of his guardians’ true nature, only to have that compounded when he unwittingly brings about their destruction and his own transformation into a vampirnella. Then Marybelle, sent away to another family, endures her own romantic tragedy and reunion with her now undead brother.
We then flash forward to the final act of Edgar’s personal tragedy, as his family is torn from him yet again thanks to a suspicious doctor. In his desperation for a companion, he turns to a spoiled rich boy name Alan, joining the two in a bitter union of eternal childhood. This is what the series should have been from the start; tales not of ghostly beauties drifting through time, but instead the tragic tale of three fully-fleshed children whose fates are sealed by the secrets and machinations of the adult world they can never join, no matter how long they live.
The last third takes a hard swerve into mystery, with Edgar and Alan investigating the secrets behind a class of junior-high boys at a German all-boys school. It’s hard to not see this section as something of a warm-up for The Heart of Thomas, as these boys are dealing with separation from parents, bullying, secret romances, and the aftermath of a suicide. If it weren’t for the references to a divided Germany and other Cold War-era events, it would be easy to presume that this story was contemporaneous with that of Juli and Erich, The Heart of Thomas’s leading characters. This part of the story does suffer from some pacing problems in the middle, as Hagio tries to juggle some light-hearted antics alongside the mystery and Edgar and Alan’s own dysfunctional dynamic. Nonetheless, it wraps up in a very satisfying and dramatic fashion.
If there’s one thing that is consistent about this first volume, it’s the quality of Hagio’s art. While every page is as lovely and delicate as anything she’s made over her long career, The Poe Clan is probably the most impressionistic work of hers I have seen. Flashbacks are dreamlike montages where figures swirl and dance through their memories accompanied by flowers, wind and darkness. Frantic flashes of faces surround the cast during moments of high drama, visually conveying their panic and despair. This impressionistic quality may explain in part why the story jumps about in time and space. It’s as if Hagio wanted to convey to the reader just how transient time is for immortals like Edgar, Alan, and Marybelle, where decades can pass in a flash and the past flows in and out of memory like water.
Yet there is horror to be found here. There is no gore, as vampirnella can feed through touch and die in a cloud of dust. Instead, the horror of The Poe Clan is largely atmospheric and psychological. It lives in the dark rooms, dense woods, and ancient mansions where much of the story takes place, but also lives in the minds of both the vampirnella and their victims. There are explorations of existential fears such a as loneliness, despair, self-hatred, but there are also more tangible fears of unearthly young men who creep into dark rooms in the middle of the night. The most unnerving thing is Edgar’s cold, piercing stare. Throughout the book, Edgar’s eyes stare out directly at the reader, challenging them and unnerving them in equal measure.
While it’s not a flawless masterpiece, The Poe Clan is still an excellent example of what 1970s shojo was capable of. Scary, sad, and beautiful in equal measure, it’s a breathtaking and thoughtful work that’s complimented by its lovely hardbound presentation and the excellent translation by noted translator and stalwart Hagio champion Rachel Thorn. Much like the titular family of this series, The Poe Clan is a piece of shojo manga’s glory days frozen in time, still dazzling and haunting decades after its debut.
The Poe Clan
From the publisher: The Poe Clan: a race of “vampirnellas” who feed on the energy of the living, whiling away the centuries in a village of roses where time and geography have no meaning. A brother and sister, Edgar and Marybelle, are initiated into the clan too young and, unless a wooden stake or a silver bullet should lead to their demise, are doomed to live for eternity. Through these immortal adolescents and the mortals whose lives they touch, Moto Hagio explores what it means to live and to die, to have loved and lost.