When I first started reading manga, I had a self-imposed rule (more of a guideline, I suppose): don’t start reading a series unless you’ve got a pretty good idea how many volumes it’s going to run to. I was trying to defend my time and budget in the face of manga’s tendency to produce series that just go on and on and on …

Well, so much for that. Two new series here that could go on forever, for all I know. I couldn’t resist trying them anyway, since one is by an artist I particularly like and the other is the hot new thing in manga, both in Japan and the West. A proper, license-to-print money kind of hit.

These two comics share the age-old manga theme of man vs monsters. In both we have Humanity at Bay! Barely Sentient Monsters on the Prowl! Elite Young Heroes Rising to Mankind’s Defence! In fact, they have an enormous number of similarities, but they still manage to be utterly and completely different. I like it when that kind of thing happens. One’s mecha sf, one’s … well, kind of hard to categorise but let’s call it a horror/sf hybrid.

KNIGHTS OF SIDONIA Vol 1

by Tsutomu Nihei, published by Vertical

I’ve read one other series produced by Tsutomu Nihei – Biomega – which turned me into a major fan of his art and imagination and sensibility, but not so much of his story-telling, because I spent parts of that series mildly puzzled about what was going on (admittedly, I’m not the hardest guy in the world to puzzle when it comes to manga).

With Knights of Sidonia, he’s clearly trying something a bit more accessible. It says as much on the back cover, so at least I know I’m not alone in finding his other work hard going on occasion. On the whole I’d say he succeeds.

This is essentially a mecha series, equal parts Battlestar Galactica and Pacific Rim. The solar system is destroyed, humanity exiled to a city(continent?)-ship – Sidonia – drifting through space. They flee from, and fight when they’ve no choice, strange polymorphic space monsters of the tentacular, tumorous sort so common in manga.

There’s not a huge amount of overt explanation, so the reader has to put together some of the pieces as we go along. The main thrust, though, is clear and traditional: impoverished boy gets lucky, is recruited into the defence force, gets a cool giant robot and joins the war against the monsters. It’s fast-paced, with that whole arc plus lots of window-dressing packed into this first volume.

I enjoyed the many sf decorations. Photosynthetic humans, new genders, the vast city-ship itself, which is nicely visualised and enormously varied in the spaces and architecture it contains. I liked the hints of actual hard sf, too. The Laws of Motion being a big deal in frictionless space, one of Sidonia’s weapons is pleasingly basic: when in doubt, fire an enormous mass at your target at enormous velocity. Result: one monster that is still alive and hostile but very, very much further away than before. Nice (if incredibly basic) physics.

The art is really good, a simplified, clarified version of the style I’ve seen Tsutomu Nihei use elsewhere. The battlesuits themselves have an angular, trapezoidal design aesthetic that made the images a little hard to decode but he’s got a notable talent for depicting human movement in a clear and convincing manner, and the great majority of Knights of Sidonia is actually about the people, not the mecha. This is not, so far, a particularly action-heavy series – though when there is suit vs monster action it’s pretty intense.

All in all, there’s easily enough promise for me to try another volume or two. It just might turn into something pretty special, if only its creator can maintain the accessibility and coherence he’s started with (unfortunately far from guaranteed, on past evidence).

ATTACK ON TITAN Vols 1-2

by Hajime Isayama, published by Kodansha Comics

In some ways, Attack on Titan is a bizarre tonal cross between Knights of Sidonia and Uzumaki, and the fact that those two series have nothing in common might start to convey the strange flavours we’re dealing with here. Or, how about this for another way of looking at it: Attack on Titan is a radically weirdified Japanese spin on The Walking Dead.

It’s clearly informed by a horror sensibility, but combines that with a veneer of sf action. And because weird is our watchword, even the sf action is – well, weird – in its mechanics and visualisation.

Just as with KoS, we have a rump of humanity beset by monsters, but in this case humanity is confined within defensive walls, outside which roam hostile, mindless, naked humanoid giants (the titans). Just as with KoS, youngsters are recruited into an elite defence force, but instead of battlesuits they’re equipped with Vertical Manoeuvring Devices, which employ belts and ropes and harpoons to enable humans to zoom and swing around like Spider-Man, thereby gaining access to the titans’ sole weak point, the nape of the neck. (That’s the theory, anyway; mostly what seems to happen in practice is they get killed and eaten – not necessarily in that order – before they reach the nape of the neck).

The most inconsistent part of all this is the art, for me. The figure- and face-drawing are a little rough sometimes, and there are occasional ill-judged panel transitions that make the eyes stutter. Yet at other times, when dealing with action or the titans, the art’s terrifically energetic and striking. Indeed, the off-kilter visuals enhance the air of oddness about the whole thing and the titans in particular are, if anything, made more creepy and unnerving by some of the distortions and perspective fudges that make them look weird, almost child-like.

Again and again, there are small choices that subtly lean towards the strange. When a giant titan attacks the city walls, for example, it stands there not tearing down the wall with its hands but kicking a hole in its base with one foot. It’s a trivial thing, but something about that image and that action is more unsettling and just plain weirder than the obvious alternative.

Attack on Titan is a huge hit. Selling by the bucketload. Why? Well, I don’t entirely know, but I do know what I find strangely compelling about it: the sheer oddity of the set-up and the narrative, the savagery and clever kineticism of the combat, the consistent and pervasive air of weirdness and of impending disaster. It’s a heady mix that combines into something really distinctive. The titans themselves are a truly striking creation: novel, silly-yet-scary in an uncanny valley sort of way, far creepier than any number of Lovecraftian tumors-with-tentacles.

I sometimes find it hard to tell with manga, but I think Attack on Titan is aimed at a slightly younger audience than Knights of Sidonia (i.e. it’s shonen rather than seinen in the jargon of these things). The characters are more broadly sketched, the narrative more straightforward. But the gore and cruelty levels are, to put it mildly, elevated. In these initial volumes, the titans have breached humanity’s outer defenses, and the carnage that ensues is really pretty full-on. It’s got lots of people – many of them quite young – getting graphically eaten by giants, explicit images of brutal injuries, titan cannibalism and parents dying before children’s eyes. Not going to be to everyone’s taste, and not entirely my idea of juvenile-appropriate reading, but at least it’s consistent and frank about what’s going on.

So, yes: Attack on Titan is the less technically accomplished, less sophisticated of these two manga, but I confess I find it the more interesting. The powerful appeal of its strange, slightly disconcerting voice may fade over future volumes if it doesn’t add some other ingredients to the mix, but for now I’m along for the ride.

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