Charging through Manga Island this week with guns blazing is the stark, surreal and gripping "Blame!" Tsutomo Nihei is probably best known in the US for his Wolverine mini series "Snikt," but in Japan it is "Blame!" that Nihei is best known for. "Blame!" is not an easy read, but for manga fans looking for something compelling and different, "Blame!" delivers in spades.
Between "Snikt" and "Blame!" we can see a pattern of naming his books after their most prevalent theme as "Blame!" is intended to be "Blam!" Blam! Is certainly prevalent in this manga. The lead character, Killy carries a gun with the destructive power of a small yield nuke. Killy seems to need it as he wanders the monolithic labyrinth in his search for the mysterious Net Terminal Genes. What this labyrinth is exactly and why net Terminal Genes are so important to Killy is the big question that keeps the reader guessing and wondering what pieces of the puzzle are to be revealed. Explosions and gory battles are only a small part of the strange story arc of "Blame!"
The first thing that struck me about the manga was the overpowering sense of scale that Nihei employs. He was originally trained as an architect, which shows in the way that he employs perspective and adds weight to the insanity of Killy's world of cybernetic dungeons. Monolithic statues, mazes of pipes and machinery, football field long bridges, are all at once expansive and claustrophobic when rendered by Nihei's pen. If you can't picture it by just reading this, when you thumb through a few pages, you will understand.
Nihei is no slouch when it comes to character design either. In the pages of "Blame!", he creates iconic cyber beings that are chillingly beautiful, and extremely deadly. If Clive Barker's Cenobites were born in cyberspace, they might well look like malformed and delicate but deadly enemies that Killy often encounters. In fact while I was reading "Blame!", I often thought of the scenes in Hell in the "Hellraiser II" movie. The collection of miscreants and the starkness of the labyrinth remind me of a mind meld of Otomo and Barker that for some reason only Tsutomo Nihei could bring us. Nihei also mixes in a fair amount of Moebius influence. An influence that the manga-ka himself readily admits. The wispiness of some characters often stands in stark contrast to their tough outfits that often mix bondage fashion, SWAT team gear, ultra cool battle suits, and unknown mechanical pieces into a character design unique to the "Blame!" manga.
Luis Reyes and Tokyopop once again have made some nice editorial decisions. The sound effects are left untouched in the art and are translated in the spaces between panels. Though the type is a little small, the font treatment and size blend well with the artwork so as to be as unobtrusive as possible. The use of different typefaces throughout the book is very complimentary and does a lot to separate out the humans (in and out of protective suits), cyborgs, and the multitude of creatures that inhabit the labyrinth from one another.
"Blame!" is not without its faults, however. When it was first released many fans who had previous editions of the manga complained about how dark this Tokyopop edition is, and how some of the delicate detail linework has been lost. I don't have previous editions to compare my volume with, but the manga does have more than its share of dark scenes. Hopefully, if this is the case, Tokyopop can fix their process for future volumes so that we can take in all the meticulous detail that Nihei puts into his scenery and figures.
The only other problem with "Blame!" is that the story can be a bit meandering at times. The first volume has an over-arcing story line at its heart, but is told in small pieces with various characters showing up and then either disappearing or being slaughtered. I found myself thinking of some of the early "Aeon Flux" episodes where each story shared only the common theme of having the main character in them. There is also not a lot of dialog in "Blame!", so story elements are often parceled out in small doses for the reader to ponder and try to put together. I often stopped to turn back a few pages, re-read and then resume my reading forward. I do wish I knew more about Killy, his quest and the strange friends and foes he meets on is journey, but I'm guessing that the pacing for "Blame!" is close to the pacing seen Mamoru Oshii's films ("Jin-Roh," "Patlabor" 1 and 2, and the live action "Avalon"). This may turn some casual manga readers off, but it did give me a chance to go back and take in even more of the detailed artwork. The density of the story and the relative sparseness of the dialog, is a double edged sword, as it is also part of what sets "Blame!" apart form other manga.
Manga readers looking for a wholly unique experience to pick up off the shelf owe it to themselves to pick up this book. Although "Blame!" is a dense violent read, it is has a style and atmosphere about it that can only be found in the pages of European comics and anthologies like "Metal Hurlant." I haven't seen the accompanying anime adaptation but the thought of seeing the art and insane creatures in action, has made me want to pick it up as soon as possible. Tsutomo Nihei has created a unique manga experience for those brave enough to plunge into the labyrinth of "Blame!" with the promises of old mysteries solved and new ones on the horizon, I can't wait to crawl back into the cyber-labyrinth of "Blame!" This is one I can see myself picking up every issue, and is worthy of re-reading and analyzing long after the series is over. If you are also exploring the stark monolithic halls, I hope to see you down there below Manga Island.
Volume 1 (of 10)
Rating T 16+ (Violence, Language)
Links of Interest:
Tony Salvaggio has been a fan of anime and manga from an early age. He has been an animator in the video games industry and is currently co-writing an original graphic novel for Tokyopop, PSY-COMM. He regularly hosts anime and Japanese related shows in Austin and his passion for all things anime and manga related is only excelled by his quest to become King of the Monsters.