Comic Picks By The Glick

Attack on Titan vols. 1 & 2

January 13, 2013

Outside of the fact that they’re continuing to publish “Battle Angel Alita:  Last Order” and the “second season” of “Genshiken” Kodansha’s line of manga hasn’t really impressed me that much.  That’s mainly because a lot of it does seem skewed towards a younger audience, which is understandable since those titles tend to be the most popular.  Until they announced the release of Makoto Yukimura’s “Vinland Saga” there wasn’t a lot for me outside of those two titles to be excited about.  Hajime Isayama’s “Attack on Titan,” though, did intrigue me a bit thanks to its fantasy setting and intriguing premise of humans fighting off giants for survival.  I thought that it skewed just a bit older than their other titles so when The Right Stuf had it on sale this past Christmas I ordered these two volumes.  What I got was easily one of the most disappointing, if not downright terrible, mangas I’ve read in the past year.

In the world of “Attack on Titan,” humanity has been forced back into a giant walled city by the constant onslaught of the title creatures.  Naturally they feel safe behind the huge outer wall until a colossus titan shows up one day to kick it in and let his smaller buddies in to ravage the outer part of the city.  Rambunctious hothead Eren and his amazingly calm adopted sister Mikasa wind up losing their mother in the attack, which has the former swearing to destroy these creatures for that.  Five years later, the two have graduated at the top of their class for the city guards and are about to volunteer for the “expeditionary corps” to try and take back the captured parts of the city.

If you guessed that the colossus titan shows up again, kicks another hole in the wall and our protagonists have to stop the chaos then you should know that’s a relatively minor flaw in this volume.  To take this series to task solely for conforming to such a familiar dramatic structure and utilizing the same tropes of other fantasy fiction feels pointless here.  There have been plenty of great titles that possessed fairly generic beginnings that have eventually risen beyond them.  I’ll even give Isayama some credit for having a twist at the end of the first volume that I genuinely didn’t see coming.  It does come full circle in volume two, but that doesn’t take away from its shock value.

No, what really sunk this series for me was the art.  This appears to be Isayama’s first series and boy does it show.  From the very get-go it has a very amateurish look to it with its characters robotic expressions, generic linework, and bland style overall.  Even when he tries to spice things up with a bit of forced perspective, it just winds up making the characters limbs look funny and small.  His handling of action scenes also feels chaotic at first, though I will concede that he does get a little better with it as the series goes on.

Unfortunately, “Attack on Titan’s” deficiencies in visual style wind up undercutting the overall narrative as well.  Moments in the beginning where we’re meant to see the characters’ shock and despair at being decimated by the titans come off awkwardly or even laughable due to their wooden nature.  Yes, seeing one of the characters fruitlessly trying CPR on the upper half of her fallen comrade’s body is meant to be depressingly tragic, but on the page here it just looks kind of awkward.  These two volumes are filled with scenes like that as Isayama’s art effectively undercuts any drama, tension, or pathos this story is meant to have.

Remember what I said earlier about not taking the series solely to task for the genericness of its story?  Well, the other problem with the art here is that it reinforces the feeling that this is the work of a rank amateur.  You’re not left with the feeling that the mangaka isn’t starting out with familiar characters and tropes only lull us into a false sense of security before he shakes things up later, but because that’s the best he could do.  That one good twist?  Probably the only good idea he had here.  Any goodwill that I would’ve had for the story to evolve into something decent is effectively kneecapped by the art which tells me that we are dealing with someone who doesn’t know how to do any better yet.

I’m also not impressed by his attempts at characterization as well.  Eren and Mikasa come off as familiar protagonist types with their comrades getting one dimension each to fill out the requirements for the supporting cast.  We do get an extended flashback in the second volume showing how the two met, which is supposed to establish Eren specifically as a violent yet driven hero who will do anything to succeed, and Mikasa as someone who always has his back.  It doesn’t work that way.  Reading the scene, I got the feeling that regardless of what good intentions he may have had Eren was effectively a psychopath from a very young age.  Mikasa?  Traumatized into a form of Stockholm Syndrome by his actions.  Though his dad expresses some shock at his actions, the morality of the titan-killer-to-be’s actions isn’t debated any further.  It doesn’t even rate a talking point in the present.  Having such a dangerous character be humanity’s only hope could make for a potentially fascinating read, but there’s no indication that Isayama had any intention of addressing Eren’s actions beyond that one scene.

While I won’t be picking up any more volumes of this series, there’s no denying that “Attack on Titan” is very successful in Japan at least.  New volumes sell hundreds of thousands of copies and ten million copies of the series were said to be in print with the arrival of the ninth last month.  There are also plans for anime and live-action adaptations as well.  Based on what I’ve read here, the bar for producing an adaptation better than the source material is quite low as anyone with a half-decent visual style can show us how this series was meant to look.  As for Isayama, I can only hope that success hasn’t gone to his head and that he looks back on these early volumes with a measure of disgust and the need to constantly improve lest he remain at that level. You don’t need to look hard to find an example of what can become of a creator who becomes too famous, too fast without getting a good handle on the fundamentals of good sequential art.