In the best cases, a comic is entertaining because it has great art, interesting characters, entertaining dialogue, and a compelling story. More often than not, a title finds itself lacking in one or more of those areas, but is able to compensate enough in the others to present a worthwhile reading experience. Then you have those very rare titles that manage to entertain in spite of a complete lack of the above-mentioned qualities. That is what we have here in the first volume of “Terra Formars.” It is not a good start to the series by any objective standard of measurement, yet it nonetheless winds up being one of the funniest things I’ve read all year.
The year is 2599 A.D. and mankind’s 500-year quest to terraform Mars has nearly reached its conclusion. Through the use of moss and cockroaches has finally rendered the planet habitable for humans, though there’s been one small hitch. A couple years back, the elite crew of the first craft were killed in an “accident” after they landed on Mars. Now, a new group made up of people with questionable histories from poor economic backgrounds has been sent to investigate what happened to the first group.
In short order, the crew finds out that after 500 years of solar radiation and extreme temperatures, the cockroaches sent as part of the terraforming project have evolved into humanoid creatures with fearsome combat skills! Even better is the fact that they hate us as much as we hate them. Though this may seem like an insurmountable problem for the crew of this expedition, they’ve got an edge of their own. All of them have special injection-triggered insect abilities after undergoing an experimental procedure back on Earth. So even if these humanoid cockroaches have super-strength-and-durability, the humans have the abilities of army ants, wasps, and praying mantises on their side.
That this is a ridiculous premise pretty much goes without saying. However, anyone who has read manga for an extended amount of time should have no problem taking it in stride and realize that quality stories have been wrought from even more unlikely material. Where “Terra Formars” fails utterly in the storytelling department is how it wholeheartedly embraces the cliches of the genre without the slightest bit of self-awareness that it’s doing so.
Large group of ethnically-diverse characters with unheroic backgrounds and minimal characterization? Check. Narrative follows these characters as they’re mercilessly slaughtered one-by-one? Check. Protagonist motivated by the death of someone close to him? Double-check. Shady conspiracies from the people on Earth who know more about the state of things than they’re letting on? Oh-you-better-believe-it-check!
The cliches and silliness don’t end there either. In fact, the volume kicks off with the two Japanese childhood friends, Shokichi and Nanao, expressing their respective fears of cockroaches and eating bugs, respectively. Things continue with the character introductions as we meet such standbys as the grubby Japanese nerd, the badass Israeli commando, and the square-jawed heroic American mission leader. Pretty much every character in this series can be boiled down to a description like that with further characterization either coming just before (or even right after) they’ve been killed so that we know to be sad about their deaths.
In short, once the humanoid cockroaches -- the Terra Formars of the title -- show up the series basically becomes “Aliens” done as a slasher movie. We’re introduced to all of these characters and then see them die in ways that are both unexpected and not. Yet as these people are so thinly developed and the creators’ efforts to get us to care about them so transparent, it’s incredibly hard to take any of this seriously. Then you start throwing in stuff like the secondary agendas from the other crewmembers, conspiratorial scheming from the Japanese and NASA leads of the projects, AND the legacy of the civilization from the planet that eventually became the asteroid field between Mars and Jupiter and you should get an idea of why I found this series so funny.
It reads like something that sprang from the fevered imagination of a fifteen-year-old, except that what I could find out about writer Yu Sasuga’s age tells me that he’s 26. You’d think he’d at least have some self-awareness of the cliches that he’s embracing here. That the story displays none of that tells me that he’s either clueless, or cynically pandering to the instincts of teenage Japanese boys, or trying to fuse his deep-seated love of “Aliens” with his extensive knowledge of the insect world. Whatever the case is, this is also listed as his first writing credit anywhere. Maybe he can shoot for something with better results than “unintentionally hilarious” in his next effort.
If nothing else, I can only hope that he finds a way to treat his female cast members better in following volumes. That’s because the gender politics in the first volume of “Terra Formars” can be charitably described as “reprehensible.” Not only do we have a female character whose sole purpose is to die in order to provide motivation for the male protagonist, there’s another whose sole bit of background is how she tried her hardest to get a wealthy man to “adopt” her, and another nameless female who gets put into a very compromising position by the cockroaches in one panel. The fact that her head is sliced off in the next panel almost seems like a mercy given where that scene was headed. Then you’ve got the South African woman who blithely shrugs off the pain of the procedure that gave her insect powers by saying that it was nothing compared to being circumcised with a tin can lid. Yeah. Way to trivialize a real-world issue in your ridiculous sci-fi manga, Sasuga. The reason I’m not angry about this is because the pace of the first volume is fast enough that none of these events are lingered upon long enough to become truly offensive. However, they do add up and become difficult to ignore by the time the slaughter is over.
It’s also worth nothing in this context that this series has been acknowledged as being popular for how successfully it targets the male demographic. Given that we get plenty of scenes of Japanese protagonist Shokichi helping to turn the tide of battle, getting up to deliver a killing blow after being fiercely beaten down, and crying manly tears at the death of a friend, I’m not surprised by this in the least. As I found none of this, or anything else in the first volume, impossible to take seriously I’ll admit that this is possibly a brilliantly metatextual take on the inherent silliness of male Japanese machismo. Either that or this title has fallen into a particularly humorous section of the American/Japanese cultural divide.
The art from Ken-Ichi Tachibana tells the story well enough, even though his style is conventional enough that it’ll remind you of plenty other better manga you’ve read before. In fact, the generic quality of his style helps to reinforce the familiarity of the genre conventions being embraced here. So there’s a chance that if this series was illustrated by an artist working in a less conventional style, I may not have found it funny at all. It probably would’ve just been terrible. In this case, Sasuga’s writing and Tachibana’s art combine to give us some sublime unintentional hilarity. Maybe they’ll refine things in future volumes and have the story eventually become genuinely entertaining, though it seems far more likely that we’ll be getting more genre cliches and tropes from here on out. If the ensuing results are as hilarious as they are here, then I won’t mind that one bit.
Though, it would be nice if Sasuga could draw even more from “Aliens” and give us “Terra Formars’” answer to Ellen Ripley in a female character who isn’t defined by her relationship to men and can kick copious amounts of ass on her own. Just a thought.