Sean T. Collins has written about comics and popular culture professionally since 2001 and on this very blog since 2003. He has written for Maxim, The Comics Journal, Stuff, Wizard, A&F Quarterly, Comic Book Resources, Giant, ToyFare, The Onion, The Comics Reporter and more. His comics have been published by Top Shelf, Partyka, and Family Style. He blogs here and at Robot 6.
Planetes Vols. 1-3
Makoto Yukimura, writer/artist
Yuki Nakamura, translator
Anna Wenger, adapter
Volume 1: 240 pages
Volume 2: 268 pages
Volume 3: 240 pages
$9.99 each Buy them from Amazon.com
Originally written on July 1st, 2004 for publication in The Comics Journal
The unending torrent of translated manga titles is all too easy for a reader raised on American comics to drown in. Unfamiliar and therefore arbitrary-seeming conventions, countless -makis, -muras, and other seemingly interchangeable surnames, and that damned right-to-left flow: It's enough to cause Western eyes to glaze over. It's gotten to the point where an exasperated sigh of "I just don't get manga" is viewed as an acceptable assessment in some circles. Indeed, "It's all speed-lined, Japanophilic crap starring giant robots and big-titted doe-eyed schoolgirls in their panties" has assumed a place of (dis)honor right along side "It's all mindless, sexist, crypto-fascist adolescent power fantasies about men in tights hitting each other" (mainstream/superhero/genre comics) and "It's all pointless, self-obsessed, navel-gazing slice-of-life stories about pathetic white guys feeling sorry for themselves" (alternative/underground/art comics) in the pantheon of stupidly dismissive sequential-art stereotypes.
Enter Makoto Yukimura's Planetes, the antidote to conventional wisdom about what translated manga can be, and the perfect gateway drug for fans of American art- and genre-comics alike. Compelling characters, story, and art add up to one of the finest regularly published titles you're likely to come across on the racks today, from any country.
Working within the type of hard science-fiction framework not often seen in genre comics, Planetes takes place in the semi-near future, a time when orbital space stations bustle with civilian activity, the moon has been colonized, Mars is on its way to being so, and a manned expedition to Jupiter is on the horizon. The high volume of space travel has given rise to unforeseen, space-borne growth industries, the least glamorous of which is debris pick-up. Glorified garbagemen travel through low Earth orbit, picking up busted satellites, wreckage from shuttle accidents, discarded refuse, and other space junk before it can collide at high velocity with unwary travelers.
From this SF premise, writer/artist Makoto Yukimura (ably assisted by the nearly invisible adaptation work of Anna Wenger) spins something pretty close to magic. The key--and it's so simple it'll make you kind of angry that every writer doesn't employ it--is that the action stems not from the external dictates of plotting or the need to get across some "mad idea" aimed at knocking the metaphysical socks off the reader, but springs organically from the internal workings of the characters themselves. And what characters they are.
We're first introduced to Yuri, an astronaut of Russian decent, in a full-color flashback, on board a passenger space flight with his wife. Even this very first scene is peppered with the alarmingly perceptive moments that make the series so memorable: Yuri's wife carries a compass with her every time she travels through space, in order to remember that even in the directionless void, there's a direction home. It's the sort of short, sharp shock of instant insight and attachment that makes the ensuing, slow-motion catastrophe all the more wrenching to watch, as does Yakimura's jarring change in perspective from an extreme, speed-blurred close-up to a cold, impersonal long shot. The accident that claims Yuri's wife's life was caused by the type of debris storm that Yuri, in his new career as a debris clearer, seeks to prevent, though his stoicism is complete enough to hide this true, tragic motivation even from himself.
Yuri's crewmate Fee is a much less quiet sort. A chain-smoking American woman of the sort some space-age Guess Who might sing about, Fee is the Bones McCoy of the hauler's crew. Her deadpan, take-no-shit refusal to indulge the melancholy reveries of her shipmmates makes her not just a natural foil for the sensitive Yuri and the moody Hachimaki (crew member number three), but a literal lifesaver given the mental duress contact with the vastness of space can engender. As if to contrast Fee's level-headedness with the space-shot flakiness of the other main characters, Yakimura assigns her the series' single most heroic act--preventing the destruction by terrorists of an entire space station, which in turn would generate enough debris to effectively end space travel for years. Fee's heroism, however, derives not from some high-minded belief that man is meant for the stars, but from a jones for the cigarettes available for sale on the space station. It's not idealism that motivates Fee--it's a nic fit.
The aforementioned Hachimaki initially strikes the reader as the book's shallowest, least-interesting character. Hachimaki may be a garbageman, but his ambition to be something more is clear. It's alternately expressed as a desire to own his own spaceship (a luxury item even in this era of lunar cities) and an obsession with becoming a crew member on the first, years-long manned trip to Jupiter. By now readers familiar with the conventions of manga characterization may be rolling their eyes: The young man who works relentlessly to become the best in his chosen field is a staple of shonen stories, from your standard martial-arts adventures to the culinary competitors of Iron Wok Jan. And of course, you don't need to be a manga devotee to know that The Brash, Tow-Headed Rookie With Something To Prove is a well-trod road indeed.
But as Hachimaki moves to the forefront, eventually becoming the lead character of the later volumes, we're stunned to see the emergence of a genuinely complex and conflicted character. There's nothing conventional at all about Hachimaki's near-pathological desire to prove his emotionless self-sufficience to anyone who cares to notice. The emptiness of space--which in one of Volume One's most harrowing sequences nearly cripples the still-inexperienced astronaut--is both the perfect nemesis for him to conquer and the perfect refuge in which he can hide from the emotional demands of interpersonal contact. It's this that Hachimaki finds more frightening than the risks of space travel, in which humans are after all little more than glorified debris themselves.
Yukimura's ability to slowly coax out the emotional core of his lead character lies not just in his expertise in shaping Hachimaki himself, but in the gorgeous sensitivity with which he peppers the story with memorable supporting players who naturally elicit moving and riveting responses from the upstart astronaut. There's Mr. Rowland, the aging astronaut who'd rather abandon himself to the ravages of the lunar desert than die Earthside. There's Nono, the lunar-born girl whose emotional strength exceeds that of her low-G-weakened physiology. There's Hachimaki's family: His father, the head-in-the-clouds veteran astronaut; his brother, the cool, single-minded amateur rocket scientist (seriously); his mother, whose love for her family is constantly tested by their passion for being thousands of miles away from home. There's Hakimu, the anti-colonization terrorist (the other big growth industry of the era) whose initial refusal to kill Hachimaki is more devastating to the young explorer than his eventual change of heart. There's Sally, the captain of Hackimaki's Jupiter-bound crew whose last-ditch attempt to snap him out of his malaise is equal parts touching, hilarious, and (well) hot. Last and certainly not least there's Tanabe, Hachimaki's successor aboard the debris hauler and the woman whose belief in a thing called love becomes more attractive to Hachimaki the more infuriatingly naïve he finds it.
But the real miracle of Planetes is that its indelible characters are matched by unforgettable imagery. "Visual poetry" is how I've heard it described, and that nails it as well as any description can. Yukimura's style is already more realistic and appealing than many of his counterparts', but he adds to this an almost uncanny ability to produce both individual moments and entire sequences of stunning visual impact. Volume Three's finest moments come when a white cat, embodying Hachimaki's conflicting desires for death and love, directly addresses the viewer (in place of Hachimaki himself), its white tail coiling and swaying against the black void so vividly as to be nearly animate. Volume Two offers another demonstration of Yukimura's skill with contrast: As Hachimaki nearly drowns following a motorcycle accident back on Earth, he's drawn as a reverse negative--fluid, minimalist white lines against a black background. The effect, amidst Yukimura's rich realism and almost colorful graytone, is as startling as the accident itself. And it's not just extreme mental states that Yukimura evokes with panache: His splash pages of lunar landscapes and extraterrestrial vistas immediately bring to mind the vivid, alien beauty of Kubrick's 2001, or the powerful contrast between man and nature of a Ford or Leone. Meanwhile his simple character work is just as memorable. Two standout moments come from Volume Three: Tanabe grinning as the wind blows through both her hair and the beautiful array of windmills behind her, and Tanabe's father on stage during his punk-rock filth-and-fury heyday. The last time I saw the heart-rending loveliness of a happy, beautiful woman and the super-fuckin'-funness of rock and roll depicted this convincingly, I was reading Love and Rockets.
Is that a fair comparison to make? I think it just might be. Literate comics fans have, I think, been conditioned to ignore the kinds of books put out by the American manga-publishing giants like Tokyopop and Viz; they've convinced themselves to stick with the Tezukas and Miyazakis and Tsuges, or to pine wistfully after a vaguely defined glut of Good Stuff They're Never Gonna Translate. But do yourself a favor. Elbow your way past the TRL-watching kids lined up in front of the manga racks at the bookstore. It's an unlikely place to renew your faith in comics, I know, but if you pick up the sturdy, gray-spined volumes of Planetes you find there, that's exactly what this emotional, beautiful series will do.