There’s a bit of a fake-out in the first volume of Hiroyuki Asada’s teen-rated Tegami Bachi (Viz). Set in a land of perpetual night, where the light of a man-made sun shining over the privileged elite in the city’s capital can’t reach the less fortunate souls who lie in the frontier, the series follows a “Letter Bee” who travels “the countryside from city to city, no matter what dangers may lurk.” It’s dangerous work, in large part due to the large biomechanical insects (called Gaichuu) that also roam the wastelands, but these postal carriers are valued as the primary mode of communication between isolated villages.
The story feint comes in establishing the series’ primary protagonist. Divided into two chapters, the first half follows Gauche Suede, a hard-nosed Letter Bee who travels with his “dingo” Roda. Gauche has become a postal carrier because he sees it as the best path for getting his wheelchair-bound younger sister Sylvette into the capital. The land in which they live, Amberground, is caste divided based on where you live: only a privileged few — and Letter Bees — are allowed to cross the bridges between each realm.
Gauche’s “letter” turns out to be a young boy named Lag Seeking, who is left for delivery by a burned-out building. Lag’s mother has been taken from him and carted of to the capital by a group of mysterious men. It’s Gauche’s job to carry the motherless boy across the front to his aunt for safekeeping. Along the way they run into the inevitable giant bug (the beasts are attracted to human hearts), which Gauche dispatches with the help of a “shindanjuu,” a pistol powered by the handler’s heart. (Thus, the one force that attracts the Gaichuu is also used in slaying it.) Intense emotional moments are capable of powering the weapon: when Lag puts his hands on Gauche’s gun, the memories of his mother’s abduction power it with a vengeance. There’s a lot of dialog about the power of the human heart in this series: at one point, I found myself mentally recalling Neal Diamond's "Heartlight," but I won't hold that against Asada.
It’s clear that Lag has a mighty spirit, and in the second half of the book, the story focus shifts from Gauche to him. Five years after he’s been delivered to his Aunt Sabrina Marie, Lag himself sets out to interview for the job of postal carrier, in the company of a corpulent Letter Bee named Connor. Along the way, they come upon another child for delivery — a pugnacious young girl — but the Letter Bee refuses to take her since she has insufficient postage and no return address. “A Letter Bee can’t accept an incomplete letter,” Connor explains, but since Lag isn’t an official carrier yet, he decides to do the delivery himself.
He takes the young girl, who he names Niche, to a tent show in Lovesome Downs, where she has apparently been sold to perform as a caged freak. The tent show’s owner — who reminded this reader of a male version of The Last Unicorn’s Mommy Fortuna — hypes Niche as the human child of a “maka,” a dragon with a “golden mane and eyes the color of the sun.” Whether she is or not (unlike Lag, we’re told nothing of her parentage in the first volume), it’s clear that she can use her long blond hair as a "golden sword." Perhaps it is a mane, after all.
Viz is promoting Tegami Bachi as a “steam punk” series, which I suppose is fair enough (for its central conceit to work, after all, we need an alternate world where advanced communication technologies aren’t developed and hand delivery is still prominent), though there’s not a lot of emphasis on clunky looking neo-Victorian technology in the first volume. We do see Connor boarding a steam locomotive in the second chapter, however. To my eyes, the story has a more post-Apocalyptic feel, particularly since the first two chapters are set in a sparse wasteland, but perhaps we’ll get more anachronistic machinery in later volumes.
Whichever arcane sub-genre applies to Tegami Bachi, there’s no denying the appeal of Asada’s art, which has a rich look with a slightly melodramatic flare. His depictions of the Amberground landscape are especially compelling, while his characters are likeably animated in a way that'll be familiar to fans of Naruto. If the first book’s shift in character focus from Suede to Lag is initially disconcerting, we quickly see why the writer/artist chose to do so. The younger Lag — and his stubborn, mysterious delivery Niche — display a wider emotional range and work as better vessels for our introduction into this alternate world. Too, Lag’s back story (his missing mama) has more potential than Suede’s sick sister Sylvette, but maybe I’m just being a heartless bastard on that score.
In any event, I'm caught up enough in Lag and Niche's story enough to want to read the next volume, at least. Presumably, it'll involve he and Niche actually arriving at the capital city for that Letter Bee interview — and perhaps picking up a clue or two on the whereabouts of the aptly named Ma Seeking?