Let’s open our newest manga sampling with a confession: though I’d seen it recommended by more than one web critic, it took several weeks before I bought – and even more weeks before I read – Makuto Yukimura’s Planetes (Tokyopop). All the reviews I’d read had been unstinting in their praise of this s-f manga series, but each one contained a term that gave me pause: “hard science.” I know it was being used positively – to differentiate Planetes from all the goofy pseudo-science used to prop giant robot comics – but to me the phrase connotes the 100% nuts-&-bolts/0% characterization plotting of early “scientifiction.” Something like the Robert Heinlein-scripted movie 1950 Destination Moon, say, which was praised in its day for its “scientific accuracy” but fatally ignored drama in favor of nuance-free hardware fetishizing.
Looking at the cover to Volume One – a spacesuit-enshrouded figure quietly floating in space, frowning at the reader – didn’t alleviate my forebodings. Then I actually started reading Yukimura’s series and, big surprise, I was totally wrong.
Planetes opens with a four-page color prologue, though the rest of the volume is in the more familiar black-and-white. Set in the year 2068, the sequence shows Russian-born astronaut Yuri and his wife shuttling through space on a Commercial Travel Liner taking them back to Earth. Tragedy strikes when the ship runs into a debris storm, though we’re not sure initially what’s supposed to be happening. All we can see is that the window alongside the nervous spouse’s seat has suddenly started cracking, then the artist backs off into a long shot of the ship breaking up. Next thing we know, it’s six years later and we’re on an outer space debris hauler staffed by a trio of Extra-Planetary Sanitation Workers.
Among this threesome is Yuri, who has survived the shuttle crash and spends his non-work time scanning space and looking for a compass that belonged to his missing wife. Also on board is Fee, a tomboyish chain-smoking Floridian, and Hachimaki Hoshino, the youngest of the crew. Hachi is the series’ primary focal point (though both Fee and Yuri get their moments in the first volume): the son of a famous astronaut, he dreams of exploring space himself, though he’s presently stuck in his job as outer space garbageman. Collecting space junk, the detritus from years of abandoned satellites and other manmade intrusions into space, turns out to be an essential task. “If any of this stuff was to hit a spacecraft,” Hachi notes at one point, “well, it wouldn’t be pretty.” It’s risky, but it’s also decidedly unglamorous.
The idea of space debris is in keeping with one of Yukimura’s themes: the unintended consequences of human presence in new environments. This can be seen in the longterm physical effects on the individuals who live off Earth – Hachi at one point has to be hospitalized on the moon for low gravity disorder, an affliction resulting from prolonged time off planet – as well as the dangers posed by thoughtlessly cast-off hardware. It’s also repped by one of the series’ antagonists, a group of eco-terrorists called the Space Defense Fighters (“It started as a legitimate environmental advocacy coalition,” Fee explains. “But nothing they did ever stopped people from polluting space.”) who have started bombing parts of the moon mining bases to protest the colonization of space.
In Planetes, space exploration is grueling and dangerous, drained of all naive romance. Large multinationals control the resources for space travel (and may be manipulating the activities of the SDF), and the only old astronauts we see are barely functional humans. As a scripter, Yukimara seems less interested in the technology (though he’s capable as an artist of providing all the requisite hardware kicks) than in the emotional and physical toil of life in space. Among the other characters we meet in the first volume: a young twelve-year-old girl born in space who spends her life in the hospital, plus an aged astronaut who chooses suicide when cancer would otherwise force him to return to Earth. Space’ll do you in, alright.
Planetes has an air of melancholy that is almost Bradburyian (at one point, when Yuri risks getting too close to Earth’s atmosphere to retrieve that missing compass, you can’t help recalling “Kaleidoscope,” the falling astronaut story famously swiped by EC in its s-f comics), as well as a surprising range of character. As with other manga heroes we’ve already seen (think of Iron Wok Jan‘s ultra-ambitious chef), Hachi’s burning desire is both a source of strength – it helps him overcome a form of Posttraumatic Stress called Deep Spaced Disorder – as well as a sign of his half-formed humanity. Frankly, after reading the first volume, I’m more interested in the guy’s character arc than whether he ever gets beyond the moon.
Yukimura’s art generally favors a more realistic look (no cartoony physiological transformations here!) and can be quite effectively atmospheric, particularly in communicating the dark beauty of space. (In this, the black-and-white format seems especially apt, as when our hero undergoes sensory deprivation to test his reactions to deep space.) If I have any complaint about the art it’s in the samey-ness of his short-cropped, boyishly bodied women.
But that’s a minor grouse. In the end, I enjoyed the first volume of Planetes much more than I expected. Does the series have its “scientifiction” elements? Sure. (At times, for instance, Yukimara includes a footnote to explain some of the back science.) But it also contains a cast of admirably conflicted characters, satiric and philosophical speculation, and moments of graphic poetry. Bought a copy of Volume Two this week, and I know I’m not gonna take as long to crack open that puppy. . .