Sunday, July 31, 2011

The Worlds of Aldebaran, by Leo

Amidst the barrage of manga titles arriving weekly in your local bookstore, and the onslaught of superhero titles arriving weekly at your local comic book store, it would be easy to go for many years without being aware of the existence of a European culture of comic books and graphic novels. Until recently, Herge's TinTin series was almost my only exposure to this world, and the most recent stories in that immortal saga are several decades old now.

Recently, however, the British firm Cinebook ("The 9th Art Publisher") has set about making many other Euro graphic novels available in English translation. The Blake and Mortimer series was the first of their offerings that I tried, and while carefully crafted, it struck me as lacking the colorful kinds of central characters that enliven the TinTin books. However, the second series that I tried has proved to be a real find.

The Worlds of Aldebaran by Leo is a mind-expanding science fiction series that would make a great movie or TV series. So far, two cycles from this work have been issued in English by Cinebook: the first titled Aldebaran (in three volumes), and the second titled Betelgeuse, which actually begins in the third volume of Aldebaran and proceeds for three more volumes. These are all large-format, full color works that show considerable artistry.

As both a writer and an artist, Leo's greatest strength is in his conception of myriad alien life forms, from the cute but enigmatic Iums, through various reptilian creatures that are as ferocious as they are peculiar. But his most unique conception is a kind of creature called the Mantris: beings of enormous size, but given to dramatic changes in shape and behavior during the course of their lifecycle. At times a single Mantris can even mutate temporarily into what appear to be a multiplicity of independent beings that are acting in a coordinated way, but whose purposes remain a cypher to the human observers.

Let it be said that this is not the typical Sci-Fi work that neglects the shear difficulty in recognizing an alien intelligence, let alone communicating with it. There is no miraculous Universal Translator a la Star Trek to enable you to be instantly understood by the latest batch of strangely humanoid aliens.

The cast of characters changes somewhat from the Antares cycle to the Betelgeuse cycle, but several favorites recur. The character of Kim, who is a sidekick to the narrator of the first story, goes on to be the center of the next one. In the process, she matures dramatically from a bratty and impulsive thirteen year old to a truly intrepid heroine, without ever becoming a mere "action girl" fantasy figure like so many Buffy wannabes on the market these days.

Leo's view of human society seems to be fairly bleak, as the human settlements in both the Aldebaran and Betelgeuse systems revert to being repressive dictatorships when they encounter hardships. Doubtless Leo's youth in Brazil has informed his vision of how dysfunctional human governments can become, as well as providing examples of how those in power are able to rationalize all their actions. The relegation of women to near breeder-slave status is one of the more disturbing developments, but one that seems eerily plausible in the circumstances depicted here.

This wouldn't be the first Sci-Fi story to use aliens to shed light on the shortcomings of our own species, but happily, the Worlds of Aldebaran prove too expansive to be reduced to a mere political parable. Through the sheer strangeness and fertility of his conceptions, Leo invokes the sense of wonder that is at the heart of all worthwhile science fiction.

I was disappointed when the series came to an end, but recently have discovered on the French publisher's website Les Mondes d'Aldebaran, that there is a third cycle called Antares. Hopefully Cinebook will also bring out an English edition of Antares, and we can learn more of the doings of the Mantrises, of Kim, and of her lately acquired alien paramour.

The Catastrophe: Aldebaran Vol. 1

The Group: Aldebaran Vol. 2
The Creature: Aldebaran Vol. 3

The Survivors: Betelgeuse Vol. 1

The Caves: Betelgeuse Vol. 2
The Other: Betelgeuse Vol. 3

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Moyasimon: Tales of Agriculture

So did you ever play that game with your friends where you ask, if you could have any superpower, what would it be? Chances are that if you did, nobody said "I wanna see germs with my naked eye." But such is the fortunate or unfortunate ability of Tadayasu Sawaki, the protagonist of the brilliant new manga Moyasimon: Tales of Agriculture by  Masayuki Ishikawa. For reasons unexplained (at least in the first two volumes), he can see the germs everywhere he goes. They all look like a variety of happy-faced cartoon characters with exotic hairstyles, but that doesn't stop the bad ones from packing a punch.

Sawaki, it seems, is the son of a professional koji maker who supplies cultures for use in fermentation, and the title Moyasimon translates roughly as "mold man." His best friend Kei Yuki is the scion of a sake brewing family, so they are natural allies. The story commences with their arrival at an unnamed agricultural university, where Sawaki is swiftly adopted by a number of eccentrics who hope to exploit his strange power. Chief among them are Keizo Itsuki, a cryptic and visionary scientist who extols the greatness of agriculture and the wonders of fermented foods, as well as his fierce lab assistant Haruka Hasegawa who has a fondness for wearing bondage outfits and grosses out the other characters with her habit of wearing shoes indoors!
At first I thought that Sawaki's strange ability would just be a pretext for depicting college students getting themselves into amusing predicaments. But no: the germs themselves are central to many of the storylines, and if you're not careful, you might find them sparking an interest in microbiology. At the very least you will be amazed to learn of so many bizarre types of fermented foods (and drinks!).

As a bonus, volume 2 gives us a storyline involving the school's Spring Festival. Not having attended a Japanese university, I have no idea how accurate this is, but it makes American fraternity hazings look like a walk in the park.

Occasionally there is also a glimmer that there may be a serious theme buried in here somewhere. A chapter from the germ's-eye-view shows them forming grandiose plans for mutual cooperation, only to be swept away by a mop moments later; it's enough to make you wonder how germlike we ourselves might appear to a higher Being. Not to mention how one each of us humans is, essentially, a colony of micro-organisms bonded together in mutual cooperation. Isn't life weird? This manga makes it a pleasure to contemplate just how weird our existence really is.