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To Terra... Vol. 1-3 (Vertical)

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A look at a '70s sci-fi classic, courtesy of shojo manga pioneer Keiko Takemiya.

 

 

 

312-344 pgs. ea. B&W; $13.95 ea.
(W / A: Keiko Takemiya)
 
Note: This review was written as a slightly belated entry into the May edition of the “Manga Movable Feast,” a monthly event that seeks to foster a sense of community among manga bloggers, critics, and fans by encouraging willing participants to provide their own in-depth analysis of a different manga title each month. Click here to see the complete list of articles on To Terra…
 
In a far distant future, technology has afforded mankind space travel and every possible creature comfort, but at a terrible price: humanity’s home planet, Terra, is dying. Seeking to avert this disaster, the entire human race evacuates the planet, leaving its restoration in the hands of an all-powerful supercomputer known as “Mother.” Mother creates a new world order where populations are tightly controlled, where children are born artificially and raised on the distant planet of Ataraxia by surrogate parents. Upon reaching roughly the age of puberty, all children must undergo a “maturity check,” a deep psychological profile that erases all memory of their parents and readies them for the role they’ll play in supporting Mother’s ultimate plan for restoring Terra.
 
It is several hundred years into Mother’s dystopic reign that we meet Jomy Marcus Shin, a pre-teen rapidly approaching his maturity check who is haunted by mysterious dreams of a sci-fi space hero called Soldier Blue. When his nonconformist behavior and a sudden telepathic outburst cause him to fail his maturity check, Jomy finds himself on the run, only to be rescued by a mysterious mute stranger and shuffled off to the Ataraxia underground. There, Jomy learns the terrifying truth: that the maturity checks are a way for Mother to weed out the “Mu,” a race of mutants born with telepathic powers; that Jomy himself is a Mu; and that Soldier Blue is not a dream, but rather the leader of the Mu resistance. As it turns out, Soldier Blue is dying and Jomy, as a rare Mu that doesn’t suffer from any sort of physical weakness or birth defect, is his chosen successor, whether he’s willing to accept it or not.
 
 
To Terra…
is a bit of an anomaly for an American manga release. The industry is so centered on getting out what’s hot and new that manga of this vintage (its Japanese serialization ran from 1977 to 1980) rarely see a release as it is (though the book’s publisher, Vertical, does wonders in that regard). Space operas are even rarer, and usually only make it over the Pacific in animated form. Rarer still in America is the work of the Magnificent Forty-Niners, an infamous group of groundbreaking 1970s shojo artists, so-named because they all shared the birth year of 1949. Combine all of those factors and Keiko Takemiya’s To Terra… is in elite enough company to count on one hand: only Moto Hagio’s long out-of-print They Were 11 and A, A’ [A, A Prime] and Takemiya’s own Andromeda Stories (also released in English by Vertical in 2007, a few months after To Terra…) fit the bill.
 
Its vintage and historical significance alone make To Terra… worth a look, but there’s much more to it than that. This book is a space opera in the grandest sense of the word, but by filtering this manliest of genres through Takemiya’s shojo sensibilities, the result is a fascinating hybrid. Takemiya’s heroes are so wispy that it looks like a strong wind might blow them away, but their slender limbs and softened features do little to deaden how fiercely she communicates their resolve as she serves up every tense scene with an extra dollop of melodrama. To Terra… certainly isn’t hurting for action-packed aerial dogfights, and when it comes time, Takemiya can draw technically flawless spaceships with the best of ‘em. She’s just as likely, though, to let the space scenery linger, with gorgeously rendered double-page spreads or long vertical panels that slash the page into pieces to help set the scene. In the art of To Terra…, atmosphere is key.
 
Much like American comics of that era, To Terra… is a denser read than its modern counterparts. Though the series is only 1000 pages long (fairly brief by manga standards), its general text-heaviness makes it read much better in 150-200 page chunk. It’s conveniently divided in just such a fashion in the first two volumes (the third volume bears no such chapter breaks), and those chapter breaks do more than just mark cliffhangers: they also split the book between the two halves of its story.
 
 
In the first volume, Takemiya spends the first 150 pages rocketing through Jomy’s shift from care-free teenager to leader of an underground rebellion. But then Part 2 starts and Jomy is absent for just as many pages, replaced by Keith Anyan, a human “elite” being groomed as Terra’s ultimate defender. He has stellar skills but no memories of his life before the maturity check, and an absolutely dogged distrust of anyone with even the barest hints of ESP.
 
It’s clear what Takemiya was trying to do here: show Keith as the flipside to Jomy’s character, and spend the entirety of Vol. 1 as a buildup to the pair’s inevitable collision in Vol. 2. But the problem is in the pacing: by basically telling all of Jomy’s story in one chunk first, Keith’s half comes off as more of an obstacle to the book’s main plot than an integral part of it. It doesn’t help that as the book advances, Jomy’s story continues to outshine Keith’s, particularly once he leads the Mu to colonize their own planet as a launching pad to their eventual attack on Terra. Had the scene constantly switched back and forth between Keith and Jomy, Keith’s story might have grabbed hold a little more, but by joining in so late in the game, his screentime feels more like a distraction than an advancement of the plot.
 
While not a brilliant piece of art from front to back, To Terra… is a compelling space opera told in a unique way that makes it well worth seeking out, and the format and presentation of Vertical’s English release are all-around top-notch. Though the book works as a straightforward action story, there’s plenty of subtext bubbling below the surface, with Takemiya making a pointed environmentalist message while also thoroughly analyzing how a person’s life is affected by their parents, or lack thereof. This series is well-worth seeking out for those looking to broaden their manga horizons, or those who love getting a glimpse at the foundations that the works of today were built on. | Jason Green
 
Click here for more information and a 16-page preview of To Terra..., courtesy of Vertical! 
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