For the purposes of this review, I’ll be covering Volumes 1-4 of the manga. Very mild spoilers within for those who haven’t read them (if you fit that description, get your ass to the nearest comic shop).
I hate hype. It’s the not-so-silent killer of enthusiasm, and the pre-emptive executioner of proper enjoyment. I mentioned waaaay back in my Aquaman review that the hype machine in the comic world can be just as deadly in giving false expectations as the Hollywood one is, so when a title I might like gets hyped to high heaven by every Internet Johnny from here to Helsinki I’m immediately wary about it. That’s mostly because, seriously, who the hell reads comics all the way out in Helsinki?
Needless to say, Attack on Titan came with a high target to reach for me to get into it. As well as, according to the internet, being more popular than any fictional or artistic endeavour ever created by mankind, it’s also a combo manga-anime franchise bigger than Catholicism and twice as horrifying. Now, I’ve fielded the question before of why I don’t cover manga in this review space to those who’ve asked it, and the simple answer is that manga isn’t in my wheelhouse. I’ve got nothing against the medium or most of the stories it produces (though OnePiece can go suck a sausage), but a lot of it’s just stuff that doesn’t appeal to me. The only other manga I ever really got into was a darkly cute little yarn called Black God, which was entertaining through having a kickass young heroine protagonist and a simultaneous piss-take of the stereotypical male gamer paradigm. All they needed was a specific shot at DotA 2 players for it to be a perfect book for me.
So with a mountainous quantum of hype attached (aren’t you glad I didn’t say “titanic”?), and being part of a medium and genre I’m not hugely keen on, how is it that I can name Attack on Titan as one of the most engaging, excellently paced and masterfully plotted stories I’ve ever experienced?
The story – or, rather, where the story initially jumps off from – follows Eren, a young boy living in humanity’s last triple-walled stronghold against the eponymous Titans. They’re a race of freakishly huge giants falling smack-dab in the middle of the Uncanny Valley who like nothing more than nomming on humans for no better reason than it being the only recreational activity they can enjoy that isn’t destroying immeasurably-old human architecture. After watching his mother get eaten during a Titan attack on his home, Eren joins the Survey Corps, the most badass army of acrobats that could only be eclipsed if Cirque de Soleil became militarised, and vows – with alarming repetition bordering on psychopathy – to destroy each and every one of them.
Attack on Titan‘s major strength is depth. Lots, and lots, and lots, and lots of depth. The quick narrative sketch I just gave you above doesn’t come close to the dense plotting that takes over by the end of the first volume, and almost all the characters are fleshed out to an almost-effortless degree that’d make Brian K. Vaughan jealous (and those that aren’t are usually just Titan chow). Eren sounds like a flat character just out for revenge, but events conspire to shake up that bloodthirsty vision and give him a bit of perspective. His badass action girl sidekick Mikasa, who’s pretty much the Titan-killing Chuck Norris of this universe, is a broken bird with a strong undercurrent of psychological trauma stemming from all the living things she inevitably has to slaughter. Even Jean, the closest thing the story has to a jerkass football jock, gets depth from realising the horrors of war and that not everything’s about him.
As well as the characters, the story achieves a tremendous level of intricacy through a myth arc surrounding the Titans, the walled society and the “why the hell is this all happening?” aspect that author Hajime Isayama has obviously spent a lot of time planning out. If there’s one word the story brings to mind it’s consistency; this isn’t LOST or The X-Files, where a popular enigma is given longer life at the expense of a clear end-goal or any semblance of sense infused in the narrative’s driving forces. No, Attack on Titan is very obviously a story that’s been worked out, at least roughly, from beginning to end, and that’s something very much to the narrative’s favour when off-hand comments in Volume 1 come back as major Chekhov’s Guns in Volume 4. Characters you thought were only there for one-liners or background purposes can become integral as the narrative progresses, so make sure to keep a weather eye on Generic Survey Corps Member #538, coz man, the stuff he gets into is awesome.
Woven around the great protagonists is a real underlining of horror to the whole affair, with the Titans seeming less like the kind of enemy to be laughed at for their overwrought appearance or simply dispatched by humungous mechas, than instead the huge, lumbering engines of fleshy destruction that eat people for kicks with faces that’d probably make the Joker crap his pants. The Titan responsible for inhaling Eren’s mum in particular is one scary-ass creature of nightmare-land, so forward apologies to any of my readers unable to sleep after seeing it below.
The tone is melancholic almost to The Walking Dead levels of downer-ness, but what sets Attack on Titan apart from something like that zombie-killing depressifest is the sense of optimism peppered throughout every human loss and defeat. Humanity knows they’re most likely boned, but dammit if they’re not gonna go down fighting. The threat of the Titans is never eclipsed by humanity’s ability to take them down, and they never become easily-removable villains the way the Borg were in Star Trek Voyager. Eren and his gang do get stronger and more adept at winning battles, but as Liam Neeson said in The Phantom Menace‘s one good quotable line, “There’s always a bigger fish”: just when they’re getting the hang of killing Titans, something nastier shows up.
Despite the elevating threat levels, the narrative never gives the impression that victory or defeat at its end is a foregone conclusion. Characters die frequently, almost to George R. R. Martin levels of ridiculousness, and the first volume alone has the human race lose a fifth of its population and a third of its living space in one fell swoop, but there’s still hope the good guys can beat these things. Conversely, the uplifting aspects are never cheesy or overwrought, though there are a few “power of friendship” and “power of love” tropes used sparingly throughout. The end result is a balanced narrative that can be equal parts despondent and hopeful with neither seeming to be in copious supply. There’s as much of each tonal flavour as there needs to be for the story’s gears to turn properly.
Connected to this is artwork that is at once overly elaborate and simplistically stylised when it needs to be either or. Isayama does some great detailed pencil work during big tableaus and landscape scenes, especially early on with the Colossal Titan’s arrival and the destruction of Eren’s hometown, whilst a lot of the intimate character have sparse backgrounding where necessary to emphasise the visuals of the protagonists. The illustrations shift in service of the story, which is exactly how art in a comic or manga should go. Also, thank God the outfits for the Survey Corps are actually functional; while the real-world cosplay aspect is inherent with almost every costume shown in the story, there’s very little fanservice in the traditional sense that helped define other stories of the genre like Evangelion. The female Corps members wear sensible clothing, not all of the men are barrel-chested bicep machines, and everything they wear seems purposeful rather than masturbatory. Not that that’ll stop all the Rule 34 adherents out there on the internet from making their own graphic interpretations, but it’s still nice to see a graphic story not entirely driven by girls showing more boob than a chicken shop.
One big flaw in the artwork I’ll point out is an issue it shares with The Walking Dead; due to the monochrome pallet and copious cast of characters, there’s a bit of a problem with visual definition between protagonists at times. The Titans are all visually distinct thanks to being of variant shapes, sizes and facial expressions – forever plastered on their visage like a botox treatment gone horribly wrong – but characters do tend to get lost in the shuffle sometimes. It doesn’t help when several characters have similar genders and hairstyles, and in the heat of battle it can be quite demoralising to think you’re watching our hero Eren get nommed by a Titan when in reality it’s actually his visually-similar doppelganger, Steve. It’s not a huge mark against the work, but it does mess with perspective a little. Maybe books like this should just have everyone wearing nametags, each with differing calligraphy.
Dialogue is hard for me to judge adequately. It’s clear a lot of it’s been almost straight translated from the Japanese source material – rather than anime, where close approximations are made in English for the sake of sentence structure and vocal flow – and, as such, some of it comes off as a bit trite, overwrought and cheesy. Eren and Armin’s invigorating speeches (both of whom seem to get at least one per volume) in particular are like being bludgeoned with every lesson you didn’t want to learn from Play School mixed with Lord of the Rings, and an absurd amount of overly-explanatory exposition is used for scenes where characters deduce particular things to each other with enough time on their hands to spout encyclopaedic levels of text to get the point across. To their credit, these talks don’t occur during unreasonable lengths of time; while a book like The Avengers could have characters engage in full-scale high school debate levels of dialogue whilst backflipping and kicking supervillain ass, when you’d think they’d be more than a little puffed to engage in that level of discourse, Attack on Titan‘s discussions thankfully occur during either lulls in battle of during in-between moments when Titans are nowhere to be found.
While the dialogue can come across as a blunt-force trauma to the senses, it’s not bad per se. Takes a bit of getting to used to, I suppose. It’s a little hard for me to adequately judge the translations and the dialogue itself since it’s intended, and crafted, as something different to a Western comic book. That might sound like so incredibly obvious a comment to make that someone is already making me a Duncecap Crown for “World’s Most Obvious Comment Ever, Obviously”, but it’s the truth.
Analysing Attack on Titan is tough for me. Being objective is even tougher. As someone who is very casual when it comes to anime and manga, I find if I get attached to a series like this then it’s unlikely I’ll be able to give the best and most balanced opinion. It’s not like superhero comics, where I engage in experiencing a plethora of varied titles from different genres and authors with differing points of comparison between each. I could probably count on one hand the amount of manga I’ve read to the extent of Attack on Titan, and even less so the ones I actually enjoyed. Certainly none have ever come close to matching the amount of love I have for the story.
So it’s difficult for me to judge most of what the narrative, artwork and dialogue have to offer using my usual comic book rating rubrick. In fact, I can’t. There might be some out there who can make comparisons or use discursive analyses between both comics and manga to come to a point of being able to use a framework to judge either medium, but meh. I can’t.
I’ll stop making you read your eyes off with my hoighty-toighty up-my-own-ass aiming-for-depth-but-ultimately-boring-everyone analysis and just close by saying Attack on Titan is bloody awesome. It’s far from a perfect story, but I took to it quickly. Either that means it’s a kickass book, or I’m just bored with superheroes. That, or I should just get out of the house more.
PUBLISHER: KODANSHA COMICS
BEST QUOTE [from Volume 1]: “That day, the human race remembered…the terror of being dominated by them…and the shame of being held captive in a birdcage.” – Eren Yeager