And so I return to the tokusatsu well to speak of the Ultraman franchise yet again. This time we'll be striking while the iron is (relatively) hot by extolling the virtues of the ULTRAMAN manga, written by Eiichi Shimizu and drawn by Tomohiro Shimoguchi.
So yeah, we're branching out into manga here on The Trades. Aren't you excited? I know I am.
First, let's get the synopsis out of the way:
A long, long time ago, in a forgotten era known as the 1990s, the world (i.e. Japan) was threatened by a series of attacks by both Earth-born kaiju and aliens from beyond the farthest star. The Science Patrol, the organization tasked with stopping these menaces from, as David DeMoss would put it, f@#$%ing the country up like Percocet, often were overwhelmed by their foes' awesome power. So, in times of crisis, Science Patrol Captain Shin Hayata would raise his Beta capsule to the sky and become the giant of light, the hero Ultraman!
But that was long ago….about twenty to thirty years ago, if the look of old Shin is to be believed.
In that time, Shin has retired from the Science Patrol, gotten married, had a kid and found himself in the cushy position of defense minister. He also has no real memory as his time as Ultraman, since the giant of light defused with him at the end of the last episode of the original series. This leaves Hayata understandably confused when he and his young son Shinjiro start exhibiting super strength and the ability to survive falls from great heights. His old friend Ide (named Ito in the dubbed for some reason), now the Grand Poobah of the Science Patrol, explains everything to the poor guy and brings him in on a secret project....
....Which we cut away from to meet a now teenage Shinjiro going through the motions of high school life. Like standing up for a young female peer being accosted by ruffians (his words, not mine) and accidentally breaking the head ruffian's ankle with his superhuman strength. He flees in terror and later that night he ends up confronted by a tiny (by Ultra franchise standards) and redesigned Bemular, here to visit the sins of the father on Shinjiro by way of murder. Luckily Shin shows up to save the day, looking only slightly ridiculous in the power suit meant to enhance the “Ultraman Factor” within him.
Though he fights valiantly, Belumar puts the now 50ish Shin on the ropes. This prompts Ide to reveal the actual secret project: a power suit designed to look like a cross between Ultraman and Iron Man. He proceeds to smack Shinjiro into the thing and send him out into battle. Will Shinjiro be able to fight against this powerful monster and save his father?!
(Spoiler: the answer is “yes” on both counts)
Now that that’s out o the way, let’s get to the review.
In doing this little series of comic book reviews I’ve found myself coming to an obvious conclusion: all superhero stories are, by their very nature, products of their time. Just look at what we’ve covered so far: Ultimate Spider-Man and Ultimate X-Men are clearly products of the early 2000s. 30 Days of Nightcould only really have looked the way it did and told the story it wanted to tell in a post-Blade and post-Matrix world. And Ultimate Comics: Spider-Man could only ever have been told in this New Tens, when having a black person taking the role of a white hero wouldn’t get you laughed out of a pitch meeting.
And so it is for ULTRAMAN Vol. 1. Both it and the original 1966 series are supposed to be set “in the future”, but it, like many superhero and sci-fi tales, have the fingerprints of the now smeared all over it. The original series was produced at a time when humanity had hope for the future, with the same dreams of global unity that birthed original series Star Trek. This ULTRAMAN (yes, it is spelled in all caps, I checked) manga, however, could only have been produced in the world of today, where the future looks just like now and exo suits are all the rage. Oh, and every superhero tale not based on an already pre-existing property (and some that are) have to either crib notes from Spider-Man or Batman.
Since our main hero is a sixteen year old kid, it seems we’ll be cribbing from Peter Parker’s playbook. Here in this first volume, Shinjiro has to be one of the blandest teenage heroes I’ve seen in a long time. We learn near nothing about him, save for his desire for a girlfriend and his minor angst at not controlling his powers during a confrontation. We learn nothing of his hobbies, his friends, or even his interests outside of “I really want to get laid” and “I must defeat this monster to save my father”. I mean, when you look at Parker, Miles Morales, Kamala Khan, Billy Batson, Tim Drake and the like, you have characters that were fully formed in their identities before page one of their adventures began. Compared to them, Shinjiro isn’t that much of a character.
His first tale itself is also decompressed like nothing I’ve ever seen. It takes a grand total of 228 pages for the first adventure to be over and done with. That’s the kind of decompression that Brian Michael Bendis would look at and go “Damn, son! I thought I took my time…” It’s not like it packed to the brim with stuff that needs to be introduced for the audience to get accustomed to the world, either. We meet only three major characters, we see one confrontation with a monster and have our hero’s first battle…and that’s it. It just feels like their stretching out needlessly for time.
Wait… I said I’d be extolling the virtues of this bad boy, didn’t I?
It’s not like I can call this comic bad in any real sense. For all the hay I give Shinjiro, he’s probably one of the more believable teenagers I’ve seen in manga (though granted, my exposure to manga is limited.) You get the feeling that Shinjiro just hasn’t figured out his life yet and simply wants to be a normal kid and maybe get a girlfriend before he turns eighteen. There’s a scene in chapter two with Shinjiro talking with his father at the dinner table about his future that has to be one of the more normal versions of that conversation I’ve ever seen in fiction. For all his faults, he comes off as very recognizable kid.
As for the rest of the cast introduced….well, we only really got to know Shin and Ide in volume one, so let’s talk about them. Shin Hayata is probably in the most interesting situation of anyone in the book, both the former hero passing down his legacy to his son and learning about what he had done as Ultraman. He obviously cares for his son and is worried that he’s damned him to a life of monster fighting. Again, it’s a believable take on a guy who’d been through such a life and honestly, I like him. Maybe even more here than in the original series, where he was your standard issue Silver Age comic good guy ( in the DC Comics sense).
But the volume’s MVP has to be Ide. He, and by extension the Science Patrol, really help this stand out from our standard “youth”-targeted reboot. Shimizu and Shimoguchi could have easily gone down the well tread road of “evil government deep science organization” or “amoral military branch” but instead basically portray them as straight up good guys. This is best exemplified in Ide himself: his genuinely friendly smile, his avuncular attitude towards Shinjiro and his comforting and relaxed tone when Shin starts remembering his time as Ultraman really sell the character and the organization. Hell, I can sum up what separates them from the pack of government super science organizations with one example: the fact they didn’t turn Shin into a guinea pig and made sure his superhero past remained secret so no one else would.
And now let us finally get to the art. It is, quite simply, spectacular; Shimoguchi really does some fine work on this book, giving it a style that’s modern but not to the detriment of the old. The designs are detailed and never feel like they’re busy or over-accessorized. Shinjiro’s Ultraman suit, yes, looks like Shimoguchi also watched the Iron Man movies, but it also feels like something a super science organization would whip up and design in homage to an old hero. And the action scenes (well, scene, I guess) have to be the most beautifully drawn I’ve ever freaking seen. Not only giving us all the good that’s there but making the characters feel mobile and alive on the printed page. I’m sure there’s probably better out there, but for now, Shimoguchi is on my list of current gen favorite comic artists.
Let me end on this: I’m not entirely sure how well this is gonna keep up. There’s always the possibility that the second volume will reveal heretofore unseen flaws or grottiness inherent in the story. But the fact remains: ULTRAMAN Vol. 1 is a good comic, buoyed by a likeable cast, and interesting premise and awesome art, held back from being great by only one or two major flaws. It’s an absolute joy to read (and a quick read too: about half an hour on my part, but you’ll probably get through it faster) and, whatever the future may hold, I’m glad I purchased this. I give this trade a 7 out of a possible 10.