Manga Spotlight: Biomega Volume 2 by Tsutomu Nihei Released by VIZ Media
Volume 2 of Biomega doesn't quite have the horror heft of its predecessor. In volume one, Tsutomu Nihei pulled of an impressive trick, constructing a sort of biomechanical haunted city, establishing a Lovecraft/Giger/Keiichiro Toyama infected landscape that managed to simultaneously be both imposingly imminence and claustrophobic. In volume two, isolation is replaced with violent interaction. Mystery is replaced with new familiarity with stakes and opposition. That moves the genre a needle a bit, but it doesn't change the essential appeal of Biomega. Its hero, Zouichi Kanoe, should be petrified of the danger he's facing. Every towering wall surrounding him looks liable to be honeycombed with zombies ready to rend him. He's an ant with an elephant's foot hovering above him. Yet, he's completely undeterrable. In Terminator fashion, he can only move towards his objective. Tsutomu Nihei works off his own particular style, tuned from series to series. As such, it's unlikely that he's deconstructed influences and pieced them together in his own manga. But, especially in the case of Biomega, the work could read as a Nihei dyed patchwork. Biomega was once featured on the cover of home anthology Ultra Jump (an older audience Jump sibling, which also serializes Bastard!!, Dogs, Tenjou Tenge, and, until recently, Battle Angel Alita: Last Order). Zouichi Kanoe is mounted on his black motorcycle, in his black armor, head masked by a black helmet. The only feature on the man and his bike are the cracks, pock marks and the bits of duct tape holding together the face of the bike and a sleeve. Reinforced by his female, holographic companion, the hero functions like duct tape punk Master Chief. Biomega is set in a broken, corrupted world. Everything is in disrepair, smattered with rust or blood. The notion that the hero is vulnerable to the same forces is sold by his appearance. He's not a Fist of the North Star style muscular beast. Sans helmet, he looks slight and pale. It's a face that would be at home in a more sensitive, introspective manga. Thing is, despite the suggestion of fragility, he's a juggernaut. Evidently, nothing short of dismemberment would slow Zouichi Kanoe. It's all business. There's no posturing, chest thumping, or alpha dogging, so, "macho" isn't the right word, but this is a guy who doesn't flinch with a Resident Evil boss standing at point blank range, looking to decorate the room with his insides. With the same sort of straight face exhibited by its protagonist, BioMega approaches its ridiculousness in full deadpan. Volume two opens with an episode stamped from a familiar action story template. Black hats capture a business. They threaten the proprietor’s daughter to extract information. To rescue them, the hero must dash through the siege of enemies to confront their boss. Here, a mutated monster wearing a business suit and butcher's apron, head enclosed in mask-like bone is using a drill finger to execute men in laboratory clean-suits. His heavily armed shock troops bring in the daughter of the installation's chief scientist, and Skeletor threatens to expose her to the n5s virus - a deadly pathogen that made its way back from a disastrous attempt to colonize Mars. To make it onto this scene, our man in black has to ride through a full military deployment. He contends with fighter jets... dodging missiles and counter attacking with pistol and axe. He hijacks a ride back to their aircraft carrier. Past the bay, he screeches into the tunnels of a military industry complex citadel. A motorcycle and a quicker trigger finger gets him through the occupying arm and puts Zouichi Kanoe face to face with the drill fingered unfriendly. Tsutomu Nihei is not a particularly good panel to panel fight illustrator. If you block out one of the melees and tried to mimic Zouichi Kanoe's lefts and rights, you'd wind up feeling pretty silly. And, if BioMega's action was depending on coherent choreography, this wilting under inspection would be a problem. However, it's not dependant and it isn't a problem. There's no pronounced deficit when fights are imagined and rendered like Nihei's. In a fight that struck me as especially logically disastrous when followed blow by blow, the knuckle dusting is a stage of a sequence initiated by Zoichi being pierced through the chest by projectiles from a woman comprised of coils; he's sent through a wall; rushed by a gang of white masked Compulsory Execution Unit troops who attempt to remove his limbs with a set of jaws-of-life; Zoichi recovers, turns the table, takes a few heads and launches those severed crania at other adversaries; engages in the above mention kick/punch bits; and finally, dodges a missile on his way out of the scene. I can point to manga artists who take space and human mechanics into account when illustrating fights scenes, but I can also point to artists who'd just put in an "and then, the magic happened" place holder, leaving the action to the reader's imagination. Biomega situates itself in the middle and sells that with attitude and atmosphere. That's how it coheres. It doesn't invite the reader to think too hard about anything else, and if it did, there would be a ton of suspension of disbelief to wrestle with. Instead, the approach to creating gloom then burning through it races around that concern. Among manga critics, BioMega is often spoken of as the manga with the sniper-bear... there's a man in a bear's body who uses a sniper rifle, and by volume two, has a hook hand. Though memorable and significant (he is on the cover), from the action fan point of view, the bear might be oversold a bit. He's a nice to have and not a key marker of Biomega's awesomeness. Chewbacca's presence adds to Star Wars, but the inclusion of an angry sasquatch among the heroes isn't the best persuasive leverage there. The second way manga critics frame BioMegia is to discuss it as the prime manga for people who like video games of the sci-fi foot soldier variety. That sort of game is unpopular/niche in Japan, so I suspect the Halo/Resistance/Gears of War continuum didn't enter too far into Nihei thinking, but it isn't an invalid value proposition for BioMega either. "Like a popular video game genre" is a dangerous proposition for anything not a video game. It's liable to place the media in competition with video games, with the immediate rejoinder being, why spend the time/money on it instead of the games? Why read about Biomega's hero's shoot outs, when one can play them out. As the spectacle and writing offered by games has improved, the position of anime and manga in genres like sci-fi and fantasy has eroded. I'd argue that different media can be in competition for the time and funds of their audience. While I personally prefer manga to video games, I also recognize that manga often loses this competition. At about $13 a volume, Biomega is only slightly cheaper than a downloadable video game, Nut I'm not sure how often manga and games get stacked head to head any more. Instead, it seems like manga has been pushed out of the consideration of the audience who might be interested in both. Biomega does hold up well in that comparison, but not necessarily by playing to manga's strengths versus games'. While a game can develop plot and character sophistication, manga has a deeper foundation of delivering those narrative elements. Characters and plot are functional in Biomega. Neither deserve much credit for making it an involving manga. Nihei's success in Biomega is in how he manages the manga's directed experience. He's able to leverage manga's lack of limitations to go big, while ensuring that it doesn't matter that fights aren't perfectly coherent, the characters are thin \and the story is routine. Tightly focused on developing the impression of its cyclist hero plying his lethal business against titanic opposition, BioMega slams the impact of spectacle manga. Maybe it's punching outside its weight class to go against video games, but it proves ferocious enough to compete.