Manga Madness: Biomega by Tsutomu Nihei
Bizarre manga is a wonderful thing. Typically it deviates from standard tropes and themes for the benefit of off the wall storytelling, and brain melting moments. Biomega by Tsutomu Nihei is a shining example of such a process. In the span of six books Nihei stuffs a menagerie of contrary genres, creates a brand new universe with in our solar system, destroys the human race and supplants them with an entirely new species, and wraps it all up with a neat little bow. The volume of story that gets crammed into so few pages is absolutely incredible, especially given most of the story is presented through extremely fast paced action sequences. How Nihei juggles consistent forward momentum with massive quantities of storytelling is magical: every chapter begins and ends on the brink of absolute disaster, making salvation the primary objective of every protagonist. Yet behind the simple goal of saving humanity, a complex web of corporate corruption and scientific madness is weaved, and thousands of years to fill the imagination.
To assign Biomega a single, or even pair of genres would be an under-simplification and misrepresentation of how the story operates. The number of genres Nihei crosses is truly amazing, it’s a sci-fi, post-apocalyptic, zombie, survival horror, cyberpunk, high fantasy, post-human, action, suspense, thriller. In other words, it’s a complete mess. To blend that many genres into one story would require a balancing act so precise, no one particular genre would get enough, if even a little, time to stand at the front of the line. And even if the story were properly balanced not every element could possibly be rotated enough to be thoroughly featured.
Instead of focusing on one genre at a time, Nihei circumvents that process by making each generic element occur simultaneously. The story never transitions from one generic quality to the next, it stabilizes in the middle of each one, the central intersection in the middle of a twisted venn diagram. On the outside it may seem like a mess, but once inside the story becomes extremely unique because of the vast number of intersections. Each genre Nihei crosses through is given an interesting twist and a new perspective, tried and true themes become idiosyncratic, making what we know and understand about each genre feel unsafe and strange. Without the safety of reasonable expectations Nihei is free to do as he pleases while keeping readers on the edge of their seats.
Beyond generic diversity, the way space and movement are controlled is breathtaking. Action sequences, which are heavily present, take on a cinematic quality few comics achieve. Movement is presented so precisely individual panels become frames peeled away from a strip of film. The eye moves so fluidly across the barriers and gutters of the page disappear, if ripped apart and assembled panel over panel, action can be cycled like a flipbook. With such detail and precision applied to action, visual movement takes on an astounding level of realism despite the fantastical nature of the story. But due to how clear-cut action is presented even synthetic humans battling impossible genetic monstrosities becomes possible.
Through his precision, Nihei’s individual brand of messy, sketchy art is an improbable companion to well articulated action. He routinely plays with lights and darks that give his worlds overbearing thematic qualities. In the pre-germinated world, the cities and landscapes are dark, hopeless expanses of correctly engineered urban decay; on the post-germinated umbilical column darkness turns to light and is exposed to the brightness of hope, despite being buried in the vastness of space. All the while Nihei’s art gives a flimsy impression, as if it could fall apart and leave the story a broken, scattered mess.
With these elements combined, the momentum of Biomega is unrelenting. The story forges ahead, frequently at blinding page-turning speeds, while constructing a complex, multi-layered story around it. There’s practically no exposition, and no stalled moments to disrupt the heavy pace. Each key story element happens in the moment around Zoichi or the other protagonists as they battle the ultimate evil. Nihei reveals all in the middle of a sprint, forcing the reader to either catch up on their own, or get lost in the dust.
And that’s just for elements of the story relevant to plot resolution. Within threads of sub-plot, limitless potential is introduced through hundreds of years of in-story time progression. It gives a feel similar to Brandon Graham and Simon Roy’s Prophet: scattered stories within a single universe tied together by common characters. Although the pace never relents, we are introduced to more cultures, societies, and lifeforms than can be expounded upon in the limited book space. Nihei gives us glimpses of all this but leaves the rest up to the imagination of the readers.
So on the surface, and due to a mostly action sequence presentation, the story feels like there’s not a whole lot there; it seems as if the main story is undermined by the pace at which the story is presented. In reality the opposite is happening. There is so much story, so much of the universe to cover, we are only given specific, detailed glimpses of something too big to be contained in a single series.
On the whole Biomega is one of the weirdest, and most excellent comics out there. It’s a prominent example of manga at its finest: a unique universe, with a unique style, and a head-scratching combination of genres mixed together.
Biomega is available now for mature readers from Viz Media.