Based on Attack on Titan by Hajime Isayama
Edited by Jeanine Schaefer
Attack on Titan’s colossal international appeal rests in the universality of it’s story and the ways its world connects to readers regardless of sex, race, or nationality. The series provides a culturally amorphous fantasy world in which anyone could exist, and all its characters are equal in their opportunity to live and die as a member of the Survey Corps. Much like how everyone is able to wear the same outfit as cosplay, everyone is free to let their imaginations run wild with possibilities. The characters, the setting, the theorizing, the lore, the what-ifs – there are many reasons that so many people have been captivated by the series, and why its become a crossover hit unlike any other in recent memory. Attack on Titan is as unique a beast as its titular creatures; there are no walls as to what it can be.
The Attack on Titan Anthology is not only a testament to how much the series inspires, but an encapsulation everything it can mean to so many readers. Some stories like “Live and Let Die” and “Skies Above” explore pursuing love and personal liberation from an oppressive and stifling government, showing defiance in the face of censorship and conformity. Others like “Memory Maze” get introspective on the heartbreak of death and age and a lingering longing to for lost loved ones. Many stories find hope in the series’ bleak setting through humor, such as in “The Titan’s Laugh” wherein the main characters use a bad joke book to make the Titans laugh themselves to death. These stories relate Attack on Titan themes of rebelling against autocracy, love that overcomes adversity, and hope in the face of despair, in profound and emotional responses to the original work. They express thematic concepts presented in the serialized manga in shorter, but still powerful pieces of western comics storytelling, and the emotional subtlety in many of these stories contrasts with the outspoken manga to great effect, especially for fans of both these writers and AoT.
Several artists choose to explore the lore of the series in an interesting and subversive light. “An Illustrated Guide to the Glorious Walled Cities” starts off as an innocuous parody of tourist guide pamphlets before slowly revealing itself a series of confiscated documents, written by a naïve adventurer who ventured too far where she wasn’t supposed to and was censored and censured by the government. Many of the stories critique the controlling and despotic government of the series, perhaps in response to events that had been happening in the manga at the time this anthology was being written as well as real-world events. Whether depicting the military police is hunting down political dissenters and rogue inventors, or rogue Survey Corps scouts preferring to take their chances out in the wild with the Titans than living under a corrupt government that controls through fear, many stories are deeply critical and entrenched in blatant political subtext with very clear allegories. The messages aren’t novel for anti-government stories, but it’s distractingly easy to pick out who the targets lampooned are. “Bahamut,” for instance, intersperses in caricatures of several political figures as Titans, including an obvious expy of a certain U.S. President. It’s fascinating how so many authors can appropriate a japanese manga for very American political satire.
Despite their reverence for the source material, none of the artists in this book are constrained by Attack on Titan’s themes and setting. Many stories appropriate the Titans to tell stories outside the perimeter of the series’s setting and the horror genre. The anthology begins with “Under the Surface,” a genius choice on the part of the editors because of the story builds up to the reveal of Titans in a not-too distant future from our present day. A socio-political commentary on the damage pollution and war wreaks on our environment and life on earth, “Under the Surface” almost has nothing to do with Titans until the last page, making for a darkly humorous twist when a zealous environmentalist mistakes the onslaught of Titans for the return of whales. This morbidly humorous story is only one of many that use the Titans for parables. “Bahamut” tells a bitter love story about a man who abandons the Titan he loves to save his own skin, only for her to end up saving him and then leaving him. It’s a fun, abstract story about how not taking love for granted and how some betrayals can never be forgiven. Also of note is “Fee Fie Foh,” which fuses the concept of Titans with European lore of giants and magic to create a classical fantasy story. This story is perhaps the most removed from the baseline of the series, creating an almost entirely new mythology using the Titans as a base. It’s easily the most original story in the anthology, as well as the purest example of transformative imagination the series inspires.
Breaking the tension between the headier entries are fun, humorous takes of the Attack on Titan universe. “Attack on Attack on Titan” is a series of comic strips interspersed throughout the book, taking a serialized webcomic-esque approach to its humor. Characters are constantly yelling at each other, making stupid puns, and breaking the fourth wall, and brilliantly, the strips acknowledge this and end on the most meta of meta-jokes. These strips turn up the eccentric qualities of the characters up to eleven, leading to insanely ridiculous scenarios like Hange forcing scouts to dress up like a Trojan Horse to lure and study Titans incognito. Similarly, other stories like “Attack on Playtime” and “Attack on Demoncon” play with the concept of having or being Titans in real life to humorous effect, be to have them devour mean teachers at school or beat up grabby guys at a con. The variety of humor elicited from the series makes these comics fun to read, though oddly enough they aren’t quite as playful with the concept as the more experimental or serious stories in the book. Still, I’d gladly read more of these stories than I would official Attack on Titan gag comics like Attack on Titan: Junior High.
The variety of artistic storytelling styles on display in this book is awe-inspiring. Kodansha USA truly assembled an all-star team of writers and artists, including high-profile talent like Scott Snyder and Gail Simone. They have a lot of fun interpreting the series with their own signature artistic styles, ranging from the realistically rendered to the absurdly cartoony, the hyper-shaded to the sensationally stylized and everything in-between. Each artist’s color design sensibilities really distinguish each entry in the book, and help render each interpretation of the series’ world in absolutely beautiful ways. This is where the color sensibilities of western comics shines over the black and white tradition of the original manga, and really bring the world of AoT to life in ways the manga never could. This especially matters in how Titans are depicted in each story, which are consistently the most fun and unique designs in the anthology. Like in the manga, their designs range from horrifying to hilarious, but there’s even more variety in how grotesque and colorful they can be when rendered in different art styles. The differences in how Titans are depicted in each comic really reflects the artistic sensibilities and tone of each work, and are a great barometer of what each artist finds interesting about the series and its titular creatures.
Modern comics and cartoons in the west draw a lot of inspiration from anime, but an anthology of this sort assembling premiere comic artists from the west to each give their takes on a particular manga series is unprecedented, at least in any official capacity. Kodansha USA has broken new ground with this collection of fun and intriguing short stories inspired by Attack on Titan, and hopefully its success will lead to more projects like this being commissioned for other high-profile manga in the future. What better way to celebrate Attack on Titan’s universal appeal and diverse reach with stories that embrace the fact that everyone can be a part of this world? The best thing about the Attack on Titan Anthology is that it celebrates its fans by writing stories about them for them, whether they’re humanist environmentalists, street urchins turned comedians, lesbian inventors, no-nonsense cosplayers, an old woman who lost her child, and yes, even a boy and his dog. This anthology, much like Attack on Titan itself, has something for everyone.