Jason Thompson's House of 1000 Manga Blame!
by Jason Thompson, Aug 29th 2013
Episode CLV: Blame!
"Maybe on Earth, maybe in the future…"
—Blame! Volume 1
One of the scariest things in the world is scale. The planet Earth seems large, but as The Manga Guide to the Universe reminds us, it's a tiny point in a universe that seems to get bigger and more hostile the more we know about it. As Bill Nye demonstrated, the Earth were just 100 meters from the sun, and the planet Jupiter were 500 meters away, the nearest star system, Alpha Centauri, would be 30,000 kilometers away. Infinities of emptiness separate us from everything, and as the universe expands, it's getting emptier and emptier, like all the stars and planets are just the film of giant bubbles getting thinner and thinner are they expand. Us, our world, and even matter itself, is a tiny speck in an ocean of nothingness.
This doesn't come up in most manga, but I bet Tsutomu Nihei thinks about it, when he's not thinking about giant tentacled biotech monsters and huge explosions and skeletal cyborgs. Nihei is one of the most talented science fiction manga artists, and though his work doesn't have much text or lengthy discussions of science, it has a feel of scale: a feel of awe. In Nihei's manga, humanity is a tiny tiny thing dwarfed by the massive forces of the cosmos, whether that cosmos is made of emptiness and stars, like in Knights of Sidonia, or trillions of tons of debris and metal, like in Blame!.
Killy, the hero of Blame!, wanders endlessly through an endless city. They call it a "city", but it's more like an endless labyrinth, with no windows or skylights, an infinite maze. Skyscrapers and ruined factories repeat themselves for thousands of miles, connected by vast walls, bridged by giant cables. Deep canyons stretch between buildings with thin beams of light filtering down from above. Stairs and ladders stretch for incredible distances. There is no sky. There is no exit. Most of the city is rusty and decayed, but the machinery is still active: giant "Builder" robots continue to construct the city, mindlessly building and bulding though the blueprint is lost, the creators are long gone.
Who were the original creators? Humans, maybe. In places there are human communities, inbred and mutated due to the long distances between them. They live off scraps of technology, in the shadows of the machines, with little knowledge of their past. Most of the inhabitants, however, are not human. There are countless species of larvae, from the giant grubs that eat decomposing metal, to the small, quick-moving parasites that fuse with the victim's nervous system, to the headless maggot-people who crawl and grope. The Silicon Life, hostile cyborgs, pose a threat to Killy and other humans. But even more dangerous are the Safeguard, the automated antiviral system that guards the Megastructure, the metal framework dividing the millions of caves and tunnels that make up the city. The Megastructure is like a gigantic body, its parts separated by membranes, riddled with cancers, eaten by worms.
It's a dangerous world, but luckily, Killy is really tough, and he has a gun. A Big ******* Gun. Actually, it's handgun-sized, but it's a Graviton Beam Emitter, an incredibly rare and powerful weapon, the only thing capable of blasting holes in the super-metal that makes up the Megastructure. If he fires it at full power, the recoil tears his arm off, although medicine being advanced in the Blame! world, this isn't necessarily a permanent problem. Whenever he fires, hit or miss, it carves a hole through solid metal 70 kilometers long. In a world where anyone you meet may mutate into a flesh-eating cyborg monster, it's a useful weapon to have, although its power level is calibrated more for destroying cities than destroying individual opponents—but better than nothing, right?
Blame! is a manga full of action. The Japanese edition has the English title Blame!, but the katakana reads Buramu, and many people believe it's supposed to be Blam!, the American comics sound of an explosion. (Alas, the actual sound effects in Blame! are ordinary Japanese katakana DON!s and DOKUN!s.) There aren't many conversations in Blame!, but there are LOTS of fight scenes in which Killy sees someone in the distance and when he gets closer they turn out to be a monster and attack him…or some monster suddenly bursts through the wall and attacks him…or a whole army of humans (or monsters) fight an army of monsters…in case I'm being unclear THERE ARE TONS OF FIGHTS AND TONS OF MONSTERS IN THIS MANGA. Freakish cyborgs, giant larvae, giant fetuses, tentacled worms…anything can appear around any corner, and even the world itself can mutate, as nanotechnological creatures emerge from cysts in the floor and surfaces transform and corrode. With so many weapons getting fired, things changing into other things, mutations and explosions, sometimes it's hard to tell what's going on. When Nihei gets tired of a scene, often he'll just have Killy get knocked off a cliff or blasted through a wall, and then Killy just gets up, dusts himself off, and he's in a different place with a different story.
If Blame! were a movie, it would be 50% fights, and 50% scenes of tiny human figures walking through vast landscapes, which when I put it that way, sounds like Dragon Ball Z meets Gerry. (I wonder if when Nihei couldn't decide what to do next, his editor told him "Just draw buildings for a couple of pages until you come up with an idea.") There is sort of a story, however, and we learn it in bits and pieces. Killy's goal is to access the Authority, the computer system that controls the Megastructure. To do so, however, he must find a person with Net Terminal Genes, the ultra-rare genetic marker that allows them to communicate with the system. At first, Killy is alone, but later he is accompanied by Cibo, a female scientist from a subspecies of humanity where the people are super-thin and nine feet tall. Cibo is motivated by scientific curiosity, but Killy needs to contact the Authority because if he doesn't, the builder robots will continue to build endlessly and the size of the city will spiral further and further out of control: "The city is expanding and growing at random. It has been happening for so long now that we have lost all ability to calculate the size of the city." That's the thing: "the city" is not underground: it is an interstellar structure like a Dyson sphere, a giant ever-growing structure which has already consumed the Earth and the sun. In the city, it's perfectly possible to travel 6780km in an elevator or 3000km up a flight of stairs. What might not be possible is to travel out of the city faster than the city is growing. At one point, Killy climbs a long way up to a place that has no ceiling, only starless darkness…only to discover that he isn't on the outside of the sphere, just on the edge of a giant room 143,000km across…
And to think that thiswas almost a generic cops vs. cyborgs manga. Tsutomu Nihei's very first 1995 one-shot version of Blame! (collected in the anthology Noise) was a much more ordinary dystopian city thing: your standard '90s sci-fi, a lot of Tony Takezaki plus a little H.R. Giger. But when Blame! became an ongoing series, two years later, it ditched the clichés and the cheesy dialogue and stuck to what Nihei does best: action, architecture and a sense of grandeur. Nihei's vision of humans living like rats in a machine-infested labyrinth feels a lot like the The Matrix (which came later), as well as other great postapocalyptic scenarios like George R.R. Martin's "In the House of the Worm," set in a dying far-future earth where the last survivors struggle against giant burrowing creatures that live in the planet's core. And Nihei's art is super-H.R.-Giger-y, but it also reminds me of Philippe Druillet, whose bridge across the stars could exist somewhere in the world of Blame!. At times, I even had flashbacks of Yūichi Yokoyama's Garden, a plotless underground manga in which nameless, faceless characters explore an endless landscape of abstract shapes, walking and climbing over increasingly weird structures, the view over each hill stranger than the last.
Nihei is a video game fan, which brings up another comparison: Blame! feels like a huge, procedurally generated Roguelike dungeon, the kind with minimum plot and maximum wandering monsters. The Japanese tankobon even have the English subtitle "Adventure Seeker Killy in the Cyber Dungeon Quest." (There is a faint dungeon-RPG feel, particular in volume 4 when we meet a knight in armor and tiny winged cyberfairies…but luckily, Nihei never gets too fantasy-ish or starts talking about Hit Points.) Most manga series are based around memorable characters, but in Blame!, there are almost no ongoing characters, and even Killy has little personality; he's less a character than an avatar. You read Blame! to go where Killy goes and see what Killy sees. Since there is so little exposition or dialogue, there are many things we never find out, such as: What was the origin of the Megastructure? How do people live here without sunlight, water, food? What exactly is the purpose of the orb in the second half of the series? What exactly happens to Cibo? Or even: who is Killy, and what is he thinking? Some of these questions are answered in Noise, the very cool one-shot prequel to Blame!,; others are answered in untranslated Nihei one-shots; but some we may never know.
The amazing thing about Blame!, then, is that it's such a good read even though it has almost no story or characters (and, spoiler, it doesn't have much of an ending either). It's all about the art and the experience of being there, of not knowing what will happen next, of the contrast between landscapes of endless sameness and bloody eruptions of chaos and gore. Interestingly, all Nihei's series after Blame! have been more character-driven and more accessible. His first followup series, Biomega (translated by Viz),starts out as a zombie apocalypse, set in a far-future but still vaguely recognizable Earth. The hero, Zoichi, is an artificial human with inhumanly fast reflexes who rides around on a motorcycle blasting zombies and trying to protect what remains of the human race; but the zombies are just one small piece of a nanotech apocalypse, and pretty soon the story goes to Blame! territory with the very planet transformed beyond recognition. Nihei's current series Knights of Sidonia (translated by Vertical) is not only his first shonen manga but his most 'normal' series ever: it follows the time-honored "mecha pilots fighting giant aliens" formula and the "kids in a special elite school" formula. (The elite school's inside an ark ship fleeing giant mindless aliens that already ate the solar system.) Undiluted Nihei is a pretty strange flavor, but part Nihei plus part shonen manga equals a manga that's really unique (lots of unexplained mysteries, lots of weird imagery, minimal dialogue) plus has characters and a story. Knights of Sidonia and Biomega are definitely part of the Niheiverse, but in their own way, they're each an evolution. His art, too, makes a definite improvement from the beginning of Blame! to his current work, but Blame! is still totally worth picking up.
Like many early Tokyopop series, Blame! is annoyingly hard to get nowadays; although it's only 10 volumes, some of the volumes go for astounding sums of $$$ on ebay and alibris, and if your local library has it, you're in luck. It'd be a good choice for omnibus editions if some publisher was willing to pick it up again. In addition to Knights and Biomega, in 2003 Nihei also drew a 5-issue Wolverine miniseries for Marvel, Wolverine: Snikt! (score one for the 'the title is a sound effect' theory). The story is basically "Wolverine in the Niheiverse" with the names changed: Wolverine fighting giant evil machine-monsters. But it's not really about the monsters or the fighting. It's aboutthe insignificance of humanity, the intersection of pattern and chaos, the jaw-dropping distances of space and time.If Wolverine was casually crushed beneath a piece of crumbling machinery the size of the planet Mercury, that'd be truly Blame! like. Of course he'd regenerate afterward, but still.
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