Reviewby Casey Brienza, Oct 3rd 2009
Flock of Angels
GN 1-3 (Complete Series)
The latest hot boy band Angelaid has made wearing wings fashionable, but what is the teenaged Shea going to do when he unexpectedly sprouts real wings? Turns out that he has contracted the angelosis virus, and he is not the only one with a pair of all too real—not to mention functional—feathered wings. The reason ordinary people such as Shea have never heard of angelosis is because those afflicted live in the shadows, subject to discrimination and violence. At times they are even enslaved! The Ministry of Health has been fighting the good fight against such inhumane treatment of the winged people, and Shea's natural charisma is the perfect public face for their public relations campaign. Little does he suspect, however, that he will be drawn into the complex, fascinating, and at times sinister history of angelosis virus outbreaks…and he might even discover true love in the process.
Wings as a metaphor for homosexuality? Don't laugh. It almost works. Crude jokes about fairies aside, this three volume manga series' ridiculous premise—that a virus brought down to earth by an asteroid infects random humans and makes them sprout feathered wings—is transformed by manga artist Shoko Hamada into a sustained, semi-serious discourse about struggle against the evils of social prejudice and discrimination. Most of the subplots involve coming out the closet as an “angel,” governmental and non-governmental protection and advocacy on behalf of those infected, or paranoid fears of viral infection on the part of “normal” people. Obviously, all of these would be quite familiar with anyone who deals with gay and lesbian issues.
I do not mean to imply, however, that this manga is somehow masterful in its usage of angels as proxy for social commentary. In fact, the story most of the time feels extremely heavy-handed and clumsy, far better in theory than it is in practice. Fortunately, there appears to have been a learning curve here, and each successive volume is stronger and less disjointed than the last. So, while the first volume sets the stage and populates the world with a series of more or less self-contained chapters, it's not until the second volume that any larger, long term concerns for the protagonist Shea start to emerge.
The stories in the first volume range from the discomfiting to the disappointing. The initial plot arc revolves around Shea's new wing buds, which has got to be a metaphor for puberty (and possibly spontaneous erections?) if there ever was one. Once he's an official angel, though, he becomes the public face of angelosis, and that means duties both tedious and tremendous. Perhaps the most affective chapter involves the discovery of a slave trade in infected children; although this is not a sexually explicit manga, it should be abundantly clear that these young people are being sold for pedophilic purposes. Needless to say, the aftereffects of such abuse are not depicted with due gravitas, yet for even marginally introspective readers it is plenty of food for thought.
The second plot arc, roughly corresponding to the second of three volumes, is the closest Flock of Angels gets to a typical romance story. Shea believes himself to have encountered a beautiful black-winged angel (where black wings are not otherwise known to exist). He spends quite a bit of time pursuing rumors of black-winged ones and eventually meets Aema and the Family, a reclusive and slightly sinister group of angels who trace their lineage back to an earlier angelosis infection. The have powers that fourth generation angels such as Shea do not, and they live like parasites off of normal human society. The implication is that they are the truth behind the legends of devils and demons in mythological tradition worldwide.
They are also dying off. Aema is the last of the breeding females, and pairing off with Shea, it is believed, ensures the end of their kind. So Shea decides to leave his beloved and return to his life as the public face of angelosis. In the final volume, it is learned that there may be another way to save the Family…though it may be too late for Shea and Aema. The resolution is a bit too arbitrary and happy go lucky for my tastes, but its optimism—where people of all different types and persuasions are able to live, love, and play together in harmony—is nonetheless quite compelling in principle. Too bad that…well, let us not spoil it all, shall we?
In the case of a sci-fi/fantasy story such as Flock of Angels that is attempting a brand of socio-political commentary, the abundance of illustrated winged things of bishounen, bishoujo, and cherubic phenotype alike is the icing on the cake, as it were. Hamada's artwork is not the most skilled to grace the Japanese manga milieu, but her character designs are attractive. Humanoids with wings are always an easy sell, anyway, and the many double-page spreads of cherubic children with adorable little wings are tooth-rottingly precious. What the artwork lacks in precise layouts and visual angles it more than makes up for in gratuitous eye candy. Which is fair, given that none of the characters are especially well-developed, three-dimensional personalities.
All in all, Flock of Angels is a flawed series with its fair share of disappointments. But if you can stomach its imperfections, it has its rewards. After all, it is rare to see Japanese manga that attempt to tackle thorny social issues of pressing contemporary relevance, even when those issues are concealed beneath an oppressively heavy layer of improbable, fantastic dross.
Overall : B
Story : B-
Art : B+
+ Intriguing socio-political commentary buried beneath an improbable plot premise. Decent eye candy.
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