The Fall 2019 Manga Guide
Cells At Work! Code Black
What's It About?The human body is made up of thousands upon millions of moving parts, most so small you can't see them. So what really happens when you abuse them? You're about to find out – a newly grown Red Blood Cell is starting work in a human body that isn't really in the best of shape with its erectile dysfunction, smoking, and heavy drinking, to say nothing of veins bumpy and close with cholesterol.
As Red tries his best to deliver the oxygen the body needs to stay alive, busty White fights gonorrhea and hair loss. It's never a picnic being a blood cell, but surely it doesn't have to be this stressful?
Cells at Work! Code Black is a spin-off of Akane Shimizu's Cells at Work! manga. It's written by Shigemitsu Harada and illustrated by Issei Hatsuyoshiya and was released by Kodansha in September. It's available in paperback ($12.99) and digitally ($10.99).
Is It Worth Reading?
If the original Cells at Work! manga was a fun trip through the body on a roughly sixth grade level, Cells at Work! Code Black is its kind of gross older cousin. The biology is still very basic, so you don't need a vast understanding of how the human body works in order to read it, but the subject matter is definitely more adult in nature – the progression of the chapters is smoking, drinking, erectile dysfunction, gonorrhea, and balding. So yeah, not for the kiddies.
You could, however, make an argument for it being for the teens, because while there are definitely adult aspects to both the story and how it's drawn (bare-breasted women aren't as uncommon as you'd expect and the female white blood cells don't button their shirts), but it feels like the essential function of the story is to be a Terrible Warning. The smoking chapter, for instance, focuses on things like how oxygen has been prioritized for the organs to combat the health problems brought on by the body's owner and how the lungs have just finished cleaning up from the last time the body smoked – ten years ago. The designation of the liver as a hostess club with the cells in charge of cleaning up the poisons in alcohol as lovely hostesses helps to drive home the point about how killing off these cells is a bad, sad thing, because seeing the nice ladies suffer is much more poignant than just thinking about, well, human livers.
That all of this mess then causes erectile dysfunction may get the point across more clearly, of course, and wow, is that a chapter that taught me more about penis function than I ever wanted to know. There's also a sort of weird optimism to the chapter where the cells are all excited about procreation and assume that all sex is for reproductive purposes that seems kind of at odds with the overall cynicism of the volume. Perhaps it's meant to indicate that the body really wants to live, and that we don't always appreciate that or make it easy for the cells to do their work. That is in keeping with the rest of the book, but it isn't executed particularly well.
While the art does mimic original creator Akane Shimizu's fairly well, it is also clearly the work of a different artist. The lines are more brush-like and the bodies of the cells more uniform, and there's less of a sense of cohesion in terms of how the body comes together. As previously mentioned, it does up the fanservice considerably and is just generally more…adult. Let's just say that if you don't like your monsters to look like penises, this may not be the book for you.
On the whole, however, this is a good addition to the Cells at Work! family. It's informative, clear, and at times funny, and even if it isn't always tonally clear, it is certainly interesting.
I haven't seen or read Cells at Work!. I'm aware of it enough, however, to know that an M-rated, shrink-wrapped spinoff is, at a glance, a little out of step with how that series carries on. But Cells at Work! is a premise with a lot of comic and narrative potential outside of its initial goals, potential that Code Black does realize to an entertaining extent.
The re-framing of the day to day labor of being a cell as an exploitative job where you are little more than expendable fodder is Code Black's funniest and most resonant aspect. Like the main series, the comedy primarily arises from faces, personalities and conflict being attached to mundane biological processes. Unlike the main series, the cells live in a dystopic nightmarescape that's a direct result of someone with ridiculously unhealthy habits. Cells die like cannon fodder, bemoan the horror and hardship of their situation, and are faced with uncaring, terrible catastrophe day after day. And it's really funny. Be it Killer T Cells flying into a rage and causing pattern hair loss or red blood cells having to go to the liver to ‘drink’ their sorrows away, Code Black does a great job leveraging trope-y severity for comedy by etching it onto the banal. It also helps that, though probably not intentional, the book does have things to say about unethical, bad labor practices. This relevance gives it extra dimension outside of the goofs.
Some things in Code Black are a little tasteless, however. The hyper-sexualization of the White Blood Cells is unneeded (especially in scenes where their being massacred by invading bacteria) and undermines the main story of reformism and worker exploitation. This is almost certainly a concession to the new, darker tone; what better way to sell people on a bold new spin-off than with blood and nudity, after all? And some of this new ‘adult content’ does work in tandem with the book's themes (like the introductory scene where several cells are killed by a sudden rush of carbon monoxide) or just plain funny (the chapter where the cells work to aid the body in ejaculation is actually hilarious), but far too much of it is gratuitous, sticking out like an inflamed lymph node.
Cells at Work!: Code Black is equal parts amusement and a surprisingly compelling recontextualization. If you liked the original and have a tolerance for some gore and cynicism, it comes recommend. I'm not sure how much more narrative it can wring out of its dark subversion spit take, or how much of the commentary on horrible working conditions is deliberate, but in this first volume, there are plenty of laughs and occasional insights to be found.
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