The Fall 2019 Manga Guide
What's It About?In an alternate universe, the discovery of how to use steam as a fuel source has created technological marvels, rapidly increasing development. But for all these wonders and evolutions, human nature hasn't changed a bit. The Earth currently sits in the bitter aftermath of a great war between the Governments of the world and rebel forces. In the wake of this, a combat sport known as Mechanical Martial Arts has captured the hearts and minds of millions across all nations. Enter Levius, a young teen with a cybernetic arm who has making waves in the scene. Levius's mother was made comatose during the wartime bombings, and it seems he fights for her. But soon, Levius will be stepping onto a grand stage, as the weapons organization Amethyst, not seen since the war, seems to be reemerging to plunge the world into a new era of chaos and despair. For his friends, and for the future the world, Levius must raise his fists and fight.
Is It Worth Reading?
Levius is an interesting mix of steampunk, grit, and violence. The story takes place in a world that's actually more of a character (and better developed) than any of the people, a grim post-war landscape where endless battles have led to the development of steam powered body enhancements. And because people are people, this in turn has brought the development of a sport wherein enhanced individuals fight it out MMA-style. I'd accuse it of being a seinen manga trope if I wasn't fairly certain that this would be the natural outcome in real life too.
In any event, while Levius as a person and the backstories of the other fighters are interesting, the real stand out here is the worldbuilding. The degree of thought that clearly went into this omnibus is impressive – geography, culture, ethnicities, technology, medical science – you name it, it's probably in the creator's notes, if not mentioned in the story itself. This gives the book the feeling that the story continues on outside of the confines of what we actually see; there's an everyday life out there that we simply are bypassing in order to look in on Levius' fighting career. That's no small feat, and alongside the interesting use of blurring in the artwork one of the book's chief attractions.
The plot itself is definitely second fiddle, although it is still interesting in a tough-martial-arts-scene kind of way. The idea that the fighters' enhancements are powered by turning their own blood to steam is both alarming and fascinating, and Levius' rise to martial arts prowess with minimal enhancements puts him in a position that's not quite that of underdog, but pretty darn close. Things start to wobble a bit when the concept of an overall bad guy shows up, and it definitely looks like the creator was hitting the Batman comics a bit hard when he came up with the character designs for the chief villain and his henchmen. Also unfortunate is the fact that the story cuts out before much is resolved; fortunately there's a sequel series that will also be released in English this year, because even if fighting manga isn't your number one genre, this has a fascination all its own.
Levius is a manga torn apart by conflicting styles and storytelling interests. It is at points an arty, meditative look at loss and finding purpose, at others it is a steampunk commentary on PMCs, at others it is a shounen boxing manga. Not to say that these genres can't work in tandem, but in Levius they pull at each other and sap effort and writing energy, until all that's left is a seven-hundred-page tome of disconnected violence, unearned brutality and strange narrative decisions. The first two chapters of Levius are simultaneously its strongest and least eventful. Levius is introduced via his fairly likeable Uncle in various states of his life: As a rising star in the mechanized fighting ring, and as a young, too-smart-for-his-age boy still reeling from war trauma and his mother being in a coma. It's mostly small-scale character interactions and two-paged spreads that emphasize minor details and seem to be more about tone-setting rather than concrete world-building. Its focus on Levius's loss and atmosphere over plot is very atypical for a dystopic fighting manga.
But Levius quickly broadens its scope to focus on evil mega-corporations, and Levius's boxing not as a reflection of coping with purposelessness in the face of loss, but as a Shounen-style vector to change the world. This wouldn't be so bad if Levius was better at articulating its worldbuilding, but I barely understand the manga's political stakes. What does Levius's steampunk world have to do with its core themes? I didn't realize Levius was steampunk until two hundred pages in. And it's not just that, I don't understand what the great war was or why it happened, or what the rebel alliance Levius's dad was a member of even did. When the climax is a literal battle between opposing factions in a for the fate of world politics, that is a real problem.
But Levius where Levius really takes a nosedive is in the introduction of its literal clown of a main villain, Dr. Jack Pudding. He's a terrible character, the exact same kind of lame, queer-coded sadist that often makes this sort of Seinen unbearable. He lacks any dimension or thematic relevance, all he offers is shocking cruelty for its own sake, taking up way too much page time of an already long book. And oh my god, is this book long. Way, way too long. In the first three chapters, the slow-pacing works to the story's benefit because its more about mood and feeling, but once the plot gets going and that same air-y, semi-cerebral storytelling methodology is maintained, the book becomes very difficult to read. It took me an entire day to finish it, and after I was done, I didn't feel rewarded, like I'd absorbed anything valuable. Just that I'd seen a lot of misery and violence, with not much understanding of why it mattered.
From its underdeveloped world and badly clarified political stakes to its thematic disjointedness, Levius a manga that at every point squanders what makes it interesting and unique in its genre space (a surprising sensitivity, an emphasis on visual storytelling over dialogue to convey character headspace) in favor of tropes that don't even mesh together well. Initially I was fascinated, but after slogging through seven hundred pages I can't help but see it as a sunk cost. There are unique things about it, things that make it special, but they are few and far between. In the end, its just not worth it.
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