Reviewby Grant Jones,
ATOM: The Beginning
Five years after a catastrophe struck Japan, robots have been put into use to help with day-to-day life, labor, and other tasks. At Nerima University, Umataro Tenma and Hiroshi Ochanomizu are hard at work at a new form of artificial intelligence: A106, or simply Six. They find themselves caught up in university drama, facing off against scientific rivals, saving innocent lives, and even entering a robot fighting league. It's their ingenuity against the world as insidious threats grow in the shadows.
Atom: The Beginning Volume 1 is written by Makoto Tezuka and Masami Yuki, and illustrated by Tetsuro Kasahara. It is based on the work Astro Boy by Osamu Tezuka. It is translated by Jonathan Clements, lettered by Jessica Burton, and edited by Martin Casanova. Atom: The Beginning is published by Titan Comics.
ATOM: The Beginning is a very intriguing manga. This first volume gives us a glimpse of many possible trajectories for the story, and the connection to Astro Boy is definitely a strength in its favor.
For reference, I've read Astro Boy, but that's nearly twenty years ago at this point, and I only vaguely remember it beyond the major plot points. So while ATOM: The Beginning is technically a tie-in manga, I can't exactly evaluate it on those grounds because I can't recall everything that happened in the original. As such, I'll do my best to discuss the manga on its own merits, largely from the perspective of a newcomer to the series.
ATOM: The Beginning is structurally a bit odd. Setting aside its connection to the original Astro Boy, it feels a bit episodic and plot-light to begin with. There are a few early stories about life at Nerima University for Tenma and Ochanomizu. We learn about the people in their orbit, like siblings and rivals and love interests. None of it is particularly original, but it has a good texture and you get a sense of the high level of pressure and competition at the university. The best of this batch, in my opinion, is the story focused on securing their funding/budget. Their efforts result in the same allocation as before, and despite it not being enough for their ambitions, it also speaks to how much they shine given the department's lack of faith in their AI project.
The latter portions of the volume involve the robot fighting league. It is essentially a tournament arc with robots, for better and worse. It has robot punches and exploding machinery, which is terrific. But it's also just a revolving door of one-off, forgettable fighters. They do act as an exposition delivery system for the different eras of robot design, which is a nice touch, but beyond the ooohs and aaahs of the fighting it is what you would expect and doesn't do much to excite the imagination
Six is the real standout character of the bunch. Tenma and Ochanomizu both play off each other well, but Six's calm, cool demeanor is what glues them together. As a group, they make for a plucky trio of protagonists and you cannot help but root for their success, whether they're fighting robots or righting runaway semi-trucks.
What I find most striking about ATOM: The Beginning is the art style. The backgrounds are elaborate, full of all the mechanical greebling and architectural kibbles that make a science fiction setting come to life. The character designs evoke Tezuka's iconic work, really emphasizing the lanky builds and cartoonish curves that gave his casts such breadth. The line work is light and airy, barely a wisp in some scenes, but heavy on detail. Certain sequences like Six stopping the overturned truck are jaw-dropping on the page. It looks couched in the Astro Boy world without seeming like a mere second-hand copy, and it is wholly unlike most other works you might find on the shelf.
The connections to Astro Boy beyond the visuals are very minimal at this stage, and whether this is a positive or a negative will obviously vary according to reader expectations. For me, a prequel has to ride the line between telling its own cohesive story while also lifting up the future work in the process. At this point, I found myself thinking that if I didn't know it was an Astro Boy-related work, I would probably be thinking “wow cool robot fights.” For newcomers who don't have a lot of background knowledge with Tezuka's legendary work and are looking for a good jumping-on point, I can't help but think this is a good place to start. It manages to evoke the retro-futurism of Astro Boy while also being very much a clean, detailed manga that looks like a premier work. I love Tezuka's original and his style, but there's no mistaking that it is more cartoony than many other series modern audiences might be familiar with, and they might struggle to take it seriously. Works like ATOM: The Beginning can help overcome that barrier and hopefully get people curious about reading classic manga.
The only real negative I can think of is that ATOM: The Beginning feels terribly short. There are a total of five chapters in the volume, which is certainly not outside the norm, but I can't help but think that the story has hardly begun. I found myself thinking “Wow I really wish there was more here,” but then maybe that's the best praise one can give any work.
Overall : B+
Story : B-
Art : A
+ Excellent art, retro without being old-fashioned
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