Review

by Grant Jones,

How Many Light-Years to Babylon?

Synopsis:
How Many Light-Years to Babylon?
How Many Light-Years to Babylon? is a self-contained 2019 manga by Douman Seiman published by Seven Seas Entertainment. It follows an Earthling named Bub on his journey throughout space. Bub woke up to find himself the lone survivor of the human race as the Earth has been completely destroyed. Along with his two new companions – the robot Junk Heap and alien Hopper – he is trying to find available alien women to help him repopulate the human race, as well as regain his memory. Along the way he gets entangled in a much grander web than even he could have imagined.
Review:

How Many Light-Years to Babylon? is a curious little one-shot manga.

I think the format is pretty pitch-perfect for what it is – a quirky short story with solid laughs and sci-fi concepts that occupy opposite ends of the complexity spectrum. Even though it is in many ways a bizarre and strange tale with few comparisons to real life, it also makes for a relatable package of emotional listlessness that comes with being a young adult in any world.

The first element that stands out is the story's seemingly low-brow premise. Obviously, “young man out to bed alien babes” is meant to be a scintillating hook, and that certainly drives a large part of the early story. But if that phrase leads you to believe this is a sultry comic with bodacious alien women and saucy scenes, you will find that isn't exactly the case (and whether that's a letdown or piques your interest is obviously going to vary); even though there are sex scenes in this manga about trying to repopulate the human race, I wouldn't call it an h-manga by any stretch. The intercourse in How Many Light-Years to Babylon? isn't really depicted in a tantalizing or tasteful manner; it's mostly mined for comedy, and in the kind of creative absurdist way that leans fully into the “sex with alien women” angle. One early scene involves the crew heading to a planet of women that, on paper, Bub finds incredibly appealing. But when they arrive on the world they find that the women are on average 1600 meters tall, which results in no sex for Bub (though one of the women picks up their idling ship to use as a vibrator). I think the comedy works for the most part and is creative if not always gut-bustingly hilarious, and I found myself having a number of good Sensible Chuckles™ about the rather ridiculous lewd situations it comes up with.

The art style reinforces this general lighter tone. How Many Light-Years to Babylon? has a very wispy style, with thin linework and flat details for most of the characters. This gives everything a more cartoonish appeal, and it is at times similar to a Saturday morning cartoon in its pacing (though not in subject matter), with light-years jumped between panels or rapid cutaways from punchlines. I found Douman Seiman's style very appealing here; while I wouldn't exactly call the character designs groundbreaking, I was also able to recall the characters' looks easily and without effort. The lighter art not only helps subvert the early expectations of the initial premise but also softens the heavier existential elements that come in later.

There are heavier themes at work that go beyond simple procreation. I will try to avoid spoiling too much, but suffice it to say Bub finds himself up against extremely potent forces with real stakes for setting things right. I think the manga is again best served by its one-shot nature here, as it presents a quick-moving tale that touches on heavier themes without needing to dwell on any one aspect for too long or worry about the existential or metaphysical mechanics of what is at play. Bub is on a journey to accomplish something, and he achieves his goal through a unique sequence of events that is ultimately fulfilling and wholesome, even if tinged with a bit of heartache.

Sex and identity play a crucial part of Bub's journey in ways the premise doesn't immediately make apparent. Without revealing too much, Bub really does go on a literal and figurative sexual journey. Bub is initially obsessed with sex but once he performed The Procreative Act™ it largely drops off his radar as a vital need. At various points, his sex and/or gender presentation change too, sometimes between scenes or even from panel to panel with the same rapid-fire delivery as the comedic gags earlier on. What's most interesting is that at times this is a huge deal, and other times is handled very matter-of-factly – not unlike the other events in this story. I certainly can't speak to the accuracy of such portrayals with much authority as it isn't my lived experience, but I found it nice that these changes aren't all played for cheap gags. Bub is shaken to the core just as often as Bub rolls with it, and the presentation feels like an exploration rather than exploitation.

Taken together, How Many Light-Years to Babylon? embodies the strange ennui of young adulthood. Going somewhere but not really knowing where. Finding something and not knowing what to do with it. Doing what you think you're supposed to do and not being clear on what comes next once you've done it. From the comedy to the sex to the subject of identity, there's a prevailing sense of “Well, that happened… now what?” that certainly resonated with a lot of my own life experiences in my 20s.

The manga is not completely devoid of issues, but its one-shot nature and light tone assuage a lot of those possible negatives. I think if you poked and prodded at the more high-brow metaphysical stuff for too long it wouldn't stand up to scrutiny, and things do just… happen sometimes. But it's not a long enough work that it's much of an issue. Similarly, the comedy is fine — it's mostly laugh-inducing, and for comedy that's better than the alternative. I also feel that the concepts it toyed with and conclusions reached aren't necessarily all that profound. I doubt many readers would find it life-changing in that sense.

But ultimately these are minor nitpicks to a short and enjoyable read. The destination is not as important as the journey, and the purpose of this journey is to try and answer that overriding question: “Where am I going and what do I do when I get there?” Bub's answer is probably wildly different from yours. But it is validating at times to sit back and wonder how we got to where we are and where we might be going, if for no other reason than to affirm a simple truth – asking life's big questions matters because we matter, whatever our answers may be.

Grade:
Overall : B-
Story : B-
Art : B+

+ Short read, fun subversion of premise, good balance between various elements
A bit aimless at points, perhaps too short to really delve into the bigger concepts it addresses

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Story & Art: Seiman Douman

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