Reviewby Rebecca Silverman,
In an alternate 19th century, technological developments have allowed for steam powered weapons and artificial limbs, two things that are not, perhaps, as disparate as they at first seem. The last major war ended a few years ago, but the technologies have given rise to a brutal sport known as M.M.A. – Mechanical Martial Arts, where competitors use their steam-powered body enhancements to beat fight. Levius lost his arm when his hometown was attacked five-odd years ago in action that also put his mother in a seemingly permanent vegetative state. He enters the M.M.A. ring with his uncle as his coach, fueled by his anger and frustration, but will any of that help bring his mother back? Or is there something else behind Levius' need to triumph?
As far as omnibus volumes go, Viz's signature edition of Haruhisa Nakata's Levius, which contains all three volumes of the initial series (later continued as Levius/est), is a beauty. The hardcover's a bit heavy and awkward to hold, but there are a nice amount of color pages, the covers don't show fingerprints, and the paper feels very soft on your hands. The story may not be for everyone, but it's hard to deny that this is a gorgeous book.
That goes for Nakata's art as well, although perhaps more for the black and white than the color. The lines are smooth and show both motion and emotion well, and each character has a distinct look that makes them look far less homogeneous than the average manga character – Nakata doesn't appear to have any one specific “set” character design that he works from, although this is much more noticeable with the men than the women, of whom there are really only three. More interesting, however, is the way that digital effects are added – blurring is applied fairly often, creating a contrast between characters, foreground and background, or just to show speed. It's a technique that can feel jarring at times (particularly if you've ever struggled with your vision; the compulsion to check your glasses for smudges is strong in a few cases), but it works well for the story.
The plot of Levius is perhaps more mundane. The title character is a teenager who as a child lost his arm and his parents to a war in an alternate mid-nineteenth century. Because this is a steampunk variation on the Victorian Era, Levius' arm is replaced by a steam-powered prosthetic considered “medical grade,” meaning that the arm can still feel pain. There are also “military grade” prosthetics where such feeling has been eliminated, and these are the more common prostheses in the context of the story. This is because the steam age has also given rise to advanced military technology, which has made war not only more possible, but also more destructive than the guns, swords, and cannons of the real 1840s, and once the war is over, well, the technology is still around. This has resulted in the creation of a new sport, M.M.A., where the first “m” stands for “mechanical” rather than “mixed.” The only qualifying feature needed to enter a match (at first) is a mechanical limb, such as Levius has, but many players go much farther in terms of body modifications, resulting in a martial arts match between people more machine than human. It's the Roman coliseum of its day, and M.M.A. has become the major spectator sport of the story's world.
Despite this, the book isn't nearly as bloody or brutal as it could be. While it absolutely is violent, there are no graphic depictions of gore and Nakata doesn't appear to enjoy reveling in the brutality of M.M.A.; rather seems more interested in making sure we as readers understand that it is a violent sport. Instead the book is invested in the idea of why people choose to fight and what drives them to continue. Hugo, one of Levius' fellow fighters, is motivated by a combination of ego and adulation for a fighter he loved as a child. A.J. fights because there is no other choice; Clown Jack Pudding is simply after power and prestige. Levius, in contrast to everyone else, has a hero complex – he's fighting because he thinks, based on a dream he had, that it's the way to save his mother. Along the way he works to save others as well, but it's clear that his primary motivation is to become a savior figure, whether he fully understands that or not. Guilt may very well be a factor in it, too – guilt that his mother was injured saving him, guilt that he made it out alive, and maybe even guilt that he now has to be a burden (in his own eyes) on his uncle Zack and his grandmother. Zack, too, suffers from the emotion, seeing the almost-orphaned Levius as his second chance with the brother who left to fight on the other side of the war, although he seems much less clear in his thoughts and feelings than his nephew.
The first two volumes included in the omnibus are stronger than the third, largely because they explore the world Nakata has clearly spent a long time building, but also because they feel more unique than the plotline of volume three. This deals more with a boilerplate Mysterious Evil Organization that's never really vanished and a villain who looks like a combination of Pennywise and the Joker but acts like every maniacal bad guy ever. He's effective, but not quite as interesting as the rest of the series, and this does bring it down a bit.
On the whole, though, Levius is a good steampunk action piece. It's clear that the world is one that has been carefully and thoughtfully created, the use of steam technology is just different enough for the prosthetics that it adds interest, and the story is both new and familiar at once. If dark steampunk is your genre or you're looking for something in the grim (but not bloody) action line, Levius' omnibus looks like a good bet.
Overall : B+
Story : B+
Art : A-
+ Good art, interesting use of the steampunk genre, well-built world
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