Reviewby Rebecca Silverman,
With a severe overpopulation crisis threatening the Earth, scientists decided to make an attempt to terraform Mars, hoping to allow humanity to settle there. This plan involved the novel use of moss and cockroaches to warm Mars' atmosphere, and now, 500 years later, it is time for humans to remove the roaches and claim the planet. But you know what they say about cockroaches being indestructible...humanity's got more problems than they bargained for.
In the summer of 2014, Viz Media is having a bug problem. First there were the vampiric mouth spiders of Black Rose Alice, and now, with Yu Sasuga and Ken-ichi Tachibana's Terra Formars, we have giant cockroaches with some truly unsettling features, along with humans who can, thanks to the miracle of DNA manipulation, “insectify.” While this is hardly the major strike against Terra Formars' first volume, it is the one most likely to put off those with phobias about bugs, so if insects and human/insect hybrids sound like something that would give you nightmares, this is probably not a book you'll want to read.
For those without insect-based phobias, however, Terra Formars presents an interesting story. In the late 26th century, humanity and the earth in general were facing a major crisis brought on by overpopulation. This in itself is something that sets the series apart in terms of science fiction manga, as most space-faring stories begin with the decline of humanity. In any event, the issue has turned attention towards Mars, and science somehow determined that a combination of moss and cockroaches would work to provide Mars with a breathable atmosphere. It has been five hundred years since that conclusion was reached, and now U-NASA (the “u” is for “United Nations,” which has taken over America's space program) is ready to send a crack team of astronauts to Mars to clear out the bugs and make Mars human-ready. Only problem is, that team dies before completing their mission. Since humans really want Mars, U-NASA seeks out the desperately poor (or in some cases simply desperate) to undergo a dangerous procedure that may or may not enable them to remove the roaches. Naturally they'll be well compensated...assuming that U-NASA really plans on letting them come back. This volume follows that rag-tag group of international misfits, focusing on two Japanese men, Shokichi Komachi and Ichiro Hiruma. Both have undergone the “bugs procedure,” which merges their DNA with that of different insects, sort of like a less cute Tokyo Mew Mew. This, hopefully, will enable they and their crewmates to combat the horrifying evolution the cockroaches have undergone on Mars: they have turned into big, muscular humanoids, ready to to do anything to destroy those who would eradicate them.
The roach-men (and they are all male in appearance, although later events suggest a certain hermaphroditic quality) are truly creepy in appearance, mostly due to their eyes, which are placed high on their faces and are perpetually dilated. They have a sort of universal “duh” expression, which makes their violence that much more alarming - and even moreso is the fact that when compared with early, racist illustrations of black people, there are distinct similarities. While not exact replicas, a glance at Helen Bannerman's illustrations from Little Black Sambo will show some upsetting similarities. The insectified people are differently disturbing to look at, even if you don't mind bugs – their faces elongate, they sprout antennae, and their limbs become those of the bugs they have mixed with. Given that the backgrounds of Mars (and Earth) aren't particularly exciting and that the space ship Bugs 2 has a very generic sci fi look to it, this and the fact that everyone's face is very distinct from the others' make Terra Formars' art stand out. Bodies tend toward the over-muscled and despite the (unneeded) information about the women's breasts in their profiles, all of the female characters look the same in terms of figure; the men show a bit more variation. Care has been taken to show us muscle and bone when limbs are ripped off – and a lot of them are. This is a very violent book, starting to kill right in chapter one and not letting up until the final pages. (Although that's debatable, given how the volume ends.) Most of the volume is a mix of heavy-handed explication and graphic fight scenes, which feels uneven and perhaps a bit rushed. This may change, however, as it becomes clear by the end that this was a prologue to what presumably is the main story of human versus roachman.
As you may have gathered, the story's treatment of its female characters is an issue. Even with the high body count, the women are killed off first, generally before they really have a chance to do anything. No extra information is provided about the male characters' bodies, but the women's cup sizes are listed in their profiles as part of their back stories, which invariably involve some form of sexual abuse. While one might argue that this is a seinen manga, and therefore not written with a female audience in mind, it is still troubling, and there are also plenty of very “masculine” titles with competent and non-marginalized female characters, which makes this stand out in a bad way. Similarly, the volume shows some distinct traces of racism with its treatment of its multinational cast. At one point someone is told to "watch out for the Asians," and a traitor in the crew's midst is shown as being African. That the only really competent fighters are Asian and only the Japanese men survive is another somewhat uncomfortable note, albeit one that might not have been quite so noticeable without the other racist overtones.
While Terra Formars presents an interesting science fiction story that plays on our innate dislike of cockroaches (and long-standing jokes about how hard to kill they are), it doesn't present it as well as it might, going for shock value and a too-rapid succession of fight scenes with random old guys sitting around explaining things in between rather than a balance of world building and action. It has potential in both art and plot, but this volume's issues detract from it. Given that this is set up in the final pages as a prologue, one hopes that things will balance out, as both of the male protagonists introduced here are intriguing (and tragic). This book, however, turns out to be less of an enjoyable read than it at first appears.
Overall : C+
Story : C+
Art : B
+ Interesting premise, Shokichi and Ichiro have potential as characters. Good use of our basic feelings about cockroaches in a new way.
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