Reviewby Casey Brienza,
The Flat Earth/Exchange
Due to mysterious declines in birthrates, Kotaro Shiga's government, in conjunction with governments around the world, puts him in a state of suspended animation. Many years later, Kotaro awakens to an unrecognizable world where only a handful of humans remain and androids, now called “people,” have taken over the world. And they now believe, thanks to memories that only last twenty-two years, that they were the ones that created humanity! Unfortunately, this future world is rife with conflict, and of course Kotaro ends up in the thick of it, companion both to a rogue prince named Wildeniss (Wil) and a troubled android soldier named Recruit (Ree). Will Kotaro be able to protect his fellow “sleepers” without upsetting the delicate balance between android and human?
Raise your hand if you miss the Japanese manga of the last quarter of the 20th century—those bleak, post-apocalyptic tales of convoluted geopolitics and suggestive male bonding that made the careers of the likes of Katsuhiro Otomo (Akira), CLAMP (X)…and, in her own more modest fashion, Toshimi Nigoshi. A little-known creator, Trigun fans may recognize her for her impressive oeuvre of Wolfwood x Vash doujinshi (circle name Shayoukan), but Nigoshi's professional debut actually predates those amateur publications by nearly a decade. Indeed, even by the standards of the industry, The Flat Earth/Exchange has a complicated publication history. First serialized in the early 1990s in Seiji Biblos' short-lived shoujo anthology Patsy, it (along with the magazine) was discontinued after having been compiled into two volumes. The story, at that point still incomplete, fell off the radar until 2002, when new material spanning a final two volumes was commissioned and put out by Enterbrain. Of course, Enterbrain also reprinted the first two volumes originally put out by Seiji Biblos with all-new cover art and designs.
It is a crucial point to remember, however, that the decade dividing volumes one and two from volumes three and four is more than just a historical footnote. Nigoshi changed tremendously as a creator during this time, and the contents of the two sets of books might almost be the products of two different mangaka altogether. Yet while her storytelling choices changed, it is the changes to her artwork that are most immediately striking. The first half of the series is very stylistically indebted to Tenkū Senki Shurato, and the character designs in Nigoshi's manga resemble those of the anime. The second half of the series takes its artistic cues from Trigun and Yasuhiro Nightow's rangy bodies. Thus, the cover artwork of the first two volumes published by CMX (which are based on the Enterbrain reprints), looks like Trigun, while the interior pages are all Shurato. Do not, as it were, judge volumes one and two by their covers.
In fact, it would be unwise to judge this series by its decidedly uninspired front covers in another respect as well: The Flat Earth/Exchange is an excellent series, one of the best debut works that this reviewer has ever seen. Indeed, it reads more like the work of a mature creator with three dozen tankoubon already under her belt. This may in part be due to its similarities to the classic science fiction manga Marginal, by Moto Hagio, with which it shares a declining humanity eking out a living in world that merges “ancient” high technology and the Arab Middle East. The story unfolds slowly around its protagonist Kotaro, and revelations about the characters, the setting, and story's central conflict are skillfully and subtly built into the overarching narrative trajectory…which seems certain to reach global socio-political proportions. Yet you never feel as if the manga is talking down at you, and you will never feel unnecessarily confused either, despite various subplots and large cast of characters. Nigoshi even finds time amidst all this to build up some tasteful homoerotic tension between Kotaro and Wil and Kotaro and Ree. A lengthy bonus story at the end of volume two plays up Ree's relationship to the Kotaro-lookalike Takamura, ending on a tragedy sure to make yaoi fangirls swoon.
The second volume leaves off at an apparent goodbye between Wil and Kotaro. However, their separation does not seem destined to last because someone is planning an assassination attempt on Wil, who is the second prince of the Aias royal family. The cliffhanger as such is not exactly a nail-biter, but the series' considerable pleasures will surely have all but the most superficial of readers eager to come back for more. Nigoshi admits in her comments at the end of the first volume that she had originally intended The Flat Earth/Exchange to be about eight volumes, but Enterbrain only allowed her two more. Whether or not she will be able to come back and hit the ground running in subsequent chapters, particularly given the extenuating circumstances, is an open question. But needless to say, the odds of that are looking just as excellent as the series itself.
If there is any complaint to be leveled at this manga, it is in relation to CMX's poor production values. Paper quality is fast approaching newsprint, and Nigoshi's lovely artwork, which is heavily screen toned, has not been well-reproduced. There are also some blatant typos in the text itself, including misspellings of characters' names. All in all, it's a shoddy release that does not do its content justice. Fortunately, the content is so darn good that you are unlikely to care overmuch.
Overall : A
Story : A
Art : A-
+ An solid post-apocalyptic premise, an accessible narrative arc, and great character interaction.