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It's been noted that, for a guy that says he doesn't like manga much, I sure do recommend enough of it. And it is true; manga isn't my favorite comic style and I usually find most of manga to be pointless power fantasies about 13 year-olds with D-cups killing demons and robots. But there are those manga titles that are expert examples of the fusion of words and pictures, just as there are great books and crap books in the US comics industry.

I want intelligence in the books I read. I want plot depth, emotive characters, or at least a good hook or two to keep my interest on the material. In manga like Lone Wolf & Cub and Ranma ½, you get some if not all of these things, and that makes a good comic. Manga like FLCL, Sailor Moon, and Card Captor Sakura are examples of craptacularness.

Planetes is a manga from column A.

Makoto Yukimura creates a future not far from our own, in which the colonization of space is a certainty. Orbital space stations dot the sky, the moon boasts several cities, and there are plans to launch more missions out into the rest of the solar system. Mankind has finally become a space-faring society, and no one could be happier about that than Hachimaki.

Hachimaki is an orbital garbage man, or "debris-man," with dreams of owning his own ship one day. Seems that every time humanity launches out into the great beyond, junk gets stuck in the atmosphere, posing imminent threats to future space launches. Hachimaki and his co-workers Fee and Yuri split their time between clearing away dead satellites and keeping each other from going insane out there in the blackness.

I was blown away at the delicate character work in the comic. I've never encountered a manga that paid so much attention to the way its characters act toward one another. There is a supreme sense of camaraderie, compassion, and trust between the three characters, and it's never verbalized in any particular way. Yukimura has managed to create the feeling of brotherhood without beating the reader over the head with the concept. It is in the scenes; where Hachi risks his life to save Yuri's or when Yuri attempts to comfort Fee after a mistake that almost killed one of her crew. Every one of these scenes is expert in demonstrating the bond between these characters.

Individually, Yukimura creates complete characters, another surprise to be found in a manga. Even manga that I've liked haven't had the depth of characterization Planetes does. The reader is given insight to each character, but slowly and gradually. Yuri has some pain in his past that we get to see him try and reconcile throughout the story, and while some writers might make the character a morose individual trapped in his own grief, Yukimura makes Yuri the most positive of the crew. Yuri feels pain but doesn't hate the life he has that allows him to experience pain. It is a refreshing way to write a grieving character.

Fee is the rock of the group, the leader. She's always there with the right piece of advice or the right punch to the solar plexus to straighten someone out. It's also hilarious when Yukimura throws in a dichotomous trait in Fee as her deadly serious addiction to cigarettes shows up later in the volume. The levels she goes to, to have a cigarette, are somewhat over the top, but almost understandable considering the limited ability of the populace to smoke in space. The entire situation is a great exercise in comedy, and helps to break up the heavier themes that are present in the first part of the book.

Hachi himself is a great character that could have become a typical "young kid whose enthusiasm outweighs his skill" kind of archetype, but Hachi really is good at his job. All three characters are, and it's a testament to Yukimura's writing ability that he can write three competent and skilled characters and still create humor around them. Hachi is the perfect balance of realism and idealism: he can understand that the work he does is important and that it's dangerous, but he still dreams of owning his own ship someday. In the second story, where we see Hachi questioning what it means to be an astronaut in the world he lives in. Yukimura paints the astronaut as the new frontiersman, helping to create a new world and seeing sights so spectacular you would never want to leave the black expanses dusted with stars. It's a beautiful description of something that the world seems to have forgotten since the space race ended: that the universe is out there, waiting for us.

The intelligence of his story also gains points for Yukimura. It's a small idea "space garbage man" but it's a practical concern that makes sense. Yukimura did his research on the effects of space travel on the human body, and the dangers that floating clouds of debris can represent, and he did some very interesting theorizing about what it might mean to be born in a low gravity field. It's all in the details.

I haven't even talked about the artwork yet. It's gorgeous pure and simple. The style of manga that Yukimura is using is detailed when it comes to the structures and space scenes, and he uses the negative effects that space creates to great advantage in the book. Space walks are beautiful in this comic. The character work is almost American in style, kind of a cross between Daniel Clowes (minus the grotesque imagery) and Carla Speed-McNeil, but still featuring the conventions of manga art. Yukimura is a great find.

Buy this book. Besides the story, Yukimura also gives the reader a brief history of modern rocket science history. Be warned, the book is put out by TokyoPop, and is thus printed in the right-to-left Japanese way, so your comic reading skills will be tested. It's only $9.99. It's not only good manga, it's good comics.

Planetes, Book 1

Robert Sparling

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