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To Terra Volume One

Written and illustrated by Keiko Takemiya
Vertical, Inc.
344 pages, $13.95
ISBN-10: 1932234675
ISBN-13: 9781932234671


Read excerpt from right to left. Another happy day in Dystopia. Panel from To Terra Volume One, ©2007 Keiko Takemiya, English translation ©2007 Dawn T. Laabs and Vertical Inc.


To Terra is our first glimpse here in the West of the work of one of shoujo manga's two prime movers, Keiko Takemiya, who in the early 1970s sparked a revolution in Japanese girls' comics along with former roommate Moto Hagio. It's a bit odd, therefore, that the first work by her that we get to read is a shounen sci-fi story drawn for Gekkan Manga Shonen. Not that I'm really complaining, mind you. To Terra is one of the two works for which Takemiya is most renowned, and the other — her groundbreaking and controversial shounen-ai story, Song of the Wind and the Trees — reportedly contains elements that might make American publication problematic. (Implied teacher/student sexual relations, for example; while I'd love to see the story in English, I'm not sure I'd want to be the person who actually published it.)


Read excerpt from right to left. Jomy discovers the downside of living in a pre-planned world. Sequence from To Terra Volume One, ©2007 Keiko Takemiya, English translation ©2007 Dawn T. Laabs and Vertical Inc.


From a modern American manga reader's standpoint, however, To Terra has problematic elements of its own. Drawn in the late 1970s, the story finds its creator standing at the crossroads between the classic manga drawing and layout style pioneered by Osamu Tezuka, full of Disney-esque people and traditional panel layouts, and the slick, neo-cinematic manga style that would eventually overwhelm the North American bookstore shelves. This doesn't make To Terra more difficult to take seriously by any means, but it does give the story a whiff of the museum artifact — one must overcome a few preconceptions in order to be able to enjoy it.

Chief among these preconceptions is pacing. Modern manga is told using what the superhero set have started calling "decompression" — that is, actions and conversations that may take a panel or two in an old Stan Lee comic can take multiple pages in the Japanese comics storytelling tradition. You won't find much of that sort of thing in To Terra; Takemiya not only keeps things going at a fast clip, she also fills her story with situations and dialogue meant to clue the reader in on the sort of world they're visiting while the action takes place simultaneously. To be fair, this isn't really something she could get around, short of greatly expanding the number of pages and potentially losing the interest of the late-1970s readers following her work in serialized form — in To Terra the author has created a complex futuristic world where the plot hinges upon the many innovations she's introduced into human society, so there's a great deal of knowledge that the reader needs in order to follow along. Still, for someone whose only experience with manga has involved long, drawn out Naruto-style sequences, the shift in speed might be a bit off-putting.


Read excerpt from right to left. Shounen manga, meet shoujo manga. Sequence from To Terra Volume One, ©2007 Keiko Takemiya, English translation ©2007 Dawn T. Laabs and Vertical Inc.


The story itself adds a few more roadblocks. It's a dense read, but the problems go beyond that; the real difficulty is that you won't be able to shake the feeling that you've read this story before. In To Terra, Takemiya creates a galaxy-spanning culture whose artificiality is not merely a side-product of progress; it's the very reason for said progress. People are molded and shaped to fit within it, rather than vice-versa. Children are carefully monitored by computers as they grow, and their point of entry into adulthood involves wiping their memories of youth in order to better fit them into their predetermined roles. Then there's the plot itself, which involves a group of psychic outcasts who escaped being culled by this quasi-oppressive system, longing to see the species' original birthplace and set things to right. Alas, these weren't even particularly fresh ideas thirty years ago, and now they look positively clichéd, having been explored to death in speculative works running the gamut from Brave New World to Logan's Run to Battlestar Galactica and back.

Even so, Takemiya plunges the reader so deeply into the world she creates that it gains more drama and immediacy than the story itself might actually deserve. To do this, she employs a secret weapon from her arsenal: the shoujo-manga strategies that use composition and page design to convey emotional and subjective perception. It's especially noticeable in the psychic and dream sequences, where panels transform into decorative abstractions, bodies and faces weaving between them according to the mood of the moment, but the techniques are in play even when everyday reality is being depicted. It's because of these formidable conceptual skills that To Terra is able to take antiquated science-fiction clichés and frame them in such a way as to look fresh and compelling. While the costume design and other visual cues could have been plucked from a 1950s boys' sci-fi anthology, Takemiya's graphic dexterity adds an almost psychedelic trippiness that completely re-frames those tropes into something strange and at times even wondrous. The result is sort of what you'd expect if you'd asked Osamu Tezuka to pour complex themes of identity, memory and state control into a Buck Rogers serial drawn on consecutive Haight/Ashbury rock posters... and that's not necessarily a bad thing.


Read excerpt from right to left. The future is sparkly and full of analog meters on the walls. Sequence from To Terra Volume One, ©2007 Keiko Takemiya, English translation ©2007 Dawn T. Laabs and Vertical Inc.


At Volume One, it's really too soon to say whether or not it ultimately works. The first two-thirds of the book are devoted to building the world, setting the stage and getting To Terra's cast in place for the drama to begin, and it's not until the end that you really get a hint at where it's all going. With plot preparations now out of the way, perhaps the rest of the story will be free to better concentrate on little things like drama and character, but that remains to be seen. Whether you wish to continue onward to Volume Two, then, depends upon your willingness to excuse the elements that work less well — the clichés, expository dialogue and endless information dumps — in order to enjoy the more baroque elements in drawing and design, which make To Terra as fascinating a piece of eye candy as you're likely to find.


This essay appeared on the then-website of The Comics Journal sometime between 2006 and 2008.


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