If you don’t read manga, there’s one thing you need to know: it’s not a genre, but a medium. There is a manga for every type of reader—and that includes sci-fi fans. Ready for a night at the space opera? Here’s a roundup of manga that reach for the stars—and a few that fall outside the genre, but offer action and insights about life among the cosmos.
Mobile Suit Gundam Thunderbolt, by Yasuo Ohtagaki
First, a confession: Although I have been writing about manga for 12 years and reading it even longer, I always avoided the Gundam series. It seemed cold and technological and complicated, and I could never figure out how the suits were supposed to work. Well, I was wrong. Mobile Suit Gundam Thunderbolt was my first Gundam manga, and it turned out to be a good starting point. It’s a side story to the main Gundam universe, and completely self-contained. Everything you need to know about the story is explained, except for the suits themselves; for those, you just have to look carefully.
The story centers on the rivalry between two mobile suit pilots, Io Fleming of the Moore Brotherhood and Daryl Lorenz of the Zeon Federation. The setting is the Thunderbolt Sector, which used to be the Side 4 space colony (part of the Earth Federation) until it was destroyed, and many of the inhabitants killed, by the Zeon Federation during their war of rebellion. Zeon now controls this sector, a lightning-ridden debris field, and the Moore Brotherhood, all former Side 4 residents, want to avenge their losses and reclaim their territory. Io and Daryl both like to listen to music while they fight—for Io it’s jazz, for Daryl, it’s pop on a pirate station. That’s more than a detail—Io tells the Zeon fighters that when they hear jazz music, it means he’s coming for them, and he quickly makes good on the threat. It’s a good example of the sort of personal twist that makes this manga so interesting. Manga-ka Ohtagaki is equally adept at showing the large-scale grandeur of space and the small details, such as the pilots sweating in their suits, that make the whole thing seem real. If that whets your appetite, here’s some good news: Vertical has been publishing the longer series Mobile Suit Gundam: The Origin in beautiful double-sized volumes, so there’s plenty more Gundam to explore after this.
Knights of Sidonia, by Tsutomu Nihei
The battles in Gundam are mechs vs. mechs, but in Knights of Sidonia, the enemy is harder to pin down. Enormous, shapeshifting creatures the characters call the Gauna have destroyed the solar system, and the remnant of humanity roams across the universe in a “seed ship.” The Gauna still remain a threat, as they can engulf a ship in their tentacles and, even more eerily, consume a person and take on their appearance, only in a creepily flawed way. Nagate Tanikaze spent the first 17 years of his life isolated from the rest of humanity in a hidden area of the massive seed ship; when his grandfather’s death forces him to emerge, he is hopelessly confused about how life works now—humans have adapted to living in space by developing new genders, cloning, and evolving the ability to feed themselves via photosynthesis. Although he’s a hopeless klutz in most regards, Takikaze is a skilled suit pilot, having spent most of his life practicing his mech-fighting skills on a simulator, and he is quickly pressed into service as part of the ship’s fighting force. Nihei’s story is sometimes hard to follow, but his art has a dreamlike, unsettling quality, and the world he has created is a fascinating one.
Queen Emeraldas, by Leiji Matsumoto
Emeraldas is a beautiful woman with a scar on her face—a reminder, she tells the young boy Hiroshi, that mercy is for fools and no one who is vanquished in a fight should be allowed to die. She wanders alone through the universe in her spaceship, the Queen Emeraldas, although once Hiroshi arrives on the scene—crashing into a Wild West-like planet in his own homemade vessel—it seems their fates will be somehow intertwined. There’s much that is left vague in this story of interplanetary drifters who seem to be propelled more by the need to constantly be in motion than by any concrete goal, and Matsumoto unfurls the details of his story at his own pace. The hotheaded Hiroshi and the implacable assassin Emeraldas orbit around each other like twin stars in this episodic manga, which originally ran in Weekly Shonen Magazine in the late 1970s. Kodansha is giving it the deluxe treatment, publishing it in two hardcover, two-in-one omnibus volumes. Another Leiji Matsumoto series, Captain Harlock: Dimensional Voyage, has been licensed by Seven Seas, with the first volume due out in September 2017.
Bodacious Space Pirates: Abyss of Hyperspace, by Saito Tatsuo
This two-volume story is an adaptation of the feature-length anime of the same name. The title really sells it, but in case you need more: Maria Kato is a high school student who works part time in a maid cafe and inherits a pirate ship, complete with letters of marque, from her recently deceased father. She quickly establishes that she has the chops for the job, naturally. In this story, which comes toward the end of the anime/light novel series, a raid on a luxury cruiser nets the pirates more than the usual treasure—they also end up with a young boy and a mystery on their hands. Bodacious Space Pirates started as a 12-volume light novel series in Japan, and while the novels are not available in English, the television anime series has been translated.
Space Dandy, by Masafumi Harada, Sung-Woo Park, REDICE, and BONES
Swaggering space explorer Dandy travels the universe in search of uncatalogued species, whom he catches and turns in for registration, making him a sort of space bounty hunter. He’s strictly in it for the money, which he promptly spends at his favorite space bar, Boobies. That’s the sort of subtle humor you’ll find in this comic space opera, a heady mix of action and cleavage. Preening and pompadoured, Dandy is a cad with a heart of gold, dim of wit but brimming with self confidence. He’s helped along by his crew, a robot and a cat-like alien, but for most of the story, he’s unaware he is being pursued by a spaceship from the Golgol Empire. It’s best not to worry about continuity (it’s all sorted out in the end). Just enjoy the ride for the duration of this irreverent two-volume spoof.
Twin Spica, by Kou Yaginuma
In Yaginuma’s space-school story, Japan’s first manned space flight took place in 2010—and ended in disaster when the rocket exploded 72 seconds after lift-off. Not only were the astronauts killed, but because a self-destruct mechanism failed, the rocket crashed in a major city, killing and injuring many civilians. Asumi Kamogawa was just a baby when the accident occurred; her mother, who was holding her, was severely burned and died five years later. Yet Asumi has always wanted to be an astronaut, and this 16-volume series follows her and her classmates through their time at space school. While the story takes place entirely on Earth, it’s all about space, what it means to be an astronaut, and the sacrifices that people make to reach the stars. It’s a page-turner of a school drama with an intriguing cast of characters, a twisting storyline, and a sci-fi edge.
Planetes, by Makoto Yukimura
More space drama than space opera, Planetes is a story that is in turns meditative and action-packed. The three lead characters all work in a battered spaceship, the Toy Box, that picks up and disposes of space debris. Yuri lost his wife in an accident caused by space debris, and he is always looking for traces of her in the vastness of space. Tough-girl Fee pilots the ship and issues the orders, but she has a personal life as well. Hachimaki is a brash youth who dreams of someday having a spaceship of his own—but takes risks that may make that impossible. Like Yukimura’s other series, Vinland Saga, Planetes mixes quiet moments with breathtaking action, making for a satisfying sci-fi read even though technically it falls outside of the space opera genre.
What space-set manga have you enjoyed?