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While many manga series (and other comics, and novels, and movies…) take place after some apocalypse or other, series that are actually about an apocalypse are much rarer, comparatively speaking. There’s plenty of stuff that deals with zombie apocalypse, but unspecified military, social, or freak occurrence apocalypses always make for interesting reads, espeically when a group of characters is trying to prepare for or prevent it.
Saikano: The Last Love Song On This Little Planet – Story and Art by Shin Takahashi (7 volumes)
The apocalypse in this case is military, and personal as well, in some sense. Shuji and Chise are a happy high school couple that share a loving, if very awkward, relationship. Their somewhat idyllic lifes are periodically interrupted by an ongoing and ill-defined war that Japan is engaged in with a nameless foreign enemy. Attacks are sometimes carried out in the town that Shuji and Chise live in. Not far into the series, it’s revealed that Chise is actually Japan’s “ultimate weapon,” that she transforms into a kind of bio-weapon that can fly and attack enemy planes out of the sky in an otherwise conventional war. From here, the story turns into a somewhat personal tale about the psychological and physical toll this takes on Chise, and the ways she does and does not share her pain with Shuji. Japan doesn’t fare so well against this enemy, and the “apocalypse” in this sense is the fact that Japan slowly loses this war. The charm in this series is how touching and awkward the relationship between Chise and Shuji is, and the sometimes difficult time they have relating to one another. Central is the idea that Chise’s experiences killing enemy soldiers as a literal weapon is slowly robbing her of her humanity, and it’s Shuji’s job to remind her of what it means to be human and what she’s protecting. Takahashi’s art is also sketchy and sensitive, more suited to a love series than a war comic. The comic ran in English from 2004-2006, so it’s been out of print for some time, but most volumes are still available new, and the ones that are not are experiencing only mild price creep in the secondhand marketplace.
X – Story and Art by CLAMP (18+ volumes)
Unfortunately, I’ve already talked about X, but not in one of the themed categories, and X is one of my all-time favorites, and worth a second look. Also, to be fair, the apocalypse has yet to happen in this series, and is unlikely to appear anytime soon. It’s been on hold since 2002 due to content concerns about the ending on the publisher side, though CLAMP seems to still have plans to finish it. Kamui comes back to Tokyo upon the advice of his dying mother, where he is quickly reunited with his childhood friends Fuma and Kotori Monou. Far from the emotional reunion that the Monou siblings were expected, Kamui acts hostile and avoids the pair. As it turns out, Kamui is the key in an upcoming apocalyptic battle to decide the fate of humanity and the Earth, foretold for generations. On one side, there are the Dragons of Heaven, who wish to save humanity at the expense of the Earth, which is being robbed of all sustainable natural resources. On the other side, there are the Dragons of Earth, who believe humanity should be obliterated so that the Earth and all other living things have a chance at life. Each side has six footsoldiers with their own unique power and a dreamseer, someone who can read destiny and tell them where to be when. Each side also wants Kamui, who is the most powerful of these warriors and “the chosen one,” since whatever side he joins will inevitably win. This puts a lot of stress on Kamui, who regularly fights battles to keep both sides away from him as he decides. Understandably, he doesn’t want the much-beloved Monou siblings anywhere near this apocalyptic battle. One of the main themes of the series is that destiny is foreordained, so it doesn’t take long for the Monou siblings to be drawn in and for all sorts of evil stuff to be happening.
Likely one of supergroup CLAMP’s best series alongside Cardcaptor Sakura, X features their best artwork, full of pretty character designs, unique costumes, dynamic psychic battles set amid crumbling urban landscapes, and lots of blood, feathers, gears, shattering glass, tears, and craziness. Nearly every page of X is worth looking at, though reading it can be a chore given the fact that there are dozens of characters that play various important roles (18 at the end of the third volume, for instance, and a few more introduced after that), and it doesn’t read that quick if you really try to understand the character relationships. One of the longest-running comics in English behind Oh My Goddess, X first appeared around 1996 and has run in everything from its own individual issues, a couple different Viz manga anthologies, and three different graphic novel formats. The recent Viz omnibus is the edition to have, as it contains a new translation, color pages for each volume, and has an overall nice presentation.
The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya – Story by Nagaru Tanigawa, Art by Gaku Tsugano (19 volumes)
Haruhi Suzumiya and Kyon are fairly average high school students living fairly boring lives. Haruhi, however, is outgoing and rather eccentric, so when the two of them start high school and there are no clubs that entertain Haruhi, she grabs Kyon and several other not-entirely-willing participants and makes the SOS Brigade, whose purpose is to prove the existence of aliens, time travelers, and espers. As it turns out, Haruhi is an individual gifted with the power to make whatever she imagines into reality, so the other three members of the Brigade, other than Kyon, are actually an alien, a time traveler, and an esper. They reveal themselves to Kyon and say they were sent as representatives of their various organizations to monitor Haruhi, but that Kyon can’t tell Haruhi they exist or that she has this power, because they’re afraid of what will happen if she tries to wield it more than unconsciously. The flip side of this coin is that the SOS Brigade doesn’t ever actually find aliens, time travelers, or espers, and Haruhi begins to get bored. When this happens, she begins to fail to see the point of life, and begins creating monsters that destroy reality. Kyon’s job is to balance the current reality and to keep it “normal” at the risk of waking up in a completely different world, not remembering anything of his old life. Haruhi is also not the only one that can completely remake the world, either, and Kyon flirts with disaster and completely remade realities on more than one occasion.
The manga is a faithful adaptation of the 11 light novels that make up the series. Admittedly, the novels are the better version of the story (Kyon’s sarcastic narration is essential to the story, and narration is something that just isn’t done in manga), but the manga is a serviceable read and covers all the good ideas from the novels. I have a love-hate relationship with the story, as it takes tired and overused anime ideas (the cute girl gets dressed in sexy costumes against her will, for instance) and makes them part of the story by blaming Haruhi for wanting it that way, since that’s just part of mass media and that’s what Haruhi knows. It’s clever, and yet that stuff is still in there, and sometimes it’s unbearable. My favorite instance of this is a storyline about Haruhi catching the characters in a time loop where they repeat the same last week of summer thousands of times, getting their memories wiped each time, as Haruhi feels there’s something missing from the summer break. In the anime adaptation, this is represented by eight consecutive episodes of the exact same story, with only slight variations of clothing and dialogue each time. Those episodes represent more than half of the highly anticipated second season. Too clever for its own good, and sometimes the ideas are a bit convoluted, but I love that most of the major storylines put apathetic Kyon on the cusp of disaster in new and different ways each time. The series is in print and available. Volume 17 of the manga will be released in English in December, and volume 10 of the 11 novels will be released around the same time. In theory, the storyline isn’t finished, but Tanigawa stopped writing it consistently when it became popular, and no new story has been released since 2011.