Blame! vol. 1

Blame! vol. 1
 Chad Clayton  rates it:    

Author/Artist: Tsutomu Nihei
Format: Paperback
Price: $9.99

We’ve all heard, and have most likely used, the old chestnut “a picture’s worth a thousand words.” Evidently some comic artists have never heard it, though, given their penchant for talking heads and long, overwrought explanations of things that may or may not require them.

Okay, that may have come off nastier than intended. But it is true that many comics and manga simply talk themselves to death. I’m not railing against having text or dialogue in comics; far from it. But it is nice when artists remember that they are dealing with a primarily visual medium, and treat it as such. That’s what makes Blame! such an interesting experiment – it’s an attempt to leave text by the wayside and let the pictures do most of the talking.

For reasons I’ll discuss in a moment, it’s a little difficult to describe or talk about Blame! to someone who hasn’t already read it. It’s ostensibly the story of a man named Killy and his search through pre-mutation genes in a post-apocalyptic world that’s structured like a never-ending steel tower strewn with scattered human colonies. That’s what the plot entails, though what the story is actually about is up for debate. Personally, I think Blame! is more about the exploration of Nihei’s vision of the future, and the observation of how these futuristic people survive and cope in a hostile, paranoid world full of hostile people and murderous silicon monsters.

The little biographical blurb about Nihei in this volume talks about Nihei taking a lot of influence from French comics. That sounds about right, because the storytelling sensibilities of Blame! are a lot closer to those of French comic artist/film director Sylvian Chomet’s The Triplets of Belleville than most anime or manga. For those of you who’ve never seen that film, it’s a feature-length animated film with less than five lines of spoken dialogue. It’s essentially a silent movie that attempts to tell a complete story through visuals alone. Blame! works on a similar principle: it contains very little dialogue, and what there is only there to convey information that can’t be expressed through the visuals. But what little dialogue there is matters. Almost every word is important. This is the economy of storytelling in action – the art of saying as much as one can with as little as one can. It’s refreshing to see a manga that allows its characters actions to speak for themselves, instead of offering some in-depth declaration of every single device or action brought up in the story.

The most striking element about Blame! is that so much of the story has to be inferred by the reader. Blame! will not hold your hand through every minute of the story. It won’t explain every plot point, character trait or plot device. It merely shows you the events, and leaves the interpretation of such up to you. This element of mystery can be a dangerous toy to play with; it has irreparably damaged stories such as the Alien Nine manga. I think the difference lies in what information is being withheld. In Blame!, the story gives us simple events and then gives us the task of giving them significance. If any issues are to be raised, the reader must do the raising. Alien Nine took it upon itself to raise issues and build up some very complex character dynamics, only to leave them unexplored and unexplained. It shouldn’t take much thought to see which method is more fulfilling to the audience.

Since it’s about as close to a silent comic as most manga get, it makes sense that the artwork would be an integral part of Blame! Nihei’s style is about as far as you can get from the so-called “manga style.” There’s no big watery eyes or gigantic mouths. It more closely fits the archetype of an American comic than a manga (aptly enough, Nihei has done American comics as well – he’s best known in America for his miniseries Wolverine: Snikt!). Nihei’s art is at once insanely detailed – almost too detailed – yet very stark and austere. There’s a minimum of focus on things like facial expressions; most of the visual emphasis is on the tower’s architecture and on the rather gruesome, frightening Silicon creatures. Much like the dialogue, each panel in Blame! is important – each frame has its own impact. Whether it stares right into the face of a sadistic Silicon creature, or shows us a bloody, twisted pile of limbs that used to be a human, each panel contributes to Blame!‘s violent, oppressive, and moody atmosphere.

Even though they’re as different as they are alike, Blame! reminds me of another superlative science fiction manga set in a post-apocalyptic future: Battle Angel Alita. They’re both harsh, grim, super-violent visions of the future, they’re both visually based around highly detailed architecture and grotesque biomechanical creatures, and both are ultimately fascinated with how common people try to get by in a world where human life has been devalued, and thoughts of success and comfort have been replaced with thoughts of survival. That’s not to say they’re similar in approach: BAA is far more humane (or at least far more openly humane) than Blame!, but one of the most interesting aspects of Blame! is being able to witness how the scattered peoples interact with their environment, and how they attempt to deal with the situation that they’ve been placed in. It may have the exterior of a simple action comic, but I think it’s more about the exploration of a world totally unlike ours, and a casual study of people on the brink of existence. It’s an interesting experiment. I’m not totally certain of how much I personally enjoy this manga, but it’s very effective and very original, and certainly worth your notice.

Added:  Monday, August 15, 2005

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