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Lots of talk has been generated by some recent manga threads on The Engine, a comics-creator message board that’s the brainchild of writer Warren Ellis. In the wake of the furor over whether manga are comics, The Comics Journal editor Dirk Deppey raised the question there. Ellis himself wondered precisely what’s meant by Original English Language (OEL) manga. Another thread invited creators to list their favorite titles.

And while there’s plenty of interesting fodder (Just what do Japanese publishers think of OEL manga? Is there a new manga anthology on the way? Which Rumiko Takahashi title is Kurt Busiek’s favorite?), any one of which would make fodder for a column or two. But why bother when you can just click your way over and see the discussions in progress? Or pop over to Love Manga and see what blogger extraordinaire David Taylor has to say on the subjects.

Plus, I find myself fixated on one tidbit.

Planetes didn’t sell very well.

For those of you who are unfamiliar with the title, it’s five volumes of deeply humane science fiction by Makoto Yukimura, published by Tokyopop. (Come to think of it, for those of you who are unfamiliar with the book, this is all your fault.) It follows a team of garbage haulers who remove debris from Earth’s orbit. The unglamorous but essential work is the backdrop for meditations on ambition, greed, love, family, technology, politics, and identity. It’s intelligent, moving, and beautifully rendered by Yukimura.

It was the darling of the comics blogosphere. Even people who didn’t generally read manga raved about Planetes, and it seemed like the kind of title that could be that rarest of beasts, the crossover hit that brings western comic and manga faithful together. It even got a rave in The Comics Journal (#264).

But at the end of the day, being the darling of the blogosphere will get you some nice pull quotes for your web site. (I say this as a blogger and a reader who’s found a treasure trove of wonderful recommendations from those sources. All the same, nobody ever hit the top of the Diamond sales charts because the blogosphere loved them. Quite the opposite, usually.)

My first impulse on learning of the middling performance of Planetes was to get myself to the Chamber of the Ten Things. It wouldn’t have the same impact as the Naruto anime debuting on Cartoon Network did for the manga that spawned it, but it certainly couldn’t hurt. But then, as I looked through the manga, I came to the vaguely unsettling realization that maybe there was a reason sales dropped off after the first volume.

Don’t get me wrong. I still love Planetes and think it reads particularly well as a whole. I’m still convinced that the first volume is one of the best comics I’ve ever read. In introducing his trio of protagonists, Yukimura tells some wonderful, varied stories. The very first chapter is a masterpiece. In it, readers learn why veteran Yuri is so dedicated to his work in a tale that’s the very essence of tragic romance.

Next up is ambitious young Hachimaki, son of a legendary astronaut who compromises his chances to participate in a manned mission to Jupiter after a bit of near-fatal carelessness. (In space, just about any carelessness can be lethal.) Pragmatist Fee is next, who engages in high-octane adventure to assure that she can smoke in peace. Yukimura uses this trio and their various ambitions and perspectives to explore space and humanity’s place in it. There’s tedium, danger, opportunity, sacrifice, and awe. It’s an incredibly promising beginning.

Then, things stumble rather badly in the second installment. Fee and Yuri are shunted aside, and the focus is placed more firmly on Hachimaki. As he struggles for a place in the Jupiter mission, his behavior becomes more extreme and his temper shorter. His dyspeptic behavior is perfectly understandable, given the pressures to which he’s subjecting himself. They’re even more understandable in light of the presence of Hachimaki’s replacement, Tanabe.

If Yuri, Fee, and Hachimaki were introduced with delicacy and specificity, Tanabe is wedged in with a mallet. Her initial function is to scold Hachimaki for his ambitious obsessions and to urge him not to lose touch with the Things That Really Matter (family, friends, love, kittens, what have you). She’s Jiminy Cricket without the whimsy or moral authority, and she’s truly maddening. Her dialogue in the second volume is pure shôjo schoolgirl cliché: “Deep inside everyone … is an innate ability to care.” For a story that’s been making its points perfectly well with subtlety, Tanabe is a jarring addition.

She gets better as things move along and readers learn more about her background. Yukimura introduces her family, and she gains dimensions. But just as that’s accomplished, she’s reduced to a different narrative function. She becomes The Girl, Hachimaki’s earthly, nurturing touchstone, the reason for Hachimaki to come back as he soars off to Jupiter. She’s a startlingly artificial addition to an otherwise organic, layered story. She’s not quite a Mary Sue, because Yukimura is better than that, but she’s never as real as the people around her. And since she sucks up so much of the oxygen at so many critical points, Planetes never quite fulfills its potential.

That’s not to say that there isn’t an abundance of lovely material in Planetes. Best of all are the meditations on the ethics of space exploration and its potential costs. Yukimura has a wonderful way of giving voice to a wide variety of perspectives, from grasping entrepreneurs to eco-terrorists to past-their-prime astronauts to garbage haulers. Just about everyone has a moment where they state what they believe in their heart of hearts or confront the compromises and difficulties of their extraordinary lives. For that alone, Planetes is a remarkable piece of graphic fiction, even if it doesn’t completely cohere.

Ultimately, I would recommend Planetes. Its cumulative effect overcomes its failings, and the different kinds of stories Yukimura fuses together are remarkable and usually tremendously effective. But, if forced, I can kind of see why some people didn’t stick with it to the end. Still, that first volume is not to be missed.

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