Manga Island visits the old school area of Island once again with Viz release of “Grey” by Yoshihisa Tagami. Originally published in nine single issues in 1988-1989 and later collected in two graphic novels (which are much easier to find and often very affordable), “Grey” is one of the first manga issues that really caught my eye when I first came ashore on Manga Island. Now, years later, I wanted to revisit the manga that turned me on to what short (or relatively short) self-contained manga stories could be with “Grey’s” harsh and brutal world.
The single-issue version of “Grey” begins with a fantastic introduction by Harlan Ellison and then thrusts the reader into the bleak apocalyptic world from the first panel on. In the world of “Grey” computers called “Little Mamas” run each of the numbered “Towns” that are continually at war with one another. The underprivileged live in the slums and are referred to as “People.” One can only become one of the privileged “Citizens” by joining up in the mercenary army and fight the other “Towns” armies. By earning points per kill and for surviving missions, “Citizens” can try to attain an A class, guaranteeing their place in the idyllic, legendary “City.”
In addition to the promise of getting out of the ghetto, the “Citizens” no longer have to worry about being beaten up, raped and other injustices that the “People” have to endure. It’s this advantage that leads Grey’s lover, “Lips” to become a “Citizen” and leave the slums behind. Her death leads Grey to join the “Citizens” and follow her dream of getting to the “City” by sheer force of will. His tenacity on the battlefield and ability to survive when the rest of his comrades are killed, earns him the name “Grey Death.” He only accepts orders that will keep him alive, and will not kill the resistance fighters that fight against the “Town” system because they won’t earn him points. A sullen and cocky ant-hero to the core, Grey exists to survive and to kill, in that order.
Grey’s sense of loyalty soon gets him into more trouble after he finds out that his field commander and the man that has saved his life many times over, is lost in the Africa sector. Grey chooses to abandon town 303 (with a fellow “Citizen” in tow) and go hunt for Red, an adventure that will expose who and what the resistance fighters are, why the “Towns” are all different in both military might and how they are run, along what the true secret of the “Little Mamas” are and how they influence this wasteland of a world. The twisting details are all revealed in riveting action that rarely goes exactly where you think it will.
“Grey” is not a series that takes you on a lighthearted adventure. “Grey Death” is called that with good reason and the bad luck he seems to spread around makes his tragic situation even worse. As we follow him through the book, things seem to get darker and darker, which prompted some changes in the anime adaptation done a few years later. Where the manga keeps on its downward spiral of tragedy, a few choices in the anime adaptation give a little more hope to the Grey and his companions than the manga aversion.
I highly recommend finding the anime on the Internet marketplace of your choice, or any cool VHS rental places. It’s well worth watching for those not against bleak tales of the future, even if it is just to compare and contrast how anime adaptations were handled during the time. Plus, it is much easier to get a copy these days. When it was first sold through Viz, it had a price tag of $120 without subtitles! I was pretty happy when I was able to get my own legal copy for much cheaper (and with great subtitles as well).
The art of “Grey” was also a book that Viz advertised at the time that they were selling the expensive VHS version, a book that I wish I would have picked up back in the day. Yoshihisa Tagami is a master of drawing detailed vehicles and mechs, with a variety of styles and a great mix of retro and future weapons. Each chapter adds a new, cooler mech or fantastic weapon of destruction for Tagami to draw. Since each town has a different tech level, it gives Tagami a chance to flex his mechanical art muscles. He seems at home drawing World War II style tanks, Grey’s signature attack jeep (fans of the old school Konami video game “Jackal” will appreciate seeing that in action), advanced F-15 style jet fighters and other realistic machinery, but doesn’t stop there. Throughout the series, we also see “Southern Cross” style armored suits, jet bikes, walker style mechs, and cyborgs galore, all handled skillfully by Tagami’s detailed draftsmanship. He even adds a Mayan or Incan feel to the mechs and vehicles later in the series, giving an air of timelessness to the futuristic killing machines. When Grey finally goes full bore with his own power armor and add-ons, at the end of the series, the coolness of those designs are hold their own against the slick new power suits and combat armor of the last decade or so.
Interestingly, Tagami’s characters are often simplistically rendered, especially with regard to their facial features. Grey and the other characters however, are very iconic. While some of the characters look a little stereotypical of the character design style that stuck around throughout the 80s, they still remain fresh and interesting throughout the run of “Grey.” One of the things that drew me in to Yoshihisa Tagami’s art style are the details like Grey’s signature “Lips” helmet. It’s a great iconic design that leaps of the page in full color and helps Grey stand out when he is in the midst of battle. It also allows for the cool “hero-eyes-in-intimidating-shadow” look that helps any hero become a tough anti-hero whenever the situation in the panel dictates. It’s unfortunate that his trademark targeting site is flipped from the cover illustrations, but most manga was flipped back in the day, so it’s par for the course. Either way it just looks cool.
Having written a bleak future manga myself, I can’t get enough of this book. Even though I know that there will probably not be another “Grey” adventure, it’s one of the books I keep coming back to and re-reading every couple of years. Now that it can be bought readily at the online aftermarket retailer of your choice, I think it should be on the shelf of every sci-fi manga fan. Especially those who like their dystopian futures and iconic anti-heroes coupled with a twisting plot. If you’re not a manga fan yet, (even though some of the character design is old school) it’s a great starting point to see how early manga in the US started out. “Grey”, during its run, added to the variety of manga stories that were being released in the late 80s and still holds up pretty well. Even if you just dig detailed machines and want to thumb through “Grey” picking out what vehicles were influenced by real life machines, this manga has you covered. It’s not a light read, but it deserves its own corner in the “old school but still cool” area of Manga Island.
Issues: 9 single issues or 2 graphic novel volumes
Rating: Mature (Dark themes, tons of violence and war, and some full frontal female nudity)
Links of interest:
Viz “Grey” site
Tony Salvaggio has been a fan of anime and manga from an early age. He has been an animator in the video games industry and is currently co-writing an original graphic novel for Tokyopop, PSY-COMM. He regularly hosts anime and Japanese related shows in Austin and his passion for all things anime and manga related is only excelled by his quest to become King of the Monsters.