To be completely honest, Terra Formars scared the crap out of me. Not literally, thankfully, but I'm sure you know what I mean. I have to say this as a compliment more than anything else, and in most regards, it's actually something of a technical achievement. I'm a longtime horror fan, you see. For years I gobbled up every horror title I could find, raiding the two-for-a-dollar section of the video rental store weekly for every zombie, slasher, and monster I could find. I take it as a point of pride that horror films very rarely affect me, even some of the genre's most infamous titles. I am, in my state, surprised that Terra Formars did in fact give me a deep sense of unease.
I went into the title fairly blind. I knew it was manga and I knew it was scifi, and past that, I didn't know much. To judge a book by it's cover I assumed that it was going to be a seinen action series, and while in many regards that is essentially true, it fails to capture the sense of horror and heavy emphasis on scifi that is key to the title's whole being. Looking back now, the title does feature a few subtleties that might speak to the title's true tone, but nothing significant enough to completely betray the genre.
Spoilers to follow, though, really, I have no choice but to have SOME spoilers if I'm going to even describe the core conflict of the series.
It's rather quickly established in the first chapter that it's about 2600 AD and humans have been in the process of terraforming Mars for the past five hundred years. Using a combination of moss and cockroaches, the planet would be terraformed over time, but before humans would colonized, they'd have to send in special teams of exterminators to wipe out the bug problem. The story introduces us to our exterminators early on in some silly and heavily expository scenes. The team is multicultural and coincidentally fascinated by Japan, and everyone has a dark past. They've been genetically modified to gain special powers, and they all have dark pasts which influenced them to go down their current path.
Shortly into the book we're introduced to the cockroaches- no longer merely bugs, the extreme conditions and radiation have turned the bugs into bizarre, grotesque humanoid creatures. The cockroaches, known in the story as the terraformars, are positively eerie. They have an uncanny look to them that is incredibly upsetting to behold even before the violence begins, and when you realize that the cockroach men are indeed, horrifically violent and mindlessly driven, they become all the more frightening. It's not often that I find myself really sincerely haunted by creatures in horror, but the terraformars are the exception. Their high-set dilated eyes a recognizably bug-like inhumanity, and their aimless consumption and destruction is really effectively horrifying.
The story from here out becomes a survival tale, where the superpowered humans must use their similarly bug-inspired powers to battle the super-evolved cockroaches. For the faint of heart, look elsewhere. The book is explosively violent, with the cockroach men bringing terrifying speed and power to the table so that they can shred their human exterminators like paper. The creepy look to the cockroaches combined with their power and their numbers makes them a seriously frightening threat- far more than the typical mindless zombie, to be sure.
Kenichi Tachibana's art is good throughout, shining best with his excellent creature design, sense of speed, and penchant for violence. His backgrounds are serviceable but not particularly inspiring, though, the vast wasteland of Mars' surface and the clinical white interiors of the scifi ships don't really give him room to stretch his legs, so I can't hold it against him. The puffy, shiny gradients are generally something that I dislike, but he uses them effectively on the cockroach men to make them eerie, so I can't fault him there either. The use of ink in the linework feels a bit uncommitted, when closely examined, but in combination with grey tones, it creates a more complete aesthetic whole that feels professional. I can't profess that Tachibana is one of my favorite manga artists working today, but he serves writer Yu Sasuga very successfully.
Yu Sasuga's writing is sort of difficult for me to interface with. The manga industry is traditionally occupied by auteurs who act as both writer and lead artist, so it's quite strange for me to delineate the two when reviewing manga... Sasuga's narrative thrust is an odd balancing act of obsessive research, silly manga character archetypes, flashbacks, hard scifi, soft scifi, horror, action, cliche, and deconstruction. As the plot progresses, Sasuga weaves into and out of flashbacks detailing the civilian lives of our exterminators, and each manifestation of their powers is accompanied by a bizarre and fascinating aside about an unusual insect that inspired the powers. Sasuga's research into insects is actually quite admirable and he does present some pretty intriguing powers (and visual mutations to accompany them) outside the typical superheroic canon.
Sasuga fails to really get me invested in the moderately large cast, but he does successfully make any given death pretty effective and impactful. His sense of humor doesn't quite work for me but it isn't a major component of the story in any case. His sense of science fiction is quite good, and the overall concept of the series is compelling enough as a catalyst for the narrative. If there's any one element of the story that I can singularly point to and dislike, it's a commander figure on Earth who sends along instructions and information periodically as the story needs. The commander figure is overbearing and clumsily expository, besides which, he's a laughable "tough old guy," cliche chomping on a cigar, clad in ridiculous in a ridiculous ceremonial military uniform straight out of the 1700s. Although he serves to advance the story, I find the writing of the character to be out of place in the larger narrative.
All in all, I enjoyed Terra Formars. It took me off guard and provided some genuine thrills and chills, largely thanks to some fiendishly powerful enemies. There's a potential dialog to be had about problematic racial and imperialistic overtones to the story, but it's not entirely fair to project my own western perspective on book created in Japan. Sasuga and Tachibana make a great pair as writer and artist, working together to craft the disturbingly overwhelming cockroach men "terraformars". While the human element in the story is less impressive, at the end of the day, aren't monsters the stars of these kinds of stories anyway?