Ultraman Vol. 1
Art: Tomohiro Shimoguchi
Ultraman created by Eiji Tsuburaya & Tsuburaya Productions
The Ultra Series is a long-running media franchise that has yet to hit it big in the Western Hemisphere. But anyone growing up in Japan and many parts of East Asia within the last 50 years should be familiar with at least one incarnation of the basic idea - a gigantic, powerful alien, usually clad in red and silver, merges with a human host to fight monstrous threats to civilization. Naturally, the original Ultraman from 1966 is going to have a certain nostalgic pull over his many successors. So back in 2011 Shogakukan launched a soft reboot/sequel as a manga series, now being translated into english by Viz Media. This gives newcomers an easy point of entry into the franchise, while trading on the commercial appeal of pre-existing properties. So how does the first volume stack up to expectations?
Unsurprisingly, the manga works pretty hard to get the fans on its side. There's a brief introduction to the original Ultraman, host Shin Hayata, and their adventures in the 66' TV series. A much older Shin is in the manga to bequeath his role to a new Ultraman, but not before he gets to suit up one last time and kick monster butt. An old villain makes an unexpected reappearance, and there are other f* yeah! moments, such as the reveal of the new Ultraman armour, or the first time Ultraman whips out his traditional finishing move, the Specium Ray.
But the story's awkwardly paced. The beginning section contains 2 time skips: the first to establish the intervening decades between the TV show and the manga, only to move ahead another 12 years after dumping a lot exposition on the reader. All this amounts to no one understanding how Ultraman's powers work, and It feels like an unnecessary way to stretch out the narrative. Is it a byproduct of the time constraints imposed on the creative team of writer Eiichi Shimizu and artist Tomohiro Shimoguchi by the tight publishing schedule? This sluggish start is followed shortly by over 100 pages devoted to a single fight scene, which is an extreme example of the kind of decompressed action sequence that has become mandatory with shonen manga since Dragonball.
Thankfully, this is where the book picks up steam. The panel-to-panel action flows effortlessly and Shimoguchi seems to be enjoying himself when drawing all the exaggerated poses and over-the-top hand combat exchanges. His enthusiasm almost makes up for his relative indifference to rendering environments and background details. Given the number of Ultraman pinups found throughout the volume, Shimoguchi is clearly having a ball updating these classic characters, even if his redesigns resort to the jagged, overly-busy industrial aesthetic that ends up robbing Ultraman of his usual sleek, spandex-clad appearance.
The extra level of detail used for the hero, depictions of violence somewhat more graphic than anything found in the TV show, and mystery surrounding the transmission of his powers inserted into the story, signal that this Ultraman isn't aimed at kids anymore. This is a beefier, edgier hero for a new age as the book's cover boldly claims, or maybe for the aging fan looking for a way to revive the past.