The Attack on Titan juggernaut thunders on relentless and remorseless, unheeding of all that it crushes underfoot. Manga publishing in the UK is a lean industry and I can understand publishers' desire to gorge on the rare buffet of a popular franchise like Elvis on peanut butter jelly & bacon sandwiches, but the feeding frenzy is starting to pare down close to bone by this stage. I've just seen the Attack on Titan: Colossal Edition on bookshop shelves - a particularly self-indulgent re-release that only exposes the amateurish scribble of the weak art in the manga's early volumes on an even harder-to-ignore and more inconvenient-to-handle scale. The other Attack on Titan spin-offs also continue alongside that phone-book slab, but are these smaller stories the gems cut off the ore, or are they just the detritus cracking off the lump?
When we last left Sharle and Kuklo at the end of the first volume of Attack on Titan: Before the Fall, they had both resolved to escape their cages - Kuklo's life as a circus freak, and Sharle's to be sold into an empty marriage. However, the decision to run is being made for them, as Sharle's home comes under attack by an armed band that's slaughtering everyone inside. Trapped like a rat in a hole in the dingy dungeon that could now well become his tomb, will Kuklo ever realise his ambition to loose his fetters, break past the walls not only inside this house but those which encircle the entire human world as well, and really discover what the "Titan's son" truly is?
Now, it's actually relatively rare to continually revisit a manga series for review. Unless an entire series is being reviewed at once, it's just as common that reviews for a manga series don't proceed past the first few volumes. The reason for this is that once you've discussed the writing style, characterisation and artwork, the manga has settled into its groove and found its audience and there really isn't all that much to add other than synopses of new plot developments and whether you like the story - something that deserves a paragraph rather than a full review. There really isn't all that much else you can add, unless the manga takes a sudden unexpected swerve and a radical departure from what's gone before that needs to be highlighted as a new direction.
So, fair play to Attack on Titan: Before the Fall for doing just that. In my review of volume one I criticised the manga for the many opportunities it missed to take the story to interesting places, instead settling on a clichéd, paint-by-numbers plot. It is actually the case though that a couple of the questions I asked and events that I would have preferred in that first volume do get answered and developed here in volue two. The potential of Kuklo as a religious icon does indeed become realised here, as a group from the Titan-worshipping cult attacks Sharle's home in order to liberate their messiah. Also, I was perhaps being too cynically dismissive about Xavi's projected character arc in my volume one review as well - although we've yet to see him against an actual Titan, during this volume once he's backed into a corner here he doesn't cravenly wilt as I would have first assumed but he does endeavour to rise to the challenge and defend himself, albeit with a further lash of his cruelty when he callously stabs knocked-out enemies. In these respects the manga has responded to and made good on my criticisms, and I acknowledge that credit fairly.
I could complain about a few other things in the plot though, namely that Sharle and Kuklo manage to escape pursuit and settle into a new life helping out at an inn rather too easily - at the very least Kuklo should have had horrific agoraphobia given that he's lived in cages and dungeons his whole life. That said though, Kuklo's motivation for wanting to go beyond the walls is simple but understandable given his origins. After being told all his life that he's a monster, his desire to behold one up-close and truly understand what he is is believable as a psychological compulsion and credible as a way to get him up close to a Titan without seeming contrived.
There's not all that much else I can say about the story, though. Perhaps I've been reading too much 2000AD where an entire "mega-epic" can be told in fewer pages than there are in a single manga volume, but I feel that even for manga the storytelling in Attack on Titan: Before the Fall is... decompressed. In this volume, Kuklo and Sharle...
- Escape their home
- Start a new life together
- Kuklo sneaks onto a Survey Corps expedition wagon
- They flee from a Titan.
...and, erm, that's about it! A reader who can breeze through the volume in literally minutes might feel quite short-changed.
In fairness again to the manga though, a reason why the comic says so little is because of the room it needs to show off the detailed artwork. Attack on Titan: Before the Fall continues to have truly excellent art, leaps and bounds beyond the actual main manga from which it's been spun-off. Backgrounds are detailed, characters are expressive, and the Titans continue to be truly horrifying monstrosities - you can well understand the fear that they inspire in this manga, not because of their reputation we're told about in speech bubbles but their actual presence that's shown on the page. We don't have to be instructed to fear the Titans, we can understand it ourselves. If you were just told that Cthulhu was "a giant with an octopus for a head", that wouldn't be nearly so frightening as the dread that Lovecraft's weird fiction crafted around it, and the same potent atmosphere is evoked here too as the Titan looms into the foreground as if its pendulous inertia will swing it out of the page and bring its jaws into your face.
There's one criticism I must make though and it's similar to when we saw another giant battle in the Neon Genesis Evangelion manga - the camera hugs our characters far too closely. When the time comes to fight the Titan it's zoomed in so close that it's actually very difficult to tell exactly what's supposed to be going on - perhaps it creates the atmosphere of a confused tumult but it baffles the readers as much as the characters themselves. There's hardly any sense of scale and perspective, and outside of just a couple of panels where we see the whole Titan it all gets shook up into a jumble of people shouting and I'm honestly not sure what else. It's a shame, because in all other respects it's praiseworthy, but the artist here got lost in the details and loses the wood for the trees.
Attack on Titan: Before the Fall is taking steps to address my concerns. The wider implications of Kuklo's survival are being recognised to some extent, and if Kuklo the buried savage is perhaps becoming an educated ape too quickly, his obsessions with the Titans are still fitting. If the artwork can have the courage to pull back a bit and deliver us the Titanic action as much as the horror in the next volume, Attack on Titan: Before the Fall will be going to some interesting places.